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

“A lot of people would have given up,” says Mike Coble, research director of the Armed Forces lab. But Fitzpatrick, he says, was “relentless.”

Independent fingerprint experts had concurrently identified the frozen arm, but for Fitzpatrick, this wasn’t just about solving a case; she wanted to establish a human connection. In 2008 she visited Ireland and stood at the memorial to Frank Van Zandt’s grandmother. “All the spirits, the ghosts were standing there with me. They said, ‘It’s over. You can go home.’ And they all breathed one big sigh,” she says.

Since then, Fitzpatrick has become a star in the small field of forensic genealogy, often taking on higher-profile cases pro bono. “It’s not lucrative,” she says, “but satisfying.” She traced a man who had fled to Australia after his involvement with the 1920s Teapot Dome bribery scandal that swirled around President Warren G. Harding, and she assisted in uncovering two literary hoaxes connected with the Holocaust. She is currently investigating the identity of a man with amnesia who was found beaten and naked next to a Dumpster behind a Georgia Burger King in 2004. She is also one of a team of scientists investigating clandestine graves at crime sites, including the ranch of the notorious killer Charles Manson.

What Fitzpatrick values even more than the science, though, is another aspect of her work: It allows her to glimpse both the physical and the spiritual link between all humans. “To see the hand in the snow and know he’s connected to someone is the reward,” she says. “You’re solving a human mystery, and humans are the ultimate mystery.”

Lynn Rosselini is a writer based in Washington, D.C.
Originally published as The DNA Detective in the June 2010 issue of More.
Click here to read more about Colleen Fitzpatrick’s casework.
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