By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
DELMAR — A death investigation that was dormant for decades was revived by the Bethlehem Police Department in 2013 and has now been solved, 41 years after the man died.
Investigators made history in the process.
The case began when the body of an adult male was found on the border of a farm adjacent to the Elm Street Park on April 3, 1981, Bethlehem Police Department Commander Adam Hornick said at a press conference at the park Thursday.
“That body was found with no identification and it was listed as ‘John Doe’ since that date,” Hornick said. “Recently, the Bethlehem Police Department, with the assistance of the FBI and numerous other agencies, have used modern science in making an identification for this individual. This case is the first case in the Capital Region and the first in Albany County history that is being solved with the use of investigative genetic genealogy.”
The individual has been identified as Franklin D. Feldman, of Massachusetts, who was 41 years old at the time of his death in 1981.
“Feldman had never been reported missing as he was known to have a transient lifestyle, including being homeless from time to time for several years and not staying in contact with his family was not abnormal,” Hornick said.
Feldman’s cause of death has not been identified and may never be known, but at this time, foul play is not suspected, Hornick said.
The road to identifying Feldman was long and arduous and paved a new route to investigating death cases in New York state.
After the man’s body was found in 1981, the case was investigated over the course of several years before the investigation was set back.
“In the early 1990s, the case file was lost in a flood in the Town of Bethlehem police station,” Hornick said. “In 2013, our agency decided to reopen this case and work to rebuild the case file, starting only with literally two sheets of paper.”
Over many years, detectives worked to rebuild the case file and found key evidence long thought to be lost.
“After a few years of investigations, our agency was able to locate the jaw bones of the decedent through the assistance of the office of Dr. Alan Rosell, which is now [the office of] Dr. Colin Morton in Ballston Lake, New York, in Saratoga County,” the commander said. “These bones had been out of police custody for over 36 years.”
Rosell examined the bones in 1981 and documents related to that part of the investigation helped confirm the bones’ identity when they were relocated in 2017. The Bethlehem Police Department worked with a state police odontologist, a specially trained dentist who helps identify unknown remains through dental records.
The jawbone was submitted to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, which developed a DNA profile that was compared to state and national DNA databases, Hornick said.
“Shortly after this, with the approval of the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, we submitted the DNA profile for a familial DNA search of the state database,” Hornick said.
A familial DNA search is a search of databases by law enforcement to find relatives of a person they are looking to identify.
That’s when police ran into a roadblock.
“We learned that the request was rejected by the state as the unidentified human remains policy did not allow for submission of evidence to identify victims, but only for evidence that had been left behind at a scene,” Hornick said. “Bethlehem Police were determined and did not give up.”
After a media campaign, state familial DNA search laws were changed as a result of the case, he added, allowing investigators to submit the bones for a familial DNA search. The department worked with the FBI’s Investigative Genetic Genealogy Unit in Melville, New York.
“They provided us a lead to continue our investigation. It was through this lead that we were able to locate two surviving relatives outside the state of New York and determine a potential name for the identity of our John Doe,” Hornick said. “Through this lead and interviews, we were able to interview an aunt and a paternal first cousin who had actually never even met [Feldman].”
The two relatives agreed to provide DNA samples to compare with the body’s DNA. That DNA evidence, along with records from the Social Security Administration and FBI, corroborated the investigators’ belief that “John Doe” was, in fact, Franklin Feldman.
“This is the first case in Albany County and Capital Region history to use investigative genetic genealogy,” Hornick said, adding the investigation brought closure to one of the area’s longest running mysteries.
The same technology was used in 2018 to identify the so-called “Golden State Killer” in California, who pleaded guilty to murdering 13 people, raping around 50 women and committing a string of burglaries across California in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bethlehem Police Chief Gina Cocchiara said finding closure for the family and the community was gratifying.
“Cold cases are unique and while sometimes they appear to be forgotten about, they are always being worked on and we can find closure for all those involved, which is paramount to this,” Cocchiara said.
Bethlehem Town Supervisor David VanLuven pointed to the many years law enforcement spent trying to solve the case.
“These are dedicated officers who never stop investigating and never stop working to find the truth, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes,” VanLuven said. “The town of Bethlehem is grateful for the outstanding work of our police officers and we are proud of all they have accomplished on our behalf.”
Hornick was the lead investigator on the case since it was reopened in 2013.