Crowdfunded DNA effort helps identify woman found murdered 50 years ago

A community-funded DNA project has helped detectives identify a murdered woman whose remains were stuffed in a canvas sack and dumped in the Arizona desert more than half a century ago.

Authorities named the victim as Colleen Audrey Rice, who was born in 1931 in Ohio, and would have been about 39 years old at the time of her death, before her body’s discovery in November 1971.

Related: Lake Mead’s receding waters revealed long-lost bodies. But who are they?

The identification was made in partnership with a forensic genealogy company, Othram Inc, after a public appeal for $6,500 to fund the project. The Mohave county sheriff’s office put up an initial $1,000 and posted the case to the website last year, which helped raise the money in only five days.

A sheriff’s office Facebook post dated 24 January said its cold case investigators worked with Othram “to determine if advanced DNA testing and forensic-grade genome sequencing could help give insight into the identity of this woman and the circumstances surrounding her untimely death”.

The appeal for funding came after the detectives enlisted an artist from the Museum of Northern Arizona to age a high school photograph of Rice, who was later determined to have been married and estranged from her family.

“On January 23, 2023, the victim found her voice,” the sheriff’s office said in the post announcing the identification.

“Through the use of forensic genetic genealogy, the victim has been identified as Colleen Audrey Rice. DNA testing of a relative confirmed this after countless hours of investigation into her family tree and contact with distant family relatives.”

Advances in DNA technology enabled the identification after five decades of frustration, the dnasolves website said.

“Early in the investigation, her fingerprints were sent to the FBI in Washington and a report of her expensive dental work was distributed in prominent dental magazines. Those records were checked against thousands of patient files,” the site said, but none of the inquiries led to anything.

According to the sheriff’s office: “Little is known of her life or how she came to be in Arizona. It is unknown if she had children as no records could be found.”

The investigation is ongoing into who was responsible for her death, the agency added.

Law enforcement has become increasingly reliant on genetics to help identify victims and suspects in recent years. Earlier this month, police in Idaho used DNA on public genealogy databases to identify a man suspected in the murders of four university students.