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Body of murdered woman identified in NC after 33 years

A woman was murdered and left on the side of Interstate 40 in Hillsborough over 30 years ago.

After her body was found by road workers in September 1990, the identity of “Jane Doe,” who was wearing a pink sweater depicting a cartoon of three bunnies riding a bicycle, remained a mystery until this week, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday.

Sheriff’s Office investigators used new forensic technologies to identify Lisa Coburn Kesler, who was 20 when she was killed 33 years ago.

Law enforcement officers believe someone strangled Kesler about a week before she was thrown on the side of I-40 East near the exit of New Hope Church Road in Hillsborough.

When Kelser was killed, DNA technology was brand new. It had only been four years since law enforcement officers in the U.S. first used DNA science to convict someone in a criminal case in 1986. Investigators used traditional methods to try to crack Kesler’s case without success.

The case was cold until June 2020, when investigator Dylan Hendricks took over and got “substantial assistance” from the State Bureau of Investigation, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

“Throughout the decades, some of our finest investigators kept plugging away,” Sheriff Charles Blackwood said in a statement. “When you can’t close a case, it gets under your skin. You might set the file aside for a while, but you keep coming back to it, looking to see something you didn’t notice before, or hoping information gathered in ensuing cases has relevance to your cold case.”

DNA helps solve a cold case

Traditional methods, such as interviewing potential witnesses, pursuing hundreds of leads and missing persons reports, to identify Kesler were used to no avail.

Investigators even created a bust of her through forensic facial reconstruction techniques based on a model of her skull.

A 2017 digital image of Lisa Coburn Kesler, 20, whose identity was finally confirmed through forensic technologies used by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
A 2017 digital image of Lisa Coburn Kesler, 20, whose identity was finally confirmed through forensic technologies used by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Orange County Sheriff’s Office

Later on, investigators and experts used digital illustrations to create a photograph of her, and circulated the image on social media.

“Investigators also (monitored) new techniques and technologies in the field, which is what eventually led to the breakthrough in Ms. Kesler’s case,” the Sheriff said.

Using a hair fragment to obtain a DNA profile, Hendricks sought the help of Leslie Kaufman, a forensic genealogist with expertise in unsolved homicides.

Kaufman linked her DNA to potential family members and investigators conducted interviews with them.

It turned out that they had known of a family member named Lisa whom no one had heard from in decades.

“Essentially, there was a Lisa-shaped hole on a branch of the family tree right where the DNA told us Lisa should be, and no one knew where she was,” Hendricks said in a statement.

‘No time clock on justice’

Investigators requested DNA from a maternal relative and were able to link the DNA. The results were reviewed by Clyde Gibbs of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Gibbs confirmed Kesler’s identity through NamUs, a national database that connects missing person cases to unidentified remains.

The Medical Examiner’s Office amended her death certificate with her correct name and other demographic information.

Sheriff Blackwood said, “I am very happy we solved the three-plus-decades-old mystery of this young woman’s identity, and I hope it provides solace to her family members. We are grateful to the many investigators, passionate volunteers, and talented professionals who assisted with this effort. I believe we collectively demonstrated the value of dogged determination, which we will now apply to the task of identifying her killer. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and no time clock on justice.”

Anyone with further information on this case is asked to call Investigator Hendricks directly at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office at (919) 245-2951.

Anonymous tips can also be submitted on the Sheriff’s Office website at www.ocsonc.com/anonymous-tip.

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Aaron Sánchez-Guerra is a breaking news reporter for The News & Observer and previously covered business and real estate for the paper. His background includes reporting for WLRN Public Media in Miami and as a freelance journalist in Raleigh and Charlotte covering Latino communities. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University, a native Spanish speaker and was born in Mexico. You can follow his work on Twitter at @aaronsguerra.

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