DNA match identifies legs found along I-55
DNA match identifies legs found along I-55
By JAYETTE BOLINSKI
The identification of a pair of severed legs found along Interstate 55 near Divernon three years ago has been a surprise and a godsend, a local investigator on the case said Wednesday.
Authorities here and in Nevada have determined through a DNA match that the legs are those of Lindsay Marie Harris, a 21-year-old woman who disappeared from a Las Vegas suburb in May 2005. Her legs were discovered along the interstate south of Springfield 21/2 weeks later.
“It’s been something I think about every day, wondering when is somebody going to submit DNA from this girl’s family, because that is what it’s going to take — that or some other blind luck or somebody confessing, which is highly unlikely,” said Mike Jennings, a special agent with the Illinois State Police in Springfield who has worked the case from the beginning.
“I was praying for this day and this DNA match, and lo and behold, it happened. It’s really opened the case up.”
Harris, a blond-haired blue-eyed woman from central New York, last was seen May 4, 2005, in Henderson, Nev. In 2003, she moved to Nevada to be with her hip-hop promoter boyfriend.
On May 4, 2005, she called her twin brother to wish him well on his college exams. The next day, her boyfriend called her family in New York to say she was missing.
Her family later found out she had been working as an escort in Las Vegas.
She last was seen making a deposit at a bank in Henderson on May 4, and her Mercedes was found May 9 in a parking lot between the Excalibur and Luxor casinos in Las Vegas.
On Jan. 21, 2006, more than 200 volunteers, along with police, searched the desert looking for clues about her disappearance.
Information was posted on numerous missing-persons Web sites, and the case was featured three times on the America’s Most Wanted television show, as well as on national shows hosted by Larry King, Anderson Cooper, Maury Povich and Cathryn Crier.
The evening of May 23, 2005, all-terrain vehicle riders found a severed leg in a wooded area off I-55 near Divernon, about 20 miles south of Springfield. The riders notified police, and when investigators returned to the area the following day, they found a second severed leg nearby.
A cadaver dog helped search the area, but no additional body parts or evidence were found.
Police determined the mummified legs must belong to a woman because the toenails were polished. They submitted the remains to the state police crime lab and pathologist for analysis, but could not seem to catch a break in the case.
Analysis of the remains determined they were of a white woman with brown hair, 20 to 40 years old and 5-foot-3 to 5-foot-7, with a French pedicure of light pink nail polish with white tips.
She also had a partial tattoo with pink, yellow and black ink on her right inner thigh, but police never could positively identify the design because it was near where the legs were severed from the torso.
The coroner said at the time that it was difficult to tell where the legs were severed, but that a thighbone was exposed on one. The feet were attached to both legs.
Police distributed the information to law enforcement agencies across the country with the hope of identifying the woman.
Jennings, the state police investigator, said Wednesday that after the forensic testing and a DNA analysis of the remains were completed, the results were submitted in June 2005 to a national databank called CODIS — Combined DNA Index System.
“Clearly, with the lack of evidence we had there, other than the remains, our best shot at identifying this victim was through CODIS with a DNA match. Our hopes then were that the relatives or the loved ones of this victim would report her missing and would submit DNA samples … to this CODIS databank,” Jennings said.
On April 16, the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program provided state police with five cases they considered similar to that of the severed legs.
Jennings reviewed the report and found one case in particular that stood out. He said he couldn’t discuss it, but added, “It had particular specific characteristics that really got my attention.”
He called the Henderson Police Department, and he and the investigator on the Harris case exchanged information. Jennings said he would send his reports to Henderson for review.
“Before I could send that out to him, three days later, our forensics lab was contacted by a DNA lab in California who informed them they had a DNA match for our remains here in Illinois. I, in turn, was called by our DNA scientist, who informed me of the match,” Jennings said.
“When I asked him where it was coming from, he advised it was coming from a missing person in Henderson, Nevada. I was quite surprised. They named the missing person, and I said that was the girl we were talking about. It was really uncanny.”
Police then notified Harris’ parents, Martha and Robert Harris in Skaneateles, N.Y.
“It’s a godsend,” Jennings said. “It’s really cast a light on a lot of leads we need to follow up on and our efforts to identify and bring the person responsible for this to justice.”
Police declined to release additional details about their investigation. It is unclear if additional remains have been found, but if they have, they apparently have not been linked to the Harris case. There also is apparently no evidence that Harris was murdered in this area.
Jennings said there really are two parts to the investigation — identifying the victim and finding the person responsible.
“We’ve been able to accomplish one of those things. At the time, with the lack of information that we had, I had serious doubts we would ever identify (the legs),” he said.