Sleuths Are Haunted by the Cold Case of Julie Doe

A group of self-taught investigators is confronting the limits of using DNA and genetic genealogy to identify victims.

Silhouettes of a man and a woman merge.
Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Updated at 11:36 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2019.

In September 1988, a man looking for cypress wood discovered a body in the marshy forests of Florida. The body was too decomposed to be recognizable, but police made note of what they could: a denim skirt, manicured nails, long dyed-blond hair, breast implants. A prominent forensic anthropologist noticed pitting in the pelvic bones, which he attributed to hormonal changes from childbirth. He proclaimed her a woman—a mother, in fact, who had likely given birth more than once. She became known as “Julie Doe.”

In 2015, however, new DNA tests revealed that she actually had XY chromosomes. Julie Doe was a transgender woman. The pitting in her pelvic bones was likely the result of hormone therapy, rather than childbirth. Her real name, however, remains unknown.

Julie Doe’s case was the very first taken up by the Trans Doe Task Force, a small group of volunteers specializing in cold cases with transgender victims. Lee and Anthony Redgrave, a married couple in western Massachusetts, founded the group last year. They began as volunteers with the nonprofit DNA Doe Project, which tries to find names for unidentified bodies through genetic genealogy—a method that combines searching DNA databases with more traditional research of family trees. Genetic genealogy has recently revolutionized cold cases, but Lee and Anthony quickly saw the limits of DNA and family trees for victims who are transgender. (Lee identifies as gender-nonbinary. Anthony is a trans man; he also found out a few years ago that he was born intersex.) For trans victims, genetic genealogy is most likely to lead to a dead name—the name they were born under but not the chosen name they actually lived by.

“What if somebody isn’t living by their legal name?” Anthony said when I met the Redgraves in Massachusetts this month. “And what if their family doesn’t care?” Lee added. “What if their family didn’t want them, and that’s why they were unidentified? And what if they have a chosen family that does want to take care of them?”

The Redgraves founded the Trans Doe Task Force to bridge that gap between genetics and lived identity. The task force is already finding cases with trans victims and referring them to the DNA Doe Project. Once those victims’ birth names are found through genetic genealogy, the task force volunteers hope to look for other clues to their lived identities. They plan to tap connections in the queer community and comb archives of old zines. “The Trans Doe Task Force helping with these cases can, I hope, help the community feel comfortable opening up to us, because they don’t feel like they’re talking to a police officer. That can be really, really hard for LGBTQ people,” says Megan Street, a task-force volunteer.

For Lee and Anthony, the work is personal. In January 2018, they learned that their friend Christa Steele-Knudslien, a trans woman, had been stabbed and beaten to death. They had gotten to know Christa after a mutual friend, Lars, who was also trans, died by suicide. Lee fell into depression after Christa’s death; her volunteer work was part of trying to find new meaning in life. “We can’t help Lars anymore. We can’t help Christa anymore,” she said, “but we can help someone who’s unidentified.”

Lee Redgrave keeps photos of Lars and Christa on a necklace. (Sarah Zhang / The Atlantic)

Over the past year, Trans Doe Task Force volunteers have focused on finding cases in which victims may be trans. This sounds simple enough, but the task runs up against a criminal-justice system ill-equipped to handle the complexities of sex and gender. (Sex refers to biological differences; gender refers to social roles.) On one hand, trans women are frequently targeted as victims of violent crime, so much so that the American Medical Association this year called the killing of transgender women of color an “epidemic.” On the other, agencies aren’t really keeping track. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) database added an “other” option for sex of missing persons only in June of this year. The database does not have a separate category for gender.

“It’s just so difficult to get a handle on statistics like this, because individuals are misgendered in police reports, especially in cold cases,” says Amy Michael, a biological anthropologist at the University of New Hampshire who is collaborating with the task force. “They say biological male, found with a wig. Well, that could be something. It could be nothing. Law enforcement is just not literate on this issue yet. ”

The task force has about 20 or so active volunteers who comb NamUs and newspaper archives for victims that may be trans. Of course, searching the exact term transgender rarely gets many hits, except for very recent cases. One volunteer, Jessica Veltstra, told me she’s learned to search outdated language. “In older case, you have to look for derogatory terms,” she said. “You have to look for things like crossdresser, transvestite, and transsexual.” Volunteers also key in on details such as makeup or nail polish on victims reported as male, or men’s clothing on victims reported as female. They treat these as clues but not definitive proof of gender identity.

Many of these victims were probably misgendered in life, and when I spoke with Lee and Anthony, they were careful not to misgender them in death. They defaulted to the singular they when referring to Trans Doe Task Force cases—with the exception of Julie Doe, whose breast implants and pitting in her bones were fairly clear signs of transitioning. And they have discussed how to depict the gender of the Does in facial reconstructions. “If there’s an unidentified person whose forensic art might not reflect what we already know about them—if they’re not represented according to a gender they may have lived as—we want to make sure there is art that reflects that,” Anthony said. In a couple of cases, volunteers have used the gender-swapping tool on FaceApp to depict Does as they might have looked pre- and post-transition. It’s totally amateur, Lee quickly acknowledged, but no one else was doing that for these victims.

After all, Michael says, these victims were “people who were marginalized in life and marginalized in death.” The volunteers I spoke with said they’d joined the task force for precisely this reason—to bring attention to cases that might otherwise be forgotten.

Earlier this year, DNA Doe Project genealogists tentatively made the first ID in a Trans Doe Task Force case called Pillar Point Doe. The victim, who was found stabbed and strangled in Half Moon Bay, California, in 1983, was originally identified as a male in women’s clothing. The sheriff’s office has not announced the person’s identity publicly yet, and Lee Redgrave said the group would wait for the sheriff’s investigation to wrap up before digging further into Pillar Point Doe’s identity as potentially trans, to avoid affecting the official police work.

By now, the task force has documented several dozen cases with victims that may be trans and referred at least five to the DNA Doe Project, including the case of Julie Doe, which the nonprofit had also been pursuing independently. Her case has proved tricky, as labs have been unable to extract enough DNA. But the volunteers haven’t given up. Her DNA has been to four different labs now, and her latest sequencing results are expected soon.