Julie Esther Hawkins

Julie Esther Hawkins

Much has changed in the decades since deer hunters in 1973 first found the remains of Julie Esther Hawkins, 16, in a wooded area near Clodine Road and FM 1464.

What was once a remote part of Fort Bend County is now filled with housing developments. And residents now communicate instantaneously on smartphones and the internet.

For all the technological advances and the rapid growth and development in Fort Bend County since 1973, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the mystery surrounding Hawkins’ death.

Investigators with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office are now hopeful that new advances in DNA technology might finally help them crack the case that has eluded a conviction for 48 years, detective Scott Minyard said.

"This may be a cold case, but that doesn't mean it can't be solved," Minyard said. "Especially with the advances in technologies available to us today."

A nonprofit organization recently gave the sheriff’s office a $10,100 grant that investigators are using to incorporate advanced DNA technology into the search for Hawkins’ killer.

Detectives in 1973 quickly determined Hawkins was strangled to death, said Jacqueline Preston, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

Minyard declined to go into too much detail about the scene itself, but told the Fort Bend Star that those initial detectives found forensic material near Hawkins’ body, and developed a lengthy list of persons of interest.

"The original detectives developed quite a few persons of interest that our victim had known or associated with," Minyard said. "We are hopeful of developing DNA profiles that may lead us to the suspect."

At the time, DNA testing was in its infancy, Minyard said.

The sheriff’s office temporarily reopened Hawkins’ case in 2007 and attempted DNA and fingerprint analysis on some of the items found near the body, Minyard said. But technology hadn’t yet advanced to where it sits today, he said.

Derek Cutler is a senior DNA analyst at Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Forensics, where the sheriff’s office has sent the forensic evidence this year to test using more advanced technology.

Forensic science has made rapid advances in recent years, and will continue to do so in coming years, Cutler explained.

But some of the recent advances include something called next generation sequency, Cutler said. Traditional DNA forensic profiling, called STR profiling, took a sample and generated a DNA profile based on whatever the dominant DNA strain was, Cutler said.

Using a newer technology called YSTR DNA testing, however, forensic investigators can single out Y chromosomes from a sample with mixed DNA, allowing for two separate DNA profiles, Cutler said.

Forensic experts can also now draw older and degraded DNA from samples, Minyard added.

Advances both in DNA technology and forensic genealogy have already helped police departments and law enforcement agencies solve cold cases, some decades old.

Deputies with Montana’s Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, for instance, recently used DNA technology and genealogy databases to solve a double homicide from 1956, according to a National Public Radio report.

Those investigators were inspired to try new forensic genealogy because of its use to identify the Golden State Killer in 2018, according to the article.

It typically takes about 30 days to complete a DNA analysis from the time it is received, Cutler said.

"It is obvious from the case files that detectives put a lot of effort into solving this case," Minyard said. "They did all they could. With modern advances in forensic technology, we can breathe new life into this case."

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