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For more than 30 years, the identity of a pregnant teenager found dead in an underground pump house under “extremely suspicious” circumstances has remained a mystery.
But now investigators with the Bensalem Township Police Department have been able to positively identify the victim as 17-year-old Lisa Todd.
“She’s been missing for 33 years and we’re able to piece it together because of DNA and the family’s story,” William McVey, the deputy director of public safety for the Bensalem Township Police Department, told Oxygen.com.
Todd, who was approximately six months pregnant at the time of her death, vanished from Philadelphia in 1985, according to a statement from the department.
McVey said Todd's skeletal remains were discovered years later, on Jan. 24, 1988, in an underground pump house at the abandoned Publicker Distillery in Bensalem by someone out walking their dog.
Several items of clothing were also found with the remains, but investigators had few clues to determine the victim’s identity.
The case remained open for decades.
In 1994, the Vidocq Society—a group of active and retired investigators assisting law enforcement with cold case investigations—tried to piece together the mystery but were unable to reach any conclusions. In 2007, DNA was extracted from the skeletal remains and was uploaded into CODIS, a national DNA database maintained by the FBI, but there were no matches. Investigators extracted additional DNA from a fetal bone in 2017 and from the remains once again in 2020. This time, authorities were able to use the DNA for genome sequencing and created a profile to upload to GEDmatch, an online genealogy site. A team of DNA genealogists used the profile to create a family tree and were able to identify one of Todd’s nephews.
McVey said when investigators went to speak with the family, they confirmed that Lisa Todd had disappeared in 1985 and authorities were able to make a positive identification.
“It’s just a matter of being patient and hoping the technology eventually works for you,” McVey said. “Really, without the technology we’d have nothing.”
It's still unclear how the teen died, but McVey described the circumstances around her death as “extremely suspicious.”
“People don’t just stumble into a well,” he said.
An autopsy performed in 1988 was unable to determine the cause or manner of death, in part due to the condition of the remains, McVey said.
Investigators are now trying to learn more about how Todd died and are looking for anyone who knew the teen back then or might have seen her around the time she disappeared.
McVey said Todd’s family, including a son who was only 2 years old when she disappeared, were relieved by the positive identification and finally received some measure of closure.
“The family was very helpful, very cooperative. They are assisting us in any way they can right now,” he said. “I am sure it’s been a mystery for them and a missing piece all their lives.”
Anyone with information about the case is urged to contact Det. Chris McMullin at 215-633-3719.
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