Episode 90-DNA Doe Project Stories from the Southern States

Since 2017, the DNA Doe Project has worked on more than 200 cases of unidentified remains. With the work of their leadership, countless volunteers, advances in technology, the organization was able to make some of the very first identifications through investigative genetic genealogy. They’ve been able to identify people with dementia who went missing and died in another state, away from family members. They’ve been able to identify victims of serial killers, people who were murdered but had no name for many years. While some killers worked hard to conceal the identities of their victims, The DNA Doe Project has been able to put all the missing pieces together for a successful match.

But this method of matching unidentified remains to their names has not gone without controversy. In 2019 and 2021, the DNA Doe Project came under fire for using the tools within GEDmatch.com to view matches to DNA profiles of Jane and John Does whose cases they were working on even though there was a problem with the software that put users’ privacy at risk. DNA Doe Project founder Margaret Press said in a statement that their organization provided information for people whose DNA profiles were marked “opt-out” for law enforcement searching. This was due to a bug in the software the organization was working, and they failed to report the glitch at the time.

The DNA Doe Project uses GEDMatch, a free genetic genealogy service that is not affiliated with any of the direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA testing companies, but which accepts data from all of them. For example, it allows users who have tested with Ancestry to compare their results to someone who has tested with 23&Me. There are also many analysis tools on GEDmatch that are not found elsewhere. The DNA Doe Project accepts suggested cases from the public, and you can contact them through their website www.dnadoeproject.org.

Because I’ve seen a lot of updates in the past year with unidentified people, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the cases in the southern states, since that’s where a lot of our listeners live.


There are two cases I wanted to mention from Florida; one has been solved and the other has not.

On September 15, 1994, the skeletal remains of a Caucasian woman were located off Interstate 10 in Holt, Florida. She was estimated to have been between 36 and 45 years old and weighed approximately 110 pounds. She had brown hair that had been bleached. The woman wore a floral jacket with sequins on the upper shoulder cuffs and collar and a floral dress with buttons up the front. She wore inexpensive jewelry—a heart-shaped silver ring, a black cord bracelet with multicolored beads, a charm bracelet with no charms, and a cord necklace with a triangle, square, and two circle pendants. Her cause of death was determined to be foul play. Investigators suspected she was the victim of a serial killer who was apprehended in 1995.

Keith Jesperson, a long-haul trucker who has been called the “Happy Face Killer” because he sent letters to the media confessing the nature of his crimes that included an illustrated smiley-face, indicated he had murdered eight women in Oregon, Washington, California, Wyoming, and Florida. Jesperson was arrested in March of 1995 for the rape and strangulation of Julie Ann Winningham of Camas, Washington. But while awaiting trial, Jesperson began writing confessional letters sharing details of other women he had murdered. One of the women he’d met near Tampa Florida, he said, called herself “Susan” or “Suzette.” Jesperson explained he had picked the woman up at a truck stop before raping, murdering, and leaving her body in the woods off the interstate. Because of this, investigators called the unidentified woman found in Florida Suzanne Jane Doe. They believed they knew how she’d died, and who killed her, but her true identity remained a mystery until last year. 

When Suzanne Jane Doe was found, law enforcement requested a clay reconstruction of her face made and distributed to the media, but this produced no leads. In 2007, a new facial reconstruction was created for the woman, but again, the effort led to no further tips about her identity. In 2008, the Medical Examiner’s Office sent anthropological analysis to the University of West Florida, and to the FBI for DNA analysis and entry into the Missing Persons DNA Database. According to an article that ran in the Tallahassee Democrat, a physician with the Medical Examiner’s office heard about identifying remains through genealogy while at a medical conference. Suzanne Jane Doe’s remains were sent to Othram, Inc., a company that specializes in forensic genetic genealogy to resolved unsolved murders, disappearances, and identification of John and Jane Does. Six weeks later, Suzanne Jane Doe was identified as 34-year-old Suzanne Kjellenberg. She’d been out of touch with her family at the time of her murder and they had no idea what had happened to her.

Jesperson is serving three consecutive life sentences at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. In September 2009, he was indicted in Riverside County, California, on murder charges; he was extradited in December 2009. He was convicted of another murder and received a fourth life sentence in January 2010.

In September 1988, a man searching for cypress wood in rural Clermont, Florida, near Orlando, discovered human remains. Investigators said because the woman had been dragged from the road about thirty feet into the woods indicated someone was trying to conceal the body and indicated a homicide. The woman, who could have been at that location anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, was 24 to 33 years of age, had strawberry blonde hair with brown roots, well-manicured nails, and signs of a nose job and breast implants. She was wearing an acid-washed denim skirt and a blue and green tank top. Police with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office consulted with a forensic sketch artist to get a rendering of the victim they ultimately called Julie Doe. No one came forward with any information. Her DNA was submitted to a national missing and unidentified persons database, but then went the case went cold.

In 2010, new samples from Julie Doe’s case were sent to a university lab in Florida. In 2015, the medical examiner’s office received a report that revealed revealed Julie Doe could actually have been born a male based on the chromosomes discovered. Isotope analysis also revealed the victim spent most of her life in Polk and Monroe counties in Florida. They’ve now partnered with the DNA Doe Project in the hopes they can find people related to her.

Julie Doe likely lived in South Florida, and had XY genotype, but appears to have had gender reassignment surgery. Her breast implants were manufactured prior to 1985. She had multiple past fractures, include those on her cheek, nose, and ribs. She may be related to the surnames Anaya, Thornton, Robinson, and Hurt. If you are interested in submitting a GEDmatch kit for comparison, or if you recognize the composite of Julie Doe, e-mail [email protected].

Next I’d like to talk about few cases from the state of Georgia. On June 20, 2003, human skeletal remains were found in a storm basin near Highway 29 in Lawrenceville, Georgia when city workers opened a manhole to clean out the storm drains in the area. A homemade pipe commonly used to smoke crack cocaine was found near the remains. The unidentified white male was estimated to be between 45 and 55 years of age and stood between five feet seven and five feet nine inches tall. He was believed to have died between 2002 and 2003.He was wearing a short-sleeved cotton Christopher Hawes shirt, white or beige with a blue plaid pattern, and athletic socks. The Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office and the DNA Doe Project partnered to use DNA and genealogy to finally give the man his name back.


Next I’d like to talk about few cases from the state of Georgia. On June 20, 2003, human skeletal remains were found in a storm basin near Highway 29 in Lawrenceville, Georgia when city workers opened a manhole to clean out the storm drains in the area. A homemade pipe commonly used to smoke crack cocaine was found near the remains. The unidentified white male was estimated to be between 45 and 55 years of age and stood between five feet seven and five feet nine inches tall. He was believed to have died between 2002 and 2003.He was wearing a short-sleeved cotton Christopher Hawes shirt, white or beige with a blue plaid pattern, and athletic socks. The Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office and the DNA Doe Project partnered to use DNA and genealogy to finally give the man his name back. He was identified as Gordon D. Rexrode, and was originally from West Virginia. Rexrode had been estranged from his family for many years and was 70 or 71 at the time of his death. He also lived in Alabama and Georgia before he disappeared from public records in 2002. Due to the use of genetic genealogy in this case, the DNA Doe Project leaders said they were quickly able to narrow down their search for the man’s relatives to a specific county in West Virginia.

Another recent case from Gwinnett County had ties to South Carolina. On April 11, 2021, a police officer responded to a report of trash dumping in a wooded area off Hamilton Road in Buford, Georgia. There, he found what appeared to be a human skull in a tent that had been constructed, but there was no other sign of bones or human remains after a thorough search of the area. All investigators could tell from the skull was that it possibly belonged to a 18-30-year-old woman, and could have been in the woods for up to two years. 

In March 2020, Melanie Holliman from Charlotte had reported her 32-year-old daughter Brittany Davis missing. She had grown concerned after receiving multiple texts and calls from her daughter’s phone, while never actually speaking to her. Her daughter had also posted on Facebook that she was on a vacation in Puerto Rico. While her family knew she had gone there before with her boyfriend, Michael Wilkerson, they hadn’t heard of any plans for this particular trip. One of the texts that came from Davis’s phone said she had broken up with Wilkerson and gone to Puerto Rico to “clear her head.” After a few days, she sent another text that she would be home the next day, and included an image of a boarding pass. Then, nothing.

When Holliman tried to report Brittany missing in South Carolina, she was told she would have to contact authorities in Puerto Rico. In August of 2021, genetic testing on the skull found in Georgia was confirmed to belong to Brittany Davis. Her father, Curtis Hill, was notified with the news. She had never gone to Puerto Rico. Her fiancé, 42-year-old Michael Wilkerson from Greenville, South Carolina, was arrested and charged with her murder. An article that ran in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution in October of 2021 reported that Brittany Davis had met her fiancé when he hired her for a food service job in Washington, D.C. in 2015. At the time, Wilkerson had been a married father of three. He eventually separated from his wife and began dating Davis in 2017. The two got engaged in early 2019 and had been living together in Greenville. Davis’s mom told the newspaper that she hadn’t seen any warning signs with her daughter’s fiancé, but Curtis Hill, Davis’s father, said he had felt uneasy around the man.

Police believe Brittany Davis was murdered around February 12, 2020. Prosecutors said he bought lighter fluid, suitcase, trash bags, and drain cleaner the day his fiancé went missing. The next day, he attempted to reconcile with his estranged wife. As of February 2022, a circuit court judge has denied bond for Michael Wilkerson as he awaits trial.

To learn about other DNA Doe Project success stories from Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas, listen to Episode 90 of Missing in the Carolinas here.

Show Sources:

Suzanne Kjellenburg




September 27, 1995

Elko Daily Free Press

Interstate trucker’s letters claim that he’s a serial killer


October 2, 1995

The Columbian

Discoveries of bodies match trucker’s claim


Tallahassee Democrat

October 9, 2023

Murder victim identified after 29 years



Julie Doe



Gwinnett County John Doe



Brittany Michelle Davis




The Atlanta Constitution

October 4, 2021

‘Something ain’t right’

https://www.newspapers.com/image/771001375 Page 1

https://www.newspapers.com/image/771001373 Page 2

Erica Hunt


The Rayne Acadian-Tribune

February 18, 2021

State police seeking info in homicide investigation


The Crowley Post-Signal

February 21, 2021

Database keeps record of missing, unidentified in state


Kleanthis Konstantinidis




Jerry David Holbert



Pamela Darlene Casey





Sue Ann Husky




Dana Lynn Dodd

Tyler Morning Telegraph

The community that never forgot Lavender Doe

March 20, 2021


Longview News Journal

She used to be Lavender Doe. Now, she’s just Dana.

September 1, 2019

https://www.newspapers.com/image/599165849 Page 1

https://www.newspapers.com/image/599165830 Page 2


Longview News Journal

September 8, 2019

https://www.newspapers.com/image/600948224 Page 1


Debra Jackson



Dawn Clare Wilkerson