They called her “Baby Angel”. Now, forensic genealogy could finally identify a baby found in the Mississippi River – InForum

WINONA, Minnesota — More than 10 years after a day-old baby girl was discovered in Mississippi’s Winona waters, forensic genealogy is bringing investigators closer to the child’s identity.

Concealed in a white tote bag, the baby was retrieved from the river by a family of boaters on September 5, 2011. Though they thought they were picking up trash in the river, what they discovered was something infinitely more valuable.

A 7-pound baby, apparently untouched by the circumstances, was concealed in the bag. She was found in two plastic bags, swaddled under a green t-shirt. Inside the bag, four porcelain angels and a seeing eye bracelet, a symbol of protection, were discovered.

In 2011, boaters recovered a bag from the Winona, Minnesota waters of the Mississippi River. Inside the bag, they discovered a baby a few days old, wrapped in a t-shirt, alongside four angel figurines. Now, forensic genealogy brings investigators closer to the identity of the child, called Baby Angel.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

Although his identity is unknown, his death was mourned throughout the community. Six months after her discovery, more than 150 local residents gathered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winona to honor the girl affectionately known as Baby Angel. She was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, where her headstone is today.

An autopsy of Baby Angel was unable to determine the cause of death or whether the child survived delivery, according to the Winona County Sheriff’s Office. A still-intact umbilical cord led investigators to believe she did not give birth in a hospital setting.

At the time of Baby Angel’s discovery, forensic genealogy – also called investigative genetic genealogy – was largely unknown. Law enforcement followed leads associated with the figurines found alongside Baby Angel, but ultimately those paths did not lead to the child’s parents.

Now, with growing databases tied to forensic genealogy, the game is changing – and Baby Angel’s true identity may be on the horizon.

Baby Angel Identification with Forensic Genealogy

Winona County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller told Forum News Service that forensic genealogy is central to the investigation. The sheriff’s office works actively with Parabon, a private organization that helps law enforcement with tools that combine DNA databases with genealogy.

Parabon’s instant genetic genealogy is especially useful for identifying human remains. Uploading DNA samples to a database is helpful in determining potential family matches. However, this picture is even clearer when combined with genealogical research tools, including the US Census, birth records, death records, obituaries, and newspaper archives.

In the case of Baby Angel, it works.

“It’s an evolution. As they receive additional information, sometimes we receive additional information,” Mueller said. “To this day, we’re still following some leads currently with them through genealogy research and things like that.”

These leads were followed up by the Winona County Sheriff’s Office with the collection of DNA evidence from those identified as potential pieces of the family tree puzzle.

“I’m counting on them to say, ‘Here’s the person you need to talk to to get us closer to this member of this tree that we’re trying to get closer to, that matches our angel baby…or a closer match,'” said Muller.

And they are getting closer. The family tree grows larger with each piece of information gathered, eventually bringing them closer to Baby Angel.

“Trying to narrow it down to a closer relative is really where we’re at right now,” Mueller said.

How does forensic genealogy work?

Forensic genealogy made headlines in 2018 when the Golden State Killer was arrested through the use of DNA databases and the construction of family trees. This was the first high-profile case that looked at data provided by direct-to-consumer genealogy test kits.

While direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies — including those owned by and 23andMe — don’t provide data or information to law enforcement, more comprehensive tools — like GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA – provide users with the ability to share DNA data with law enforcement.

It turns out that a lot of people choose to share DNA data with law enforcement. In 2021, 83% of GEDmatch users opted in to have their data used by law enforcement, according to the Journal of Law and the Biosciences.

Databases like GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA essentially bring together all the DNA data collected by the various direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies.

If someone sent their DNA to 23andMe and received information regarding their genetics and family members, those matches would typically develop when combined with data collected through other direct-to-consumer testing sites like Ancestry. com.

This creates a potential goldmine for law enforcement with DNA – either to solve a crime or to identify a missing person, especially when coupled with modern genealogy.

Identification of the unidentified

Organizations like Parabon and the DNA Doe Project work with law enforcement on cases of unidentified individuals, relying heavily on DNA databases.

Although the DNA Doe Project is not working on the Baby Angel case, it does work with law enforcement on cases related to unidentified remains. Its formula for resolving these cases is similar to other organizations that use forensic and genetic genealogy.

After collecting the appropriate DNA sample, which is decided by the organization based on the circumstances of the case, the DNA information of this sample is uploaded to a database like GEDmatch. Often, genetic matches initially point to a second or third cousin, not necessarily a parent or grandparent.

Winona baby angel
Boaters discovered a baby in the Mississippi River in 2011 near Winona, Minnesota. The infant was placed in a bag and wrapped in a t-shirt alongside several angel figurines and a bracelet. When the investigation began, investigators asked the public for any information related to items found next to the baby, called Baby Angel. Now investigators are relying on forensic genealogy to crack the case.

Photo courtesy of the Winona County Sheriff’s Office.

From there, it is a question of building the family tree from yesterday to today. When it comes to unidentified adult remains, the investigation relies on a different set of clues that may not be available in the case of an unidentified infant, according to Kevin Lord, director of laboratory logistics and of the agency for DNA Doe Project.

In the case of an unidentified adult, registered addresses and employment history, for example, could be used as clues to solve a case. However, with infants, investigators would seek to construct a family tree with a different set of clues, ultimately leading to parents. In most cases of unidentified babies, special attention is given to identifying the mother.

“It’s entirely possible,” Lord said. “Instead of looking for the person during the construction in time, the investigation would focus on the mother or father who seems to be the right age and hopefully someone who is in the right place at the right time.”

These are the clues that Mueller considers essential to the investigation.

When asked if he believed forensic genealogy would be what would lead investigators to the truth, Mueller had a very simple answer.

“I do,” he said.

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