Bensalem Detective Chris McMullin, DNA Helps ID ‘Bucks County’s Jane Doe’ After 36 Years
by Tianna G. Hansen
Anyone familiar with the starfish story knows throwing every starfish stranded on the beach back into the ocean is an impossible task; yet it makes all the difference to each starfish that makes it home.
This is a story that resides deeply in Bensalem Township Detective Chris McMullin’s heart, who has dedicated nearly the past two decades to cold case work. Like all those starfish scattered along the shoreline, identifying cold case victims often appears as an impossible feat in a massive ocean of unsolved cases.
Chris reminds himself often of this story, and how sending one starfish home can make ripples of a difference. “At the end of the day, I just want to do some good,” Chris says.
The most recent cold case Chris dedicated his efforts to resulted in the successful identification of Philadelphia native Lisa Todd this past March, who had been known only as “Bucks County’s Jane Doe” or “The Publicker Jane Doe” for the past 33 years.
She was found at the abandoned Publicker Distillery in Bensalem in 1988, approximately three years after she went missing.
It has taken a little over three decades to identify this particular “starfish,” and just like most cases, Lisa wouldn’t have been identified without the help of a dedicated string of people who gave their time, energy and resources to hunt down her identity.
Among them was Frank Bender, famous for his work as a forensic sculptor, who compiled a sculpture bust of the Jane Doe’s head early on – this became a key in the case; all the police department had to work with to guess what she may have looked like.
The hunt for the Doe’s identity wouldn’t be complete for many years, nearly a decade after Frank Bender passed away.
Frank was also a co-founder of the ViDoQ society, a collective body “think-tank” of homicide investigators, criminal psychologists, medical examiners and people from every discipline who work together on cold cases in Philadelphia and surrounding areas.
Chris became part of the ViDoQ society early on in his career, establishing an avid interest in cold cases and the clever ways the department might go about solving them.
He would turn this passion toward solving the case of the Publicker Jane Doe. “Someone was missing her out there, somewhere,” Chris said.
Chris is one of those detectives you’d root for on a beloved true crime series, characterized by his dogged persistence and refusal to be deterred (fun fact: he has actually appeared on numerous TV shows as an actor, most recently Law & Order SVU).
It wasn’t his plan to become a lead investigator in local cold cases surrounding Bensalem Township, but once Chris stumbled upon it, he was immediately hooked.
A couple years after being promoted to detective in 2000, Chris underwent knee surgery which left him on desk duty. A coworker first suggested he open old cold case files, and Chris looks back at this now as a turning point.
The first case file he opened was that of Barbara Rowan. “I read through [the case] and decided it had to be solved,” he recalls.
Chris spent nearly a decade conducting interviews and researching. Throughout that time, he never alerted the family that he had reopened the case. “I figured why reopen that wound and give them false hope.”
The case continued to go cold but Chris never gave up. His persistence led him and a partner on the force to an ultimate moment: when Chris finally made the call to Barbara’s mother that they had arrested Barbara’s killer.
“Her daughter was killed in 1984, and this was 2015,” Chris said. “It was a very emotional phone call.”
After serving justice to the Rowan family, Chris continued his cold case hunt, becoming consumed with giving a name to “The Publicker Jane Doe”. This task would take a community, and 33 years of intense police work.
“For every unsolved homicide, there’s potentially a killer walking free,” Chris said. This fact details the other motivation behind Chris’s cold case work.
Chris McMullin continued his cold case hunt, consumed with giving a name to “the Publicker Jane Doe” – one ‘starfish’ among many in a massive ocean of unsolved cases.
This task would take a community, and 33 years of intense police work.
St. Mary Medical Center donated a CAT Scan to the police department in 2007, through which they were able to render a new image of “Bucks County’s Jane Doe” as she may look in life.
“I tried everything I could think of,” Chris says. But the hunt for Lisa Todd’s identity kept going cold.
In early 2020, the case nearly broke when Bensalem Township Director Fred Harran made arrangements with BODE Labs, out of Virginia, to perform a DNA extraction. “When Chris came to me with Publicker Jane Doe… BODE offered to do it gratis for us,” Fred said.
It took a few months to extract enough DNA to upload onto GEDmatch, an open-source DNA profile database.
“As technology continues to expand, working with GEDmatch, 23andMe and Ancestry.com really helps identify missing people,” Fred says. “There are cases throughout the country who are now being identified.”
However, there weren’t any matches on the database. Undeterred, Chris reached out to Yolanda McClary, who had previously contacted him regarding the Publicker case. Yolanda is a renowned professional genealogist and retired CSI from Las Vegas who recently produced a TV series called Jane Doe Murders in early 2021.
“[BODE] deemed her unsolvable at that point, which is a correct and good decision, so Chris reached out to us and asked us what we thought,” Yolanda recalls. “We looked at it and determined they were right, but told Chris we would keep monitoring it.”
Yolanda and her partner played with the Jane Doe’s profile, testing new algorithms and re-entering her into the database until nearly nine months later, in January, they finally popped up with five potential matches – something they could work with.
Yolanda and one of her genealogists started piecing together the family tree of Bucks County’s Jane Doe based off these five people.
It took nearly four days of sleepless nights and straight work to compile the family tree and track down two siblings for the Jane Doe. Compared with the DNA that was uploaded to BODE Labs, these were her mitochondrial matches (siblings). Her parents had passed, leaving no nuclear DNA matches.
“It was long, intensive work but we knew we were on a good track,” Yolanda says. “[After], I called Detective McMullin and [told him] we believe we know where she belongs.”
The hunt for her identity was beyond frustrating up until that point. Several factors went into making it all the more difficult to ID Lisa Todd – she was a minor at the time of her death, removed from the missing persons database at the time of her 18th birthday, so there was no real record on her. Even as Yolanda pieced her family tree together, Lisa had no footprint.
Chris was met with the bittersweet task of alerting the family. He tracked down the siblings in Philadelphia and met her brother first.
“When I asked him if he ever had a sister who disappeared, he said, ‘yes, she disappeared in 1985.’ I asked, what was her name, and he said, ‘Lisa.’”
Now, the team who spent decades hunting for her identity can bring her “home” and give closure to her family.
“Lisa will now be put to rest under a headstone with her name on it instead of ‘Jane Doe,’” Chris says. “That’s important to me.”
Chris would also later meet with Lisa’s son, who was only about 2 years old when she passed.
Nearly a week after first alerting Lisa’s brother to the news, Chris received a text on a Sunday evening: “I just want you to know I really appreciate everything you did.”
“It’s truly priceless to bring closure to a family, even after 33 years,” said Director Fred Harran.
Lisa Todd, “Bucks County’s Jane Doe,” is just one small “starfish” who’s been able to find her identity. Throughout the course of seeking her ID, Chris also identified another Bensalem Jane Doe, Jeanette Tambe, who disappeared in 1984.
“I hope to identify more [Jane Does] soon,” he says.
The hunt is still on to uncover what happened to Lisa Todd all those years ago. Anyone with information into her disappearance is asked to contact the Bensalem Police Department at 215-633-3700, or their Anonymous Tip Line at 215-633-3660.
As more people upload their DNA to open-source databases, it continues to make a difference helping identify cold case victims. There’s no telling what your DNA might uncover.
While it may take an eternity to send every lost starfish home, in this instance it’s made waves of difference for those missing and their families, thanks to a caring, dedicated community and a Bensalem detective who’s made it his mission.
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