January 19, 2004

Forensic analysts at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth provided critical DNA evidence used by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office to identify skeletal fragments found in north Fort Worth as those of missing six-year-old Opal Jo Jennings.

Opal was abducted March 26, 1999, while playing with two other children near her grandmother’s home in Saginaw. Horseback riders spotted remains in a rural area of northwest Fort Worth Dec. 30, 2003, and a search of the area ensued.

Soon after the remains were found, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office submitted a small bone fragment to UNTHSC’s DNA Identity Laboratory. The lab collected a family reference sample from Opal’s mother, Leola Sanderford, for inclusion in the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database. Due to the condition of the bone fragment, the lab was initially able to obtain only a mitochondrial DNA profile. The mitochondrial type from the bone fragment matched that of Leola Sanderford, Opal’s mother. The DNA testing at this point demonstrated a likely maternal relationship between the reference sample from Leola and the remains.

After consulting with the Chief Medical Examiner, Nizam Peerwani, MD, the lab was provided with a tooth for further DNA analysis. The DNA obtained from the tooth yielded conclusive DNA evidence indicating with a 99.99% probability that the remains were those of Opal Jennings. Dr. Peerwani officially identified the remains as those of Opal Jan. 12.

The state legislature established the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database in 2001 on the UNT Health Science Center campus with funding provided by the Attorney General’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. The database began accepting samples from Texas law enforcement agencies in March of 2003.

“Because of the expertise and resources we have here at the health science center, we were able to provide Dr. Peerwani with conclusive results significantly sooner than he had originally anticipated, thus providing the family with the knowledge that Opal has been finally found,” said Arthur Eisenberg, PhD, director of the DNA Identity Lab.

Texas is the only state to operate its own Missing Persons DNA Database as an additional tool for investigators trying to locate missing persons or identify remains. The project compares DNA samples from family members of missing persons with samples from unidentified bodies, at no charge to law enforcement agencies or the families.

The health science center’s DNA Identity Lab has provided scientific and technical support for Texas law enforcement agencies and crime labs for more than 10 years, including paternity testing, forensic genetic screening and DNA testing. The lab is one of only a handful of facilities that are able to conduct mitochondrial forensic DNA analysis and the only state laboratory that can submit mitochondrial DNA profiles directly to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


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