A rural NC sheriff’s office solves two cold cases that are nearly fifty years old
Two men, with no connection, were both found dead in rural Chatham County, North Carolina more than forty years ago. To complicate matters, one man’s head and hands were removed to prevent his identification. Both cases had been cold for years, until the magic of modern-day DNA testing and a forensic genealogist got involved. In this episode, we share the story of a grieving and confused family who takes us on their journey from shock to heartbreak and finally acceptance. We also introduce you to lab in Texas that uses cutting edge technology to extract usable samples from degraded DNA. Full transcript available at https://www.whatremainspodcast.com. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Amanda: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
In the late 1970’s, Alexander Brown Jr. was living in Baltimore, Maryland. Alexander was the kind of guy who spent a lot of time with his extended family, including his young nieces and nephews.
Niece (name withheld): We called him Alec. He could walk just a few blocks to my other uncle's house. It was unheard of for no one to have seen him or spoken to him in a day.
Amanda: So, when Uncle Alec stopped dropping by in December 1978, they knew immediately that something was very wrong.
Niece: We thought something strange had happened, but we thought maybe he would show up. We were expecting him to show up.
Amanda: At first, they tried some simple explanations for his absence.
Niece: Maybe he had gone on. Overnight trip with his girlfriend. We were just coming up with different scenarios. All the scenarios were trying to understand why we couldn't reach him. And none of the scenarios involved him not being alive because no one could deal with that notion. We started to create narratives and stories.
Amanda: One theory was that someone was after settlement money Alec had gotten after a work site accident put him in the ICU. And that he had gone underground to protect himself.
Niece: You know, these are the kinds of crazy stories that we came up with because we didn't know what happened. Various family members would think that they spotted him on a busy street. My grandmother used to say that all the time. She always believed that he was alive because she said that she could still feel him, you know, his presence on the earth and that he must have needed to go away.
Amanda: With no information about their loved one and what might have happened, Uncle Alec’s family started filling in the gaps with whatever they could to believe he was still alive and close to them.
But Alec wasn’t in Baltimore anymore. He would later end up in rural North Carolina, Chatham County, home to rolling farmlands, horses and old tobacco barns, a place he had no known connection to.
And he wasn’t the only missing person to meet a tragic end in Chatham County. Around the same time remains of a man were found in the Cape Fear River... he had been dismembered.
Amanda: You had no skull.
ANN ROSS/NCSU FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST: No skull.
Amanda: And no hands.
Ann: And no hands.
Amanda: So, you knew right away, this is likely a homicide because how does that happen?
Assistant Special Agent in charge NC state bureau investigation Nate Thompson: His head had been removed and his fingertips removed, and he was placed in, I want to say it was like a canvas tent and, and a logging chain was wrapped around his body to weight his body down in the Cape Fear River. And I think that the cause of death that time was stabbing. He was stabbed to death, but I think that was definitely a situation where they did not want him identified.
Amanda: Today, one rural county identifies two murder victims; both mysteries for over four decades. With the help of some partners...
Michael: We develop these leads that otherwise wouldn't have been possible for these detectives. And, and we give them those leads back. We don’t know what they’re going to go with those leads. We can just kind of follow the DNA and what the DNA is telling us.
Amanda: And a family finally finds out where their beloved “Uncle Alec” was... all these years.
Amanda: From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
Amanda: Can you tell me your name and title?
Nate: Nate Thompson. I'm an assistant special agent in charge at the North Carolina state bureau investigation.
Amanda: How long have you been with the SBI?
Nate: 24 years.
Amanda: The SBI helps smaller law enforcement agencies handle their bigger cases.
Amanda: And the bottom line is there are a lot of small law enforcement agencies in North Carolina that don't have the resources to do some of the heavy lifts. Some of the murder cases and things like that. And that's why they call you guys in?
Nate: Correct. Our bread and butter are the small departments in the rural areas that need assistance.
Amanda: The SBI started its own cold case unit in 2020 to help local agencies with unsolved murders and unidentified remains. Nate's cases run the gamut from murder cases to unidentified remains cases. You’re looking at cases from the 40s, 50s, and 60s... what is that process like?
Nate: It’s interesting. I mean, it's literally like picking up a murder mystery novel or book and reading it and trying to say, well, what I do with this. With today's knowledge, today's technology. What can I do for that victim at that time? How can I resolve this case?
Amanda: Nate says it all starts with identifying the remains.
Nate: And until you really identify who the victim is, that's the start of your investigation. Who is this victim? Why are they dead? What killed him? And it all starts with that. Who are they?
Amanda: It’s new, challenging and exciting work for a veteran of the SBI.
NATE: It's recharged my batteries, to actually work a case that nobody's looking at, no one's even following up on and to be able to make something out of it.
Amanda: The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in central North Carolina needed help identifying the remains of a murder victim found in the Cape Fear River in 1976. So, they reached out to the SBI, along with a team from the North Carolina Unidentified Project.
North Carolina State University forensic anthropologist Dr. Ann Ross works on the project.
Dr. Ann Ross NCSU Forensic Anthropologist: I have been going back and trying to redo all the anthropology to see if we can get better leads because the technology changes. So, he was one of the ones that was selected to do.
Amanda: Ann said this case was made more challenging because the killer had removed the man’s head and hands. So, no dental records, and no fingerprints. The case involved what is known as “degraded DNA.” DNA can become degraded for any number of reasons including the environment where the remains were found or the way the evidence was stored over the years.
And then you factor in how many times the DNA has been tested...you lose some evidence each time...so in this case, there simply wasn’t a lot left to test. Forensic genealogist Leslie Kaufman, another member of the North Carolina Unidentified Project, who we’ve heard from in past episodes, takes the story from there.
North Carolina Unidentified Project Lesile Kaufman: The first time we did not get a profile at all, all we got that it was a white male period....and you know, we wanted to try to identify him. That was pretty critical because we knew there was a homicide involved. And a heinous homicide, there’s that right? So, we were kind of determined to try to, you know, do it again. If we got an opportunity
Amanda: So, Leslie, along with the investigators, decided the only way to really crack this case was to use a lab that specializes in testing degraded DNA.
Director of Case Management Othram| Michael Vogen: We've built a lab to basically tackle and expect very horrible evidence from crime scenes. And when, I mean, horrible evidence, I mean, super small quantities of DNA, very high degradation, very high contamination.
Amanda: That’s Michael Vogen, the Director of Case Management for Othram, a lab in Texas which does this kind of testing. It’s pretty new science, just a few years old, which allows a lab like Othram to get a complete DNA profile from a small piece of evidence. They use a combination of what’s called SN(I)P testing, which stands for Single Nucleotide Polymorphism. We also talked about this in Episode 15. They also use STR, or short tandem repeat testing and forensic genome sequencing. This is all a fancy scientific way of saying they look for repetitive characteristics of the DNA, aberrations in the DNA and they look at all of the person’s DNA profile, not just a snippet.
The new technology Othram uses allows them to take even the smallest sample of DNA and test it with a very high level of accuracy. They claim they have a 95 percent chance or higher of successfully identifying someone through their process.
The testing costs upwards of $5000, but the lab often raises money through crowdfunding to help law enforcement pay for DNA testing. That’s what they did in this case...
Michael Vogen Director of Cas Management Othram: I think they had sent it to another lab, to try to work from, and they were having some difficulties and, getting enough DNA or getting a profile. But Leslie and Ann reached out to us and told us about the case, and it seemed pretty straight forward for us.
Amanda: The Othram analysis quickly created a DNA profile that Leslie could finally work with. Leslie reached out to the people on the tree she believed were cousins of the dead man. One of them worked at a library about 150 miles away from where the body was found in the Cape Fear River. Leslie called the library.
As soon as she said, “somebody missing in 1976”, the person on the other end of the line said, “I know who you’re looking for.” That phone call led to a connection with the family of a man named Jimmy Mack Brooks. He was a Vietnam Veteran who disappeared in 1976 when he was just 26 years old. The family never knew what happened to him. Family members offered their DNA so that it could be tested against the DNA of the remains found in the river. It was a match; his identity was confirmed after 46 years of being labeled a John Doe.
Nate: We are in the process of trying to find out, well, where did he live? Who did he live with? You know, where's his vehicle now? Cause all that stuff was missing. So, from a case that of an unknown in the river to now, we actually have leads to follow.
Amanda: Michael Vogen at Othram sees what they’re doing as a critical part of finding answers for these grieving families. Families they will likely never meet or get to know, but they will have the satisfaction of knowing that a name has been attached to someone’s remains.
Michael: When you're able to see it come full circle and, you know, even though it's not the best news for family, but they have a big piece of a question answered.
Amanda: It was that question of what happened, that hung over Alexander Brown Jr’s family for so many years. When Uncle Alec disappeared in Baltimore, Maryland in December 1978, they knew he didn’t just walk away from his life.
Niece: The discussion in the family was really just surprise and concern, because we typically knew when any of us were planning trips. He just kind of disappeared and no one had an explanation for it. And there were other things that made us worry. He left his dog, he was always with his dog. He loved dogs. He was an amazing dog trainer, not a formal one, but he, he trained our family dogs and, and he and his dog were always together. And so, the fact that his dog was just sort of left unattended to was shocking
Amanda: After the break, how Alec’s family finally got some answers.
Amanda: When Alexander Brown Jr’s nieces or nephews needed their “Uncle Alec” ... he showed up for them.
Here’s one of his nieces, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy.
Niece: All the cousins, my cousins and I; we loved hanging out with him. We would go to his house all the time. He was the only family member, actually that let me braid his hair. I used to braid his hair all the time and he was always so patient, and he would just sit there endlessly and let me braid his hair and. He actually went as my chaperone and, went on school trips with me. When I was in elementary school but especially in junior high school. We went on a trip to Washington, DC once and he got everybody little trinkets, you know, as souvenirs. And my classmates talked about that for years.
Amanda: He was also a father and a doting son. Uncle Alec disappeared from Baltimore in 1978. In 1981, remains of a man were found in Chatham County North Carolina. Forty years later, Leslie Kaufman was working on this case in between everything else. She hadn’t gotten any promising leads, just some half-second cousins. She loaded the DNA profile from the remains into GEDmatch which is a global database that regular people, forensic genealogists and investigators can use to make matches. Even though Leslie had had great success with GEDmatch in the past, she knew from experience that it was good practice to mix it up sometimes, to load the DNA sample into different databases that might contain other profiles. Leslie asked the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office if they would pay to have the information loaded into a database called FamilyTree.com. They agreed to pick up the $700 tab.
This time Leslie got what she calls “a hit,” she found a woman she believed was the dead man’s niece. She sent her an email.
Niece: She said that she really needed to speak with me because she thinks that she may have found a family member of mine.
And so, I Googled her to see if it seemed to be a legitimate organization and it was. So that's when I reached out to her, and so she asked me if I was aware of any family member that might be missing, and I told her that I was. And I said, could you tell from the DNA, what type of relationship, you know we had, in terms of the family connection. And she said that based on their DNA analysis that, he could have been an uncle. And as soon as she said that my heart sank, because I knew it was my uncle, I knew it was Uncle Alec.
Amanda: Alec’s niece was able to give Leslie access to her mother and grandmother’s DNA information that was already stored in an online database. This was the extra confirmation Leslie needed to definitively say that the remains belonged to Alexander Brown.
I mean, on one hand, you're wanting to know for so many years what happened to your uncle. And then on the other hand, you're finding out that he's deceased. What was that like?
Niece: It was pretty horrifying because, you know, she told us things that were so upsetting, you know. The first thing I did was, I called my mother, I called my uncles, you know. I let the family know this information. But all of us were kind of traumatized because it was just really hurtful to hear that he'd been found in the woods. That he was off away from all of us, and something happened to him. And so, you know, all of us just imagined the worst. And, apparently the police said, because I did speak with the police after I spoke with the forensic genealogist. They told me that my uncle that had definitely been murdered, that this was definitely a homicide. That was really, really distressing, to hear that and to; you start to play all these possibilities through your mind. And the worst part is, you know, thinking that he could have been hurt and out there by himself without any of us, you know, to try to support him. And so, it was just, it's just really, really sad. I mean, it was bittersweet, you know, I think, I think all of us, except for my grandmother thought that something bad, like this had probably happened to him, but, you know, to know the reality of it, was really, traumatic quite honestly. And to see his clothes, they have pictures of the clothes that he was in when his remains were found. And we recognize the clothes. All of us saw him wear that outfit and during his life
Amanda: Alec’s family doesn’t know why or how he ended up in North Carolina. His niece says they had relatives in Mississippi and used to caravan down there to visit. But not North Carolina. One of older relatives now remembers Alec had mentioned something at one point about going to North Carolina, but they still don’t know a reason for him being there.
Niece: And I do know that his daughters, his two daughters have passed away. And I, I do know that, that they both suffered consequences of not having their father in their life and not understanding why he went away or disappeared. You know, it's really hard for a daughter to just all of a sudden feel abandoned by their father, whether it was intentionally or not. Do you know what I mean?
Amanda: Right, so his disappearance had a huge impact on so many people in your family.
Niece: So many people, his daughters, his son, and all the rest of us, too. And in a way, even though it's a little sad that my grandmother passed away before he was found. In a way, I'm a little bit grateful for that because I think that it would've just been overwhelmingly devastating for her to have to hear the story and experience any of this.
WRAL News Archive/Gerald Owens: This is Alexander Brown Jr. His family reported him missing in Baltimore, Maryland in 1978. A group we've told you about in the past, the North Carolina Unidentified project, announced the connection 43 years later to the day that missing person's report was filed.
Amanda: Alexander Brown Jr’s loved ones are now in the process of making plans to retrieve his remains and bury him in a family plot in Baltimore. As we were wrapping up production on this episode, someone I had reached out to for this story finally got back in touch with me: Alexander’s sister, who is now 77 years old. We didn’t talk long, but I wanted to share a bit from our conversation.
Amanda: So, all this time goes by, you've got no information, does it ever get any easier or do you just try to go on with life? And try not to think about it.
Sister (name withheld): Well, I don't know if we ever not thought about it. I know my mother and I talked about it, and she couldn’t imagine. She says I don’t know where that boy could be. And we’d talk about it, especially for his birthday, for her birthday. We just couldn't imagine not hearing from him.
Amanda: When she found out about his remains being identified, she said first she was numb... but also...
Sister: It was a relief to know that he wasn't just somewhere that he could reach out. You know, it makes sense, but I just couldn't imagine why would someone want to kill him? You know, I just don't know the answer to that.
Amanda: Investigators are now trying to find that answer for the family, trying to finish telling the story of what happened to their dear Alec.
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Today’s episode was researched, written and hosted 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.