DNA Doe Project helps identify human remains through genetic genealogy

There are numerous John and Jane Does across the country and the nonprofit DNA Doe Project is dedicated to identifying them.

Based in California, DNA Doe Project has volunteers all over the world, including some right here in Austin.

"It's so amazing to be able to do this work. There are grieving families out there that don't know what happened to their loved one. They just know that they're gone, and we want to bring them closure. We want to be able to bring those does home for proper burials," says Rhonda Kevorkian, investigative genetic genealogist with the DNA Doe Project.

Kevorkian says law enforcement will often contact the organization if they have a case they've been working on for a long time. Many agencies can't afford the technology that the organization uses and the organization gets funding through donations.

When DNA Doe Project gets remains, they do a DNA extraction. Kevorkian says they can get the DNA from molar teeth, femurs or toe bones.

A whole genome sequencing is done, and it's compared to profiles in two systems, GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA

Matches are used to build family trees of genetic relatives to see if there are common ancestors. Then, the project builds forward to try to find who an unidentified person may have descended from.


The project is working on two cases out of Travis County.

The first case is of a Jane Doe who was found in April 2020 near Slaughter Creek.

Kevorkian says someone was taking their dog along a trail in a wooded area behind an apartment complex when the dog wandered off and found the decomposed body of a woman who'd been there for several weeks.

"We are currently working on her case to try to bring that name to law enforcement, to bring that to her family and hopefully bring them closure on what happened with her," Kevorkian says.

Identifying features of the unidentified woman are that she was wearing a pink top and jeans. She's believed to be about 40-55 years old and about 5'2" with brown and gray long hair.

Another case is a John Doe from March 2021. He was about 5'10" and 130 pounds with gray hair and brown eyes.

Kevorkian says the DNA process can take hours or months depending on the matches that come up. She says if you're taken a DNA test before, uploading it to Family Tree DNA or GED Match would be helpful, so they can use it for comparisons.

"We use snip testing, which gives us the ability to compare to all the way up to like fifth cousins, so we can show a relationship that's much more distant and get matches that way," Kevorkian says.

Ultimately, Kevorkian says, they just want to focus on the fact that no matter how a person may have died, they were all somebody. 

"They were human beings that deserve to have their name back," Kevorkian says.