Breakthroughs lead to identity in decades-old cold case
The Clackamas County Sheriff's Office is asking for help in solving a decades-old death of a teenager who may have lived in a group home in the Gresham area.
After years of no activity on the case, advancements in DNA science and a financial grant allowed law enforcement to identify a skull found in 1986 near Government Camp as the remains of then 19-year-old Wanda Ann Herr, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office said in an announcement.
Earlier this year genetic and genealogical investigators finally identified the skull as belonging to Herr.
Two U.S. Forest Service workers found a partial human skull, some bone fragments and a single human tooth on Aug. 2, 1986, near Government Camp.
Eleven days later, an Oregon State Police forensic examiner determined the skull likely belonged to a young woman or small man. He also estimated the skull had been in the woods approximately 10 years, which would put the death around 1976, the sheriff's office said.
Apparently not much was revealed for years. In 2005, the remains were re-inventoried by the Clackamas County Medical Examiner's Office. Still, the case remained dormant until 2008, nearly 22 years after the Forest Service workers found the remains.
But OSP Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Nici Vance took another look. DNA analysis at the University of North Texas determined the skull belonged to a female in her late teens to early 20s.
That same year, 2008, Sheriff's Office Forensic Imaging Specialist Joyce Nagy completed a clay facial reconstruction from the skull. The task was complicated by the fact that the lower half of the skull was missing. The reconstruction nevertheless generated a number of tips, but no solid leads.
The DNA profile was submitted to two national data bases, but there was no new information until January 2019, when the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office received a grant from the National Institute of Justice. The grant was to fund forensic genetic genealogy and DNA work, called phenotyping, on 100 unidentified human skeletal remains cases. That produced a breakthrough in the Herr case.
DNA phenotyping predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of a person from their DNA. Genetic genealogy can help identify a person by searching for relatives in public databases and building family trees.
The Government Camp skull was the first to produce a major finding as a result of the grant.
The intensive genetic analysis revealed the skull belonged to a female of Northern European descent with fair skin, hazel/brown eyes, brown hair and some freckles. Some more research revealed the skull likely was from Wanda Ann Herr, born in 1957.
The information on Herr is sketchy. Authorities contacted her surviving sisters, but she was raised in a different household from them. Based on their recollections, Herr is believed to have disappeared sometime after June 1976, when she was 19 years old. At the time she may have been living in a group home in the Gresham area, the announcement said.
Though detectives believe she was a chronic runaway based on interviews, there are no records of Wanda as a runaway or missing person. She had no motor vehicle record, no bank account and there are no police reports that mention her.
Detectives are working to discover more of her story and learn what led to her disappearance and death. Anyone who knew Wanda Ann Herr, her associates or her whereabouts in the 1970s is urged to contact the Sheriff's Office Tip Line at 503-723-4949 or by using the online email form at clackamas.us/sheriff/tip. Please reference CCSO Case # 86-025724.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.