Roadside strangling victim identified 33 years later as police hunt killer

North Carolina investigators used DNA and forensic genealogy to identify a woman who had been strangled to death and dumped on the side of a freeway more than three decades ago.

The body of Lisa Coburn Kesler, 20, of Jacksonville, Georgia, was found along the side of I-40 East near New Hope Church Road exit in September 1990.

Police pursued hundreds of leads but hit a dead end.  

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Digital illustration of blond girl in a pink sweatshirt.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created this representation of Jane Doe before she was identified as Lisa Coburn Kesler. (Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Over the years, investigators created a bust of the victim by applying forensic facial reconstruction techniques to a model of her skull and generated a digital illustration of her face that was circulated on social media, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. 

DNA was still in its infancy and couldn’t easily be used at the time to help crack the case.

“Throughout the decades, some of our finest investigators kept plugging away. When you can’t close a case, it gets under your skin. You set the file aside for a while, but you keep coming back to it,” Sheriff Charles Blackwood said. 

Investigator Dylan Hendricks took over the case in June 2020. He sent a degraded hair fragment to Astrea Forensics for DNA extraction and the lab produced a profile of the victim. 

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A clay bust and a digital illustration of a murdered woman.

A bust of Jane Doe’s possible appearance using forensic facial reconstruction techniques to a model of her skull, left, and a digital illustration, right, before she was identified as Lisa Coburn Kesler. (Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Forensic genealogist Leslie Kaufman was then enlisted to try to identify family members using genealogy databases like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA. 

She got a hit on paternal cousins, mapped out a family tree and investigators began interviewing relatives. Kesler’s name quickly emerged as a relative who vanished three decades earlier.

“Essentially, there was a Lisa-shaped hole on a branch of the family tree right where the DNA told us Lisa should be, and no one knew where she was,” Hendricks said. 

A maternal relative provided a DNA sample, which confirmed Kesler’s identity. The chief medical examiner has now amended her death certificate to include her name. 

READ THE ORIGINAL POLICE REPORT FOR LISA COBURN KESLER 

Investigators say they can now focus on solving her murder.

“I believe we collectively demonstrated the value of dogged determination, which we will now apply to the task of identifying her killer,” Blackwood said. 

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Anyone with information is urged to call the Orange County Sheriff’s Office at 919-245-2951 or submit an anonymous tip at www.ocsonc.com.

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