Rhonda Roby: Forensic Legend

When I met world-renowned DNA expert Rhonda Roby for this profile piece, I hoped I could halfway keep up with her brain. I knew she’d dedicated her life to prying answers from bones and putting names to the victims of 9/11, serial killers, and the Vietnam War. I never expected her to inspire a character in Black-Eyed Susans, right down to the DNA charm she wears around her neck.

(Originally published in D Magazine, November 2012. Photographs by Elizabeth Lavin.)

By Julia Heaberlin

Rhonda RobyFew people know that while New York was burning on September 13, 2001, one of the few private planes flying the empty skies that day carried a band of the nation’s top scientists and businesspeople. Dr. Rhonda Roby was among them, shooting through the clouds toward the grimmest mission of her life.

She didn’t balk. She didn’t even pack. She was asked to drop everything and go identify the missing, and it never occurred to her to say no. It is, she says, what she was put on earth to do. When Roby and her colleagues landed that day in White Plains, New York, they were quickly escorted to the office of the chief medical examiner in New York City.

A police car drove them the rest of the way to hell.

Roby remembers death, everywhere. A cloudy haze of incinerated debris. Burning fires. Smells that, even as a forensic expert, she will never forget. Papers drifting listlessly downward. She doesn’t know why, but she grabbed two of those papers falling from the sky, an email and spreadsheet, and jammed them in her pocket.

Standing there in the middle of the smoking apocalypse of the Twin Towers, she pushed aside emotion and forced the scientist part of her brain to click. “I kept thinking, ‘These people are walking on my crime scene.’ ” She checks herself. “Well, not my crime scene, but the crime scene. Of course, I wanted to identify as many remains as possible.”

While firemen and policemen all around her desperately searched for signs of life, Roby was doing math. At the time, she was the forensic manager for Applied Biosystems, a private biotech company. She stepped into the scene at 9/11 as one of the world’s leading experts in mitochondrial DNA, with hard-core experience identifying victims of mass disasters from tiny fragments of bone. There were thousands of dead. It would be necessary to sequence about 1,000 bases of DNA information on each sample of human remains, the painstaking process required to order the building blocks of a person’s unique DNA.

In the end, Roby led a team that processed 21,000 DNA samples dug from the rubble of the World Trade Center. She will go down in history as one of the scientists who rushed to Ground Zero, including superstar biologist Craig Venter, famous for his work deciphering the human genetic code. Venter, instrumental in tapping her expertise for 9/11, became a friend through the experience.

Roby now operates out of the UNT Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth as part of a team of experts who have quietly built the organization into one of the foremost forensic DNA labs in the world. When it comes to identifying old bones, UNTCHI has become known for its tenacity in bringing closure to cold cases. Late last year, the lab garnered national headlines for matching family reference samples with bones of one of the victims of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was put to death almost 20 years ago. Hundreds of bones from hopeful law enforcement agencies are shipped from across the United States and processed here every year, half of them victims of murderers who think they’ve gotten away with it forever. Many of them have.

Roby sees all of these bones as families, waiting. She doesn’t consider herself any kind of hero or focus on the graphic nature of her work. At 9/11, she does recall one of her personal frustrations, and it had nothing to do with lab work.

On a few occasions, when the identification of a victim relied heavily on DNA, she was called in to explain the science to grieving families. She remembers sitting across from relatives of victims who worked in the kitchens at the top of the World Trade Center as dishwashers and cooks. The families couldn’t speak English. Roby couldn’t speak Spanish. She was sharing a painful, scientific truth that would change these families forever, but a middleman, an interpreter, was relaying it. This bothered her immensely. So Roby, in her late 30s, set a new goal for herself: to learn Spanish.

There’s not much she won’t do for the sake of the families. She is quick to tell you that her work is not about the victim but about the mothers, fathers, and siblings who are still alive. Yes, she says, Ground Zero exacted its price on her soul, but she will never regret her time. “I would have done anything. And I did, for three years. Day and night.”

Rhonda Roby: emailThe email she pulled out of the air on September 13, 2001, is now framed behind glass and hangs in her house in Fort Worth, exactly as it was, crumpled and dirty.

It bears the words “Talk to you soon.”

If anything good came of the horrible night in 1977 that a monster roamed the woods of Camp Scott in northeastern Oklahoma, it took root in Rhonda Roby.

Roby was a shy junior high school science whiz tucked safely in her bed 150 miles away the night that three Girl Scouts she did not know, would never know, were raped, murdered, and dragged out of their tents at a group camp-out and dumped in the brush.

A counselor found their bodies about 6 am.

Lori Farmer, 8. Denise Milner, 10. Michele Guse, 9. Their bright, beautiful faces were printed alongside the stories that chronicled the brutal way they died and the manhunt for their killer. Their innocence was in the details: the bow-shaped barrette, the dog-ear ponytails, a grin with a gap tooth. Fourteen-year-old Rhonda Roby was reading almost every word. In a way, those girls staring out from the page were speaking to her. Roby had once worn the Brownie uniform, too.

Thirty-five years later, the Girl Scout Murders remain unsolved, but the case still hangs in the back of Roby’s mind. It is the traumatic event that lit her passion for forensic science. There is something wishful in her voice when she talks about it. Attempts to identify DNA from that long-ago crime scene have been made by other labs as recently as 2008, but the sample has degraded too much. “I really wanted to get involved,” Roby says. “But I was thinking, ‘It just sounds like there isn’t the evidence … and the major suspect is dead.’ ”

On an ordinary day free of gore and death, she sits in a cramped, windowless conference room at the UNT Center for Human Identification, drinking Diet Coke from a giant Styrofoam cup. She has squiggled a DNA molecule in pen on the side of her cup, her habit, so everybody knows that it’s her Diet Coke. Don’t drink it. Please return if found. The same squiggle hangs around her neck, a gold charm.

“I sign everything with a DNA molecule,” she says, grinning. “I draw this guy a million different ways. He’s dancing. Bending over.”

Roby is funny, which is unexpected for a world-respected forensic DNA expert whose life is a steady diet of the grotesque and the immense sadness that lies in a set of unidentified bones. There is no fancy office for the project coordinator of this state-of-the-art crime lab that sits off Camp Bowie Boulevard. No patronizing in her slightly twangy accent when explaining the science of her pioneering work into extracting mitochondrial DNA, technology now used by the FBI and many crime labs across America. No sense at all of the ego that should be attached to such a talent.

This is an Oklahoma girl and daughter of a lay preacher, driven to identify the missing by the belief that “everybody is loved by someone, even the street person.” She grows emotional often and without apology.

“I think there is something wrong if it doesn’t bother you,” she says. “Some scientists are kind of stoic about it. But I can’t tell you that I don’t go home and think about semen stains on a 6-year-old’s SpongeBob underwear.” She pauses for a second. “What I can do is see the grotesque and not be grossed out by it. The finger. The guts. That’s the gift that I have.”

Her résumé, a litany of horror, reads like the plot lines to the ubiquitous forensic TV shows that have caused her field to explode with wannabe young scientists. Roby even programmed the DNA instruments and provided props for the first episodes of CSI, although the scientists in stilettos achieve much speedier results than she does.

In real life, Roby wears sensible shoes, and the sky is not so sunny. She has examined the DNA of women snuffed out by Seattle’s Green River serial killer and the casualties of high-profile airplane crashes, including the one carrying Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown in 1996. She has put names to the bones of Vietnam and Korean MIAs, to the burned remains of Branch Davidians at the Waco compound, to those buried in Chile in mass graves after the 1973 coup by Augusto Pinochet. Yet she seems not the slightest bit weary or discouraged about the evil that lurks in human nature, about terrorists and serial killers who will keep scientists like her busy for the rest of time.

Dr. Arthur Eisenberg, the scientific virtuoso who founded the UNTCHI lab, recruited Roby as an associate professor and researcher six years ago and easily ticks off the reasons why: her big heart, impressive casework, and a shared passion to speed up the chemistry, robotics, and computer analysis of the DNA identification process so that families of the missing get their answers sooner. “She’s an amazing woman,” Eisenberg says.

Roby shrugs off praise, saying that she doesn’t have the ingenuity or intellectual ability of some of the contemporary greats in her field, although she has been “one of the luckiest people in the world” to work beside them. She considers herself more of a workhorse, with an admitted knack for hooking onto interesting cases.

Even before she landed in Texas, Roby had a significant impact on an infamous Texas case known as the KFC Murders. She spent her early career setting up the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, identifying MIAs and pioneering methods to extract mitochondrial DNA from degraded bones. So it was a surprise one day in 1995 when a team from Texas Attorney General Dan Morales’ office showed up out of the blue. They wanted her help in identifying the killer who had abducted five people from a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kilgore and shot them to death in an oil field in 1983.

It was even more of a surprise that the sole piece of evidence they’d be handing off was a fingernail fragment found in the belt loop of one of the victims. The murders had happened years earlier, but a major suspect was in jail.

Roby had never attempted to extract mitochondrial DNA from a fingernail, but Texas law enforcement and politicians pleaded their case. Roby went to work. She got a result, all right. The fingernail matched a victim, not James Earl Mankins Jr., the son of a Texas state representative who sat accused of the crime. Mankins was freed. Years later, in 2005, two other men were convicted of the crime through lab work conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Every now and then, she has dabbled in romanticized history, helping put to rest the folklore that Princess Anastasia escaped when the rest of the Romanov royal family were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The mitochondrial DNA work proved once and for all that Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, and their five children were murdered and buried in two graves near each other. Roby mentions, as an afterthought almost, that she was one of the students in a lab who consulted briefly on the case of the bones thought to be those of Christopher Columbus. Ultimately, the remains were too degraded to prove it.

“I’m just a forensic scientist,” she insists. “It’s in my blood.”

When 14-year-old Rhonda Roby scoured newspaper stories about the Girl Scout Murders, she frequently happened upon the name of a forensic scientist, Ann Reed, who was working the case for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. Roby, extremely shy, worked up the nerve to call her. She got a tour of the lab for her efforts and was hooked.

Another case at that time, the kidnapping of a girl, also stood out for young Roby. She was fascinated by a very tiny clue. A single red carpet fiber found in the suspect’s pickup truck matched the carpet in the abducted girl’s home. It sounds so rudimentary now. Little did Roby know that, years later, she’d be using bits of bone to identify women strangled and dumped by Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer in Washington, who has admitted to at least 49 murders.

At the time Roby graduated from high school, DNA as a common identification tool was a speck in a wheat field. The energetic, straight-A student charged headlong out of Oklahoma, landing first at Washington University in St. Louis and then UC Berkeley for graduate school. UC Berkeley, she says, “opened my eyes to a whole new world,” building her confidence and sweeping her shyness away for good. At UC Berkeley, she fell in love with her specialty: mitochondrial DNA.

Two kinds of DNA reside in most human cells: nuclear and mitochondrial. Nuclear DNA comes from both parents, half from the mother, half from the father. But the mother provides 100 percent of the cell’s mitochondrial DNA, and it remains identical in ancestors for many generations. That is why it is critical in identifying old bones, like in the case of the Romanov family. And its determination to stick around makes it a godsend for skeletal remains that have been buried and exposed to dirt, bacteria, and water, bones that not so long ago couldn’t give any clues.

But Roby’s role in advancing mitochondrial DNA as a critical tool in forensic science has not always been easy. She never imagined that one day in her early career, she would stand smack in the center of a fiery controversy where the heart of her work was on the line. Neither did she expect that the woman casting serious doubt would be a hero of hers, Dr. Mary-Claire King, the geneticist in the history books for discovering the genetic marker for breast cancer. King also happened to be the UC Berkeley professor who handed Roby her only A+ in grad school.

The case of Cold War veteran Archie T. Bourg Jr., missing in action since 1958, threw teacher and student back into the same ring, but in opposite corners.

In the early ’90s, Roby was a young scientist extracting mitochondrial DNA from the bones of MIAs and identifying soldiers for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology lab near Washington, D.C. At the time, there were only a few seminal papers and not much casework using mitochondrial DNA for human identification. Roby was successfully charting a path when some of Bourg’s remains were brought to her decades after he was shot down over Armenia. She made the identification. But Archie’s sister, Lorna, somewhat understandably, wanted a second opinion after all that time had passed. She turned to the renowned Dr. King to repeat the tests.

King’s opinion was a shock. She declared the remains were not those of Lorna’s brother.

“Essentially, she was saying we weren’t doing quality work,” Roby says.

It is clearly still a painful episode for Roby to talk about, but she won’t dismiss an icon, a woman who broke barriers for her and other female scientists. “I admire her immensely,” she says. “She’s a remarkable woman.”

Roby was called to defend her work. She stayed up all night double-checking every bit of the quality control that is at the heart of good DNA science, something she talks about often. It is critical that the reference material, in this case DNA from the sister, Lorna Bourg, was processed in a different lab or at a different time than that of the evidentiary material, the skeletal remains of her brother. Roby knew that Archie’s skeletal remains were processed long before Lorna’s DNA, so there was no possibility of contamination.

There are tears in Roby’s eyes today when she recalls standing in front of the Armed Force’s top gun of pathology and declaring, “Yes, sir, I know I’m right.”

The tears don’t come from anger or sadness. They flow because a good man did the right thing at one of the more important junctures of Roby’s career. From that moment on, the Department of Defense backed her every step of the way, although it laid down a temporary moratorium on all MIA identifications that relied on mitochondrial DNA. A review board was formed that included the late Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg, and a UK forensic lab was chosen to run the battery of DNA tests a third time.

The UK lab confirmed Roby’s findings: the remains were most likely that of Archie T. Bourg Jr.

“It was stressful for me personally,” Roby says. “And this community, it’s pretty unforgiving. If you make a mistake, it’s known.” But, in typical Roby fashion, she points out that it was an incredible experience for a young scientist, a once-shy girl from Oklahoma, to present in front of someone like Joshua Lederberg.

The moratorium lasted a year, time that Roby spent with her team quietly matching the DNA of skeletal remains of MIAs with reference samples of living relatives, so that a flood of identifications was ready for waiting families.

She is earnestly proud to be part of a long, determined American tradition of identifying the war dead, from the simple cross pins with names that soldiers wore in the Civil War, to dog tags, to the DNA efforts now used to try to put a name to every single casualty of war.

On what she calls “The Roby Tour of Washington, D.C.,” she sweeps people along the Vietnam Memorial, halting at the names of soldiers on the wall who were identified thanks to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, where she worked. “I have a lot of favorites,” she says. “I have one of the earliest cases using DNA identification. I can take you directly to the line and space on the wall where that is.”

She’s a little stymied by the public’s distrust of the government in this area. “I have worked with the FBI on the Branch Davidians. I’ve worked with the Department of Defense, with the country of Chile, and never once have I ever seen anybody try to shortcut anything. … No one has ever said, ‘Well, Rhonda, could you make that report a little more compelling?’ ”

It’s why she likes to meet with family members whenever she can. “If I can speak to a family member, and they can look me in the eyes, and they can know that I’m being honest with them, I think that goes a long way versus a government official telling them something.”

The buzzing of the saws drifts through the glass, like it’s coming down the street on a lazy Saturday. A young woman in a white lab coat on the other side of the window holds a skull with the same care she would hold a newborn baby. There is a gaping black square in the middle of the forehead.

This means an attempt has already been made to extract DNA, but the four young women in the lab this Tuesday morning, most of them forensic analysts, will go at it again. These are the same young women who worked on the bones of eight unidentified victims of John Wayne Gacy, who murdered more than 30 young men and boys in the 1970s. The Chicago cold case stirred a frenzy of media attention for the UNT center late last year, especially after the lab’s DNA results quickly identified No. 19, so named for years because he was the 19th body dug from the grave under Gacy’s house. Now we know the name his mother gave him: William George Bundy.

Tom Dart, Chicago’s high-profile Cook County sheriff, chose the UNT lab to help clear this cold case because of its stellar reputation, the price tag (free), and a willingness to dive right in.

“I think [the quick ID] has quite frankly shocked a lot of people up here,” Dart says. “Families understood that this was now real.” So that means even more families are queuing up to offer DNA samples, hoping for a match. Dart is a guy who has seen just about everything in his line of work, but even he seems touched by the time he spent with the Bundy family after the bombshell of the identification. “I really didn’t know how it was going to play out … [but] I cannot tell you the catharsis, that they finally had closure. I mean, it was an amazing thing to see.”

A few of the bones spread out in the lab today—three skulls, a rib—are perhaps less notorious but no less important. They are carefully wrapped and still waiting to be placed under one of the large, clear hoods where a forensic analyst will use a Stryker or Dremel saw to cut and sand a tiny piece. That fragment will be handed off to another analyst a few feet away, who will use bleach, water, and ethanol to clean the bone before it is pulverized. The DNA is extracted from this fine powder. The four women move in a comfortable rhythm while a tech constantly sprays down surfaces to prevent contamination.

Today’s bones, about 30 of them, have arrived here from fields and medical examiners’ offices in Missouri, Alabama, Ohio, and beyond. Sometimes, the bones are found in a field by a farmer. Sometimes, the lab is trying to confirm a “warm hit,” a case where a medical examiner is fairly sure who it is, based on circumstances and other evidence, but wants DNA confirmation.

Strangely, the skull is not a favorite with scientists when extracting mitochondrial DNA. If they have a choice, Roby says, they prefer long, dense bones, like femurs, which generally offer a longer string of DNA. But the center has become known all over the world for extracting mitochondrial DNA from old and degraded human remains when no one else can. “We are committed,” Roby says. If the scientists can’t get a full sequence from the first bone fragment, they try again. And again. And sometimes again.

Except for the buzzing of saw against bone, this state-of-the-art, sixth-floor facility is quiet.

Somewhere down the hall, a vault holds a cache of bones, teeth, clothing, and blood.

Rhonda Roby calls them “my moments.” They can last a minute, an hour, a weekend. It’s the time she carries a precious secret: the identity of someone lost. “You hold in your hands the data, and, by golly, you know. That’s him. Those moments are very private for me.”

There are usually lag times in making any identification official. Roby and other forensic scientists work long, strange hours, and every identification through DNA must be reviewed independently and confirmed by a second analyst. In real life, it is the job of the coroner or medical examiner to make the official ID. Forensic scientists are responsible for making “associations” and handing over the probability, somewhere in the 99th percentile, that they’ve matched the DNA of skeletal remains with DNA provided by a family member.

At a lunch, Roby met some family members who were active in pushing for proper identification of those slaughtered in Pinochet’s coup. It dawned on her as she was being introduced that they were the family of someone she’d just identified in the lab. But it wasn’t her job to tell. “I am just thrilled beyond belief that they are getting ready to go into a meeting to tell people how important it is that the government still needs to work on these cases, that they just want their loved ones back. And I want to jump across the table and hug them and tell them, ‘It’s done!’ ”

On a winter day in Chile while she was working the Patio 29 grave site, Roby accomplished another goal she had set for herself. Long-suffering family members were watching as Roby and others carefully exhumed bones from the crypts and burial sites of Pinochet’s victims. Roby needed a break. Dressed in a Tyvek suit to prevent contamination, she pulled off her hood and began walking toward a Chilean judge to share some information. A relative of a victim stopped her.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for everything you are doing.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she replied, in Spanish, and kept walking, realizing that those few words meant something huge to her.

After several minutes with the judge, she returned to the man’s side. “I told him: ‘I just want to thank you for talking to me. I don’t have a lot of contact with the families. We will do everything we can do.’ He said, ‘I know you are.’ It was a brief conversation, but … I wanted the family to know me, not know me through an interpreter.”

Roby has wrapped up the final details of her work in Chile—processing bones, reviewing the DNA’s peaks and valleys, matching tomb numbers and grave sites, putting names to the misidentified and providing comfort to cynical, grieving families who had been waiting for answers for more than 30 years.

Who knows what big case will knock on her door next? In the meantime, in her other job as a UNT Health Science Center associate professor, she nurtures the next round of American scientists. That includes two top-notch Ph.D. students analyzing mitochondrial DNA with the hope of solving some of the riddles of prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s. She and grad student Nicole Phillips just received a $100,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Association, with one of the hopes that their work could help lead to earlier diagnosis.

“They teach me,” Roby says of her students. “Every day, I learn something new from them.”

Pauline Roby, the woman who gave birth to this scientist 49 years ago and is still holding down the homestead in Oklahoma, says her daughter has always been this way. Always compassionate. Always looking for solutions to problems. Always fixing things, including the old, beat-up British car, a Morris Minor, that she drove in high school.

That’s a good clue as to why a prototype for a bone-processing machine Roby designed sits in her garage at this minute, waiting for the $40,000 she needs to fund the TCU engineering student interested in building it for her.

“When she was a child,” Pauline Roby says, “I would always tell her, ‘Rhonda, you’re so smart.’ She didn’t like me to say that.” One day, little Rhonda Roby arrived home from seventh grade, and her mom said it again, maybe one time too many.

Her extremely smart daughter turned to her.

“Mom, I’m not smart,” she said impatiently. “I care.”