Serial Killer Strangles 93, FBI Working to Identify Victims

tools of the trade in forensics: online databases and dna sampling

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Samuel Little has confessed to strangling 93 people from 1970 to 2005, according to the FBI. This makes him the nation’s most prolific serial killer, including confessions involving several bodies that have never been found. Police and forensic work often involve identifying remains.

Forensic photographer at crime scene with Do Not Cross yellow tape
Forensic experts and law enforcement officials use sophisticated tools to identify the remains of a victim during criminal investigations. Photo by Stocked House Studio / Shutterstock

So far, the FBI says, 50 victims have been positively identified among the 93 murders to which Samuel Little laid claim. Believing that the remaining confessions are credible, the FBI has turned to the public to ask for help in uncovering the identities of the remaining murder victims. The FBI website has links to several short videos of his confessions that are currently unmatched to victims. Each video appears next to a text summary of the confession and painted portraits of the corresponding victim. Despite this approach, forensic experts and law enforcement officials usually utilize a number of methods in matching unidentified remains to a victim’s identity.

Forensics in 1986

Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Forensic Anthropologist and Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph, recalled one of the earliest cases of her career as an example of how forensics has evolved over the years.

“In the heat of the summer, July 8, 1986, a woman reported a foul odor coming from a vacant building on Republic Street in a rundown area of Cincinnati,” Dr. Murray said. “The Cincinnati homicide squad found the badly decomposed, partially skeletonized remains of what looked to be a middle-aged male, who had perhaps been there a week or so.”

Dr. Murray said that the body was transported to the Hamilton County coroner’s office for an autopsy, but his body had decomposed to the point that his fingerprints couldn’t be taken, nor the cause of death determined. She said that “visual cues and mathematical formulas” hinted at an African ancestry; and, a measurement of his femur approximated his height between 5’6″ and 5’10”.

They were also able to determine from his arthritic spine that he was likely over 50 and that his very poor dental health suggested a low economic status, due to the cost of dental visits and dental procedures. Sadly, he was never identified. Dr. Murray also noted that his records were kept on a somewhat out-of-focus microfilm print.

That information was the sum total of records and technology available to forensics experts, at the time. Routine DNA sampling was still a decade from being developed, and even computers weren’t commonplace, hence the use of microfilm.

Modernizing Forensics

According to Dr. Murray, in 1994, Hamilton County got its first, new coroner in 30 years. Along with the new coroner came far more modern equipment. Unidentifiable bodies still come in from time to time, but the tools to try to identify them got far more sophisticated since the arrival of the new coroner.

“Things quickly started to change and modernize,” Dr. Murray said. “The office got a new centralized computer system, and records since then are practically impeccable. Photos were either taken with a digital camera or promptly digitized for archiving [and] DNA has become routine in unidentified cases.”

One example of modernized forensics is an online database. “The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System—NamUS—is a database that uses sophisticated computer algorithms to try to match missing and unknown persons,” Dr. Murray said. In discussing an unsolved 1988 case, she said that a victim’s blood sample was found in an archive in 2013 and the coroner used University North Texas Center for Human ID lab to generate a genetic profile of the John Doe in question.

“The DNA doesn’t stop there, though, because the lab can upload encoded DNA information from unidentified and missing persons into a national DNA registry known as CODIS,” Dr. Murray said. “That stands for the Combined DNA Index System, which is a self-searching database with algorithms that routinely and automatically search all of its records against each other.”

Finally, there’s the FBI’s fingerprinting system, IAFIS—Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. “This computerized fingerprint database, launched in 1999, allows comparisons between unknown prints and any records in its files,” Dr. Murray said.

With luck, more of Samuel Little’s as-yet-unidentified victims will be discovered, so their friends and families can have the closure they deserve. While the FBI is reaching out to the public for any information, tools like NamUS, CODIS, and IAFIS may, yet, be of some assistance. After all, forensic science has come a long way in the last 30 years.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Ph.D.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray is a forensic anthropologist and also Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Mount St. Joseph and her master’s degree in anthropology and Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Biology from the University of Cincinnati.