Home News Stolen Remains Found in Plastic Bag Traced to Woman Born 160 Years Ago

Stolen Remains Found in Plastic Bag Traced to Woman Born 160 Years Ago

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Stolen Remains Found in Plastic Bag Traced to Woman Born 160 Years Ago

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In October 1985, partial skeletal remains were found in a plastic bag in the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles. The authorities determined that they belonged to a woman who died when she was between 35 and 50 years old, but nothing else about her was known and, for decades, the trail went cold.

Nearly 40 years later, the woman once again has a name. She was Gertrude Elliott-Littlehale, a musician who was born in 1864, lived in San Francisco and died in 1915. And at one point decades ago, her grave was robbed and her skull was taken, according to Othram, the forensic laboratory that announced the identification of her remains last week.

The break in the case came after scientists were able to build a DNA profile from the remains. Investigators tracked down living potential relatives and collected a reference sample from one of them, leading to the identification.

David Mittelman, the chief executive of Othram, said in an interview on Monday that his company had worked on century-old cases before, and that “we have worked with DNA that is sometimes in very terrible shape” because of chemical damage and heat damage.

“The circumstances are very unusual though,” he said of Ms. Elliott-Littlehale’s case. “A grave robbery, the theft of the skull.”

“We use a process we developed called forensic-grade genome sequencing,” Mr. Mittelman said, “and this is a robust forensic DNA test method that works broadly on challenging DNA. So we had no trouble in this case. It was far from the worst we have seen, in terms of DNA quality.”

Such advance forensic genetic genealogy techniques were still decades in the future in 1985, when the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office began puzzling over the remains that had been found in a plastic bag in Oxnard. Without leads, the investigation eventually went cold.

In 2016, information about the case was added to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System as case UP15170.

Investigators eventually developed a clay facial reconstruction of the woman and shared images of it with the public, hoping to generate new leads. Despite this and other “extensive efforts by law enforcement investigators to identify the woman,” Othram said in a statement, “no matches were found.”

In May 2023, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office cold case unit, in collaboration with the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office, submitted forensic evidence to Othram to determine whether advanced DNA testing could help identify the woman.

Othram scientists were able to extract DNA from the evidence provided by the sheriff’s office and used it to “conduct extensive genetic genealogy research.” That, Othram said, produced new leads, including potential relatives, and ultimately led to the identification of Ms. Elliott-Littlehale.

A few biographical details have since surfaced.

A native of Stockton, Calif., she graduated from high school when she was 16, attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston before continuing her musical studies in Paris, according to a news article about her death, from appendicitis, in The Stockton Daily Independent. She lived in San Francisco with her husband, James M. Littlehale, and their daughter, who was 7 when her mother died.

A capsule profile in the March 1905 edition of The Wasp, a weekly magazine published in San Francisco, described her as “an accomplished musician, a delightful conversationalist and an observant traveler” who had returned after a period of “travel and residence in Europe” to teach voice lessons.

Mr. Mittelman said that Ms. Elliot-Littlehale traveled weekly from San Francisco to Stockton, Calif., where she was part of something called the Saturday Afternoon Musical Club, he added. The lab shared a color image of her based on a black-and-white image provided by her family that showed Ms. Elliott-Littlehale in a patterned scarf and a bonnet covering her light brown hair.

She was buried after “brief and simple services” at a family mausoleum in a cemetery in Stockton, The Daily Independent reported. Decades later, investigators received a tip that a grave had been robbed and a skull was taken, Othram said.

“This was Elliot-Littlehale’s grave that had been disturbed,” the company said. It was not clear when her grave was desecrated.

It was also not immediately clear what would become of her remains. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office’s lead detective in the case was not available on Monday.

Ms. Elliot-Littlehale’s case was the 38th one where California officials have publicly identified an individual using Othram’s technology, the company said.

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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