“Decades-old mystery” of murdered woman’s identity solved as authorities now seek her killer

Authorities in North Carolina have solved a decades-old cold case involving a lady who was discovered by road workers in 1990 on a roadway close to Jacksonville. The woman’s bones were recently identified after 33 years thanks to new DNA technologies and forensic genealogical tests, according to a post on Facebook by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which is in charge of the case.

According to Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, the bones were those of Lisa Coburn Kesler, who was 20 years old when she died and had previously lived most of her life in Jackson County, Georgia.

“Our vision statement talks about the ability to be able to visit and travel through our community safely,” Blackwood said in a video message released on Wednesday morning. The time it took to crack this case was considerable. But our efforts, persistence, and commitment to our goal demonstrate that we are fulfilling our mission.

About 50 miles west of Jacksonville in southeast North Carolina, along the side of I-40 East, close to New Hope Church Road, was where Kesler’s body was first found. Officials have stated that they think she was killed by hanging and then placed on the side of the road around a week before her body was found in 1990.

Despite investigators’ best efforts to identify the woman through prospective witness interviews, missing persons reports, and facial reconstruction techniques that allowed them to produce a bust of the victim and a model of her skull, the woman’s identity remained unknown for years. They created digital sketches and rough photographs of her and distributed them online in the hopes that someone might recognize her. In total, “hundreds of leads” were pursued, according to the sheriff.

However, the name remained a mystery until a new detective, Dylan Hendricks, took charge of the investigation in 2020 and worked with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. They removed a piece of hair from the corpse and submitted it to a forensics lab for DNA analysis. Leslie Kaufman, a forensic genealogist who specializes in homicide investigations involving unidentified human remains, used databases to connect the obtained DNA profile to individuals she thought were the victim’s paternal cousins.

Investigators eventually were able to confirm Kesler’s identity after more interviews with those family members, additional tests, and a cross-reference of the victim’s DNA with a DNA sample from a maternal relative.

In essence, Hendricks said in a statement, “there was a Lisa-shaped hole on a branch of the family tree right where the DNA told us Lisa should be, and no one knew where she was.” The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System has since been updated by Clyde Gibbs, a medical examiner expert with the office of the chief medical examiner, to reflect the fresh information in Kesler’s case. According to the Orange County sheriff, the chief medical examiner will also update Kesler’s death certificate to add her name and other personal information.

“Over the years, several of our best investigators never stopped working. It irritates you when a problem cannot be resolved. You might put the file away for a while, but you keep going back to it, hoping information acquired in subsequent instances would be relevant to your cold case or hunting for something you missed the first time, Blackwood said in a separate statement.

In an editorial for the daily The News of Orange County, the sheriff also discussed the investigation into Kesler’s case and the work that has to be done to identify her killer.

With the caveat that “our work on this case is not finished,” Blackwood stated, “I am very happy we solved the decades-old mystery of this young woman’s identity, and I hope it provides solace to her remaining family members.”

The sheriff said, “Even though we all showed the virtue of perseverance, we still need to find Lisa’s killer. The inquiry is ongoing, and there is no statute of limitations on murder.

Hendricks has requested that anyone with knowledge that may be pertinent to the investigation contact him by phone at (919) 245-2951. On the website of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, tips can also be made anonymously.

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