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37 Years Later, Victim Identified


Last updated 6/21/2023 at 10:35am

Claudette Jean Zebolsky Powers. / San Diego County Sheriff's Department Media Relations Office

Finally, after 37 years, the body of a woman who was found near the campsites on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Warner Springs has been identified using genetic genealogy.

Her name, Claudette Jean Zebolsky Powers. Her partially decomposed body was discovered on Feb. 16, 1986. It is unclear if that's where she was killed or if it was just the dump site for the suspect(s).

A male victim was found two months later off State Route 79, about 14 miles away from the campsites where Powers' body was found. His body has not yet been identified. According to the San Diego Sheriff's Department, there is a possibility these two cases are connected as both bodies suffered some sort of trauma.

Authorities have withheld the cause or causes of the victims' deaths.

The Sheriff's homicide unit used DNA testing and Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG) to identify the remains, calling this a "major breakthrough" in the case.

Powers was born on January 13, 1962 in Coldwater, Michigan and lived with her husband in Washington State in the early 1980s. She left her husband and moved to San Diego County around 1983 or 1984. Her family last heard from her in 1984 when her father died, the Sheriff's Department said. Investigators believe that Powers lived in the Escondido or San Diego area as a waitress before she was murdered in February 1986.

Powers had lost contact with her family, who wondered what happened to her in these three decades. After finally being able to mourn her death and lay her to rest, they are asking the public for any information that will lead to an answer and possible arrest.

"Somebody knows what happened," said Laura Freese, Powers' youngest sister, in a video the Sheriff's Department produced and posted online.

Over the years, investigators worked on the case. They reviewed missing person reports and sought the public's assistance for help, but there was no luck. That changed when investigators turned to genetic genealogy in February 2022. They uploaded DNA from a sample of hair taken from the body to two commercial genealogy websites – GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA – to look for relatives and build family trees.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has used investigative genetic genealogy in six other cases to identify suspects or victims. According to the department, the agency uses the technique as a last resort after other methods are exhausted, and investigators are only able to access the information of users who agree to share their information with law enforcement agencies.

In Powers' case, investigators also pored over census records and obituaries to build the family trees, the department said. As investigators found relatives, they contacted them to get more information and build out the family ties. The process eventually led investigators to a cousin, whose name was tied to an online post about Powers. It turned out her family wanted to find her. A private investigator tried to help, but came up empty.

Sheriff's investigators ultimately contacted Powers' mother, sister and two daughters. DNA samples from her family confirmed Powers was the victim in the case, investigators said.

With Powers now identified as the victim, investigators said they need the public's help to reconstruct her life in an effort to zero in on her killer. It's as if investigators are "back to day one," said Sgt. Tim Chantler of the cold case unit.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department Homicide Unit and San Diego County Crime Stoppers are asking for information to help solve this case. Your anonymous tip may provide answers to questions Claudette's family have been asking for more than three decades.

Call the Sheriff's Homicide Unit at (858) 285-6330. You can remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477. You could be eligible for up to a $1,000 reward for information that leads to a felony arrest.

This is the seventh time the Sheriff's Homicide Unit has used investigative genetic genealogy to solve or identify remains in a cold case.

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