DNA, genetic genealogy help identify victims in 2 Seattle-area cold case murders

SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. — Authorities in Washington state announced late last week that genetic genealogy has helped to identify victims in two separate unsolved murder cases, leading to hope that detectives can still find the slain man and woman some justice.

Blaine Has Tricks, 38, of Fort Yates, North Dakota, vanished in 1977 when he hopped a train to Spokane with his brother, Clayton “Ross” Has Tricks, Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office officials said Thursday. The brothers were members of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

“Ross returned home to North Dakota, but Blaine was never heard from again and was not reported missing,” authorities said in a news release.

A bulldozer operator working in the Marysville Landfill that September discovered Has Tricks’ remains. The county coroner determined the man, who became known as “Marysville Landfill Doe,” had been dead about two weeks.

Though damage to his body made it impossible to determine how the man died, the county coroner ruled his death a homicide. His remains were identified earlier this year.

>> Read more trending news

In the second case, a partial skull found in a ravine north of Skykomish in 2009 has been identified as belonging to Alice Lou Williams, 53, of Seattle.

“Snohomish County missing person reports showed that Alice went missing under suspicious circumstances from her Lake Loma recreational cabin in July 1981,” authorities said.

When her scant remains were found, Williams became known as “Beckler River Jane Doe.”

Details of her disappearance are scarce, but authorities said her identification happened through work with Othram Inc., a Texas-based forensic genealogy company that has helped dozens of law enforcement agencies across the country solve cold cases through DNA. The testing was funded by Audiochuck, the media company behind the popular Crime Junkie podcast.

Othram’s lab uses a victim’s or suspect’s DNA to create a detailed genetic profile, which is then fed into public genealogy databases. Using matches to distant, and sometimes extremely close, relatives who have uploaded their own data, authorities can build a family tree that leads to who they are looking for.

”I planned on retiring June 30 of 2019, and in 2018, when I realized what a great tool this was, I knew more cases could be solved,” Snohomish County cold case Detective Jim Scharf said, according to KIRO in Seattle. “Any day, it’s like the lottery. Somebody else could upload their DNA, and we could get a brother that we matched.”

A pauper’s grave

It was on Sept. 7, 1977, when a bulldozer operator stumbled upon Has Tricks’ remains at the landfill in Marysville, located about 35 miles north of Seattle.

“The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office investigation determined that the refuse in the landfill was not residential trash but came from business dumpsters in downtown Seattle,” authorities said.

The Seattle Police Department and the King County Sheriff’s Office worked to compare the remains, described at the time as those of a white man between 20-40 years of age, 5 feet, 8 inches to 6 feet tall, 155-160 pounds, and having long black hair, with any missing persons reports that matched his description.

Nothing matched. The John Doe was buried at the Marysville Cemetery, as was the practice at that time with the unidentified dead.

The case remained cold until 2008, when Scharf and retired Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ken Cowsert began looking at unsolved murder cases.

Watch authorities announce the identifications of Blaine Has Tricks and Alice Lou Williams below.

“With the emergence of new DNA technologies, the team was interested in exhuming this case with the hopes of obtaining DNA samples that were not taken during the initial exams,” authorities said in a news release. “The process of identifying and reviewing the cases, obtaining exhumation permits and conducting DNA testing can take years.”

The unknown man’s DNA profile was uploaded into national crime databases, but detectives found no match. In June 2011, his body was exhumed to obtain a new DNA sample.

Even with the new, more complete DNA sample, authorities could not find the man in any databases. Investigators turned to Othram for help in 2019.

It took nearly two more years, but the company was able to obtain DNA that was sufficient for testing after “multiple rounds of extraction and human enrichment,” Sheriff’s Office officials said.

The profile revealed that the man was predominantly Native American.

“The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office uploaded the Othram DNA profile to GEDmatch and obtained a match at the great-niece level,” authorities said.

Cold case detectives, with the help of genealogist Martha Thompson Coleman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, were able to track down some of Has Tricks’ relatives, who provided DNA samples.

Has Tricks’ remains were identified on Valentine’s Day.

Verle Red Tomahawk, one of Has Tricks’ nephews, said his family is grateful for the hard work put into identifying his uncle.

“Others would have given up a long time ago, but you didn’t,” he said in a statement. “We appreciate your persistence. The last members of Blaine’s family are thankful that he was identified, and his remains are being sent home to where he belongs.”

A missing mother

U.S. Forest Service surveyors working in a wooded ravine near the Beckler River on Oct. 10, 2009, discovered part of a human skull — but nothing else.

“Despite numerous searches, no other remains, clothing, or jewelry was found,” authorities said.

A forensic anthropologist was able to determine the skull belonged to a woman over the age of 40 but could not determine how the woman died. The location where it was found, however, and signs of trauma on the bone led investigators to classify the case as a homicide.

It was also determined the woman was dead at least a year, but possibly decades.

The few details of the case were uploaded into national databases, but the case remained cold until 2010, when a piece of the skull was sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia. DNA taken from the bone was uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, but no match was found.

Detectives were able to rule out numerous missing women but were unable to give the slain woman her name. Over the years, multiple attempts were made to identify the woman, with help from organizations like the DNA Doe Project, to no avail.

In October 2019, yet another section of skull was taken and sent to DNA Solutions, an Oklahoma City-based lab that attempted additional DNA testing. The attempt was unsuccessful, and another extraction attempt was not recommended at that time.

“In June 2021, investigators decided to make one more attempt,” authorities said. “Based on the (medical examiner’s) previous success in building DNA profiles from challenging skeletal remains with Othram, a section of the cranial bone was sent to Othram.”

In March of this year, Othram’s scientists successfully obtained enough DNA to upload into genealogy databases.

“The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office uploaded the Othram DNA profile to GEDmatch and obtained multiple close matches,” authorities said. “The (medical examiner) built family trees and discovered that Alice Lou Williams was a genealogical fit, and that she also appeared to be unaccounted for.

“Alice’s adult children were contacted about the possibility, and they volunteered a DNA sample for comparison.”

The samples matched.

>> Read more true crime stories

Williams’ son, Ted Williams, said in a statement that the family suffered through more than 40 years with little information and no hope of finding out what happened to his mother. He thanked all the investigators and scientists, along with his sister, who he said was a driving force behind efforts to find their mother from the day she vanished.

His sister, Dona Roth, said their father, who was the last person to see her mother alive, was the only source of information about Williams’ disappearance. It was not immediately clear if he is a suspect in the case.

“Our family became broken over her disappearance, and that wound has never healed,” Roth said. “I would just like to thank my mom for her love and devotion. Also, for teaching hard work and dedication, and for leading the way for my own family.

“She will always be remembered in our hearts.”

Anyone with information about the murders of Alice Lou Williams or Blaine Has Tricks should contact the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office’s tip line at 425-388-3845.