How DNA profiling solved a 37 year old cold case
In 1975, Priscilla Blevins vanished from her home in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her parents reported their adult daughter’s disappearance to the police, but investigators didn’t seem very interested. Priscilla’s file was only two pages long. Ten years after her disappearance, human remains were found nearby, but no one connected them to Priscilla. Over the years, it seemed her disappearance had been all but forgotten. Another cold case, destined to remain unsolved.
In this episode, we explore how DNA profiling changed the game for missing and unidentified person cases. It’s the perfect storm of everything we’ve talked about in this series – a passionate family member, a tenacious investigator, and forensic science all working together to bring closure to a case and a family yearning for answers.
DISCLAIMER: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Amanda: In 1975, Priscilla Blevins was 27-years-old. She was a trained linguist, but hadn’t been able to find a job in her field yet and was working at Ivey’s Department Store. She was living with her pharmacist boyfriend in Charlotte, North Carolina when suddenly, she disappeared.
Cathy : I was living in Arizona when I got a call from my mom that my sister was missing.
Amanda: Priscilla’s little sister, Cathy Blevins.
Cathy: I didn't really know what to think.
Amanda: Had she run away, or did something happen to her?
Cathy: In 1975, there really wasn't a lot of publicity about missing people. And it just, um, it struck me as “well, that's weird.” Um, but I wasn't initially alarmed.
Amanda: She figured it was just some miscommunication, her older sister would get in touch.
Cathy: I was mostly curious to know what had happened.
Amanda: But, it would be decades before Cathy and her family would hear anything about Priscilla and what happened to her.
All along, the answers to their questions were sitting in a box not far from where Priscilla vanished.
Cathy: It's an odd combination of feeling tragically sad and incredibly grateful at the same time.
Amanda: The story of one of the oldest missing person cases to be solved – at a time when cold cases stayed cold.
From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
Amanda: When Priscilla disappeared in 1975, her mother immediately went to the Charlotte Police and reported her missing. She begged them to investigate, but Cathy remembers that the police didn’t seem very concerned at the time. They just pretty much patted Cathy’s mother on the back and dismissed her, saying Priscilla had probably just run off.
Cathy: I had the impression that the police were kind of like, “ah, she'll turn up,” or “she's unhappy with her living situation.” The police didn't express a great deal of interest, in my opinion.
Amanda: At that time, this attitude toward missing people wasn’t all that unusual. It was the 1970’s, a time of free love, and hippies, and whatnot.
Cathy: And I think there was a little bit of a stigma because in 1975, she was living with someone. Um, maybe she's just run off or being a hippie, which she was not.
Amanda: There aren’t tons of photos of Priscilla from that time. Photos were taken less frequently back then. But the one most widely circulated definitely does not make you think of Priscilla as a hippie. The photo has been retouched with paint. Priscilla is wearing a starched white button down shirt with a pointed collar. It’s buttoned all the way up to the neck. Her brunette hair is styled in what you might call a bouffant back in the day. It’s thick, blown out, and curls upwards at her shoulders. She has a tentative smile, like the kind prompted by a photographer.
Priscilla was a talented artist who also had a gift for languages.
Cathy: When she graduated from Wake Forest, she'd studied three or four languages.
Amanda: French, German, Greek and Latin, and she was excited to add another one to her repertoire when she set off to Bogota, Colombia where she taught English and perfected her Spanish.
Cathy: She was smart and artistic and knew where she was going, and I so admired her for that.
Amanda: But Priscilla’s family believed she may have been a victim of abuse in her own home. They were suspicious of Priscilla’s live-in boyfriend. He was a pharmacist she had met when she was at college. And Priscilla was the kind of person who had dreams, but here she was living with a man and working at a department store instead of chasing those dreams. It was like her wings had been clipped.
Cathy: He was someone that I had only met a couple of times because we didn't live in the same environment and just, I found him to be creepy from the moment I laid eyes on him.
Amanda: Priscilla’s behavior had changed some after they moved in together. But domestic abuse wasn’t really talked about much back then.
Cathy: He did go on to live a life of petty crime and was in and out of jail quite a bit. And, um, had a record of, I think he lost his pharmaceutical license due to selling drugs on the streets.
Amanda: Cathy doesn’t want to use the boyfriend’s name, and we’re not using his name either because he was never charged with anything related to Priscilla’s disappearance. He passed away a couple of years ago, and the family never directly confronted him about their suspicions. But Cathy says after her sister disappeared, the whole family, well, they found his behavior strange. He did report her missing, but didn’t even bother to tell Priscilla’s mother directly.
Cathy: He called my mom to tell her that my sister Priscilla had disappeared and just left a message with somebody who is visiting the house and then called back to her two or three days later or something.
Amanda: Cathy says the boyfriend did call the police, but that was the extent of his involvement. She says he didn’t help the family search for her. He basically just went on with his life.
Cathy: He would not let my mom in the house. Eventually, he called my mother and said, come and get, um, Priscilla's things. And when my mother went to retrieve them, he had her sign an inventory. Yeah. Um, that she had gotten these things and my sister's most important possessions, uh, were not there.
Amanda: The detective who eventually looked into the case for Cathy, said that he did call the man, tried to talk to him about Priscilla. But the man refused to speak with him, and hung up.
Cathy: I don't want to incriminate someone without proof, but her, her partner's behavior was certainly suspicious.
Amanda: While her suspicions about Priscilla’s boyfriend were never validated, years later, Cathy’s concerns about the Charlotte Police at the time and their lack of attention to the case were. The police report from Priscilla’s disappearance was just two pages long, two pages, and they even had her address wrong. Cathy thinks the boyfriend purposely gave them the wrong address. She visited the location on the original police report; there's a school there. It’s been there a long time. As far as she knows, there’s never been a house there.
Priscilla and Cathy’s parents spent most of their lives after Priscilla’s disappearance heartbroken, trying to find out what happened to their oldest child. It wasn’t until Cathy was in her late forties, a mother herself, and her mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s, that she decided to pick up the torch and run with it...to find out what happened to her sister.
Cathy: I had a daughter. As I was watching her grow to adulthood, it really struck home with me like, what would you do if something happened to my daughter, how would I respond to that?
Amanda: In 2000, through a friend of a friend in law enforcement, Cathy connected with Detective Lee Tuttle with the now Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. The city and county police had merged their agencies since Priscilla’s disappearance.
Lee Tuttle, Detective: In June of 2000, we were in a team meeting and my supervisor had a sticky note with a message from, uh, Cathy Howe, uh, Priscilla's sister, uh, he said, we've got an inquiry about an old missing person case that we can't find any kind of reference for. And he told me to follow up on it.
Amanda: Since 1996, Detective Tuttle has headed up the effort to locate missing people in the Charlotte area. He talked to me over Zoom from his cheerful kitchen with purple walls and a dangling star light fixture. But unlike his whimsical surroundings, Tuttle is serious when he talks about trying to locate missing people.
Tuttle wasn’t at all deterred by the age of the case. He’s investigated plenty of cold cases in his career.
Tuttle: The history of it just caught my attention. It was very interesting. And it's also the fact that, you know, when we, when we started the missing persons unit was formed back in 1996, we also inherited a lot of open missing person cases that started in 75, to the eighties and the nineties.
Amanda: But what he did find especially unusual about this case, was the lack of documentation. Remember that two page police report? That kind of blew his mind.
Tuttle: It was something that should have been followed up on more. There should have been stuff done on this one. We had a case very similar to this one that, um, there was a ton of work done on it.
Cathy: When I contacted Detective Tuttle, he didn't hesitate even though it had been at that point in time 25 years, he didn't hesitate. He was like, yeah, come on down and let's talk about this.
Amanda: So, Tuttle got to work. His first order of business was to sit down and talk with Cathy about the case. With so little to go on, he wanted her to tell him anything and everything she could remember from 1975 that might be relevant to her sister’s disappearance.
Tuttle: My first conversations with Cathy, we got basic information, um, you know, and so much had changed since 1975 with Charlotte, um, the house that Priscilla lived in was no longer there. Um, the Ivey's department store that she worked at, um, it was no longer there.
Amanda: But even as he went through these routine motions, Tuttle, who has worked with so many families of missing people, was very aware that he was doing more than just gathering facts from Cathy. He was building a rapport.
Tuttle: When you talk with the families and you realize, the pain that they're going through and also the, you know, the frustration, you know, anything that you can do to help out, you know, and ease that.
Amanda: In any missing person case, Tuttle says you have to rule out things before you can rule things in. You can’t just assume something bad has happened. He first needed to make sure Priscilla didn’t just walk away from her life. He checked anything that might show she’s still alive. Today, that would involve phone records, debit card or credit card transactions, social media. But back in 1975 people didn’t leave much of a trail.
Tuttle: Priscilla was fluent in Spanish and she had traveled extensively. So, one of the things that I did locate was, uh, the fact that her passport hadn't been used, um, and actually the number had been reissued. Um, also I was able to learn that her social security number, there had been no activity on it since 1975. So coupled with those, you know, bits of information, we realized, you know, that, you know, Priscilla was still missing. She didn't, you know, she was unaccounted for.
Amanda: Once Tuttle officially determined that Priscilla was indeed a missing person, and not just someone who ran away from her life, he started looking for clues as to what may have happened to her. He continued to run into dead-ends on the case. There was just no one around who seemed to remember anything, or know anything.
Tuttle: After we did the initial report, we started looking at doing anything that we could to try to generate leads. Because of the amount of time that went by, it was frustrating, but we did get some media exposure and it is a compelling story. And Cathy, you know, talked about it at different times.
Amanda: Cathy and Detective Tuttle kept in touch. After an initial burst of hope on both of their parts, it seemed like the cold case was getting even colder.
Cathy: Of course, by that time, there was very little that could be, could be found.
Amanda: Then, in 2009, Tuttle had a lightbulb moment…. More after the break.
Amanda: In 2009, Detective Lee Tuttle was at a training seminar.
Tuttle: And we learned about the national DNA missing persons database. police departments were asked to collect family reference samples, uh, for missing person cases.
Amanda: Tuttle learned that these family reference DNA samples could then be compared to the DNA of unidentified remains across the country. Of course, the database was only as good as the data it contained, which meant there needed to be buy-in from law enforcement and medical examiners to contribute samples for comparison, the more the better.
This platform is referred to as CODIS, it’s run by the FBI and it stands for the Combined DNA Index System.
Tuttle: And most importantly, medical examiners’ offices across the country were getting DNA samples from their remains unidentified remains cases. So those were being put into the database as well. So this was a new and, and a tool for us, especially for our cold cases. You really didn't have any way of connecting cases that were, you know, could be scattered across the country.
Amanda: Tuttle thought, why not try this? He asked Cathy to give him a DNA sample that they could enter into the database to try and see if there was a match.
Cathy: When DNA technology became part of the forensic tool box, he called me and he said, I want to get your DNA for this database and explained how the database worked and how it was in a constant cycle.
Amanda: In other words, new samples were being put into the database from all over the country all the time. The more samples there were, the higher the probability that Cathy’s DNA might be a familial match for someone’s unidentified remains.
She readily agreed, but…
Cathy: My DNA sat there for a couple of years.
Amanda: Then in 2012, the Office of the North Carolina Medical Examiner, which was in Chapel Hill at the time, put some new samples from their stored skeletal remains into the DNA database.
Tuttle: Chapel Hill still had the remains from a case, a homicide case that was found in Haywood County, North Carolina. Remains were found on the side of the road in 1985 and they still had those remains up there.
Amanda: Ten years after Priscilla’s disappearance, a road crew found the skeletal remains of a woman, six miles south of the Tennessee border in western North Carolina. She was on the side of Interstate 40. Her arms were crossed on her chest, like she was praying.
Cathy: A gentleman in the road crew just happened to see something that looks suspicious. And so he called authorities. And they came in to investigate.
Amanda: The woman had no identification and there weren’t any clues around her body. So, like many other cases the remains were sent to the Medical Examiner to be stored until they could be identified.
That would take 27 years.
Tuttle: The Medical Examiner's Office contacted me and was like, we've got an actual hit on the on the family reference sample that you submitted on the Priscilla Blevins case. It floored me.
Amanda: In addition to her DNA, Cathy had given Tuttle Priscilla’s dental records. He promptly sent those to the medical examiner who compared them to the remains. They wanted to be sure. The last thing Tuttle wanted to do was to get Cathy’s hopes up after all these years.
Tuttle: Immediately we made plans to go visit with Cathy and talked to her.
Cathy: And he said, can I come and see you? And I'm like, well, sure.
Amanda: On October 18, 2012, Tuttle called Cathy at 7:00 in the morning.. She wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. Maybe he needed another DNA sample? He was at her door in Clemmons, North Carolina an hour later.
Cathy: And he had another detective with them, someone I did not know. And he said, we found your sister. And I was like, Whoa.
And my initial reaction to that was kind of. It was almost stoic because I was just so stunned by the information.
Tuttle: You know, it took her breath away. It was, it was something that, you know, it's been so long. I'm not sure. I was cautiously optimistic about the whole program, you know, I wanted those connections to be made.
Amanda: For a decade, Priscilla’s remains had lain beside a highway and then for 27 years after that they were stored at the Office of the North Carolina Medical Examiner. They had never been able to determine who she was, or how she died.
Cathy: And because the Charlotte Police had not disseminated this information about her disappearance, there was no way to connect the dots back to my family.
Amanda: That was then. Now, 37 years after her sister’s disappearance, Cathy finally had an answer.
A few weeks later, she organized a service at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University – the place that had nurtured Priscilla’s love for languages.
Cathy: I decided I wanted to have a memorial homecoming service for her. And, um, so I made those plans and I, so I got to do that. And a lot of folks don't. They go the rest of their lives without the benefit of having that closure.
Amanda: Cathy was able to bury her sister between her mother and father. She hates that they weren’t able to get some kind of resolution before they died, but she’s glad she decided to pick up the torch they had lit and run with it.
In her sister’s obituary, Cathy asked that people who knew Priscilla and their family to practice random acts of kindness to honor her memory.
Cathy credits Detective Tuttle’s kindness and perseverance in making the identification possible, along with the science that confirmed it.
Cathy: It's priceless. It's really priceless, um, to have a tool that you can use to, um, to connect the dots, particularly after so many years have passed.
Amanda: At the time, Priscilla’s remains were some of the oldest to be identified using DNA.
Tuttle: In the back of her mind, and I know it was something that she had hoped for, but I'm not sure how realistic she was expecting something to happen. So it was good to be able to pass that on.
Amanda: For Cathy, she got what she needed from this long, arduous and sometimes frustrating journey. In the end, she simply needed to know where her sister was and to be able to bring her home. She realizes her family will most likely never have the answers as to what happened to Priscilla and who may have caused her death.
But she is at peace with this resolution – a resolution she hopes other families will get to experience as DNA technology only continues to get better and more accessible.
Cathy has had opportunities to travel all over the world...and this makes her think about Priscilla, how much she would have enjoyed these trips, how much they would have enjoyed them together. It’s bittersweet when she’s in these moments.
Cathy: I went hiking in Spain last fall and how much she would have enjoyed that. And, um, you know, my world travels and the things that I have done. Yeah. I do think about the fact that she got robbed out of all of that. And my parents got robbed out of that resolution.
Amanda: But Cathy says she’s also had a lot of time to think during her travels about her sister’s case – what to make of it all. She believes it is proof that others can find resolution with the help of science and dedicated investigators.
Cathy: I would say don't lose hope. I would say certainly keep the wheels turning because if it can happen for me after 37 years, it can, it could happen for a lot of folks. Follow the DNA trail. And be persistent with law enforcement.
Amanda: And this is what it takes, Tuttle says – this perfect storm of a family member who still cares, an investigator willing to pursue a cold case, and the magic and mystery of science.
Tuttle: It's the most important thing that we do is making sure that every tool that we have available to us as technology becomes available a different technology, we utilize that and we make sure that we put in place everything that we possibly can to put it in the best chance to connect these unidentified remains with missing persons. And for the family, it's everything to get them to some point of, uh, closure. That's the goal.
Amanda: What I've learned as a journalist in putting this podcast together is that this sweet spot, this perfect storm, where technology and human grit meet, it is possible to replicate. And it’s happening.
The tiniest amounts of DNA, even degraded DNA, can now be tested with a high level of success. This technology -- and the skill level of forensic genealogists -- just keep getting better and have created a real possibility of clearing decades of cold cases.
We originally planned for this to be a limited series. But the listener response to these episodes has been amazing, and there are so many more stories to tell about the work that dedicated individuals do on a daily basis... and about the families seeking justice – or at least some measure of peace.
So we’re going to keep bringing you these stories...every other week...
We’re so excited to keep “What Remains” going and for you to continue the journey with us.
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Amanda: This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb, and produced by Anita Normanly. Our executive producer was Wilson Sayre who also edited the episode with mixing from Marc Maximov. What Remains was directed by Shelly Leslie.