DNA Links Jawbone to Missing Crew Member from 1987 Shipwreck

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Jul 09, 2024

In December 1987, the commercial fishing boat “Midnight Sun” attempted to navigate a storm into Humboldt Bay, California. The violent weather capsized the vessel, tragically killing three crew members.

While the skipper survived, the search for the missing crew began, marking the start of a decades-long mystery.

Search Efforts and Initial Recovery

Following the wreck, search teams managed to recover one crew member’s body. However, the remaining two crew members were never found.

A close up of the ocean waves crashing near shore

Source: Muffin Creatives/Pexels

Despite extensive efforts, their fates remained unknown, leaving families in anguish and uncertainty.

Discovery at Houda Point

A breakthrough occurred in March 1991 when a human jawbone was found at Houda Point near Trinidad, California. This discovery offered a glimmer of hope that the missing crew members might finally be identified.

An overhead aerial shot of a wavy blue sea

Source: wirestock/freepik

However, initial DNA testing yielded no matches in the existing databases.

Advances in DNA Technology

The case remained cold until December 2022, when the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office partnered with Othram Inc.

Digital illustration of a DNA genome

Source: Freepik

Using advanced forensic genetic genealogy, Othram scientists developed a comprehensive DNA profile from the jawbone, paving the way for new investigative leads.

The Role of Genetic Genealogy

Genetic genealogy combines DNA testing with traditional genealogical research to create family history profiles.

A photograph of two scientists working in their lab

Source: Freepik

This technique has revolutionized the field of forensic science, enabling researchers to establish biological relationships and identify unknown individuals.

Othram's Breakthrough

Othram’s team used the DNA profile to conduct genetic genealogy research, which led to the identification of potential relatives.

A scientist responsible for DNA sequencing.

Source: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

Their findings pointed towards Milton Leon Pelligrini Jr. as the likely owner of the jawbone. This breakthrough brought new hope to solving the decades-old mystery.


Connecting the Dots

The crucial next step was obtaining a DNA sample from Milton’s brother, Paul Pelligrini.

Researcher conducts a DNA study in Centers for Disease Control laboratory

Source: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

By comparing Paul’s DNA to the jawbone’s DNA, investigators confirmed a familial match. This confirmation provided the closure that had eluded the Pelligrini family for years.


The Pelligrini Family's Reaction

Paul Pelligrini expressed relief and sadness upon learning that the remains were those of his brother, Milton.

A reporter is pictured taking notes

Source: Freepik

The identification brought a sense of closure to the family, who had been living with uncertainty since the 1987 wreck.


Implications of the Identification

This case shows the power of modern DNA technology in solving cold cases.

A scientist in full protective gear works on extracting ancient DNA from a bone.

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/Wikimedia Commons

The successful identification of Milton Leon Pelligrini Jr. highlights how forensic advancements can bring answers and peace to families affected by unresolved tragedies.


The Importance of Persistence

The identification process took decades of persistent effort from law enforcement and forensic experts.

A photograph of a researcher at his desk

Source: Freepik

It serves as an example of the importance of never giving up on cold cases, as advancements in technology can eventually provide the necessary breakthroughs.


A Landmark in Forensic Science

This case also represents a significant milestone in the application of genetic genealogy in forensic science.

A scientist extracts DNA from Bacteria.

Source: Ajay Kumar Chaurasiya/Wikimedia

It demonstrates the potential of DNA technology to resolve long-standing mysteries and bring closure to grieving families.


Future Prospects in Forensic Genealogy

The success of this case suggests promising future applications of genetic genealogy.

A photograph of several scientists working in their lab

Source: Freepik

As DNA technology continues to evolve, it holds the potential to solve more cold cases, providing answers and justice for those affected by past tragedies.