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Decades-old missing person case solved after relative uploads DNA to genealogy site

A side-by-side comparison between Sandra Young (left) and an image rendered in 2021 using DNA technology (right.)
Oregon State Police
A side-by-side comparison between Sandra Young (left) and an image rendered in 2021 using DNA technology (right.)

About 54 years ago, a Boy Scout troop leader in Sauvie Island, Ore., stumbled upon a shallow grave. In the buried dirt seemed to be some forgotten clothing. In reality, it was the remains of a teenage girl.

Her entire body, in skeletal form, was discovered underneath the grave, as well as pieces from a black curly wig, according to Oregon State Police. At the time, investigators said the body showed clear signs of foul play.

For decades, the identity of the young woman remained a mystery — until Thursday.

State authorities identifiedthe woman as Sandra Young, a teenager from Portland who went missing between 1968 and 1969. Her identity was discovered through advanced DNA technology, which has helped solve stubborn cold cases in recent years.

The case's breakthrough came last year in January, when a person uploaded their DNA to the genealogy database GEDMatch and the tool immediately determined that the DNA donor was a distant family member of Young. According to Oregon State Police, Young's DNA was already in databases used by law enforcement to help identify missing persons.

From there, a genetic genealogist working with local law enforcement helped track down other possible relatives and encouraged them to provide their DNA. That work eventually led to Young's sister and other family members, who confirmed that Young went missing around the same time that a body was discovered in the far north end of Sauvie Island.

Young went to Grant High School in Portland, which is less than an hour's drive south of Sauvie Island. She was between 16 and 18 when she was last seen in the city.

Over the years, the state's medical examiner's office used a variety of DNA techniques to try to identify Young. Those tools predicted that Young had brown skin, brown eyes and black hair. It also determined that Young was likely of West African, South African and Northern European descent.

The Portland Police Bureau has been notified about the breakthrough in the case and "encouraged to conduct further investigation to determine, if possible, the circumstances of Sandy Young's death," Oregon State Police said.

The Portland Police Bureau and Young's family did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But in a interview with a Portland TV station KOIN 6, Young's nephew, Lorikko Burkett Gibbs, said there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

"I know it's still being investigated, but I think there needs to be more investigation about this," Gibbs said. "The person who did this needs to pay for what they've done."

Over the years, missing persons cases have disproportionately affected communities of color. In 2022, about 546,000 people were reported missing in the U.S. — with more than a third identified as Black youth and women. And even though Black people make up just 13% of the U.S. population, they represent close to 40% of all missing persons cases, according to the Black and Missing Foundation.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.