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Ohio man’s skeletal remains ID’d 31 years after hunters found them

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Investigators have identified the person whose remains were found in a shallow grave in Ohio 31 years ago – now police are focused on determining what happened to Robert A. Mullins

Mullins’ family said the 21-year-old was living on the northeast side of Columbus when he went missing in late 1988 or early 1989.

Pickaway County Sheriff’s investigators said years-long efforts from Mullins’ family and law enforcement to find him were unsuccessful until advances in DNA technology allowed police to unlock the case.

“Robert’s absence was a great source of pain in their lives, especially in the life of his late mother Catherine, who never stopped looking for her son,” sheriff’s investigators said.

Found in a shallow grave

Hunters found the man’s remains in a shallow grave on Nov. 1, 1991 along a private farm lane.

Investigators initially thought the bones belonged to a female due to the person’s small size. They pegged the individual to be between 5-foot-1 and 5-foot-4 and approximately 25 years old.

Mullins was 21 years old at the time and stood at 5-foot-3.

Anthropologists said when the remains were found, they had most likely been buried for no more than three years.

A long road to identification

Since 1991 when the skeletal remains were found, the sheriff’s office has worked with multiple organizations to give the victim a name.

  • In 2012, scientists from North Texas University analyzed the bones in 2012, extracted DNA and proved the victim was a male. They also discovered his ancestry may trace back to the Indian Subcontinent.
  • Nearly a decade later,  Pickaway County investigators connected with biotechnology, DNA and investigative firms to get a DNA profile to complete genetic genealogy and track the victim down. 
  • And early this year, investigators uploaded the profile into DNA databases and learned the victim’s father  likely had ties to Virginia and his mother was of English and Indian heritage, and likely immigrated recently to the U.S.

In came nine private citizens whose DNA showed up as genetic relative matches to the man, allowing AdvanceDNA to identify a “strong lead” in his identity, the release said.

The teams met with the man’s family, who offered a DNA sample for comparison, some of whom had never met him.

“Robert was a distant cousin to them, and despite being someone they had never met, each of these relatives played a key role in bringing him home to his family,” the sheriff’s office said.

And the case isn’t solved just yet. Now that he has been identified, the sheriff’s office wants to work on figuring out what happened to him.

“If anybody has any information on what Robert was doing 31 years ago, if anybody was friends with him, please get ahold of us and let us know,” Strawser told USA TODAY.

More coverage from USA TODAY

Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757 – and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at sdmartin@usatoday.com.

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