Human remains found in a shallow Ohio grave in 1991 are of a missing Columbus man, officials said Tuesday, marking another cold case homicide broken open by advancements in DNA and genealogical research.
The dead man found more than 31 years ago is 21-year-old Robert Mullins, who had vanished two or three years earlier, state prosecutors and Pickaway County Sheriff’s deputies said.
“Thirty-one Christmases have come and gone and I was thinking about the headstone with no name on it,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost told reporters.
“We’re all going to die at some point. That’s the only thing that’s certain about our lives on this earth. But what a tragedy to die unknown, to not have a name to put on the memorial. Today that circles closes.”
A pair of hunters stumbled upon Mullins’ skeleton north of State Route 56 just west of State Route 159, in Pickaway County on Nov. 1, 1991, state and local officials said.
Investigators originally believed the remains were of a long dead Native American woman, about 25, because the person was no taller than 5-foot-4 and the region’s long connection to indigenous communities.
Eventually, anthropologists determined that remains hadn’t been in the ground for any more than three years. And it wasn’t until 2012 when University of North Texas researchers tested that DNA and determine the body was of a male with some Indian ancestry, officials said.
Then in 2021, Pickaway County Sheriff’s Lt. Johnathan Strawser and Coroner Dr. John Ellis teamed up, seeking to match their John Doe to available public data bases of DNA in hopes of building the man’s family tree, officials said.
They brought in forensic genetic genealogy researchers from AdvanceDNA, who ran John Doe’s DNA and matched it to 4,000 people in the United States and England — before narrowing his tree down to a father from Virginia and mother with ties to England and India.
“After Robert’s sudden disappearance his family looked for him, especially his late mother,” said Amanda Reno, the director of genetic and forensic case management for AdvanceDNA.
“His family explained his absence had been a great source of pain for their family. He was loved and he was missed.”
Sheriff’s investigators said they hope to someday find a suspect in Mullins’ murder.
“Now the detectives have the new information (and) that’s going to allow them to do what they do best: Hit the streets, put the pieces together and look at the final days of Mr. Mullins’ life and find out who did this to him because that person is probably still out there,” Yost said.
Lt. Strawser said he’s grateful for help from all of Mullins’ blood relatives, who took a keen interest in this case even though the victim was a stranger to them.
“We would also like to thank Robert’s genetic relative matches who volunteered their time (and) family information,” Strawser said. “Robert was a distant cousin to them. Despite being somebody they had never met, each of these relatives played a key role in bringing him home to his family.”
The practice of matching genetic material of victims and perpetrators to the millions of Americans who take do-it-yourself, home DNA tests has proven to be a valuable new asset to police.
Last week, Philadelphia police on identified 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli as the “Boy in the Box” who was found beaten to death in 1957 and had gone nameless until recently.
And most famously, DNA and genealogy led police to the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, who terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s but was only arrested in 2018.
The serial killer was sentenced to multiple life terms for 13 murders and 13 rape-related charges, though he’s been connected to many more sexual assaults.
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