Fire Island John Doe: Genetic genealogy IDs second Alaska cold case victim in 6 weeks

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska state police officials have announced for the second time in six weeks that DNA and genetic genealogy have helped identify a murder victim whose name has long been unknown.

Troopers said Wednesday that a man found slain in 1989 on Fire Island, west of Anchorage, has been identified as Michael Allison Beavers, a missing Chugiak man last seen alive in November 1979. Beavers, 40, was reported missing by his wife in January 1980 after he failed to come back from a business trip.

Beavers’ identification comes on the heels of the identification in October of Robin Pelkey, 19, who vanished in the early 1980s while living in Anchorage.

Pelkey was previously known only as “Horseshoe Harriet,” one of at least 17 women notorious serial killer Robert Hansen admitted to killing between 1971 and 1983, when he was arrested. Hansen, an Anchorage bakery owner who became known as the “Butcher Baker,” confessed to raping and torturing his victims before releasing them in the woods and hunting them down like prey.

Hansen also admitted to raping more than 30 other women over the years. He was sentenced in 1984 to life plus 461 years in prison, where he died of natural causes in 2014.

A fateful business trip

Beavers, a heavy equipment operator, owned an excavation business in Chugiak, a rural community about 20 miles outside of downtown Anchorage. According to troopers, his wife told authorities he left home in late November 1979 for a 2,300-mile drive to Seattle, where he was planning to meet with a business associate.

“Beavers never arrived in Seattle,” an Alaska State Troopers news release said. “No information was developed to indicate what had become of Beavers, and the investigation was closed in 1982.”

Beavers was declared dead in 1992.

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Meanwhile, human remains had been found July 24, 1989, on the northwest shore of Fire Island, a tiny island just off the coast of Anchorage. At the time, authorities determined the remains belonged to a white man somewhere between 35 and 50 years old.

The condition of the remains indicated they had been lying exposed on the beach for at least a year. They were also able to determine that the man’s death was “criminal in nature,” the news release said.

When detectives were unable to identify the man, he was eventually buried in the Anchorage Municipal Cemetery.

“In 2003, hair and tissue samples that had been collected at autopsy were sent to the FBI Laboratory in Virginia,” troopers said. “A mitochondrial DNA profile was developed. The profile was entered into the national missing persons database, but no identification was made.”

The case went back onto the shelf until earlier this year, when the Alaska Bureau of Investigation’s cold case unit sent bone samples to Othram, a Texas-based private forensic lab that specializes in the new technology of genetic genealogy.

According to Othram, the company’s scientists were able to extract DNA from bones that had been retained by the Alaska State Medical Examiner’s Office. The scientists put the material through their proprietary forensic-grade genome sequencing.

They were able to develop a comprehensive DNA profile for the man that was far more detailed than the mitochondrial profile.

Othram, in partnership with Alaska cold case detectives, then conducted genealogical research that showed a close blood relative of the unidentified man living in Alaska. The research also indicated that the long-gone Beavers could be the homicide victim.

A DNA sample from Beavers’ relative confirmed that Beavers was the man found dead on Fire Island in 1989, Alaska authorities said.

‘Horseshoe Harriet’

It was a close relative of Pelkey’s, as well, who provided the DNA link to finally give “Horseshoe Harriet” her real name.

Hansen led police in April 1984 to the bodies of several of his victims, including Harriet, whose nickname stemmed from the location where she was found at Horseshoe Lake, near the mouth of the Susitna River. Authorities explained in October that the woman, whose name Hansen didn’t know, remained unidentified and was buried with a headstone that read, “Jane Doe #3.”

Hansen told authorities he killed the woman, a sex worker he abducted from downtown Anchorage, in 1983. Like other victims, he flew her into the wilderness on a small plane he piloted.

In 2014, the same year Hansen died in prison, the unidentified woman was exhumed and samples were taken from her skeletal remains for DNA testing, troopers said in a video about the case. A genetic profile was created, but detectives were unable to find a match in the national missing persons database.

Pelkey’s family had never reported her missing, authorities said.

Last year, they gave it another try, but this time using genetic genealogy. Virginia-based Parabon Nanolabs took the woman’s DNA and generated a more detailed profile, then uploaded the data into GEDmatch, a public genealogy database.

Parabon was able to trace the woman to relatives living in Arkansas and Alaska.

When authorities got a DNA sample from one of Pelkey’s close relatives, it proved that “Horseshoe Harriet” and Pelkey were one and the same.

In October, James Cockrell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, thanked the troopers, investigators and analysts who have worked for the past 37 years to identify the slain woman.

“Without their hard work and tenacity, the identity of Ms. Pelkey may have never been known,” Cockrell said. “The Alaska Department of Public Safety will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to solve major crimes in our state, hold anyone that violates our laws accountable and bring closure to a victims’ family.”

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Of Hansen’s 17 supposed victims, 12 bodies have been found, authorities said. Only one remains unidentified.

Cold case detectives are using genetic genealogy in their efforts to identify “Eklutna Annie,” who was so named because she was found in a heavily wooded area about a mile from South Eklutna Lake Road in Anchorage.

The woman, whose body was found in July 1980, is believed to be Hansen’s first victim.