13 Unsolved: New DNA testing by Othram Inc. may identify woman’s severed head found at Lake Houston in 2018
HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — Lake Houston is home for Roger Randall. For 33 years, he’s taught disabled children and adults how to water ski and boat with his company, Texas Adaptive Aquatics. Roger is proud of this lake and the people who use it.
“We get them out of their wheelchairs, get out and have fun on the water,” Roger says as he unties the special boat with wide railings that allows people using wheelchairs to roll aboard. “Obviously, we like to keep the lake clean.”
Which is why Roger hosts a massive volunteer clean-up every year: the annual trash bash. Close to 300 adults and children come out to bag up garbage that’s drifted along the shore or tangled among debris in the rocks.
On March 24, 2018, they were doing exactly that when a woman and her daughter made a horrific discovery.
“We found her right here,” Roger says, one hand pointing to the shallow rock shore along the FM 1960 bridge, his other hand still on the helm. Our boat inches closer to the shore. “It was just a black trash bag.”
It was heavy – so heavy, the woman couldn’t lift it with her tongs she had used all morning to pick up trash. As she went to open the bag she saw the hair.
Inside the bag was a woman’s head.
“She freaked,” says Roger. “She was like, I’m out of here. She was traumatized. Jump on the boat and said take me back.”
“There was no physical evidence or nothing as far as clothing or anything like that that could help identify her,” says Houston police detective Richard Rodriguez. “According to the autopsy report, the head was hacked. It’s cartel type style. I’m not saying that’s what it is, but that’s what you expect from cartels.”
Police put out a sketch of the woman. She had dyed red hair, tattooed eyeliner, and possibly brown eyes.
Three months later, forensic investigators released another detail: she had a distinctive set of rotated or winged teeth on top and bottom that they believe would have been noticeable to anyone who knew her. She was believed to be between 20 and 45 years old, likely murdered a week before she was found.
Investigators thought they would get inundated with calls. But only a few tips came in. One caller said he saw a man in a beat-up teal pick-up stop on the bridge and tossed what looked like a garbage bag onto the rocks earlier in the week. The tip never panned out.
“Someone’s missing a wife, mom, sister, daughter – someone out there’s missing somebody and we have to find out who she is. Then, we have to find out who did it,” says Roger.
The case is getting some attention. Scientists at a Houston area private lab just extracted DNA from a tooth of the mystery woman, Rodriguez tells Eyewitness News. Her genetic profile was created and it’s now in the hands of genetic genealogists researching her family tree. The hope is to identify the woman in less than a year and find her family.
This woman is one of 270,000 unsolved homicides in the United States. About 20,700 of those are here in Texas, according to the Texas Attorney General’s office. Now, a new bi-partisan law-co-sponsored by four Texas representatives gives the families of cold case victims the right to formally request a loved one’s case be reopened. But, there are technicalities to note. The feds have to somehow be involved in the cold case for it to be re-examined. Some local investigators are worried they will be the ones fielding all the calls.
“We just don’t have the resources,” Rodriguez says. “We don’t have the funding. We don’t have the manpower to physically address every single case.”
Rodriguez says his investigators are already overloaded with cold cases that have legitimate leads. He’s concerned they will have to take time away from those cases to review cases and do paperwork because of this new law. Oftentimes, feds and local detectives work hand in hand on cold case investigations.
“If you can give me some money so I can do this (DNA) testing, so I can get results, as opposed to, hey, this is what we’re going to do, and it’s just a law that has no teeth well… we’ll see,” Rodriguez says.
We took those specific concerns from local authorities to several politicians involved in writing the “Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act” bill and passing it into law. None of the lawmakers responded to those concerns.
Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA-15) who sponsored the initial bill sent us a statement that read in part: “Far too many homicides in our country go unsolved, leaving families and communities devastated…. I remain optimistic states will follow Congress’ lead and enact similar legislation to address the growing number of state homicides that also go unsolved every year.”
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement, “This legislation will help ensure federal law enforcement reviews sometimes decades-old cold case files and applies the latest technologies and investigative standards.”
This law may matter to you if your loved one went missing or was murdered more than three years ago and the case is still unsolved. Over the next year, law enforcement agencies are supposed to set up a system allowing you to submit your family member’s federal cold case for review. Investigators get six months to look into it, then they’ll decide whether or not to reopen the case.
As of now, there’s no information on what setting up this program could cost, or who’s paying for it.
As for this mystery woman, the feds and HPD are working her case together. Her family doesn’t yet know her tragic ending. They may not even know she’s dead. But, Roger says, she has him – and he’ll keep pushing.
“One of these days we’re going to find out,” he says. “I got her sketch on my computer. I see it every day. We have to find out who she is. We have to start there.”
We repeatedly reached out to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) and Sylvia Garcia (D-TX-29) who also co-sponsored the bill, but neither were unable to make time for an interview due to scheduling conflicts. Neither provided a comment for this story.
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