Finding families through forensic genealogy

Retired duo helps dig up lost relatives for coroners and medical examiners around the nation

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When bones turn up in the Californian desert and investigators aren’t able to determine next of kin on their own — they’re required by law to do so to the best of their ability — they call their go-to resource — two retirees who enjoy a good puzzle.

For Donna Martin-Netherton of Farmington, Iowa, and Marcia Bignall of Williamsburg, Va., a common hobby of genealogy research quickly turned into a part-time gig after the two met online through the Association of Professional Genealogists. The online group of forensic genealogists collaborated to crack missing next of kin cases for coroners and medical examiners around the nation — but with so many cooks in the kitchen, it often took longer than necessary.

“The bigger the committee, the harder the job,” Martin-Netherton said. “It was like herding cats.”

Martin-Netherton and Bignall quickly realized they were better off on their own, so in 2008 they formed their own company, Park Street Research LLC.

“We’re two people with one brain,” Martin-Netherton said, explaining that they can “close cases” much faster than the online group, at an average pace of two to three days instead of two to three weeks. The fastest they’ve solved a case was two hours. The longest took two weeks.

And although they don’t always succeed, it’s not often they fail, with an estimated 95 percent success rate, according to Martin-Netherton.

The duo developed their genealogy skills by researching their own family trees and quickly became addicted.

“When doing genealogy, there is no end,” Bignall said. “You could go on forever and keep searching.”

“The more you find the more you want to find,” Martin-Netherton agreed. “When you find a clue, it just leads to more questions.”

When it comes to their business, however, they do not work on family trees. Their focus is on forensic genealogy, which can be much more complicated, as records for people can be difficult to find, especially in our increasingly mobile society, Martin-Netherton said.

At their most recent count, they’ve closed more than 550 cases for a number of investigators in several states, but primarily work with the San Diego and San Bernadino county police departments in California.

Although investigators can do some of the work on their own, such as searching Google and other online and government databases, they don’t have much time to do so, especially when juggling 50 plus cases, Bignall said. Nor do they have much of a budget, she added, which is why she and Martin-Netherton do most of the work for free.

“It’s really a good service for detectives. They’re overwhelmed,” Martin-Netherton said. “We’re their last resort.

“By the time they get to us, they’ve basically exhausted their resources. They really go the extra mile to do their job and find closure for families.”

Now that they’re retired — Martin-Netherton from pediatric nursing, Bignall from motherhood — they have the time and resources to help research. And with many years of experience and access to paid subscription sites such as, they’re able to work much faster than the backed-up police departments would otherwise.

“We don’t always have the best methods and training to locate families of a disconnected person,” said Deputy Coroner David VanNorman of the San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Department. “We’re not trained to do ancestry research. We’re great at finding out how and why people died, but a little less so at finding people’s families.”

“We can afford to sit down whenever and work on it,” Bignall said.

But, Martin-Netherton said, “Genealogy is much more time intensive than anyone thinks.”

And if you’re not familiar with the research, it’s not always clear where to get the best information, she added.

You can’t always trust the results of a search because “there’s so much incorrect information out there,” she said. “You have to be careful about verifying things.”

Of the hundred or so cases VanNorman estimated he’s sent to Park Street Research, he said 99 percent of the time they’re successful in finding accurate connections to families.

“They’re an absolute asset to an organization like ours,” he said. “If I fail in my duty to attempt to make contact with a family member, they may eventually find their death record and hire legal authority and sue because we didn’t do due diligence.”

Running with clues

The research process generally begins when investigators give them a name, date of birth, race and Social Security number of a deceased individual. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they know the parent’s names, too.

With the information provided, they go to Google, Facebook, online genealogy databases, vital and census records, city directories, criminal and court records, newspaper articles and more to find clues that might lead them to blood relatives.

“Sometimes you have to get creative,” Bignall said. But once they find a clue, they “run with it,” she said.

If they think they’ve found a family member, coroners and medical examiners take the information they’ve collected and start making phone calls. Then they run a DNA test to confirm the relation and then contact the next of kin.

Although they aren’t often paid for their work, the rush of finding lost relatives is rewarding enough, the pair agreed.

“Families tell us how comforting it is to know what happened to their relatives,” Martin-Netherton said. “It’s amazing how many families have relatives that disappeared.”

Especially in southern California, homeless populations are higher due to mild weather, which could explain why so many cases come from that area. But not all their work has to do with the homeless, Bignall said.

“A lot of these people are estranged from their families for whatever reason,” she explained. “Quite often, families will say we’ve been looking for them for years and now at least they know what happened to them.”

Martin-Netherton recalled a case in which they uncovered a deceased man’s granddaughter, who had been told her grandfather was killed in a car accident when he’d actually remarried and moved away. When she learned of his passing, she contacted Park Street Research to thank them for uncovering the truth.

“It’s the not knowing that’s the most destructive,” VanNorman said, explaining that people tend to envision “all kinds of terrible scenarios” of what happened to their loved ones.

In the cases of estranged family members due to some sort of resentment, reconnecting family members to let them know their relative has passed often resolves the pain between them.

“For the majority of people, in a way it takes everything back to before whatever happened so they can move on,” he said. “That to me is so rewarding.”

Bignall and Martin-Netherton described the work like one big puzzle.

“Sometimes I compare it to a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, sometimes it’s a maze,” Martin-Netherton said.

“I really enjoy looking for the pieces. When you find them, it’s great and can be pretty exciting,” Bignall said. “It’s just pure enjoyment of researching and finding bits of information and putting it all together and supplying useful information for someone.”

But genealogy isn’t for everyone, Martin-Netherton said.

“If you like beating your head against the wall, you’d probably enjoy genealogy,” she said.

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