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Genetic genealogy credited for breakthrough in 1988 Baca County cold case

Nora Castillo's remains identified 34 years after they were discovered
Nora Castillo 1988 Baca County cold case
Posted at 9:15 PM, Dec 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-09 23:15:34-05

Josie Castillo didn't know her mom, Nora Castillo, well since she lived with her dad growing up.

“Social services got involved when I was six and my sister was three. My mom was going through some issues,” said Josie, who now lives in Longmont.

Josie wondered all these years where her mom was and how she could find her.

In June 1988, a farmer told the Baca County Sheriff's Office he had found what he believed to be human remains on a farm about 20 miles southwest of the town of Springfield in southeast Colorado. The coroner at the time determined the remains were human and had been there for a few years.

After an extensive investigation, detectives couldn't identify the remains, and the case became cold. But in May 2021, investigative genetic geneologist Michele Kennedy with Solved by DNA got involved.

“So the first part of the process was to obtain DNA from Jane Doe, which they didn't have on file. So they had to exhume Jane Doe, and they did that in December of 2021,” said Kennedy.

The DNA was sent to a private lab and uploaded to two genealogical databases used by law enforcement — Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch. That's where Kennedy’s job came into play.

“There was one really close match in Family Tree DNA, and later determined it was a first cousin once removed,” she said.

Last month, after tracking down Jane Doe's relatives and building a family tree, Kennedy determined the remains were those of Nora Castillo — 34 years after they were discovered.

Josie's sister called her the next day with the news.

“I was like, 'There's no way. There's no way.' And she's like, 'Yes, mom has been discovered,'” said Josie. “It was definitely closure after all these years."

Kennedy says without genetic genealogy, a newer technology now being used in cold cases, Josie and her sister wouldn't have the closure they have today.

“It’s such a powerful tool, and without it, that's why these cases are cold,” she said.

It’s a technology that's changing the future of forensics.

“We're just going to keep seeing these types of announcements that cases have been solved,” said Kennedy.

Investigators, who are calling this case a homicide, are hopeful they can get some leads.

“We’re hoping we would get some kind of tip that would lead us to knowing more about why and how she died,” said Baca County Deputy Coroner Everett Brisendine.

Josie wants those answers, too, but says she can now go to sleep at night knowing where her mom is thanks to genetic genealogy.

“My heart is healing. There's a healing process now,” she said.

Kennedy encourages people to upload their DNA to Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch so they can help law enforcement potentially solve cold cases. The service is free.