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A group of volunteers in Las Vegas is fighting crime by assisting local law enforcement in cracking the most “unsolvable” of cold cases.
Founded by entrepreneur and philanthropist Justin Woo, the Vegas Justice League (VJL) utilizes a fast-growing approach to reopening unsolved cases by donating funds to help local law enforcement. For Woo, that means contributing to the Las Vegas Metro Police Department for the unexamined homicides under their jurisdiction. The VJL is one of many philanthropic groups that contribute to crowdfunding campaigns like Othram’s DNASolves to reopen cases that would otherwise not be examined.
Donations raised by the VJL — namely, Woo himself — are put toward advanced investigation techniques, including the use of genealogical research and other DNA testing performed by leading genetic experts like Othram Inc. Such funding helps investigators like LVMPD head of homicide Lt. Ray Spencer.
“I’m always looking for ways to solve our cases [and] thinking outside of the box,” Spencer said at CrimeCon 2022, explaining how Othram has provided positive result after positive result.
Othram’s Chief Development Officer Kristen Mittelman also spoke at CrimeCon 2022 to discuss the importance of DNA science and what it personally meant for her.
“We don’t believe that it can be justice unless it’s justice given to everyone. We believe that everyone deserves their name back, and every single perpetrator should be caught,” said Mittelman. “When you see how much [of an] impact you’re making, you just want to continue to do it.”
Mittelman cited funding as the main reason why cases have gone unsolved over the years. She continues to try to change laws and seek government funding to help law enforcement agencies around the country use Othram's labs, but said that anyone could still make a difference.
“We started working with people like you guys that would come in and chip what they would pay for a cup of coffee towards a case that they found interesting, or a case that spoke to them,” Mittelman continued. “And we started solving cases all around the United States, and it was incredible.”
Lt. Spencer was first approached about using genetic genealogy in the 1989 rape and strangulation murder of 14-year-old Stephanie Isaacson. Thanks to the donation by Justin Woo — who only asked that the money be put towards a local case — authorities solved the case using the last, single piece of DNA evidence that remained over three decades.
“To say that I’m a believer in the work that they do is an understatement,” said Spencer, who has overseen more than 700 homicides in the past four years alone.
The VJL is also behind closing some of Las Vegas’s highest-profile cases, including the 1979 rape and murder of Kim Bryant and the recent identification of Richard Wayne Guarro, previously known as “Tortoise Reserve Doe.”
Mittelman also said their work is pivotal in helping clear suspects as well.
“Every time you solve a case, you affect so many families and so many people. Not just the victim’s family,” said Mittelman. “But there’s a list of suspects that are living under a cloud of suspicion that now no longer have to be suspects for this crime because we know who the actual perpetrator is.”
Crowdfunding for justice is a growing way for volunteers and community members to get involved in solving unsolved cases in their area. Panelists said that anyone could donate money or even contribute their DNA through DNASolves, where you can search for cases near you.
CrimeCon 2022 is produced by Red Seat Ventures and presented by Oxygen.
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