California detectives say they have cracked a key aspect of a cold case murder that has haunted them for nearly three decades.
They've identified remains found in 1995 in a discarded refrigerator in San Joaquin County east of the San Francisco Bay Area as belonging to Amanda Lynn Schumann Deza, who was 29 when she most likely disappeared the previous year.
"It was a cold case for 27 years," San Joaquin County Sheriff Patrick Withrow said last week. "I'd just like to take this time right now to give her her name back, to give her her story back."
Deza's identity was discovered through DNA mapping and family history research conducted by Othram Forensics, a private Houston-based laboratory.
The company used new technology to extract hundreds of thousands of genetic markers from DNA evidence, instead of the 20 usually used by law enforcement, and found relatives through those markers, CEO David Mittelman said.
It built a family tree to identify potential known relations, he said. Deza's mother and daughter were found and helped investigators identify the woman by submitting their own DNA, the company said in a statement.
“They were obviously shocked by the news,” Withrow said.
He said the parents wanted authorities to find and prosecute anyone responsible for Deza's death, which detectives and medical examiner's officials think was caused by blunt force trauma.
The sheriff's department collected photographs of Deza from relatives. One is a yellowing shot of the woman with handwritten words beneath it: "My Mother, Amanda Lynn."
Deza had not been reported missing when the remains were found.
Sheriff's officials have said that when the woman was found in March 1995, her body was decomposing and may have been in the refrigerator for months before it was discovered partly submerged in a slough.
Scavengers looking for items to recycle made the discovery, authorities have said. Deputies and detectives have described the refrigerator as partly submerged and possibly floating.
The location is a tributary of the San Joaquin River known as Whiskey Slough, now the name of a state-run marina but said by legend to have been part of a smuggling route during Prohibition. The area was also once home to a gas exploration field.
"The family just didn't know" Deza's situation, Withrow said. "She was a 30-year-old woman and out on her own."
Deza was separated from her husband and had three young children, according to Othram. She was last seen at an unknown apartment complex in Napa, accompanied by an unidentified man she may have met at a rehabilitation facility, it said.
The sheriff's top investigator, Lt. Linda Jimenez, said the woman was most likely going through hard times.
"She was involved in some challenging times, like we all have in our lives," she said.
A reward of as much as $10,000 has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for Deza's murder.
San Joaquin County detectives believe a reconstruction of Deza's last days, most likely in late summer or fall of 1994, will help find former friends and possible witnesses who could lead them to a conclusion or an arrest.
Withrow called Deza a "beautiful woman whose life was cut short" in pleading for anyone who may have known her at the time to come forward.
"We just need one little piece of it somebody out there might know," he said.