LITTLE VALLEY - A new form of DNA testing allowed for the identification of human remains that were found in 2009.
Cattaraugus County Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb shared during a press conference on the identification of the remains, that a new form of testing allowed the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City to identify remains found on the Kinzua Reservoir in 2009 as Traci Douglass, 45, of Salamanca.
What exactly the test was, he was unable to comment on, but did say that it was what progressed the investigation to where it is now.
Cattaraugus County Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb, front, asks the community to contact the department with any information regarding Traci Douglass, whose remains were identified Monday. Behind Whitcomb, from left are, Lt. Shawn Gregory; Bob Buchhardt, patrol captain; and Bob Yehl, chief of the detective unit.
P-J photo by Andrew Carr
The remains were discovered on Sept. 26, 2009, when a man walking the coast of the Kinzua Reservoir off West Perimeter Road near Bone Run Road in South Valley found the remains and called the police.
Whitcomb said the remains were identified as those of a young woman between the ages of 25 and 45 and likely 30 to 40, standing between 5 feet, 1 inch and 5 feet, 8 inches tall with a smaller build estimated to weigh between 105 to 125 pounds. A partial DNA sample was retrieved from the remains, and Whitcomb said the department became stuck at that point.
"Ultimately through a third testing process in the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in New York City, we were able to finally get a suitable DNA sample from the remains that we submitted," Whitcomb said. "The remains that we discovered were left in an exposed environment for a lengthy period of time which is why we had such a difficult time extracting the DNA. We were largely working with bones and teeth."
The department then began chasing down more than 200 leads, he said.
"Some of those leads took us out of the area and out of state, which is why the FBI was involved in assisting us in our investigation," he said. "Ultimately one of the leads that came in, encouraged us to take a look at whether or not this could be who we ultimately identified as Traci Douglass of Salamanca, N.Y. One of those leads that came in came in from somebody who knew Traci, saying, 'Hey I haven't seen her in a while, maybe you should take a look for her.'"
DNA from family members in Maryland was then collected. Those samples led to the successful confirmation of Douglass' identity.
Whitcomb said the job is now only half over.
"Our investigation now moves into another stage," he said. "For lack of better terms, our office is currently in a full-court press investigative mode. We are treating this as an unnatural death investigation."
Whitcomb said due to the age of the victim and where the body was discovered, the cause of death has been listed as unnatural. Investigators said foul play was involved.
"The umbrella of unnatural death could include a couple of different things," he said. "It could be suicide (and) it could be accidental. More than likely in this case what we are leaning toward, however, is foul play."
Whitcomb said with the release of Douglass' name in the media Monday, the department has already had an influx of leads investigators are pursuing.
"This effort is a plea to anybody in the public to please contact us if you have any information whatsoever regarding Traci Douglass," he said. "We would like to hear from anybody and everybody in her social circle. Any piece of information that they may have, that may seem insignificant to them, may be very significant to us. We want to get to know her. We want to get to know every job she had, every friend she had, every enemy she had, every landlord she had. We want to know where she slept, where she ate, what her hobbies were, what made her happy, what made her sad. Any piece of information that the public has about Traci, we want."
The sheriff's office is asking anyone with information regarding the missing woman or the case to call Detective William Welling at 939-2276. All calls will be handled confidentially.
Whitcomb said Douglass' last-known contact was in December 2006.
"We are still in a frustrating place right now because this is not solved," he said. "This is about determining what caused this to happen and seeking justice if necessary if that is what is required in this case."
Whitcomb said his office intends to see the investigation through until the end.
"When we discovered the remains in September 2009, I told you that we were going to be up against it to even determine who this was," he said. "We stand before you today knowing who it was. We have already had a level of success that many of us didn't expect to have."
Items from the scene continue to be examined, and Whitcomb said he hopes they too will provide substantial evidence. Due to the ongoing investigation, Whitcomb would not comment on what type of testing or what items they were.
Whitcomb said two factors led to the investigation being hampered, among them the difficulty of getting usable DNA samples and the fact that Douglass was never listed as a missing person.
"We consistently sent in our DNA results to national databases to try to determine who this was," he said. "Traci Douglass was not registered in any of those national databases. I don't have an answer to why Traci was never reported missing. What I can share with you preliminarily is Traci, at the time that she went missing, whenever that was after December 2006, was living a lifestyle where there was some disconnect from her family. She was not reported missing. We did not have an active missing-persons complaint on Traci. Had we (had a report) it might have made this connection a little bit more expeditious."
Whitcomb said with the usable DNA sample through the new testing, the department was finally able to identify the body.
"We have reason to believe that at times, depending on the season, that she was exposed to all kinds of elements: snow, ice, water, sun; which were very harsh on the remains, which is one of the reasons that made it so difficult to track down who it was, also combined with the fact that Traci was not reported missing,'' Whitcomb said.
The new testing was paid for by a grant through the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Whitcomb said.
"We were stuck with a partial DNA sample from traditional methods. It took this new science ... this new testing that was coming out of New York City to give us some optimism and hope," he said.