Solving the unsolved: Decades-old cold cases cracked by Houston-area forensic lab

Bringing answers and closure to loved ones of murder victims

HOUSTON – Currently, there are more than 330,000 unsolved murders in the U.S., according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data.

Cold cases, some decades old are being cracked in Houston because of technology at Othram, a first-of-its-kind lab in the world that was purposefully 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 chief development officer at Othram. “We bring the truth that is missing. Most forensics testing prior to this technology was code testing and you heard of a few cases solving here or there across the country. ‘Why weren’t all the cases solving?’ And the reason is that DNA from crime scenes is very, very different than the DNA that you would get if you went to the doctor’s office today, or if you took a consumer test.”

This was the precise purpose of why Kristen and her husband David, built Othram in 2018. Then, a team of four people started solving unsolved mysteries immediately. First, it was a few hits a month, then several answers a week, and now, the lab is solving multiple cases a day with more than 50 people at its headquarters in the woodlands.

“We have returned investigative leads in more than 1000 cases, there’s 150 publicly announced cases you can find on” Mittelman explained. “Honestly, it was a dream. It was a dream to be able to make the world a little bit safer, a little bit better. To bring closure to these families and piece them back together. To really create technology that would hopefully become a deterrent for crime.”

Mittelman said she is confident Othram’s technology will make it, so no case goes unsolved, as long as some sort of evidence exists.

“I do believe that most cases that have DNA that are sitting in a cold case, can be resolved using this technology whether they are current or from 46 years ago,” she said. “I also think that we’re going to live in a world in the next ten years or so where there won’t be any more cold cases, where people won’t have to wait decades to find out what happened to their loved one, because this technology will be implemented in real-time. Where the backlogs actually start to get cleared. And instead of seeing those numbers getting bigger and bigger each year, they’re going to start decreasing.”

Othram only works with law enforcement agencies, who own these cold cases.

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

Killed in cold blood

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

“Going back to the 1930s, HPD has just over 6000 cold cases,” said Houston Police Department Sergeant Richard Rodriguez, who heads the agency’s cold case division.“When cases come here, you have to think outside the box, outside of traditional methods and means and that’s why we started using forensic genealogy.

Rodriguez added that the testing is very expensive.

“Yes we have our own lab, but for the cases we work, the cold cases, we need the latest and greatest, and typically government labs don’t have the latest and greatest and so we have to go to these outside, private labs,” he said. “Right now, one of the big things, goes back to DNA, so what physical evidence do I have, they did do some physical testing back in 2006, unfortunately, they did not come back with very good results.”

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

This justice is what the Ivey family has been searching and waiting for, for almost 40 years.

Sara Ivey Edwards a 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 19th, 1983, was the darkest day in my life. The day that our mother was ripped away from all of us.”

Helen remembers the phone call that changed everything.

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

Frances Ivey was murdered in her place of employment, Shumate and Company, a real estate office along Memorial Drive near Highway 6 in west Houston. Also killed on that August day, her colleagues Elizabeth Shumate and Joann Brown. Ivey’s girls believe it was a targeted robbery.

“I don’t think the person that actually killed them did that on their own,” said Helen.

“We have the typical stuff, fingernail scrapings, there’s some rope that was used to bind the victims. Ballistic evidence, there’s some stuff we can still use. But again, it has already been tested, results just didn’t come back all that great back then, now it is just a matter of ok, when do we pull the trigger, now or wait and let this stuff get better.” Rodriguez explained.

“I do believe that most cases that have DNA that is sitting in a cold case can be resolved using this technology whether they are current or from 46 years ago,” Mittelmen said. “We often held in our hands someone’s last chance to justice, someone’s last chance to find out what happened to their loved one, there’s a lot of trust there.”

Mittelman said she does not take it lightly. It’s similar to the trust families of murder victims put into law enforcement agencies handling their loved one’s case, even four decades later.

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

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

The family is interested in getting the case over to Othram. They say they’re looking into the case.

At the time this article was published, evidence in Fran Ivey’s case continues to sit in the cold case files at HPD.

To date, Othram has returned investigative leads in more than 1000 cases. One of the cases Othram helped solve was the 1974 murder of Carla Walker from the Fort Worth area. It remained cold for nearly 50 years.

This type of DNA testing costs thousands of dollars. Lawmakers have 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 that were previously deemed unsolvable.

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