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How DNA testing led to the discovery of the "Mostly Harmless" hiker

The third-party helps solve cold cases reaching to Canada
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Posted at 7:22 PM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-14 08:16:40-05

The mystery of the hiker known only by his trail name, "Mostly Harmless," has finally been solved - and he's connected to Lafayette. His body was found in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida in 2018.

After Florida deputies hit a dead end with the unknown body, they requested help from a DNA lab in Texas called Othram.

"What we do at Othram is, we're capturing tens of thousand markers of evidence," said CEO David Mittelman.

This in-house lab uses one of the most advanced methods of collecting DNA that led to a crucial piece of information.

"We were able to alert folks that based on the initial genetic results that we thought he was Cajun and that he had relatives from Louisiana," said Mittelman.

In addition to DNA testing, social media generated a lot of buzz from the newly discovered information and the Lafayette Sheriff's office was able to track down the hiker's relatives.

"We took this DNA sample from the family and performed this rapid relationship test excluding all other possibilities other than that they were family."

The hiker was identified as Vance Rodriguez, a Lafayette Native who was most recently living in New York and reportedly estranged from his family in Acadiana.

Othram works on solving cold cases in various parts of the world. They also encourage people to visit their website to learn how to volunteer DNA that could help solve more cases.

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MORE ON THIS STORY FROM 1/12: The story of the "Mostly Harmless" hiker has made the rounds of the internet, with several Facebook pages dedicated to it, its own Reddit threads full of conspiracy theories, and a Wikipedia page.

But while the keyboard warriors were theorizing and hypothesizing, the Collier County Sheriff's investigators have been trying to figure out who he was, and where his family is. Through DNA, they identified Mostly Harmless as Vance Rodriguez, and his family is in Lafayette.

Sheriff Kevin Rambosk announced that the investigation included detective work, tips from the public and DNA. Although an autopsy did not indicate foul play in his death, the sheriff's detectives worked tirelessly to identify him.

When hikers stumbled upon his body, Rodriguez had no identification, phone or computer with him and exhaustive efforts to identify him through traditional means were unsuccessful, the sheriff says.

Rodriguez was an IT worker in New York with roots in Louisiana, the sheriff said.

"Through our investigation we learned that Mr. Rodriguez set out to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2017. He spent several months hiking south, toward Florida using only paper maps. He was friendly with other thru hikers, but also reserved. No one we interviewed knew his real name even after spending time with him on the trail, sharing stories and snapping photos of him," said Detective David Hurm.

Rodriguez had reached Southwest Florida by April of 2018, which was the last time a witness reported seeing him on the trail. A few months later, his body and his belongings were found in a tent at Noble’s Camp Ground in Ochopee, near mile marker 63 of Interstate 75.

The sheriff began the investigation with traditional means, combing missing persons databases for matching fingerprints or dental records. Later that summer, the agency posted a composite photo to Facebook. Within minutes, fellow thru hikers had sent dozens of photos of Mostly Harmless and reported meeting him along the trail.

"We interviewed the hikers, pieced together a timeline and looked into dozens of tips submitted by members of the public," Hurm said. "This past year, our agency partnered with Othram, a DNA lab in Texas that works exclusively with law enforcement to solve cold cases through forensic genealogy.

"But the case was ultimately solved this month when a former coworker of Mr. Rodriguez saw his photo online and reached out to us after seeing a 2019 bulletin our agency issued. The coworker provided us with Mr. Rodriguez’ name and photos."

The sheriff then reached out to Louisiana law enforcement, who found his family, and the family provided a DNA sample for comparison.

"We are glad to have solved this case. And we want to thank the community for their interest and for circulating the information that eventually reached the right person," the sheriff said.

Here's the video from the Sheriff's Facebook Page