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'The Christmas Tree Lady': DNA match helps solve 25-year-old Fairfax County cold case

Cold case detectives have solved a decades-old mystery identifying a woman who took her own life in Fairfax County (Fairfax Co. Police).
Cold case detectives have solved a decades-old mystery identifying a woman who took her own life in Fairfax County (Fairfax Co. Police).
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Cold case detectives have solved a decades-old mystery identifying a woman who took her own life in Fairfax County.

Detectives have been tracking down clues for years about the woman known only as “The Christmas Tree Lady" after a small decorative Christmas tree was found near her body.

“We always knew it was an unfortunate suicide, but we never knew her name," said Major Ed O’Carroll, Bureau Commander, Major Crimes, Cyber & Forensics for the Fairfax County Police Department. “With a strong detective work and a partnership with private industry, we got the answer.”

The woman was identified as Joyce Meyer on May 11.

The case began on December 18, 1996, as officers were called to Pleasant Valley Memorial Park at 8420 Little River Turnpike in Annandale for a deceased woman, police said.

The woman had two envelopes in her pocket: one contained a note indicating she had taken her own life. The second envelope contained money to cover her funeral expenses.

The notes were signed “Jane Doe.”

Detectives determined there was no foul play in her death, but they were unable to identify her.

Detectives compared her physical description to numerous missing persons cases in the National Capital Region but were unable to find a match.

The identification was made possible through advanced DNA testing, funded entirely by anonymous donors, and forensic-grade genome sequencing provided by Othram Inc., police said.

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Othram utilized advanced Forensic Genetic Genealogy technology to identify a possible family member of Meyer, which led to additional family connections across the country and ultimately, a DNA match.

“When we go back to law enforcement we actually give them an answer as to who the identity of the person is," Dr. Kristen Mittelman, the Chief Development Officer of Othram, told 7News. “And that’s exactly what happened here. Law enforcement went out and spoke to her brother and found out there was a sibling that was missing, connected with her sister. They collected DNA. Sent the DNA back to our lab and we were able to confirm that they were a biological sibling of the Christmas tree lady.”

Through Othram’s testing, it was later determined Meyer was 69-years-old when she was found deceased. Family members believe Meyer may have moved to the Virginia area sometime after the mid-1980s.

After decades of wondering what happened to their loved one, Joyce’s family is finally at peace thanks to the dedicated work of several generations of FCPD detectives, anonymous donors and Othram. Our detectives never stopped working for Joyce and her family. Advances in technology will continue to help close cases and provide answers to victims’ families,” said O’Carroll

"Standard forensic testing uses 20 markers and they can compare those 20 markers to unknown perpetrator database," said Mittelman. "Unfortunately, victims like the Christmas tree lady, are not usually in an unknown perpetrator database, so you don't get your answers. What we've done is we've built technology where we build a DNA profile that looks at hundreds and hundreds of thousands of markers, and not just 20. And when you have that many - that much more information - then you're able to upload that to genealogical databases consented for law enforcement use, and you're able to piece back someone's identity. So you don't need a known database. You can figure out where this person belongs on a family tree. They're this far away from here, this far away from here, and then you can actually put the puzzle exactly where it belongs, call back law enforcement and say we have an investigative lead: we know this person belongs to this family in this timeframe. Can you please reach out and see if there's someone that's missing? And that's exactly what happened here."

“How many unsolved cases do you have right now?” 7News Reporter Nick Minock asked O'Carroll.

“Too many," he responded. "One is too many. But if you look at our cold case page, and we published that last year, trying to give information to the community. If you have information on a cold case, contact law enforcement."

The Fairfax County Police Department recently posted a public database of all of their unsolved murders on their website --- going back to the 1960s.

One of the many unsolved murders is from 1972. That’s when police found the body of a young child in a creek near Colchester Road Bridge in Lorton. The child has not been identified.

In 1990, a couple was shot in the driveway of their Falls Church home. Their names were Tuyet Dang-Tran and Triet Le.

In 1998, Sherry Ann Culp was shot to death in a parking lot at her work. She was pregnant at the time with her daughter Kelsey who died two days later.

And in 2006, Marion Marshall and Marion Newman, both women in their seventies, were found strangled to death at their homes in Springfield. Their murders were four months apart.

To this day their murders, and many others, have not been solved.

"Fairfax County is not indifferent to other agencies that have cases from years or decades ago that basically have gone cold. We're warming them back up, and we're closing them," said O'Carroll.

Through the public’s help --- and DNA and genealogy tracing --- Fairfax County detectives are working to catch criminals for murders and sexual assaults and help families of missing persons move forward.

“Our heart breaks from the decision Joyce made back in 1996, but her family who always wondered, now has answers," said O'Carroll.

The same type of technology was used to help Fairfax County police determine the identity of a man who allegedly sexually assaulted a 14-year-old victim 35 years ago. The alleged offender was arrested and has a court date set for later this year.

"So there is no limit to how far law enforcement will go to get answers," said O'Carroll. "And using technology just makes sense."

There are several more unsolved murders in Fairfax County in the 1980s and the 1990s compared to the 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, and 2010s.

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"Fairfax County had fewer murders back in the 60s and 70s," said O'Carroll. "There were less people with less crime. We did see an influx in population. And we saw an influx in cases and solvability in cases back in the 80s and early 90s was tougher because it was less technology. It was less video, less digital technology. So our solvability in 2022 is in excess of 90%. [In the past] 10 years we have solved more than 90% of all our homicides. So we're seeing arrests made quicker today than we ever have before. Because we're using technology whether it's video surveillance, the digital footprint that suspects may leave with their cell phone, eyewitness identification, and things like that. So we're doing more now than ever to solve crime and our solve rate is high. But those cold cases are not forgotten about. We're going back to them and looking at what evidence we have, what witnesses are still available, what victims you know are still available."

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