Pogonip Jane’s identification could pave the way for progress in other local cold cases
Santa Cruz police recently identified one of the county’s most famous unidentified homicide victims using a new technology—a process authorities hope can also be used to make a break in other local cold cases.
Two hikers discovered the body of so-called Pogonip Jane while searching for mushrooms in the Pogonip area back in January 1994. For more than 15 years, Santa Cruz police were at a loss as to who she was. The petite teenager had been bludgeoned to death and was naked in the middle of a trail when her body was found.
In November, she was identified as Kori Lamaster, a 17-year-old who had run away from her home in Pacifica in December 1993.
“The whole case initiated prior to the DNA technology being what it is today,” says Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark.
As the investigation progressed, DNA was collected from the body and compared to other cases throughout the years. Eventually, in 2008, it was entered into the state Department of Justice (DOJ) system. This October, the agency notified Santa Cruz police that a “partial hit” had been made using what’s called familial DNA.
Familial DNA is a relatively new technology that wasn’t approved in California until 2008, according to state officials. It hinges on the scientific concept that close relatives—parents, siblings and children—will have more genetic data in common than unrelated individuals. The state DOJ’s familial DNA team accepts only a limited number of cases annually.
One of the first cases in which familial DNA was used in California was in Santa Cruz County. Elvis Garcia, who was convicted earlier this year, was linked to a sexual assault at a Santa Cruz coffee shop through DNA collected from his father and entered into the state’s database. The elder Garcia had been arrested for a vehicle conviction in Southern California. There are some two million DNA profiles in the state’s database, but that only includes samples taken from either people arrested for violent crimes or samples voluntarily submitted by relatives of missing persons.
The technology was also used earlier this year to identify the body of a woman found in the Sacramento River in 1996. In that case, Butte County Sheriff’s deputies were able to use a DNA match from Victorene Lee Pyrskalla’s mother to identify her. Pyrskalla, 42, went missing from a ranch near Chico in January 1996. The Butte County Sheriff’s Office submitted DNA from her mother to the state DOJ in January to be entered into the missing persons database.
After getting the “hit” in Lamaster’s case, Santa Cruz police detectives were finally able to make contact with an adopted sister in Washington state. In what Clark called a lucky break, given the two women wouldn’t share biological data, the sister happened to find a fingerprint card belonging to Lamaster. Fingerprints from the card were matched to prints taken from the body.
The case was complicated by the fact that no one reported Lamaster as missing until 2007. Clark said he couldn’t comment on why the family hadn’t reported her disappearance sooner, and says police have promised the family they won’t say much more than that Lamaster came from a troubled background. In a strange twist, the teenager had run away to Santa Cruz previously and been returned to Pacifica by authorities here, Clark says.
Lamaster’s successful identification has given Santa Cruz police hope that the same type of technology can be used to solve other cold cases, such as the homicide of Deborah Cargill. The body of the 19-year-old woman, who was last seen at her grocery store job in San Jose, was found floating in the San Lorenzo River not far from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in 1975. Her killer has never been arrested. Clark says the police department has now sent a request to the DOJ asking them to do a familial DNA search in Cargill’s case. Her case was one that haunted Ron Truitt for years after he left the Santa Cruz police department, and he’s now returned to work on the case as a volunteer after retiring from the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.
“We’re very hopeful the DOJ will take the case,” Clark says.
The Lamaster case held significant importance to Sgt. Loren “Butch” Baker, one of two Santa Cruz police officers slain in February by a sexual assault suspect. The case was his to investigate, originally, and his colleagues say it always stuck with him. Making headway on the case this year has been somewhat therapeutic for the department in light of his death.
“It was hugely important to him,” Clark says. “And it was important to his team to bring that [case] to some closure.”
Identifying Lamaster is a huge step forward in the case but the investigation is now focused on finding the person or persons who killed her. Clark says they have been looking into a father and son, the latter of whom is now deceased. The elder man—Wayne White—now lives in eastern Tennessee. Detectives have been interviewing him and he’s considered a “person of interest,” though Clark declined to call him a “suspect” at press time.