60-Year Cold Case Comes to a Close with Modern DNA Technology

genealogical dna technology identifies deceased hitchhiker from 1961

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

An unidentified boy killed in a car accident in 1961 has finally been named. Daniel Paul Armantrout died in Alabama while hitchhiking away from an abusive household but had no ID. DNA can be used in forensics for identification.

Sealing tube with DNA swab for forensic testing
DNA information stored in genealogical databases is proving key for forensic genealogy in solving long-unknown identification of deceased individuals. Photo By Couperfield / Shutterstock

More than 60 years ago, a hitchhiker with a pack of cigarettes in his pocket, a couple pieces of jewelry, and little else died tragically in a car accident in Alabama. The driver survived but confessed to not knowing the hitchhiker. Police sought his family for weeks to no avail. The victim was buried in a grave marked “Unknown Boy” in a local cemetery and has remained there since.

Forensic genealogy, which compares DNA to genealogical databases, was used to identify the deceased as Daniel Paul Armantrout, last month. In his video series Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications, Dr. David Sadava, Adjunct Professor of Cancer Cell Biology at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, provided a background on DNA identification and its uses.

Sir Alec Jeffreys

“In the early 1980s, Alec Jeffreys, who because of [his work] became Sir Alec Jeffreys, developed DNA fingerprinting at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom,” Dr. Sadava said. “He was studying genetic differences between individuals of various species, looking at various sequences of genes—whole genomes had not been sequenced at that time.”

Jeffreys compared seals to humans and found that in each species there were common, short, repeated sequences between parents and children of either species. The children’s species were a composite of their parents’ and he considered that the repeating blocks of DNA might be inherited.

“When Jeffreys realized he had a way of identifying people, he published his findings in the spring of 1985, and the genetic floodgates, as they say, opened,” Dr. Sadava said.

Immigration cases and criminal cases soon followed. A criminal case involving two rapes and murders in Leicestershire led to the finding of a murderer through Jeffreys’s DNA identification and the method has been used many times since.

A Cold Case in More Ways Than One

“In 1918, with the Russian Communist Revolution raging, the last emperor of the Romanov dynasty, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and three of their children were killed in a town in the Ural Mountains in what was then the Soviet Union, now Russia, and they were buried in a shallow, unmarked grave,” Dr. Sadava said.

“In 1991, in a new Russia, no longer communist, two amateur historians found what they thought was the grave—there were two older people and three younger people.”

Although the skeletons were damaged too badly for identification, their bones had DNA in the bone marrow and the short tandem repeats that Sir Jeffreys first noticed were compared from the bone marrow to survivors of the Romanov family. The result was that the same alleles were present in the skeletal family, proving they were indeed the Romanovs.

An allele is one out of two or more versions of a gene. Each person inherits two alleles for each gene—one from each parent—and helps narrow down genetic identification.

“In the large skeletons, the parents, for one of the short tandem repeats, had alleles 15 and 16 in one parent and 15 and 16 in the other parent,” Dr. Sadava said. “The children all had 15 and 16; that’s good.”

Seventy years after their deaths, Nicholas II and his family were recovered. Daniel Paul Armantrout may not have had such an auspicious background, but nonetheless, DNA identification has finally helped his family get some closure regarding his death.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily