How modern forensic science unraveled Lisa Coburn Kesler’s decades-old mystery

By Esther Muhozi
On 29 September 2023 at 03:04

In a remarkable turn of events, authorities in North Carolina have finally identified the remains of a young woman who tragically lost her life 33 years ago, her body abandoned alongside an interstate.

This tale of perseverance and modern forensic science shines a light on the dogged determination of investigators who refused to let a cold case go unsolved.

Lisa Coburn Kesler, a 20-year-old from Georgia, was the woman whose identity remained concealed for over three decades. It was a case that haunted the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina, with the circumstances of her death shrouded in mystery.

According to their findings, Lisa had met a gruesome end, a victim of strangulation, in September 1990. Her lifeless body was callously discarded one week later, left on Interstate 40 East near Exit 263 in North Carolina.

Dr. John Butts, the author of Kesler’s 1990 death certificate, had been unable to ascertain the cause of her death. At the time, the forensic applications of DNA were still in their infancy, a far cry from the sophisticated tools available today. Although DNA could confirm identities or establish connections to crimes, it was not yet able to identify an unknown person.

So, how did investigators finally put a name to Lisa Coburn Kesler? The journey was long and arduous. Early efforts involved interviews with potential witnesses and pursuing leads, alongside exhaustive searches through missing persons reports. In their relentless pursuit of answers, the investigators even turned to facial reconstruction to create a model of Kesler’s skull.

However, it was the advent of modern forensic techniques and the unwavering dedication of Dylan Hendricks, an investigator with the sheriff’s office, that breathed new life into this cold case. In 2020, Hendricks sent hair samples collected from the victim to Astrea Forensics, a DNA extraction company with a specialization in identifying human remains. His collaboration with forensic genealogist Leslie Kaufman marked a turning point in the case.

Kaufman’s expertise in genealogy databases and related tools led her to Kesler’s paternal cousins. A breakthrough came when DNA from a maternal relative matched Kesler’s, finally unveiling her identity. Astonishingly, the family had not heard from her in 30 years, leaving her whereabouts a mystery to them as well.

Lisa Coburn Kesler’s life story is shrouded in enigma, with scant information available. She spent most of her life in Jackson County, Georgia, close to Athens, and her mysterious disappearance left a void in her family’s heart for three decades.

According to USA Today, Medical Examiner Clyde Gibbs updated the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System to reflect these new findings and officially closed Kesler’s case. This database, overseen by the US Department of Justice, serves as a critical resource in connecting missing persons cases to unidentified remains.

With Kesler’s remains now identified, Sheriff Charles Blackwood and his dedicated detectives are turning their attention to potential murder suspects. North Carolina does not have a statute of limitations on murder, which means that justice may yet be served, even after more than three decades.

"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," Sheriff Blackwood remarked, echoing the sentiments of all who followed this extraordinary journey from anonymity to recognition.

In the end, this story is not only a testament to the power of modern forensic science but also to the unwavering commitment of law enforcement officers who refused to let a cold case go unsolved. It reminds us all that, even in the darkest of mysteries, there is hope for closure and justice.

A digital illustration by Carl Koppleman (left) and a representation of Kesler's possible appearance created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Net Photo