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Forensic genetic genealogy identifies man killed in January Atlanta house fire

It all started with a cotton swab after DNA testing of a family member showed a close relationship to the victim.

ATLANTA — We have results from an 11Alive investigation that's getting answers for the family of a man killed in a fire in Fulton County. 

The victim's badly burned body has gone unidentified for months, but forensic genetic genealogy is getting closure for the family. 

It all started with a cotton swab after DNA testing of a family member showed a close relationship to the victim. 

We first told you about the technology in an 11Alive News investigation that solved a four-decade old cold case in Gwinnett County. 

11Alive investigative reporter Kristin Crowley got in touch with the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office, who thought this would be the perfect case for the emerging technology.  

“There was one victim that they had found in the debris and they were unable to identify him," Dr. David Mittelman said.

The fire along Oak Drive in south Atlanta in January of this year left the man found inside unrecognizable. 

“There’s really nothing left, no information or anything," Mittelman said. 

Dr. Mittelman, the CEO of Othram, said someone who thought the victim may be a family member came forward.

“When we did the comparison work, we found out that, in fact, it was that person they thought it was," Mittelman said. "It ended up being this Black man who is, I believe, 59 years old at the time that he had died, and his name was Zachary Wells.” 

A new technique called forensic genome sequencing gave the family some closure. 

“This is probably the most amazing thing that's happened in forensic science from the perspective of DNA testing since the late 80s," Mittelman said. 

Mittelman said standard DNA technology collects 20 markers, but in forensic genetic genealogy, hundreds of thousands of markers are identified. 

“Folks are sending us either like the skeletal remains were, they'll send us, you know, some kind of piece of tissue. Sometimes there's some blood that's recovered at the scene," Mittelman said. 

The victim's DNA is compared to his or her own DNA if it's available. If not, a family member can provide a sample.

“We can figure out, you know, a little bit more information about historical origins, distant relatives and pieced together clues," Mittelman said. 

The company Othram is currently working on identifying more unknown people in Georgia in Fulton, Cobb, and Gwinnett Counties. For more information on the company, click here

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