Minnesota investigators hope genetic genealogy can help ID 3 babies found dead in river

RED WING, Minn. — The first unidentified baby pulled from the Mississippi River was a girl, named Jamie by the Minnesota investigators probing her death.

Four years after Jamie was found in Red Wing, Jamie’s newborn half-brother, whom detectives called Cory, was pulled from the river just a few miles away, on the edge of Lake Pepin. Four years after Cory, there came Abby, an unrelated newborn whose decomposed remains were discovered in a marina slip near Treasure Island Resort and Casino.

All three infants remain unidentified, as does the person who tossed each of them into the river.

Goodhue County investigators hope to change that by using the dead infants’ DNA and genetic genealogy to identify them and their mothers.

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Glen Barringer, a retired detective with the Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office, said the analysis done by Parabon Nanolabs has brought about new leads in at least one of the unsolved cases, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“We did get some leads that (the department) has been following up on,” Barringer said. “It kind of goes from one lead to another.”

The newspaper reported that the fresh leads come nearly a year after Goodhue County investigators pleaded with the public for donations to help solve the three cases. Each sample sent to Parabon for analysis costs $5,000.

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The sheriff’s office had the funds to secure an analysis of one baby’s DNA. Within days, the public came through with the additional $10,000 needed, the Pioneer Press reported.

The new developments over the past six months are in Jamie’s case, said Barringer, who retired from the sheriff’s office earlier this year. The current lead detective on the case, Jon Huneke, did not return calls from the newspaper.

Capt. Collins Voxland, who heads the investigations division, declined to speak at length about the active investigation.

“Working with Parabon has created new avenues to follow up on,” Voxland told the paper. “What those avenues are, we’re going to keep that close to our work product.”

Every four years, a heartbreaking find

It was Nov. 4, 1999, when the body of a 6-pound, full-term baby girl was found in the water about 10 yards from the bank of the Mississippi near Red Wing Grain. Red Wing is a city of just over 16,000 about 55 miles southeast of Minneapolis.

According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, the newborn’s umbilical cord was still attached. She was found wrapped in a blanket.

“The body showed slight signs of decomposition upon discovery,” the NamUs webpage states. “The infant had not been in the water for long.”

The Pioneer Press reported that authorities believe the girl had been in the water for a week or two after being born alive.

Four years later, on Dec. 7, 2003, a 7-pound baby boy with curly dark hair was spotted in the water by four teenage girls in Frontenac, about 10 miles downriver from Red Wing. He was estimated to be four or five days old when he died.

NamUs states that DNA testing showed that the boy, whom authorities dubbed Cory, had the same mother as Jamie, the first baby found.

“Police believe the children had separate fathers,” according to the Doe Network. “Investigators believe that the infants were born alive.

“Autopsies were never able to ascertain causes of death. The mother of the children may have hidden the pregnancies and is probably familiar with the area.”

Another four years went by. On March 26, 2007, workers from the Treasure Island casino spotted the decomposed remains of a third infant in a slip at the marina.

“The infant was near term (or) term with no apparent congenital abnormalities,” according to NamUs. “The infant appears to be of Caucasian descent and not a member of the Prairie Island tribe. Estimated time of being in the water was from a few weeks from discovery of the body to the previous fall or winter.”

Goodhue County authorities said, however, that the girl, whom they call Abby, may have been of Hispanic or Native American descent.

No cause of death could be determined for the children. A couple from the Red Wing area paid to have all three buried next to their own stillborn daughter.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s forensic artists used photos of the bodies, along with skull measurements, to develop composite drawings of each baby.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also took DNA samples from each child after they were found, according to Barringer. He told the Pioneer Press that he focused on the oldest case because there was concern that her genetic material would degrade past the point of usefulness.

Parabon, which is based in Virginia, has been working to reverse engineer a family tree for the girl. Barringer said he sent the DNA samples off to the lab a month before his retirement.

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The retired detective said the cases of the three babies were part of the entire second half of his career, and all three haunt him still. He even considered delaying his retirement if he believed the cases were on the verge of being solved, the Pioneer Press reported.

He knew, however, that it would likely take years to close. With the advent of genetic genealogy, he sees a greater hope for identifying the discarded children.

“We’re at 50 to 70 percent (chance),” Barringer said. “Before, we were at 10 percent.

“We’re miles ahead but we have miles to go.”

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