Genealogist who found Opelika Jane Doe’s parents breaks down process

Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 10:54 PM EST
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OPELIKA, Ala. (WTVM) - Opelika’s Baby Jane Doe case is one that’s still touching the hearts of folks in the community.

After the case went cold for nearly 11 years, Thursday, we finally learned her name -- Amore Wiggins and the name of the man accused of her murder, her father Lamar Vickerstaff Jr.

Several forensics teams were involved in solving the case. We told you about one of those companies Thursday night, and tonight we talk exclusively with a genealogist that played a key role in helping to determine little Amore’s name and identified her parents.

Following Thursday’s press conference, Opelika Police highlighted the work completed by Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, the investigative genealogist who played a crucial role in tracking down Amore Wiggins’ parents. Tonight, Dr. Rae-Venter tells News Leader 9 more about the lengthy process.

In 2012, police discovered skeletal remains belonging to a little girl and naming her their ‘Baby Jane Doe.’ For the next several years, forensic experts say they struggled to identify her because of the poor condition of her DNA until Thursday when officials introduced her as Amore Wiggins.

The Opelika Police department worked with several companies. One of those companies was Firebird Forensics Group, owned by genealogist Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, well regarded for her work in solving at least 50 cold cases across the country.

During an interview with News Leader 9, she talked a little bit more about the technique used in this case to determine who Amore was, known as investigative genetic genealogy.

“It’s actually a technique that was developed by DNAAdoption for helping people who are adopted or donor conceived or in some way do not know who their biological relatives are,” said Dr. Rae-Venter.

Here’s how Dr. Rae-Venter says the technique was used:

With curly hair found at the scene, another forensics company known as Astrea used strands of hair to create a profile of the child’s DNA. Another company known as Othram, used the child’s skeletal remains to create another profile of the her DNA.

Both profiles were then uploaded online to websites like Family Tree DNA and GedMatch, where family trees showing the child’s relatives were then created.

“In her case, of course, what we were starting out with is that she probably lived in Opelika, Alabama,” Dr. Rae-Venter explains.

That is until they determined who her biological father was -- Lamar Vickerstaff Jr., an Opelika native stationed in Virginia at the time.

With that in mind, they switched gears, laser-focused on finding the child’s mom, who they knew was in Virginia. Shortly after, they found a woman who lived in the same apartment building at the time as Vickerstaff. That woman, Sherry Wiggins, turned out to be the child’s biological mom.

“And particularly when we went once, the detective had talked to Sherry Wiggins and learned that she thought that her daughter was still alive. I mean, that was a real shocker,” said Dr. Rae-Venter.

Though it took some time, she says she felt accomplished when they finally were able to identify Amore Wiggins and find her parents.

Lamar Vickerstaff Jr., Amore Wiggins’ father was charged with felony murder in connection to her death and his wife, Ruth, was charged with failure to report a missing child. Both are expected to be extradicted back to Lee County, Alabama soon. Anyone with information about their relationship with Amore is asked to call Opelika Police.