VANCOUVER, Wash. — Advances in DNA technology and old-fashioned detective work have led to the identification of a woman whose badly decomposed body was found in a field in Hazel Dell in 2004.
The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office announced Friday that the woman has been identified as Donna Lee Swindell, 57. Her family was notified last month by Randon Walker, who had worked as a homicide detective with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office when the body was discovered and has since joined the Medical Examiner’s Office as a death investigator.
“It was gratifying and sad,” Walker said in the statement. “Sad that it had been this long.”
The case began on Nov. 6, 2004, when two youths discovered the body of a middle-aged woman in a brushy, wooded portion of a lot near the Goodwill store on Northeast 78th Street.
Investigators said the body was fully clothed but had been at the site for a number of weeks, perhaps months. An autopsy was performed, but a cause or manner of death could not be determined.
As a homicide detective, Walker worked the case but was stymied by the technology of the time and a trail that had gone cold. He could only determine the woman’s height, her race and her approximate age. DNA samples harvested from the remains didn’t match any samples in a FBI database.
Advances in DNA technology and forensic anthropology gave Walker another chance at the case after he joined the medical examiner’s office in 2018. He was assigned the cold case a year ago and immediately recognized it from his past investigation, according to a statement from the Medical Examiner’s Office.
The office submitted a DNA sample from the remains to a DNA technology firm in Virginia that also provides forensic genealogy services. A staffer there was able to use that material to predict the woman’s ancestry and compare it to individuals in online genealogy databases.
The search turned up an ancestral link to two brothers and a long list of people who could be the woman’s parents. Walker spent months crossing off hundreds of names from the list while still investigating current cases.
“Anytime I had a moment, anytime I had a lead to run down, I was trying to reunite this woman with her family,” Walker said.
Using government search engines, public ancestry websites, marriage licenses and death certificates, Walker narrowed his search to Swindell. He discovered that her driver’s license hadn’t been renewed in November 2004 and that all activity linked to her Social Security account had stopped a couple of months before the body was found.
He sought possible family members in Lane County, Ore., with the assistance of Dr. Jeanne McLaughlin, a professor at the University of Oregon who collected a DNA sample from a family member for comparison.
On Nov. 24, Walker received confirmation that the unidentified woman discovered 17 years ago was Donna Lee Swindell and was able to reunite the woman with her family.
“Everybody deserves the human dignity of being cared for and returned to their family,” he said.