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Criminal Justice Update

‘We can all do it together’

For more than three decades, two sets of unidentified human remains were stored 180 miles apart in separate cities in Ohio. As the investigations stalled, the John Does were given little attention except from a few members of the investigating agencies: the Youngstown Police Department and the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office.

The long-standing cold cases were unrelated, but they ultimately became linked — and by late February of this year, the agonizing wait for the families of both had ended.

With help from modern DNA technology and the can-do efforts of BCI, local law enforcement agencies and others, the identities of Robert Earl Sanders, 23, of Youngstown, and Theodore “Teddy” Long, 19, of Toledo, were restored at last.

“These two cases reinforce the incredible power of collaborative investigative work and the will of those involved to honor these victims,” Attorney General Dave Yost said. “The Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Cold Case Unit can help provide case-breaking assistance to local law enforcement, and we encourage agencies across Ohio to lean on the talents of our experts.”

A haunting memory
The Youngstown chapter of the story began in September 1987 when a grandfather and grandson discovered human remains – later identified as Sanders — while hunting in a wooded area east of the city. At the time, police estimated the bones had been in the woods for three to five years.

Seeking help in identifying the remains, the Youngstown Police Department turned them over to a Youngstown State University anthropology professor, who provided the race, sex and approximate age: a Black male 30 to 44 years old. With no further evidence available and no leads panning out, the remains stayed at YSU for decades.

At some point in the early 2000s, YSU student Alisa Yelkin saw the remains in a box in her forensic anthropology class, an experience that left an indelible memory. As fate would have it, two decades later, in August 2021, she came across a newspaper article about Detective Sgt. David Sweeney and the cold cases he was overseeing for the Youngstown Police Department. She called him up, told her story, and urged him to investigate the remains. 

“I wondered forever who he was,” Yelkin said of the John Doe. “He haunted me.”

Because of Yelkin’s call, “a case that had been cold for 34 years was now warm again,” said Capt. Jason Simon, who leads the Detective Bureau for the Youngstown PD.

Sweeney turned to BCI’s Cold Case Unit, which partners with local law enforcement agencies to take a fresh look at old, unsolved homicides and sexual assaults using a team approach that includes veteran investigators, criminal intelligence analysts and forensic scientists.

With the help of Theresa Gaetano of the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office, the remains were transferred from YSU to the BCI Laboratory in London, where scientists were able to obtain a DNA profile and enter it into CODIS, the FBI’s database of DNA collected from crime scenes and convicted offenders. But no hits came up.

Meanwhile, the Cold Case Unit began work re-creating John Doe’s face. To make the bust, BCI forensic artist Samantha Molnar first had a CT scan taken of the skull, then fed data from the images into a 3D printer to create a plastic replica, which served as the base for the facial reconstruction.

On Aug. 25, 2022, Youngstown PD and BCI held a news conference to reveal the bust of Youngstown John Doe and to request the public’s help in identifying him.

In late December, a Cincinnati man called Sweeney to tell him that the bust depicted Teddy Long of Toledo — and that Long was white, not Black, with red curly hair. “You have it wrong,” the man told Sweeney. “It’s my buddy Teddy.”
A break for Fayette County
Fayette County John Doe was pulled from a creek in November 1981 with multiple gunshot wounds, and the case evidence was submitted to BCI’s lab soon after. Although deputies released crime-scene photos of the victim and diligently worked the case, their efforts yielded no leads.

The case remained static until 2014 when, because of the advances made in DNA analysis, the county coroner’s office and BCI Criminal Intelligence Analyst Lisa Savage submitted evidence to a specialized lab at the University of North Texas so that a DNA profile of the John Doe could be entered into CODIS — but again, no luck.

Years passed, and Fayette County John Doe was no closer to being identified. Then, in April 2022, the sheriff’s office and BCI’s Cold Case Unit teamed up to review the case for potential leads.

In Youngstown, meanwhile, Detective Sgt. Sweeney knew that the tip from the Cincinnati caller didn’t apply to his case but might be useful in another case. So he passed the information to BCI Criminal Intelligence Analyst Jennifer Lester, who realized that the description of Teddy Long given by the tipster fit the appearance of Fayette County John Doe. Sweeney also called the Toledo Police Department, which located fingerprint cards and a booking photo for Long and sent them to BCI.

In January 2023, BCI confirmed that the Toledo fingerprints matched those of Fayette County John Doe — the breakthrough that Sherriff Vernon Stanforth and his team needed. Finally, after four decades, Teddy Long had his name back, thanks to the work of Stanforth’s office and the help of the Youngstown PD, Toledo PD, BCI, and two concerned citizens whose actions indirectly helped solve the mystery of his identity.

Long’s connection to Fayette County remains unknown. 

A last, best hope in Youngstown
With a bust of their John Doe in hand but nothing else to go on, Youngstown investigators, meanwhile, shifted their focus to genetic genealogy research as their last, best hope. They sent bones from John Doe to Othram Labs in Texas, where, in January of this year, scientists extracted enough material to develop a DNA profile that was compatible with genealogy databases.

The Porchlight Project, an Ohio nonprofit that helps families of missing persons and murder victims, played an essential role. It not only provided funding to pay for the work done by Othram Labs, it conducted the genealogical research that ultimately revealed Youngstown John Doe to be Robert Earl Sanders.

Genetic genealogy involves comparing a John Doe’s DNA to DNA that has been submitted voluntarily by members of the public to commercial databases such as GEDmatch. The more genetic variations, or markers, that any two people share in their DNA, the nearer they are on the family tree. Subsequent research using public records allows a genetic genealogist to fill in the branches of the tree and, if all goes well, to connect the John Doe’s DNA to a family with a missing person.

In announcing the breakthrough, Youngstown Police Chief Carl Davis credited the “remarkable work” of law enforcement officers as well as DNA advances for allowing those involved “to provide some answers to family members after their decades and decades of tribulation.”

Sanders had been reported missing on Aug. 13, 1976. His cause of death is listed as undetermined.
At a Feb. 27 news conference announcing the identification of Sanders and Long, AG Yost praised the teamwork of the Youngstown Police Department, the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office and the BCI Cold Case Unit.

“Cases like these are why I created the unit three years ago,” Yost said. “It’s to put the pieces together and assist local law enforcement so they can help bring closure to loved ones.”

Capt. Simon, head of the Youngstown PD detective bureau, said the two men’s identities were restored as a direct result of the partnerships among law enforcement agencies, state and local governments, private entities, the news media and the public.

“No one of us can do it alone,” he said, “but as you can see, we can all do it together.”
The cases remain active investigations.

“This isn’t the end,” Yost said. “What we have with these results is the starting point where we can begin to pick up the trail and move closer to a place of justice.”