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DNA technology could help close two unsolved infant deaths from 1970 in Neenah and Two Rivers

Two Rivers infant body found article
Two Rivers infant grave at Holy Cross Cemetary
Two Rivers infant death grave site
Posted at 5:48 PM, Mar 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-15 19:47:55-04

MANITOWOC COUNTY, Wis. (NBC 26) -- The deaths of two infants more than 50 years ago in Neenah and Two Rivers are still unsolved today. Now, with the help of the very latest in DNA, this pair of cold cases from 1970 has the potential to find answers.

It was just before dawn on March 3rd of 1970. Two Rivers police responded to a report of a suspicious bag left in the parking lot behind city hall.

Two Rivers Police Chief Brian Kohlmeier knows the case well.

"The officers then went out there and recovered that bag and made a very gruesome discovery... They found a deceased infant inside the bag."

The newborn girl, who was full term, was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.

Just a few months later, outside of Goodwill Industries in Neenah, employees found the frozen body of another newborn baby girl inside a garbage bag while they were unloading a donation trailer.

Investigators later discovered the trailer contained donated items that were collected from Manitowoc and the Two Rivers area.

With no information to go off of, it didn't take long for the case of the Two Rivers' infant to go cold.

The unidentified baby was buried in a nameless grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Two Rivers.

The case of the newborn girl found in Neenah also fell cold for decades. Until the latest DNA technology available in 2016 opened both cases back up.

"It was decided that maybe we could reopen these cases because the DNA technology was at a point where perhaps we could identify relatives of these infants," says Chief Kohlmeier.

Both infant's remains were exhumed and taken to a lab for DNA testing. At the time, the technology available was not enough to identify the victims or their relatives.

"The technology and the ability to test the DNA has been problematic and that probably has as much as I can say," says Chief Kohlmeier.

That brings us to 2021 and the latest DNA technology from Virginia-based Parabon Nanolabs.

Chief Genetic Genealogist, CeCe Moore, is an internationally recognized DNA expert and pioneer in investigative genetic genealogy (IGG).

"About a decade ago I started developing techniques to help people of unknown heritage like adoptees or donor-conceived individuals to find their birth parents and those techniques are the exact same ones that we are now using for law enforcement," says Moore.

Local law enforcement is working with Parabon to extract the infants' DNA for genetic testing.

The DNA will be compared to every file in a public database. It's Parabon's job to find out which ancestors are the closest match with the infants' remains.

"If there is DNA available to reanalyze from scratch like there is in these cases, they will be identified. That family of that infant is going to be identified," Moore says.

"It might take weeks, it might take months, it might take years but it will happen," she adds.

More says it is her wish that IGG could one day stop a criminal in their tracks.

"I think people need to know that you will be identified. If you are leaving DNA behind a crime scene or an abandoned baby, we will figure out who you are now and I hope that's enough to make someone stop long enough to not make that worst choice of their life," says Moore.

But for now, we will hold out hope that someday soon these two newborns will get the justice they deserve thanks to the investigators who will never give up.

"These are two infants and I think we wouldn't be doing our jobs and serve justice if we didn't try to resolve a tragic, tragic death, I should say, deaths of both of these young girls. And I really think that is the driving force behind it right there," says Two Rivers Police Chief, Brian Kohlmeier.

Though investigators say the case is moving forward but investigative genetic genealogy isn't cheap.

That's why Parabon Nanolabs co-founder, Paula Armentrout created JusticeDrive, a crowdsourced fundraiser to help raise enough money to solve cases like these at no cost to local departments.

"We want to bridge the gap between their budget restrictions and the private citizens who want to help make communities safer," says Armentrout.

The funds raised through the JusticeDrive campaign will enable the agency to work with Parabon NanoLabs. JusticeDrive was created a few months ago and so far they have raised enough money to fund four cold cases for IGG.

So far, $250 has been raised out of the nearly $17,000 needed for these two cases. To learn more about JusticeDrive or to donate to the Manitowoc County infant deaths investigation, click here.

The funds raised will be used to try to identify the parents in both cases so both of these babies will get the justice they deserve and both babies can be laid to rest with identities.

The Two Rivers Police Department and the Neenah Police Department are both working on these cases. If you know some information that could help investigators with this case, please call the Two Rivers Police department at (920)793-1191 or contact Sergeant Jeremy Bauman of the Neenah Police Department at (290) 886-6000.

If you or somebody you know who has a newborn and is in crisis, there are laws in our state to protect you. In Wisconsin, a parent can leave their unharmed newborn, anonymously and without fear of prosecution with a police officer, 911 emergency medical staff person, or hospital staff member.

Click here for more information on Wisconsin's Safe Haven law.