From Physicist to Forensic Genealogist

Colleen Fitzpatrick spent years in the lab as a nuclear physicist, until a series of setbacks nudged her in the direction of her passion: genealogy and tracking missing persons.

By Lynn Rosellini
forensic genealogy image
Former nuclear physicist Colleen Fitzpatrick tracks down missing people.
Photograph: Photo: Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao

Lashed by frigid rain, two hikers, wrapped in thick parkas and carrying heavy packs, stopped abruptly on their trek across the glacial ice of Mount Sanford, Alaska. “Oh my God,” the first man said, looking down at the rock-strewn ice before him. His friend caught up, and then he stared in horror too. A perfectly preserved human arm poked out of the ice, the alabaster hand pointing north by northwest.

It was July 1999, and the hikers were pilots who had made several trips to the icy Alaskan mountainside in an attempt to solve the puzzle of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422, one of the most mysterious crashes in­ commercial-aviation history. After taking off from Anchorage on a clear night in March 1948, the chartered DC-4 had slammed into the western face of a 16,000-foot peak, burst into flames and plummeted down the mountain’s icy flank, breaking into pieces on the glacier. The 24 passengers—all merchant mariners who had sailed an oil tanker from the U.S. to Shanghai and were on their way to New York—were presumed dead, along with six crew members. Legend had it that the plane was carrying gold bullion. But within days of the crash, snow and ice had completely covered the wreckage. For more than 50 years, the mountain kept the plane’s secret.

Until now.

The frozen arm had no tattoos, no rings, no identifying marks of any kind. Some family members of the missing had been waiting for closure on this accident for decades, and everyone wanted to know: Whose arm was it?

In 2007, when the mystery still hadn’t been solved, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory contacted Colleen Fitzpatrick, a nuclear physicist who was building a new career as a forensic genealogist, tracking missing people through vital records, family history and DNA. If anyone could help break the mysterious Arm in the Snow case, it was Fitzpatrick.

At five feet two inches tall, with tousled curls and rimless eyeglasses, Fitzpatrick emanates laser-sharp intelligence and unselfconscious warmth. She favors hugs, not handshakes, and her preferred work clothes are jeans rolled up at the ankle, scuffed black slip-ons and little makeup. In the Huntington Beach, California, house she shares with her partner, Andy Yeiser, Fitzpatrick keeps a decades-old pet African tortoise named Thing Three (after a character in the Dr. Seuss book The Cat in the Hat), who will daintily take a pink hibiscus blossom from your hand and eat it, and a California desert tortoise dubbed Thing Four. She swings her pet parrot, Sikiru, to sleep every night after feeding it a snack of M&M’s.

Her personal habits may be eccentric, but Fitzpatrick’s methodical, unyielding style of work has allowed her to build a reputation as one of the best DNA detectives in the country. She combines high-tech DNA analysis with the skills of an old-fashioned gumshoe, combing birth and death certificates, newspaper articles and church and cemetery records—and making calls to distant continents far into the night. Since switching professions in 2005, she has solved a variety of cases, from helping identify the remains of a baby who died in 1912 to locating owners of unclaimed property. “I can usually find anyone around the world in two steps,” she boasts today. But when the Arm in the Snow mystery landed on her desk, it was by far her most complex case.

Fitzpatrick never set out to be a DNA detective, but she’s always had a passion for science. As a kid in New Orleans, she was the classic high school geek, more interested in preparing an optical-illusion project for the science fair than in finding a date for the senior prom. “I wasn’t Miss Popular,” she says. “I pretty much was the science club.”

She got her PhD in nuclear physics from Duke University in 1983, then taught at Sam Houston State University in Texas before moving to California to work for a defense firm. In 1989 she started her own optics company in her garage. The company flourished, and she hired seven scientists to help her develop and test a range of products, from medical devices to laser measurement equipment for NASA.

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