Remains found in shallow grave in Ohio in 1991 finally identified via DNA, genealogy

Human remains found in a shallow grave in Ohio in 1991 belong to a missing Columbus man, officials said Tuesday, marking a new cold case murder broken open by advances in DNA and genealogy research.

The dead man found more than 31 years ago is 21-year-old Robert Mullins, who had disappeared two or three years earlier, prosecutors and Pickaway County Sheriff’s deputies said.

“Thirty-one Christmases are over and I thought about the tombstone with no name on it,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost told reporters.

“We’re all going to die someday. That’s the only thing that’s certain about our life on this earth. But what a tragedy to die unknown, not have a name to put on the monument. Today that circle closes.”

Robert Mullins.  (Pickaway County Sheriff's Office via Facebook)

Robert Mullins. (Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office via Facebook)

A pair of hunters stumbled upon Mullins’ skeleton north of State Route 56 just west of State Route 159, in Pickaway County, on Nov. 1, 1991, state and local officials said.

Researchers originally thought the remains belonged to a long-deceased Native American woman, about 25, because of the person’s height of no more than five feet and the region’s long connection to indigenous communities.

Eventually, anthropologists determined that the remains had not been buried in the ground for more than three years. And it wasn’t until 2012 that researchers at the University of North Texas tested that DNA and determined the body belonged to a man of some sort of Indian ancestry, officials said.

Then, in 2021, Pickaway County Sheriff Lieutenant Johnathan Strawser and Coroner Dr. John Ellis teamed up to match their John Doe to available public databases of DNA in hopes of building the man’s family tree, officials said.

They enlisted forensic genetic genealogy researchers from AdvanceDNA, who managed John Doe’s DNA and matched it to 4,000 people in the United States and England – before narrowing his family tree down to a father from Virginia and a mother with ties to England and India.

“After Robert’s sudden disappearance, his family searched for him, especially his late mother,” said Amanda Reno, the director of genetic and forensic case management for AdvanceDNA.

“His family explained that his absence was a great source of pain to their family. He was loved and missed.”

Sheriff’s detectives said they hope to find a suspect in Mullins’ murder one day.

“Now the detectives have the new information(s) that will enable them to do what they do best: take to the streets, put the pieces together and look at the last days of Mr. Mullins’ life and find out who this did to him because that person is probably still there,” Yost said.

Lieutenant Strawser said he is grateful for the help of all of Mullins’s relatives, who took a great interest in this case, even though the victim was a stranger to them.

“We would also like to thank Robert’s genetic relatives who volunteered their time(s) for family information,” Strawser said. “Robert was a distant cousin of theirs. Despite being someone they had never met, each of these relatives played a key role in bringing him home to his family.”

The practice of matching genetic material from victims and perpetrators to the millions of Americans who perform DIY home DNA testing has proven to be a valuable new asset to law enforcement.

Last week, Philadelphia police identified 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli as the “Boy in the Box” who was found beaten to death in 1957 and had until recently gone unnamed.

And most famously, DNA and genealogy led police to the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, who terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s but was not arrested until 2018.

The serial killer was sentenced to multiple life sentences for 13 murders and 13 rape-related charges, though he has been linked to many more assaults.

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