A male homicide victim was found in October 1993, in a heavily wooded area off Interstate 59 near the Mississippi state line. Much of his body had been scavenged by wild carnivores, however the skull and partial skeleton were recovered, as were a unique pair of eyeglasses and a few remnants of clothing. In November 1993, the remains were sent to the LSU FACES Lab in Baton Rouge, LA, where additional tests were done, and a facial reconstruction model was created. A second computer modeled reconstruction was completed in 2003. The victim is believed to have died by a gunshot wound to the head sometime between April and October 1993.
At that point, the FACES Lab determined that the subject was a Caucasian male of between 25 to 38 years of age, with significant antemortem trauma to the right hip area. The FACES Lab analysis also identified perimortem trauma (trauma that occurs at or around the time of death) to the skull as a gunshot wound. Between 2011 and 2021, more DNA comparisons were processed by the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office Forensic DNA Lab, although no immediate matches were found in existing DNA records. Using more advanced technology than available to the Parish’s laboratory in 2019, and continuing over much of the next four years, investigators mined the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) database to compare physical characteristics and relevant timelines of missing persons who could potentially fit the victim’s profile. This process also involved work performed by the University of North Texas Forensic Sciences Center. The case was entered into the NamUs as UP890.
In April 2022, the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office sought and received a grant from the nonprofit organization Season of Justice to fund forensic genealogical testing through Othram, based in the The Woodlands, Texas. Forensic evidence was sent to Othram's lab and Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive genealogical profile. Othram's in-house genetic genealogy team used the profile to produce investigative leads which were returned to law enforcement investigators. This led investigators to two potential living siblings in a family originally from Burnsville, MN.
Armed with this information, STPCO investigators contacted police departments in Florissant, MO, and Burnsville, MN, that provided access to the victim’s biological siblings, and confirmation that the victim was known to be in Louisiana around the time of his disappearance in 1993.
The victim is now identified as Mr. Joseph Lee Muniz, DOB January 30, 1972. The Cause of Death is a Gunshot Wound to the Head; The Manner of Death is Homicide.
“Cold case identifications are the result of determination, collaboration, and expertise of scores of people in the exhaustive pursuit of justice,” said St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston. “We are incredibly grateful to the numerous partners who assisted us on this investigation. Bringing at least some closure and clarity to members of the victim’s family would have only been possible through this multi-party effort and with the technology available through our office’s investment in the Parish’s fully modernized Forensic DNA Lab.”
Dr. Preston added, “Forensic DNA analysis is a powerful tool that has revolutionized criminal investigations. We are fortunate to have one of the country’s premier facilities right here in St. Tammany Parish, funded by the Coroner’s Millage and two federal law enforcement grants. But DNA analysis is not a magic solution; it requires meticulous scientific work, advanced technologies, and highly skilled experts. Our Forensic DNA Lab and its dedicated staff are an incredible public asset.”
The final determination of the victim’s identity was made by the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office on June 16th, 2023, following almost 30 years of efforts to identify the victim. Among those law enforcement, university and private sector entities involved at various times with the Coroner’s Office in the investigation were the Louisiana State University Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory, which performed an anthropological analysis and facial reconstruction model; the Florissant, MO Police Department, which helped obtain a DNA swab from the victim’s brother; the Burnsville, MN Police Department, which obtained a DNA sample from the victim’s sister; and Othram Labs which conducted testing on the victim’s remains.