An unidentified body found in Dade County nearly 34 years ago turned out to be missing Michigan teenager Stacey Lyn Chahorski, Georgia law enforcement officials announced Thursday.
Authorities credited decades of persistence, coordination among multiple law enforcement agencies and a new type of genealogy investigation for the break in this case.
"This is the fourth cold case that agents have either brought a killer to justice and/or brought the victim home that's been identified to their families," said Joe Montgomery, Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent in charge, at a Thursday news conference. "Today marks the day where we hunt for the killer now."
The solved cold cases were from the past four years of investigations out of GBI's Calhoun office, which covers 12 counties in Northwest Georgia, Montgomery said in a follow-up phone interview.
Chahorski last talked to her mother Sept. 15, 1988, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a database on missing persons. Montgomery said no one knows why she was in Georgia, but investigators think she was traveling from either Knoxville or Charlotte, North Carolina, by bus or hitchhiking.
She was 19 when she went missing and would have turned 52 on Thursday, according to a GBI written statement.
Around 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16, 1988, the Dade County Sheriff's Office and the GBI responded to a report by the Georgia Department of Transportation of a dead body in an Interstate 59 northbound lane, 5.3 miles from the Alabama state line. The body was an unidentified woman who had been killed, the statement said. Montgomery said investigators are certain she was killed but declined to say how.
Over the decades, GBI agents and Dade County investigators kept working the case, the GBI said in the statement. Early on in the investigation, a GBI forensic artist made a clay rendering and drew composites to recreate the victim's likeness to assist identification.
In about 2005, investigators found additional evidence after the case was reassigned. That evidence was sent to the FBI lab in Washington, where analysts developed a DNA profile of the victim and entered that into a missing persons DNA database, the release reported.
In 2015, the case was reassigned again, and the clay renderings and composites were updated to reflect what she would look like then due to aging. More recently, Montgomery said the GBI reached out to the FBI about using a private company, Othram Lab, that uses DNA and genealogy to solve cold cases.
"We realized that as science changes, we knew of a new process with genealogy DNA, so we asked the FBI to help us with that. That created a new profile that had her identified as Ms. Chahorski," Montgomery said at the news conference.
In the follow-up interview, Montgomery said the profile from Othram Lab gave law enforcement distant relatives that had to be investigated, eliminating possible matches. Once investigators believed they found a match, Chahorski was identified for certain using fingerprints.
"It's a lot more leg work than we're used to, but it's been very successful," Montgomery said.
Cold cases are being solved every day using this process, he added.
Chattanooga is fortunate to have a cold case unit, Montgomery said, because GBI agents have to investigate their cold cases on top of their usual workload. There are six agents in his office working 200 to 300 cases a year, including 20 to 40 death investigations. He said he'd like to have a cold case unit, but the budget just isn't there.
"For them to make that time to make cases and solve them, it says a lot about their dedication and the tenacity of these guys [GBI agents]," Montgomery said.
Right now, investigators are focusing on getting Chahorski's body back to her family, Montgomery said, including jewelry that was found on her body. In 1989, she was buried as a Jane Doe in a Dade County cemetery but will be returned to her home in Norton Shores, Michigan.
The release also reported that this joint investigation remains active and ongoing. Anonymous tips can be reported by calling 800-597-8477, online at gbi.georgia.gov, or by downloading the See Something, Send Something mobile app.