August 26, 2008
By Julia Parmley
GW Forensics Professor Helps Solve 60-Year-Old Mystery
In June 2007, GW Assistant Professor of Forensic Sciences Edward M. Robinson,
M.F.S. '91, got a call that changed the next four months of his life.
Odile Loreille, a researcher at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Rockville, Md., was working to identify an arm and hand found frozen in 1999 on Mount Sanford, Alaska, the site where Northwest Airlines flight 4422 crashed in 1948, killing 24 Merchant Marines and six crewmen. Sophisticated DNA extraction techniques were proving futile since years of weathering made the DNA strands in the arm virtually unreadable. A coworker of Loreille's, Mike Coble, Ph.D. '04, recommended she contact Robinson, his former forensics teacher, for his assistance.
Robinson, an expert on crime scene investigation, focused on the hand's fingerprints as the key to resolving its identity. The only problem was that after 60 years in the frozen tundra, there didn't seem to be any prints left. "Even with a magnifying glass, I could see no fingerprint details," he says. "I knew I had my work cut out for me."
Robinson tried out several different rehydration attempts on the fingers to obtain clearer fingerprints and traveled to AFDIL laboratories several times to examine and photograph the hand.
Success came when Robinson used the KDL I.D. Enhancer Solution, a rehydrating method that involves soaking the fingers and checking on them hourly. The results, says Robinson, showed "remarkable detail." He then photographed the prints, reproduced the fingerprints using two silicon casts, and gave the copies to Mike Grimm Sr., and Mike Grimm Jr., employees of Evident Inc., distributors of the KDL I.D. Enhancer Solution. The Grimms compared the fingerprints with records at the National Maritime Center in Arlington, Va., and found a match: Francis Joseph Van Zandt, a 36-year-old Merchant Marine from Roanoke, Va., and a passenger on flight 4422. It is the oldest known identification to date.
"When the identification was made, I got goose bumps," Robinson says. "The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was amazed that all our information and work came together."
Using novel DNA techniques, Loreille was eventually able to obtain both mitochondrial and Y-STR DNA from the arm, which matched living relatives of Van Zandt.
Robinson has years of experience in making identifications. He conducted crime scene investigations as a police officer in the Arlington County Police Department for 25 years until he retired in 1996. Robinson then worked as a civilian supervisor with the Baltimore County Police Department's crime lab supervising and training a shift of criminal scene investigators before coming to GW in 2000 to create GW's Department of Forensics crime scene investigation concentration.
Robinson and his colleagues shared their success and techniques at the International Association for Identification Education Conference in Louisville, Ky., in August and plan to publish their findings in a forensics journal. Robinson says he also intends to share his experience and new knowledge with his students.
"I was amazed at the confluence of the people and information to make the identification," says Robinson. "This project involved innovative DNA techniques and fingerprint enhancements that will assist in the identification of other individuals in the future."