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UNIDENTIFIED

Man's remains identified with DNA

Posted on September 26, 2021

Updated on September 27, 2021

Local newsUnidentified

Unidentified is a weekly series examining the more than 120 cases of unidentified human remains discovered in North Carolina. News Editor Lindell J. Kay produces each installment for The Enterprise of Spring Hope and other Restoration NewsMedia newspapers.

CLICK HERE to read previous installments in the series.

lkay@springhopeenterprise.com | 252-265-8117

Garris

Garris

WILKESBORO — Using forensic genealogy, a group of volunteers recently helped authorities identify a body found in the woods two years ago.

“On May 23, 2019, we began investigating the identity and circumstances of the death of a person found in woods between U.S. 421 and Winkler Mill Road,” Wilkesboro Police Chief Craig Garris said in a statement first published last month in The Wilkes Record.

‘EVERYBODY HAS A STORY’

The remains were positively identified as 29-year-old Stephen Blake North, originally from Ohio.

“We don’t know why he was in North Carolina,” said Leslie Kaufman, a volunteer forensic genealogist.

Kaufman matched the unknown remains’ DNA to a woman in Texas. Through painstaking investigative research, Kaufman traced the woman’s genealogy online to a family in Ohio and then to North as the unidentified body. He hadn’t been reported missing.

Garris there are no signs of foul play in North’s death and the case has been closed.

“It’s not our place to judge,” Kaufman said. “Everybody has a story. We give people their names back. Families deserve to know.”

Whether washed ashore, unearthed in shallow graves, stumbled upon in the woods, discovered in abandoned houses, killed on busy roads or located in rivers, ponds and along railroad tracks, more than 120 bodies remain unidentified in North Carolina. This is one of their stories.

THE GROUP

North’s identification is the second time this year that Kaufman’s group, the Carolina Cold Case Initiative-Unidentified Project, aided police in discovering the identity of an unknown body.

In January, group members made their first identification in Harnett County where skeletal remains found in an abandoned building in 2005 were identified as 24-year-old Michael Joe Wesley Baker of Cameron. Baker’s family waited more than 15 years to find out what happened to him.

The group combines anthropology, DNA, genealogy and investigative work to match unidentified remains with the missing and the murdered.

Kaufman’s First Genes teamed up with N.C. State University forensic anthropologist Ann Ross in 2020. Ross received a startup grant to create the initiative in October 2019.

Kaufman became involved as a volunteer during the Bobby Whitt case in which Orange County investigators worked for two decades to identify the 10-year-old boy whose body was dumped along Interstate 40 under a billboard near Mebane in 1998.

DNA confirmed the child’s identity in 2018, and his father pleaded guilty last year to the murders of the boy and his mother, whose body had been dumped in South Carolina and also identified through DNA, according to press releases and published reports.

“That is the day I decided I was going to be a forensic genealogist,” Kaufman said.

Editor’s note: Craig Garris, Wilkesboro’s police chief since 2015, announced in July that he would retire Oct. 1.

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