Perseverance and New Technologies Help Identify Woman

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Alicia Stemper

Sep 27, 2023, 9:52:02 AMSep 27
to Alicia Stemper



Hillsborough, NC (September 27, 2023) – Using new technologies and forensic genealogy, investigators with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office have identified the remains of a woman found by road crews 33 years ago. Experts believe someone strangled her approximately one week earlier and dumped her body along the side of I-40 east near the New Hope Church Road exit. Today, Sheriff Charles Blackwood announced that the victim was 20-year-old Lisa Coburn Kesler who spent most of her life in Jackson County, Georgia. 


Although law enforcement officers first used the emerging science of DNA to obtain a conviction in a criminal case in 1986, the forensic applications of DNA were still in their infancy in 1990 when Ms. Kelser was murdered. Although able to confirm someone’s identity or prove someone’s involvement in a crime, DNA could not be used to identify an unknown person.

Therefore, investigators used traditional methods such as interviewing potential witnesses, pursuing more hundreds of leads, searching missing persons reports, and creating a bust of the victim by applying forensic facial reconstruction techniques to a model of her skull. As the years went by, investigators and skilled volunteers tried new methods, such as generating a digital illustration approximating a photograph and circulating the image on social media. Despite these efforts, the identity of the victim remained a mystery.

Sheriff Blackwood said, “Throughout the decades, some of our finest investigators kept plugging away. When you can’t close a case, it gets under your skin. You might set the file aside for a while, but you keep coming back to it, looking to see something you didn’t notice before, or hoping information gathered in ensuing cases has relevance to your cold case. Investigators also monitor new techniques and technologies in the field, which is what eventually led to the breakthrough in Ms. Kesler’s case.”

Investigator Dylan Hendricks, who took over the case in June 2020, received substantial assistance from agents with the State Bureau of Investigation. He eventually sent a degraded hair fragment to Astrea Forensics for DNA extraction. After they returned a DNA profile, Hendricks asked forensic genealogist Leslie Kaufman to assist with the case. Ms. Kaufman specializes in cases involving unidentified human remains and homicides. She began working to identify family members using genealogy databases and other tools. After she linked the victim’s DNA profile to people she believed to be paternal cousins, investigators began conducting interviews. They learned of a female relative named Lisa Coburn Kesler whom no one had heard from in at least three decades. Investigator Hendricks said, “Essentially, there was a Lisa-shaped hole on a branch of the family tree right where the DNA told us Lisa should be, and no one knew where she was.” They then requested DNA from a suspected maternal relative. Analysis of this genetic material provided additional confirmation.

The results were enough to satisfy Clyde Gibbs, a Medical Examiner Specialist in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He updated NamUs, a national database designed to connect missing persons cases to unidentified remains, reflecting that the DNA method resolved her case. Additionally, the Chief Medical Examiner is now able to amend her death certificate, providing her correct name and including other demographic information. 

Sheriff Blackwood said, “I am very happy we solved the three-plus-decades-old mystery of this young woman’s identity, and I hope it provides solace to her family members. We are grateful to the many investigators, passionate volunteers, and talented professionals who assisted with this effort. I believe we collectively demonstrated the value of dogged determination, which we will now apply to the task of identifying her killer. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and no time clock on justice.”


If you have any information, please call Investigator Hendricks at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. He can be reached at (919) 245-2951. It is best to call him directly, but if you are reluctant to do that for any reason, our website has an anonymous tip feature. The web address is



Alicia L. Stemper, Communication Manager

Orange County Sheriff’s Office

106 East Margaret Lane

Hillsborough, NC 27278



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