Solving Unsolved Problems: Decade-Old Cold Cases Solved by the Houston Area Forensics Lab

HOUSTON – Currently, there are more than 330,000 unsolved homicides in the United States, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

Cold cases, several decades old, are solved in Houston thanks to technology from Othram, a unique laboratory of its kind in the world that was purpose-built to identify perpetrators or victims from crime scenes. The technology is capable of testing evidence with degraded or trace amounts of DNA.

Kristen Mittelman is Othram’s chief development officer. “We bring the truth that is missing. Most forensic testing before this technology was code testing, and you’ve heard of a few cases that were solved here or there across the country. “Why weren’t all the cases solving?” And the reason is, crime scene DNA is very, very different than the DNA you would get if you went to the doctor’s office today or if you took a consumer test.

That was the very purpose for which Kristen and her husband David built Othram in 2018. So, a team of four immediately set about solving unsolved mysteries. Before, there were a few responses a month, then several responses a week, and now the lab solves multiple cases a day with 50+ people at its headquarters in the woods.

“We have returned investigative leads in more than 1000 cases, there are 150 publicly announced cases that you can find at” Mittelmann explained. “Honestly, it was a dream. It was a dream to be able to make the world a little safer, a little better. To close these families and put them back together. Really create a technology that will hopefully become a crime deterrent.”

Mittelman said she is confident Othram’s technology will make it, so no case remains unsolved, as long as there is some sort of proof.

“I believe most cases that have DNA that’s in a cold case, can be resolved using this technology whether they’re current or 46 years old,” he said. “I also think that in the next ten years we will live in a world where there will be no more cold cases, where people will not have to wait decades to find out what happened to their loved one, because this technology will be implemented in real time. Where the arrears actually start to clear. And instead of seeing those numbers get bigger and bigger every year, they’re going to start declining.”

Othram only works with law enforcement, which owns these cold houses.

According to Mittelman, Othram’s technology is receiving increased support from both lawmakers and the federal government.

Killed in cold blood

The only thing more shocking is a case going cold, which is the reality for so many.

“Going back to the 1930s, HPD has a little over 6,000 cold cases,” said Houston Police Department Sgt. Richard Rodriguez, who heads the agency’s cold case division. “When cases come here, you have to think outside the box, outside the traditional methods and means and that’s why we started using forensic genealogy.

Rodriguez added that the test is very expensive.

“Yes, we have our own lab, but for the cases where we work, the cold cases, we need the latest and the best, and government labs generally don’t have the latest and the best, and so we have to go to these labs external private individuals,” he said. “Right now, one of the big things, it goes back to DNA, so what physical evidence I have, they did some physical tests in 2006, unfortunately, they didn’t come back with very good results.”

“We’ve taken the most advanced genomic technologies, we’ve adopted them for forensic use, in a forensic trial,” Mittelman said. “If anyone knew he would be caught if he left 15 cells at the crime scene. I believe that one day this technology will be used to bring justice to all cases and not just some cases, and it’s hard to use the word justice when it only works sometimes.

This justice is what the Ivey family has been seeking and waiting for for nearly 40 years.

Sara Ivey Edwards, daughter of Frances Ivey, reflects on the day that changed her family forever. “It was the day after Hurricane Alicia.”

Sara’s sister, Helen Ivey Maldonado, explained: “August 19, 1983 was the darkest day of my life. The day our mother was taken away from all of us.

Helen remembers the phone call that changed everything.

“The phone rang and of course I jumped on the phone and asked if this was Fran Ivey’s residence,” he said. “And I said, yes, she is, but she’s not here. And they told me we’re not sure, but there was a shooting of his friend and her company and we’re not sure, but we think your mother is involved.”

Frances Ivey was murdered at her workplace, Shumate and Company, a real estate agency along Memorial Drive near Highway 6 in West Houston. She also killed her colleagues Elizabeth Shumate and Joann Brown on that August day. Ivey’s girls believe it was a targeted robbery.

“I don’t think the person who actually killed them did it themselves,” Helen said.

“We have the typical stuff, nail scrapings, there’s a rope that was used to tie up the victims. Ballistics tests, there’s still some stuff we can use. But again, it’s already been tested, the results weren’t that great then, now it’s just a matter of ok, when do we pull the trigger now or wait and let this stuff get better. Rodríguez explained.

“I believe most cases with DNA that is in a cold case can be resolved using this technology, whether they are current or 46 years old,” Mittelmen said. “Often we’ve held in our hands someone’s last chance to get justice, someone’s last chance to find out what happened to their loved one. There’s a lot of trust there.”

Mittelman said he doesn’t take it lightly. It is similar to the trust families of murder victims place in law enforcement agencies handling their loved one’s case, even four decades later.

If this is resolved, the Ivey sisters said they will be there to see that justice is served for their mother and her two colleagues.

“Oh, not only that. Yes, but hell, yes. Hell yeah.”

The family is interested in taking the case to Othram. They say they are looking into the case.

As of this writing, the evidence in the Fran Ivey case continues to reside in the HPD’s cold case files.

To date, Othram has provided investigative leads in more than 1,000 cases. One of the cases Othram helped solve was the 1974 murder of Fort Worth area Carla Walker. He remained cold for nearly 50 years.

This type of DNA test costs thousands of dollars. Lawmakers introduced legislation “the Carla Walker Act” that would set aside specific funding for local law enforcement agencies to access advanced DNA testing technology to solve cases previously thought to be unsolvable.

Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.

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