On August 21, 1981, the remains of a partial human skull were discovered by private property owners counting trees outside of Sandy, Oregon in Clackamas County. An examination of the remains could only determine that the individual was most probably female and of advanced age. It was immediately noted that an elderly woman named Illya Wilkins had disappeared from “Baunach’s Home for the Aged” off Langensand Road in Sandy, Oregon on August 26, 1976. Ms. Wilkins was known to have memory problems at the time of her disappearance in 1976.
Searches were performed to locate Ms. Wilkins, but she was never found. These remains were long thought to be Illya Wilkins based on circumstantial evidence, but limited resources did not allow additional analysis at the time, and forensic DNA examination did not yet exist. In 2010, Oregon State Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Nici Vance re-analyzed the remains and submitted a sample from the skull to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification and entered the unidentified profile into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System - NamUs. The sample was processed and yielded a forensic DNA profile for comparison and upload into CODIS. Unfortunately, no genetic associations to missing persons or family reference standards in the CODIS database were established.
In July 2022, the SMEO recognized the effectiveness of investigative genetic genealogy on cold unidentified remains cases and submitted an additional bone sample to Othram Inc., a private DNA lab that specializes in advanced forensic DNA testing. Othram uses an in-house whole genome sequencing technique that can provide genetic information and possible familial associations even with a low-yield sample. Analysis was completed, and the DNA profile was uploaded into both FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch databases. Results compared to genetic profiles of numerous family lineages indicated the distinct possibility the remains were, in fact, Ms. Illya “Ella” Wilkins. Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office missing person detectives then reached out to Illya Wilkins’ grandchild, who still lives in Oregon, and collected a DNA sample for confirmation testing. Analysis revealed a 100% probability that the remains of the unidentified female were genetically associated with the grandchild of Illya “Ella” Wilkins, DOB 07/30/1887.
Ms. Ella Wilkins was positively identified by Oregon Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Sean Hurst on April 4, 2023. Her remains have subsequently been released to her remaining family members.
This case is a great example of the power of DNA confirmation testing, and the legitimacy these methods have in resolving unidentified human remains cases. This case had been on the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office “pending resolution” list for over 4 decades. The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office had targeted the case for testing and analysis since 2010. With the power of investigative genetic genealogy, the case was resolved less than one year after innovative DNA testing began.
“It is our distinct honor to provide the family of Illya “Ella” Wilkins some resolution by returning her to her next of kin. Dignity is recovered when remains are no longer anonymous, and Ella Wilkins is now accounted for. The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office will continue our commitment to solve these mystery cases and assist families, no matter how unsolvable they may seem.” -Dr. Nici Vance
“Hope is why we are here”
Families of missing persons can help by uploading their DNA profiles into a secure, open-source website called GEDmatch. Family members can use the DNA data from any completed consumer DNA or genealogy test they have already taken and upload that data onto the GEDMatch website. When users “opt in” for law enforcement searches, the DNA profile becomes a powerful tool to connect unidentified remains and the families of missing persons. Go to www.GEDMatch.com for more information and to upload your DNA data to start searching.”
Source: Oregon State Police