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Crime News Cold Cases

Human Remains Found In Shallow Grave Identified 31 Years Later As Missing Ohio Man

Genetic genealogy was instrumental in identifying Robert A. Mullins, whose headless body was discovered in 1991 by hunters near a private farm lane. 

By Jax Miller
How To Use DNA To Crack A Case

Skeletal remains found in rural Ohio have finally been identified after more than three decades.

The case began on Nov. 1, 1991, when hunters came upon the skeletal remains of an unidentified person near state routes 56 and 159, near Circleville, about 40 miles south of Columbus. Initially, investigators believed the body belonged to an indigenous female about 25 years of age, between 5-feet, 3-inches and 5-feet, 4-inches tall, the Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office stated in a Tuesday release.

The body was found in a shallow grave just beside a lane of a private farm, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s office. The then-unidentified remains were believed to have been there for no more than three years.

Reflecting on the case in 2012, retired coroner Dr. Michael Geron told the Circleville Herald that investigators never recovered the victim’s head.

“When you’re missing a skull, you’re really missing a great part of how you can identify a person,” Dr. Geron said at the time, adding that they were inclined to believe it was a female because of "very specific measurements of the bones."

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The case went unsolved for decades, until years of investigative teamwork and the recent use of genetic genealogy, led to the identification of Robert A. Mullins, a Columbus man who vanished in late 1988 or early 1989.

His death is currently being investigated as a homicide, according to multiple news outlets, including the Columbus Dispatch and NBC Columbus affiliate WCMH-TV.

Mullins was 21 years old and stood 5-feet, 3-inches tall, though the details surrounding his disappearance were not immediately known. The Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office stated, “Robert’s absence was a great source of pain in [his family’s] lives,” particularly that of Mullins’ mother, Catherine, “who never stopped looking for her son.”

A police handout of Robert Mullins

Ohio Attorney General David Yost commended the years-long work of county officials, according to a press release published Tuesday.

“Thirty-one Christmases have gone by while this family waited for answers,” stated Yost. “When the results weren’t immediate, and the case grew cool, Pickaway County law enforcement dug in their heels and kept trying until the evolution of DNA technology finally yielded an identity for John Doe.”

Significant movement in the case began in 2012 when the remains — still believed to be a Jane Doe — were sent off to the University of North Texas, where experts concluded the skeletal remains belonged to that of a male.

According to the Attorney General, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation was also brought in to assist in the identification process.

Then, in 2021, Dr. John Ellis and Lt. Johnathan Strawser opened a line of inquiry with the use of genetic genealogy in hopes of finding potential biological relatives of John Doe, who was believed to have ancestry rooted “from the Indian Subcontinent,” according to the sheriff’s office.

Testing by Hudson Alpha and Saber investigations had to be enlisted to obtain bioinformatics — genetic data — before genetic genealogy tests could be performed “due to the state of the bones.”

In 2022, “with the goal of restoring the identity of the man and solving this 30-year-old mystery,” investigators enlisted AdvanceDNA to link the remains to possible family members. The DNA profile was submitted to databases belonging to Family Tree DNA and GEDMatch.

“Their initial research determined that the man’s father would likely have connections to Virginia and his mother would be of English and Indian heritage, with recent immigration to the United States,” said Pickaway officials.

On Nov. 1, 2022 — exactly 31 years after the man’s body was discovered — AdvanceDNA and Pickaway County investigators identified a “strong lead” in the scientific avenue of investigation. The lead was confirmed through “a multistep verification process” and included “extensive research” and “partnership with nine private citizens.”

The DNA was ultimately matched to the victim’s family members and confirmed by Gene by Gene in Houston.

“Robert was a distant cousin to them, and despite being someone they had never met, each of these relatives played a key role in bringing him home to his family,” said the Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office.

On top of medical and scientific experts, officials also thanked retired Pickaway County Sheriffs who once oversaw the John Doe investigation.

“In the original press release, Sheriff Dwight E. Radcliff talked about us all being duty-bound police officers, and he talked about determining this person’s identity and their demise,” said Pickaway officials. “With that being said, this is still an active case.”

Anyone with information is urged to contact Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Johnathan Strawser at 1-740-474-2176.

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