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Genetic breakthrough reignites Mount Hood cold case posted on 12/01/2020

Groundbreaking genetic analysis and genealogical research identified skeletal remains found on Mount Hood in 1986 as a young Oregon woman who was never reported missing despite her disappearance and death in the mid-seventies, announced state forensic officials in late October.

Now with a positive identity to the cold case, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) is asking for public assistance determining the cause of death of 19-year-old Wanda Ann Herr more than four decades ago.

“She was truly a mystery. She wasn’t on anybody’s radar,” said Dr. Nici Vance, State Forensic Anthropologist with the Oregon State Police. “After years of working on the missing persons cases (in the state) you know all the names. We had never heard this girl’s name before.”

The search began with a partial skull, a single tooth and bone fragments discovered by US Forest Service Workers on Still Creek Road near Government Camp in 1986.

At the time, an Oregon State Police forensic examiner determined the remains belonged to a woman in her twenties or a small man and had likely been in the woods for ten years. The year of death was established as approximately 1976.

Little else could be determined about the identity of the person, and the case remained dormant for decades.

In 2008 Dr. Vance had the partial skull sent to the University of North Texas for DNA analysis. The results concluded the skull belonged to a woman in her late teens or early twenties.

DNA samples gathered from the skull fragment was uploaded into a national forensic DNA database operated by the FBI, and the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The DNA yielded no matches and the case remained open.

In January 2019, the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office received a grant to perform a new method of intensive DNA analysis and forensic genetic genealogy on more than 100 sets of unidentified human skeletal remains in the state.

This new process became famous in 2018 when it was used to track down and apprehend the Golden State Killer.

The Government Camp skull was among the first group of DNA samples sent out to Parabon Nanolabs in December 2019.

The lab’s genetic analysis revealed the skull belonged to a “female of Northern European descent with fair skin, hazel/brown eyes, brown hair, and some freckles,” said county officials.

This breakthrough, combined with genealogical research utilizing the GEDmatch website, produced the first positive identification from the skull: Wanda Ann Herr, born in 1957.

“I had worked with the company. I knew what they were capable of,” Dr. Vance said. “They garnered some great results.”

Little information about Wanda is currently known. Investigators contacted her surviving sisters, and with their cooperation, conducted further DNA testing to confirm her identity.

According to her sisters, Wanda was raised apart from her family and was possibly living in a group home in Gresham at the time of her disappearance.

Investigators stated that they believe she was a “chronic runaway” based on interviews. There are no records of her as a runaway or missing person according to county officials.

“She came from kind of a dysfunctional family back in the day,” said Detective Mary Nunn of the CCSO Homicide & Violent Crimes Unit.

“A lot of people are calling who knew her as a child. We’re looking for people who knew her from 1976 when she was 19, people from the group home, someone who knows who she hung out with,” Detective Nunn said.

Investigators stated that Wanda had no DMV record, bank account and that she is not mentioned in any police report.

Detectives urge anyone who knew Wanda Ann Herr, her associates or her whereabouts in the 1970s to contact the CCSO Tip Line at 503-723-4949 or online at https://www.clackamas.us/sheriff/tip. Please reference CCSO Case # 86-025724.

By Ben Simpson/MT

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