True crime meets forensic science
Dec. 7, 2022

E19 Crowdfunding Cold Cases

How regular people are donating money to pay for DNA analysis


Carla Davis isn’t your typical American living the good life in Dubai. While we sleep, she teases the knots out of stubborn cold cases as a self-taught forensic genealogist. But she doesn’t just give her time and talent, she opens her wallet. Carla has become one of our country’s leading cold case philanthropists, a group of people who are changing the outcomes of many of these cases by helping pay for DNA testing. In this episode Carla shares why she’s committed to forensic DNA analysis and takes us on a journey from solving her own family mystery to solving one of the most stubborn, high-profile cold cases in recent history.

Transcript

Listener warning: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains, physical and sexual violence, and suicide. Listener discretion is advised. 

Amanda: Social media hasn’t always been a positive thing for our society but it can come in handy for solving cold cases. If you search “DNA Solves Cold Cases” on Facebook, a bunch of groups pop up. Cold Cases Solved with Genetic Genealogy, Genealogical DNA News, Latest Solved Crimes, Unsolved Cold Case Mysteries. You get the idea... 

And there’s one in particular I’ve had my eye on... 

DNASolves Advocates is a private group with 11,800 members and counting. The page invites members to share information about cases they’re hoping will be solved. And it also encourages them to help pay for DNA testing in cold cases--kind of like a Go-Fund-Me for cold cases. The going rate for the high-level DNA testing needed in these cases is about $5,000 a pop. 

Tell me how many cases you've funded so far. Do you know? 

Carla Davis/Forensic Genealogist and Philanthropist: It's over 20. 

Amanda: Carla Davis is originally from Mississippi. She now lives in Dubai. She’s a self-trained forensic genealogist who now works to help identify human remains, connecting names to the missing and the murdered. 

Carla saw a notice on LinkedIn last January asking for help identifying a 1978 murder victim who was found burned in a campground outside Nashville, Tennessee and had gone unnamed for 42 years. That’s when she made her first cold case donation of nearly $4000 to help pay for DNA testing.  

The money went to Othram Incorporated in Houston, Texas, a lab that handles degraded DNA samples with great success. People at Othram were so surprised by the generous donation, they actually contacted Carla to make sure she meant to give that much. 

She told them it was NOT a mistake. 

Michael Vogen/Othram: The only thing literally holding, you know, families up from getting answers or justice being served for a criminal was funding. And if more funding becomes available, think what we can do at scale in this country, as far as knocking out not just a case here or a case there, but backlogs of cases. 

 Amanda: Michael Vogen is the Director of Case Management for Othram. We've talked about Othram in recent episodes and they also run the DNASolves Advocates Facebook page.  

Michael: A lot of these cases from particularly smaller rural counties, where they don't have budgets for advanced DNA testing, but the evidence is there. Our technology is there. That's the only thing holding it up, we built DNASolves to help crowdfund those cases as well. And so, as you can imagine, with a group as strong as 10,000 folks, if everyone pitches in you know, 50 cents on a case, we can get it funded within a day. 

Amanda: And sometimes 10,000 people pitching in 50 cents a piece isn’t needed. Because after her initial donation, Carla Davis then told Othram she’d fund ALL the cases they were working on from her home state.  

Michael: She said, look, you know, I'm from Mississippi. I know they have X number of unidentified human remains cases. I want to fund all those cases. And we said, okay. So, we reached out to the medical examiner’s office in Mississippi and to local law enforcement, Mississippi. And we started knocking out case by case.  

Amanda: In this episode, online communities springing up to fund DNA testing  and the cases Carla has helped solve using her money and her mind. 

From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb. 

Amanda: I spoke to Carla Davis online. She lives in Dubai, so we had to find a time that worked. It was early in the morning for me, and later afternoon for her. And I was really curious about why she gives so much money to help identify these remains. 

Amanda: People can give their money to so many things obviously, so what is it about this cause, that just made you want to say yeah this is where I want to donate my resources? 

Carla: It started with my daughter back in the 1990s. She had a classmate who went missing. She was kidnapped from her yard and brutally abused before he killed her and disposed of her body. We sat in front of the television. The whole community looked for her, searched for her. And for three horrible days no one knew what happened to her. 

Amanda: It was the case of Lorin Easterling, an 11-year-old girl who disappeared in Slidell, Louisiana in April 1998 during Easter break. Lorin had actually attended Carla’s daughter's birthday slumber party the Friday before she disappeared. Carla drove Lorin home that Saturday. A few days later, Lorin was abducted from her own yard. 

On April 17, 1998, Lorin was found dumped in an industrial area in New Orleans. She had been raped, beaten and strangled to death. A man named Ralph Stogner, a courier who delivered lost luggage from the airport to Lorin’s neighborhood that night, was arrested for the crime. There was a witness who put him in the community that evening, and they found a hair matching the victim on Stogner’s boot. DNA found on the child’s body was also a match for Stogner. He was convicted on October 17, 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.  

The memory of not knowing what happened to Lorin in those first few days after she was abducted, well, it stays with Carla. 

Carla: I can't imagine what it feels like for these families who have waited years, decades, not knowing what happened to their family members. So, I can't think of a greater cause to be behind and contribute to than helping to solve these cold cases. So, these families can have those answers. 

Amanda: When we come back, more about Carla’s passion for solving cold cases and some wild cases she’s worked on like the case of “The Christmas Tree Lady”. 

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Carla: I grew up not knowing who my father was, and my mother passed away when I was five and she took that information with her. 

Amanda: Carla Davis now lives in Dubai for her husband’s job, but she’s originally from Purvis, Mississippi, a tiny town. After Carla’s mother died in a motorcycle accident, she was raised by her maternal grandmother. Carla wanted to know her roots. To learn the identity of her father, she got her own DNA tested. Then, she taught herself online genealogy, and got to work. 

Carla: Through building trees and comparing the shared matches. Seeing where they match, who they match, finding those common ancestors and working my way down until one name stood out and I tested his brother, and it confirmed the theory that he was indeed my father. 

Amanda: It turned out that Carla’s father passed away in 2005, so she never got the opportunity to meet him. But she vowed going forward that she would use her self-taught genealogist skills to help others regain their identities. That opportunity came after a local newspaper in Mississippi did an article about her finding her father.  

Carla: People started contacting me, asking me to help with their cases and word of mouth just spread. And the more practice, the more I did it the more familiar I become with it. I watched every YouTube channel, read every book, listened to every lecture. 

Amanda: She also took some classes, but mostly she just learned from those who came before her. 

I asked Carla about her first case that she helped solve with forensic genealogy --that’s the type of genealogy used to solve cold cases being investigated by law enforcement. 

Carla: So, the first case I got involved in was the case of Jean Ponders.  

Amanda: In May of 2012, a Talladega County sheriff’s deputy saw a door to an abandoned home ajar in Lincoln, Alabama just a few miles from the Talladega Superspeedway. The deputy went inside to investigate. In the backyard, he found the remains of a white female curled up on her side dressed in sweatpants and slippers. She had no identification on her, and her body was too decomposed to get any fingerprints. They called her Grandma Doe. She was then buried in an unmarked grave.  

Prior to her burial, an autopsy was done, and it was determined that the woman died of lung cancer. Even though her death was ruled to be from natural causes, Lincoln Police had a strong suspicion that someone had dumped the woman’s body in this location after her death that this was in fact a crime, abuse of a corpse. 

Meanwhile, 67-year-old retired school teacher Jean Ponders from Roswell, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, had been reported missing. 

No connection was made between the remains in Alabama and Jean Ponders at the time because no one expected Jean to be in Alabama. 

As part of the ongoing investigation into her disappearance, Roswell detectives learned that someone had been using Jean’s ATM card for years after she was reported missing and had taken more than $100,000 from her bank accounts. A former friend of Ponders’, Tameka Jackson, was charged in the case. In May of 2021 Jackson pleaded guilty to one count of theft and received probation and community service. There was still no sign of Jean. 

Then Othram got involved in the case. Jean’s sister and daughter provided Othram with their DNA samples and forensic genealogy done by Carla identified Jean in January of 2022, ten years after her remains were discovered. The investigation into how Jean’s body ended up in another state is still underway -- but the family at least knows something. 

Carla: Knowing where she's at and what happened to her gave so many answers to that family. And they were waiting for years to find out where their mom was every night, they laid down not knowing where she was. And they finally had those answers after so many years. 

Amanda: Remember I told you; Carla lives in Dubai. It’s a very long way from the places where her research is being used to solve cases. There’s a huge time difference-they're eight hours ahead of the U.S. 

Carla: Anytime that I take on a case. I work while everyone else is sleeping back home, but when they wake up, I have results for them. So, it's kind of nonstop. And if I have something, a lead that I provided or something that needs clarity, then they can work on getting that together, send it back over. And the whole process starts over again. It's like a 24 hour cycle almost  

Amanda: For Carla, it’s not just about giving her time and talent as a forensic genealogist, it was also about opening her wallet and donating money to the cause, money to help smaller law enforcement agencies pay for DNA testing in their cold cases, like in Mississippi.  

Carla: A lot of smaller departments do not have the resources. And that is why I decided to help my home state, because I know we are one of those states and our agencies are those agencies that do not have the funding. So, I have been kind of a bridge between the technology and funding that, so that they can go ahead and take those cases and try to get some leads so that they can solve them. 

But I've taken it also a step further because the cases that I funded Mississippi are cases that I work as well. So, it's kind of twofold. I donate my time. Plus, I donate my funds and provide the leads. 

Amanda: So, you do this all for free? 

Carla: I do pro bono, every single case. 

Amanda: Carla can afford this. She says she’s blessed to have a husband and family who support her efforts – she says they’re as passionate as she is when it comes to making the world a safer place. 

Do you have any estimate on how much you've spent helping with these cases? Do you know?  

Carla: I would say it's over a hundred thousand dollars, but I'm not exactly sure how much. I just can't, I can't think of any better thing that I would like to give to than these cases. And if I'm going to have funds that I can donate and help, this is how I want to help. I want to do what I can to, for these families. And for the victims, the victims deserve this. 

Amanda: Coming up, Carla’s genealogical research skills help solve some high- profile cases. 

Amanda: On the Facebook group DNASolves Advocates there are people waiting on the edges of their seats to see if specific cases will be solved. Taylor, for example, is following the case involving the unidentified skeletal remains of a cheerleader found in the trunk of a car in 1982. Dental records have already ruled out 20 potential victims. She is hoping Othram will get involved, take another look at the case and do some DNA testing. Keeley’s post says more funding is needed to help identify a skull found in the basement of a Spring Grove, Minnesota home in 2005 by a worker, and the list goes on. 

One of the posts is about a John Doe found in Biloxi, Mississippi who has now been identified. It reads: “Pleased to share that Othram, as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office and local law enforcement, was able to identify Gary Lee White. He was found on the rooftop of an abandoned building in 2019 and was unidentified until now. Special thanks to Carla Davis for her genealogical research.” 

On the day I spoke with Carla, me in the corner of my guest bedroom in Raleigh, North Carolina, and she in her home office in Dubai. She was elated because she had just helped solve a major case. 

Carla: Christmas Tree Lady, that was a big case that so many people followed on the web. So many people tried to solve it. So many people looked for answers, trying to identify her. And it was announced in the Washington Post today and that was one of the cases that I just worked. 

Amanda: On December 18, 1996, a woman was found dead in a Fairfax County, Virginia cemetery called Pleasant Valley Memorial Park. It’s a big place, 13 acres in a town called Annandale. The woman was dubbed The Christmas Tree Lady because she had placed a small Christmas tree on a blanket on the ground next to her.  

Carla: And she chose a spot, and it was a spot where there were children that were buried. She had a little Minnie Mouse pouch, like a child's Minnie Mouse pouch. 

Amanda: According to an article by Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman the woman wore an Eddie Bauer jacket, two sweaters, a silk shirt and navy knit wool pants. 

He goes on to write quote: “Her clothes, her neatly coifed hair and recently manicured red fingernails indicated to police she was not financially strained. 

She wore black loafer shoes, two clip-on earrings, a small gold Guess watch, a 14-karat gold ring with four jade stones, and a metal chain with a medical alert pendant engraved, “NO CODE, DNR, No penicillin. 

The woman didn’t have identification, what she did have was two envelopes in her pockets. One for the coroner and one for the cemetery, each with two $50 bills and a note that read: “Deceased by own hand...Prefer no autopsy. Please order cremation with funds provided. Thank you, Jane Doe.” 

Amanda: The cause of death was ruled to be suicide – several news outlets refered to suffocation and a plastic bag. Autopsy reports showed she had alcohol and valium in her system – there was a bottle of brandy found in her backpack. 

For more than 25 years her identity was a mystery until Othram stepped in, did DNA testing, and asked Carla to do the forensic genealogy on the case. She discovered the woman was the oldest of five children. 

First, Carla found the woman’s 88-year-old brother in Virginia Beach. She asked investigators to reach out to him. 

Carla: The DNA pointed to this very specific family, and I provided the information through public searches and public records of her sibling and asked them to contact him, to see if he had a sibling missing. 

Amanda: Investigators showed the brother, a composite sketch of the dead woman. But the woman had been estranged from her family for many years and he didn’t recognize the artist’s sketch. 

Then, investigators reached out to a sister, Carla had located; who was living in Phoenix, Arizona.  

Carla: She took a DNA test because she did recognize the sketch and believed it to be her sister and then the DNA test came back and confirmed. They were indeed siblings. 

Amanda: While the DNA confirmed the woman’s identity, it took many other details to get the investigation to this point. 

Carla: But the way that she had committed suicide, her older sister had said that that was exactly something that she would've come up with and had planned out thoroughly. 

Amanda: The mystery woman was 69-year-old Joyce Sommers. She was from Davenport, Iowa. Her family had lost touch with her years ago, and never knew what became of her until Othram, Carla and the investigators solved the case. 

Carla has been helping solve cases like this with her skills and helping solve other cases with her funds. And she’s not the only one. 

Amanda: So, what would you say about this kind of movement, if you will, this crowdfunding movement where people are saying, yeah, I'll, I'll donate to that? That sounds like a great cause. 

Carla: I think Othram, they set up a platform to do crowdfunding. To allow the average citizen to get behind a case and see it instantly increase as people donate. And I think they get excited. The people, you know, sitting there watching and knowing about these stories. I think they get excited knowing that there's a potential for them to be solved. Cause some of these cases they have gained, I hate to use the word popularity, but they have. Where people have tried to solve them, you know, looking at all the evidence, you have average citizens that have their special cases that they have went above and beyond to try to do what they can to solve the case. 

And so, when the crowdfunding came about, they saw it as another opportunity and something that they could get behind and do more for these individuals. 

Amanda: While Carla started funding cases in her home state of Mississippi, she’s branched out to anyone who needs help again, Michael Vogen from Othram...  

Michael: She'll see other cases on DNASolves that we're working on and she'll say, hey, I see you guys almost have it funded, I'll go ahead and take care of the balance and let's just keep them going. So, it's extraordinary. 

 She's almost single-handedly funded and of course, the investigators have confirmed our leads. Almost all the NamUs list for Mississippi, which NamUs catalogs, all the unidentified human remains. 

So, that's a very powerful story too, to take to Congress and, government officials and say look, you know a private citizen through generosity has helped clear out a whole backlog of unidentified human remains cases. You know, let's start putting something in place to do this across all states and really make a big impact. 

Amanda: Carla continues to make an impact – a year after she began her cold case philanthropy with Othram, the company has now hired her as their chief genetic genealogist. That’s right, she is making their professional connection official. In a press release they say she brings “unique expertise” that will help them with their “investigations worldwide.” Carla says she is “honored” to join Othram, and hopes her work on their behalf will make “our world a safer place.” 

Today’s episode was written by me, Amanda Lamb. It was produced and edited by Rachel McCarthy, with final mix by Doug Miller. Zenobia Dowdy edits our episode transcripts, which can be found on our website, WhatRemainsPodcast.com. That's also where you can find links to our social accounts where we share photos of the people from each episode. 

Our Director of Podcast Operations is Anita Normanly and our Executive Producer is Ashley Talley. Thanks for listening.