After 26 years of investigation, the King County Medical Examiner’s Office (KCMEO) has identified the remains of an unknown homicide victim, who died from a shotgun wound to the torso.
Public Health Insider met with Dr. Kathy Taylor, forensic anthropologist with KCMEO, to learn more about what this investigative process looks like and what you can do if you know something about other missing people.
What background can you provide about this case?
KCMEO recovered remains on October 13, 1989, of a female homicide victim. The person’s remains were found behind what used to be the Honolulu Freight Terminal on Airport Way. No one was reported missing who matched this description, and at this time, our DNA-matching didn’t exist. So, we entered all of the victim’s information, including her dentition, into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, but it returned no hits.
Without any sort of DNA match, what can you do?
In the early 2000s, we worked with Natalie Murry, a forensic artist, to create a facial reconstruction of the decedent. The result showed a woman with a long face and missing teeth replaced with a partial dental plate. We thought these characteristics might stand out to someone who knew her, so we released the sketch to the public. But again, nothing turned up.
Where did you publish these sketches?
We put this sketch on the KCMEO website, and we promoted the case in interviews with the media.
By this point, DNA matching capabilities must have improved. Did you go down that path?
We did – we sent bone for DNA extraction, and then entered the profile into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the FBI’s database. We didn’t get any matches there either.
Do you ever work with law enforcement on cases like this?
We always do, and in fact, the King County Sheriff’s Office delivered a big clue in 2014. Detective Jensen became aware of a woman named Rita Lang, who had the same uniquely long face as the woman in the sketch made by the forensic artist, as well as an under bite that was indicative of similar dental features. Our forensic artist also superimposed the photo of Rita Lang with an image of the decedent’s skull, and it demonstrated a strong match. This method can’t confirm positive identification, but Rita Lang soon became a very strong candidate for the decedent.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that Rita Lang was an alias, and without a real name, tracking down family members is impossible.
How was the case finally cracked?
Information from law enforcement indicated Rita Lang had possible ties to California. Working with the FBI, the King County Sheriff’s Office arranged for a California media outlet to run the story, with the picture of Rita Lang. Within two hours of the story airing, Rita Lang’s sister called in to identify her as Celia Victor.
DNA was obtained from family members, and in late 2015, the decedent was positively identified as Celia Victor, age 26.
Do we know who was responsible for her death?
Not at this time, but tips are welcome. Anyone with information on the homicide of Celia Victor is asked to call Detective Norton of the Seattle Police Department Homicide Unit at 206-684-5555.
This identification was a long time coming with lots of twists and turns. Do you have other unidentified remains cases in the works?
We have many remains that are still unidentified, and we are working on those cases. As you can tell from Celia Victor’s case, these investigations can be complicated. If your loved one has gone missing, it is very important to file a missing person report with law enforcement– and just as important to follow up on it.
Anyone with knowledge of a missing person is urged to contact law enforcement. Unidentified bodies and remains cannot be identified if a person has not been reported missing. Anyone with information that could lead to the identification of an unidentified remains case is asked to call the King County Medical Examiner’s Office at 206.731.3232, ext. 1.
Also, if you know of a person who went missing in the 1960s, 70s or 80s, you should contact law enforcement, even if you believe a report was filed. Because reports weren’t stored on computers during this time, many reports have been lost.
We know how important it is for the loved ones of missing people to find answers, and even if it takes years, it is always worth the effort.