The Charger Blog

Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy Program Alumni Solve Two Cold Cases

As investigators in Orange County, CA, Lauren Felix and Robert Taft have applied what they’ve learned as part of the University of New Haven’s Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy online graduate certificate program, solving two cold cases and providing the families of the victims with answers after more than four decades.

January 8, 2024

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Dr. Claire Glynn (right) in the lab with students.
Dr. Claire Glynn (right) in the lab with students.

When Lauren Felix learned about the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo – better known as the Golden State Killer – in 2018, it sparked her interest in forensic investigative genetic genealogy (FIGG). The case was especially relevant to Felix, a deputy for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in southern California, since the killer’s victims included individuals from within the department’s jurisdiction.

Felix says she was “blown away” when she learned how investigators had used FIGG to identify DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer. Inspired to learn how to use FIGG in her work, she began researching programs that could teach her. That’s how she found the FIGG online graduate certificate program at the University of New Haven.

Felix, who earned her graduate certificate as part of the program’s 2022 cohort, and her partner Robert Taft, a member of the 2023 cohort, have already applied what they’ve learned in the program. They recently solved two of their department’s cold cases, identifying victims who had been known as “John Does” for more than four decades.

“I’d done my own family tree, but I’d never done genealogy beyond that,” explained Felix, who has been a deputy for 12 years and who previously served as a crime analyst with the department. “The highlight of the University’s program for me was my internship with the DNA Doe project. It took everything I learned through the courses and put it together. I feel like that’s really where I began to grasp all the concepts we learned.”

The remains of Lonnie Raymond Thomas were found near an oil well.
The remains of Lonnie Raymond Thomas were found near an oil well.
‘They’re always thankful’

Drawing on their training in the program, Felix and Taft identified the remains of Lonnie Raymond Thomas, who was found in the spring of 1980 near an oil well in an unincorporated area in north Orange County. The case is now a homicide investigation.

Felix and Taft were grateful to be able to provide Thomas’s mother and half-sisters with answers regarding what had happened to Thomas more than four decades earlier.

“I can’t imagine being in the position of having a loved one or a family member simply disappear and never know what happened to them,” said Taft, who has been with the department for more than 30 years. “They’re always thankful for at least giving them some resolution for what happened to their loved ones.”

‘The families of these victims now have answers’

Felix and Taft also investigated a second case involving the body of a man who had been discovered nearly 50 years ago. He had been found nude, and there were no signs of trauma. His death had initially been ruled accidental after investigators found alcohol and drugs in his system, but they later noted similarities between the case and the victims of Randy Kraft, a serial killer who was arrested in 1983. Kraft was convicted of 16 murders and sentenced to death, and he is still incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

Lonnie Raymond Thomas.
Lonnie Raymond Thomas.

After applying what they’d learned in the FIGG program, Felix and Taft identified the victim as Michael Ray Schlicht, who was just 17 years old when he’d gone missing. They took DNA samples from members of Schlicht’s family and identified his great grandparents as the union couple – meaning that after taking samples from each side of the family, they determined that Schlicht had to be their descendent. His family members are now installing a headstone to mark his final resting place.

“We went to Kansas City, Missouri, to get a confirmation DNA sample from Michael’s mother,” recalled Felix. “The weight of 50 years of not knowing what happened to her son being lifted from her was the highlight of my career.”

“Robert and Lauren were both exemplary students in the FIGG program,” added Claire Glynn, Ph.D., founding director of the program. “Their ability to simultaneously manage all of their coursework and full-time jobs while actively working on these cases is a testament to their dedication to justice, public service, and their communities. Their hard work means the families of these victims now have answers to what happened to their loved ones.”

The body of Michael Ray Schlicht was discovered nearly 50 years ago in Orange County, CA.
The body of Michael Ray Schlicht was discovered nearly 50 years ago in Orange County, CA.
‘The successful outcomes of my students’

The first program of its kind in the world, the University’s FIGG graduate certificate provides individuals, such as Felix and Taft, from the public and private sectors with the knowledge and training to carry out and apply FIGG. More than 200 students have earned their certificate in the last three years, and the program’s fourth cohort begins this month.

Claire Glynn, Ph.D.
Claire Glynn, Ph.D.

The program offers students training and education in a new and evolving field that is becoming increasingly important to law enforcement and in investigations. Dr. Glynn says the need for trained professionals is critical, as there are more than a quarter million unsolved homicides and more than 20,000 cases of unidentified remains in the U.S. alone. She hopes the program will prepare dedicated investigators such as Felix and Taft to make a meaningful impact by providing answers to families, as well as justice.

“When I created the FIGG program in 2020, my goal was to contribute to the criminal justice/forensic science industry by providing expert training in how to use the tool effectively, and, importantly, in a responsible and ethical manner,” explains Dr. Glynn. “Seeing the successful outcomes of my students who are making such a great impact in our society is a much-needed reminder of why we do what we do and why we work so hard.”

‘Without public participation, this tool doesn’t exist’

Felix and Taft hope law enforcement professionals will continue to have the support, education, and tools they need to ensure that they can use FIGG to make the greatest impact possible. They hope the public will support them by making their own DNA and genealogy information available to investigators, enabling them to find the answers they seek that they can then provide to families who have lost a loved one.

“If people have done an Ancestry or 23 and Me test, I hope they consider uploading to the two databases that allow law enforcement use, which are GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA,” said Felix. “This is the only way we could have identified Michael and Lonnie. Without people participating, we lose it. Without public participation, this tool doesn’t exist. And without this tool, there are a lot of people out there who won’t get identified.”

“Just being able to do this technique and being able to provide those answers to families is incredible,” added Taft. “I don’t want law enforcement to lose this technique. There are rules, practices, and ethical conduct in place for a reason, and we need to maintain the public trust when it comes to that.”