Funding DNA testing is a game changer for Charlotte, NC’s unidentified remains
An unidentified man is found dead in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2010 in a rough part of town. Leads dry up quickly. The case goes cold. That is until one cold case investigator teams up with a forensic genealogist to solve the mystery. All they need is money. It takes money to do DNA testing and to load DNA profiles into national databases. Detective Matt Hefner soon finds out that solving this one case with the help of forensic genealogist Leslie Kaufman will open the door to possibly solving all his cases involving unidentified remains. In this episode, Hefner and Kaufman refuse to give up their quest to name this John Doe. Full transcript available at https://www.whatremainspodcast.com. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Amanda: Sometimes, something as simple as a phone call can change everything...
Leslie Kaufman: I find that most people are more open to you, if you just tell 'em who you are. And I'll call up and tell 'em, you know, “My name is Leslie Kaufman. I'm a forensic genealogist, and we have a person here that has been unidentified that was found back in 2010 and you know from doing genealogy has led me to your family.”
Amanda: Leslie’s forensic genealogy work has already helped solve many individual cold cases, but the case of this man found in 2010 and identified just a few months ago – it turned into more than just solving a single case. Because once the police department that helped fund the DNA profiling on this case got wind that it worked, things took off from there.
Detective Matt Hefner/Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department: So, I was asking; “How much is this. If this works, like it just did, how much is this per victim, per person?” And I said, “ballpark, it's about 4,500 to $5,000 for each victim.” And they said, “how many do we have? And I said about 10 victims,” and it was not even a pause. The next thing they said was “do them all. Let's just do them all. Let's just pay for it. Let's just get them all done.”
Amanda: In this episode, how the work of a forensic genealogist and the persistence of one passionate investigator convinced the biggest police department in North Carolina to pay for DNA testing that has the power to solve SO MANY cases, and the one case that led to it all.
From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains – stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
Matt: My name is Matt Hefner. I am a cold case homicide detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Amanda: When it comes to police work, you name it, Detective Matt Hefner has likely done it.
Matt: I did everything that a cop does. I worked in a courthouse for a while. I worked patrol. I was a school resource officer. I did a little bit of the run and gun. I was in police chases. I was in critical incidents.
Amanda: Much of his career was spent at a smaller police department in North Carolina... then he switched to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD.
Charlotte, North Carolina is a booming southern city with nearly a million residents. It’s basically a sprawling suburb with historic houses and tree-lined streets -- it also has an urban center. The core of the city features tall modern glass high rises that house a good portion of the country’s banking industry.
As beautiful as parts of the city are, Charlotte also has big city problems. On average it has more than one hundred homicides per year. It also has the biggest police department in the state with more than 1800 sworn officers. And shortly after Matt Hefner joined the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD, he was working murder cases.
Matt: I aged about 30 years in the seven and a half years I worked active cases.
Amanda: Murder investigations were what Matt had always wanted to do, but when he got the opportunity to work cold cases – murders as well as identifying unidentified remains – the work just spoke to him.
Amanda: What is it about a cold case that intrigues you? Is it the puzzle? Is it the mystery kind of figuring out the pieces, putting them together?
Matt: It is... I'm very analytical. I like looking at the records. I like looking at the details, seeing what was missed and maybe picking up some deception in an interview video that maybe was missed the first time.
Amanda: Matt figured out pretty quickly that he not only enjoyed the work, he was good at it. Good at taking a puzzle that had gathered dust for decades in a file cabinet and trying to make the pieces fit together.
Matt: And as you can tell, I like talking to people and working cold cases is a lot of talking to people. I got that from my dad. He could talk to anybody. He never met a stranger and I'm a little bit that way, or actually, I'm a lot that way.
Amanda: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department currently has 600 or so cold cases. A handful involve unidentified remains.
Matt: The unidentified remains cases. I have about 10 cases that are assigned to me.
Amanda: And those cases, they date back to 1975.
Some of the unidentified remains are clearly murder victims. Others died from what they classify as “undetermined causes.” That’s basically a way of saying they simply don’t know how the person died...if it was a suicide, a natural death, an accident, or a murder.
Matt: I have a case where all we have are leg bones, leg and feet bones. And they have boots on them that could have been hunting boots, and there's a deer stand within sight of this victim, and we don't know how long the body was there. So, it could have been two years. It could have been 10 years, and so, you don't even know-- that is frustrating, you know? So, you, you make an assumption there. Well, it could have been a homeless person, but it also could have been a hunter who went hunting and never came home. So, how do we find this person? How do we find the family? That's looking for the guy who went hunting and never came home.
Amanda: How does he figure out who this person is? How does he connect these remains with a family who may have no idea what happened to their loved one...who may not even have filed a missing person report. That’s where the skills of forensic genealogists like Leslie Kaufman can come in.
Leslie works with the North Carolina Unidentified Project. The nonprofit organization teams up with the state and local law enforcement agencies to help them put names to unidentified remains.
Leslie uses the DNA profile she’s given to create an ancestry roadmap of sorts, a map with many twisting and turning branches that she hopes will eventually lead her to the identity of the remains. And with another one of Matt’s cases, a case involving a different body... that body originally found in 2010... that’s exactly what she did.
Matt: She’s building a family tree around a John Doe, so she can continue to build it. In March 14 of 2022, Leslie called me and said, I think I know who this, I think I know who our John DOE is.
Amanda: How the case transformed the work of an entire cold case department, after the break.
Amanda: Sometimes, when we think of genealogy, we think of little old ladies pouring over dusty archives at the local library. Trying to piece together their ancestry...but thanks to the internet which contains millions of public records, the process has come a long way. Especially as it relates to making progress in cases where people are missing or murdered.
Most people still meet the field of genealogy in a very traditional way, with a question about where they came from.
Matt: I did my own ancestry a few years ago. After I did it, I had this guy send me a message on there and say: “Hey, I'm your cousin. I'm showing up as your second cousin. And I'm adopted, and I don't know who my people are.”
Amanda: Detective Matt Hefner, who heads the Cold Case Unit at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, quickly saw the power of genealogy.
Matt: My wife and I, and my cousin helped to find this other cousin. We met him through the process. We found his mother. He got to go meet his mother after all these years. So, I see how that plays out on a personal level, and then to be able to do it on the professional level is really cool.
Amanda: We’ll dive into how genealogy came into play in Matt’s big John Doe case... but first, the DNA. The first thing Matt does when he gets a file and the person has not been identified, is to try and find out if the remains have been stored by the state...he needs them in order to request high-level DNA testing. Something that wasn’t available 20, 30, 40 years ago when many of these people went missing.
Matt: For instance, one of the cases we're trying to figure out if someone along the line, either in Raleigh or our Medical Examiner’s office kept a sample. But the actual remains of that victim were destroyed by whoever was handling it back then.
Amanda: In the cases of the remains he does have, the question becomes why no one reported these people missing in the first place...
Amanda: Is it doubly frustrating to have unidentified remains because you're going how is nobody missing this person? Why has nobody come forward in the past 5, 10, 15, 20 years? I mean, that's a double puzzle, you know, especially if it's a homicide, you're trying to find out who the victim is. And then who the suspect is. That's a lot, that's a big puzzle, a big mystery.
Matt: It is. I would tell you that most of the folks on my list of unidentified remains; those victims, at least where they were found or, the area they're in or the condition they're found in, many of them appeared to be homeless. So, there's a, there's an expectation that maybe no one even knows they're deceased.
Amanda: Of course, many people who are homeless do have vast social networks and some have strong ties with family. But there are others who are estranged from their families or just don’t have those connections to begin with. In those cases, there’s a significant chance that no one reported them missing.
That’s what happened in 2010, near an area of Charlotte known as a place where homeless people gathered.
Matt: This construction crew was clearing out a storm drain area that had kind of filled with debris, and in doing so they located a skull.
It was obviously a human skull, so they notified 911. 911 sent officers out, they contacted the homicide unit, and they worked it as a crime scene.
It's painstaking, but there's not a whole lot a group of people can do when you don't even know who the person is. You don't know who to ask and finding out who's missing is extremely difficult. Particularly not having a timeframe we don’t know how long those remains have been there.
Amanda: Matt says his colleagues had worked the case the best they could over the years -- but weren’t able to make a positive match.
Matt: It just went cold, it sat from 2010 to 2021, nothing happened in the case.
Matt: May of 2021, I'm at my desk digging in on a cold case murder and I get a phone call from Leslie Kaufman.
Leslie: Okay, I contacted Matt Hefner explaining to him...
Matt: She said I'm working one of your cases. We have essentially plucked one of your cases of unidentified remains and we've been working this case through a grant, and we’ve gotten a DNA profile for your victim.
Amanda: Matt didn’t know her, and he gets a lot of interesting calls about cold cases. So, he had to be cautious and using genealogy to identify remains was not something he had a lot of experience with.
Leslie: He didn't know how it worked. I mean, this is just something really new for him. So, second time I call him, you know, he won't be as skeptical. Let's put it that way.
Amanda: Matt did his research and he saw that she was part of the North Carolina Unidentified Project and had already helped solve several cases. So, he felt comfortable working with her.
They had already used grant money on the case which paid for a DNA profile to be done.
Leslie told Matt they’d struck out with the first DNA database, and their grant had now run out. But she said if his department would be willing to pitch in some funding to upload the sample to another DNA database called Family Tree.com, they might be able to solve the case. Matt reached out to his superiors.
Matt: And I just started going through the process with my chain of command saying, “Hey, we got these folks in Raleigh and some lady I just met. They're working our case for free, and all they're asking is that we give them $700 to keep the case moving.” And my chain of command jumped on it.
Amanda: So the DNA was put into the new database and then, things happened really quickly.
Leslie: And once I got it in there, I did get a good match. 505 centimorgans, which is the first cousin once removed. Now to make that easy for you, that would be your first cousin's child. Okay, so that tells me I'm very close to figuring out who he is.
Matt: In February of 2022, Leslie Kaufman called me and said she had a possible last name. She had a family, a line down a family tree and she was working names down that line. I remember being really interested because she had some relatives in there that she knew were in policing.
So she had reached out to one of those in particular and said, “Can you help me figure out who's missing, who in the family went missing around 2009, 2010.” And that individual was starting to provide more family names, maybe names that were not in her family tree yet.
Leslie continued to build it.
And then March 14th, 2022, Leslie called me and said, “I think I know who this. I think I know who our John DOE is.”
And I said, well, gimme a name. Let me look him up in our system. And she gave me the name, Napoleon Lee McNeil.
Amanda: In the time between when Leslie had used the DNA profile to identify the family but wasn’t totally sure she had the correct family member, she had to do some sleuthing to confirm.
Leslie: I noticed that he did not have a lot of records. He had no cell phone. His address was still listed as his parents' address. Which is also a very good indication that this person, being an adult, still has an address at home, it means that was their main address that they used. Maybe they were kind of transient, or you know. That's kind of the things that I've learned to see when I look at records and I look at families and I pretty much contacted everyone I could think of in that family, and I finally got his brother.
Nine times out of 10, if I've reached the right person, they've been waiting for a phone call of some sort. You know, they haven't seen him in 12 years. They know something's up. They don't wanna think, well, hey, maybe he just never wanted to come back to see us. And you know when I talked with Timothy, I found out yes, he did have a brother.
Amanda: She’s talking about Timothy McNeil, Napoleon's brother. We tried to contact Timothy through Detective Matt Hefner and he declined our request for an interview.
Leslie: Talking with Timothy, he told me that, yes, he had a brother named Napoleon. And the last time they had seen him was November I believe of 2009. And he had come to a family get together and he said he would come to different gatherings. He would come for birthdays, Christmas, holidays, and they typically could get in touch with him, even though he did tend to live kind of a transient lifestyle. Where he would-he didn't call any particular place home except for his parents' home, I believe. But they had not heard anything from him since 2009.
Amanda: Investigators would learn that Napoleon’s family believed he was homeless somewhere in the Raleigh area – about 165 miles from Charlotte and they hadn’t filed a missing person report.
Leslie: The next thing I did was pick up the phone and call detective Matt Hefner and ask him to run Napoleon's information to see what could he find.
Matt: Timothy McNeil was pretty transparent with me. He told me that Napoleon had become estranged from the family. The last time he had seen him was like a family funeral in late 2009.
Leslie: And he too could find no records after 2009. Good indication this might be our person.
Amanda: So, they needed Timothy to give them a DNA sample that could be matched against the DNA of the remains. This would provide the ultimate confirmation. Timothy agreed to give the sample. Leslie collected it and sent it off to be tested.
In the meantime, the team continued connecting other dots between Napoleon and the remains. For instance, the case had been classified as a non-homicide undetermined death – but there was a small hole behind Napoleon’s ear that the medical examiner’s report indicated was surgical. Leslie asked her partner with the Project, Dr. Anne Ross, a forensic anthropologist at North Carolina State University, to take a look at it.
Leslie: She called it a mastoidectomy, if I'm not mistaken. And what that is, it is a hole that's drilled into the bone behind your ear to relieve pressure when you have severe ear infections that go untreated, and the infection gets into the bone.
Amanda: Leslie says she asked Timothy if his brother had bad ear infections. The answer: yes, and then came the most important answer.
Matt: March 31st, 2022. I actually texted Leslie to say, "Hey, any updates?” And she said, “no, none yet.” And then she logged in later that night to Family Tree DNA and realized that Timothy McNeil was a sibling match to our victim, which means it was Napoleon McNeil.
Pretty cool to see that, and it was fun to start making those phone calls to my chain of command and say, hey, this, this worked out.
And then over the next month or two we have been meeting for, just regular meetings with our unit, and I got to bring up in our meeting that we had identified Napoleon McNeil. And there's some upper-level chain of command in the room and they heard the story. So, I was asked, "How much is it? If this works, like it just did. How much is it per victim, per person? And I said, ballpark, it's about 4,500 to $5,000 for each victim. And they said, how many do we have? And I said about 10 victims and it was not even a pause the next thing they said was do them all. Let's just do them all. Let's just pay for it. Let's just get them all done.
Amanda: Coming up, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is so committed to putting names to their unidentified remains’ cases that not only are they funding DNA testing for all ten of Matt’s cases, they’ve publicly announced a partnership to do it.
Amanda: On July 27, 2022, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department held a press conference.
Lieutenant Bryan Crum/CMPD: Today we have a unique project that we’d like to highlight that is providing closure to families all over the country and here in North Carolina. It's called the North Carolina Unidentified Project and they’ve been using forensic genetic genealogy to assist law enforcement with identifying our victims and getting them home to their families.
Amanda: That was Lt. Bryan Crum of the CMPD, he went on to talk about a new partnership between the department and the North Carolina Unidentified Project to try to identify all the department’s unidentified remains.
Amanda: Even though they had solved the Napoleon McNeil case a few months ago, this was the first time they were sharing the news with the public – about this case that led the department to launch the new initiative. Matt was invited up to say a few words at the press conference.
Matt: We were able to positively identify this as Napoleon McNeil, born in 1965. What we learned was that Napoleon McNeil was from the Raleigh area. He had no known ties to the Charlotte area. Had it not been for this genealogy work, and Leslie Kaufman, we never would’ve determined this person’s identity.
Amanda: And solving this one case, just like Matt said, it was thing that got the leadership in his large metropolitan department to see that this process works. Again, Lt. Bryan Crum.
Bryan: Identifying missing persons takes a tremendous amount of work. As we go through some of these cases, we have to go with the things that we have. And prior to forensic genetic genealogy, we had to rely on reports to make educated guesses to go out and find family members to potentially link our victims to. And this tool has really just opened that up and allowed us to proactively go out and try to find out who these people are.
Matt: When you're working cold case murders day to day, and you're constantly coming up with dead ends and not having success just to have a small success. What I would deem a small success, in this case. In the Napoleon McNeil case, it opens up a big door to go in and start clearing the rest of them and it kind of gives you some hope to, to make progress, make forward progress.
Amanda: Matt notes that this technology is so important to help look for people outside of the place they went missing. He says that even if Napoleon’s family had reported him missing, police would have been looking for him in the Raleigh area where he was last known to be living. Not in Charlotte. Especially for people who don't have traditional relationships with their families, who may even have been estranged from their families, this can be a game changer in identifying them. Even if they’re estranged, in so many cases, families still want...still NEED... answers.
Recently, Napoleon’s death certificate crossed Matt’s desk, he noticed a funeral home was now in charge of the remains. A reminder to him that even delayed dignity in death means something.
Amanda: The undertone of what you're saying is that everybody deserves dignity, no matter what their background is or where they came from, and their families deserve answers?
Matt: That’s right. Even if we come up and figure out these victims died of some unknown, natural, cause at least we have them identified. They go back to their family, and they can have that service have some, some level of closure. I don't know if they'll ever get full closure, but some level of closure.
Amanda: So how would you quantify as an investigator what the science and genealogy have meant to what you guys do and the possibilities.
Matt: In investigations, particularly in cold cases, this is the best thing we have going for us. It is the hottest, most, newest thing out. Up until this became a thing, it was pretty much just do the same old, same old. Go back and talk to people, review the evidence, see if there's some DNA out there.
See if there's some fingerprints we can rerun. It opens the door to a whole new side of it. And probably the most interesting thing is that you have to use outside resources. But I'll tell you, it's really cool to know that I've got Leslie Kaufman right up the road and I can get in the car and go see her if I have a question.
Amanda: Matt said something else that stuck with me. Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a big department...and it made the choice to spend some of its money on DNA testing -- but smaller police departments don’t often have the resources to spend on these kinds of efforts.
And we’ve got an episode about that coming up... I’ll talk to one woman who has spent $100,000 on high level DNA analysis for almost two dozen cases being investigated by small police departments that can’t afford this kind of testing.
But on the next episode of What Remains......grief and confusion lead to change.
Look ahead: When somebody goes missing you don’t really know what to do. You go into these police stations, and you think that you're going get the help that you need. And this was out of the ordinary, my dad was a good dad. He was a constant dad.
And so, for him to just leave like that and... for us to be told, well, he had too many kids, he's allowed to go missing or he was tired of his responsibilities. Nothing they said convinced me because they didn't know him, and I did.
Amanda: Two families join forces after their loved ones’ missing person cases went unsolved for too long – together, they help pass legislation to protect other families from suffering in the same way. That's next time on What Remains.
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If you have a story idea for a future episode – or if you are one of those “cold case philanthropists” donating money for DNA testing to help ID unidentified remains -- we would love to hear from you and hear about why you do it. Again, go to whatremainspodcast.com. Click “contact” at the top and you’ll be able to send us your ideas.
This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb. It was produced and edited by Rachel McCarthy, with final mix by Doug Miller. Our Director of Podcast Operations is Anita Normanly and our Executive Producer is Ashley Talley. Thanks for listening.