Victim in 1986 California cold case murder identified using DNA; officials now hope to find her killer


The victim of a nearly 40-year-old murder in California has been identified using genetic genealogy, officials announced Tuesday. Now, authorities are hoping to identify both the woman’s killer and a male victim who was also found murdered nearby.

The woman found dead near campsites in San Diego County on February 16, 1986, has been identified as 22-year-old Claudette Jean Zebolsky Powers.

Authorities also found an unidentified male victim “around the same time and area,” according to a release from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office. Investigators have not revealed the cause of Powers’ or the male victim’s deaths.

Claudette Powers disappeared in September 1984 at age 22.via San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept.

The bodies were found at the site in Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Warner Springs, an unincorporated community in northern San Diego County.

Powers’ identity had long eluded detectives, who spent years reviewing missing persons reports and asking the public for help in solving the case, according to the sheriff’s office. Meanwhile, her family spent decades wondering what happened to her after they last heard from her in September 1984, at the time of her father’s death, authorities said.

Detectives finally identified Powers by matching DNA from a sample of her hair with the DNA of an unidentified relative, the sheriff’s office said. Investigators scoured publicly searchable genealogy websites that grant law enforcement access to their data with users’ consent and researched census records and obituaries to find possible relatives.

That research eventually led detectives to Powers’ daughters, sister and mothers, according to the sheriff’s office. It was not immediately clear who provided the DNA sample that confirmed Powers’ identity. The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to questions Thursday morning.

Claudette Powers, a Michigan native, moved to San Diego County in 1983 or 1984.
Claudette Powers, a Michigan native, moved to San Diego County in 1983 or 1984.San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept.

For Powers’ daughters, who were toddlers at the time of her disappearance, the news dispelled their longtime belief that their mother had abandoned them, NBC San Diego reported.

“Claudette was a very loving and caring mom,” Powers’ sister, Laura Freese, told the local station. “She loved her kids very much, she loved her family very much.”

Powers’ case marks the seventh time the homicide unit of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office has used investigative genetic genealogy to identify remains in an unsolved case, according to the news release.

The sheriff’s office said it “only utilizes investigative genetic genealogy when all other methods have been exhausted,” and that detectives identify themselves to relatives from whom they are seeking assistance and fully explain what the process entails and the case they are investigating.

Claudette Powers' body was discovered near campsites on Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Warner Springs, Calif.
Claudette Powers’ body was discovered near campsites on Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Warner Springs, Calif.San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept.

Now that they have identified Powers, the sheriff’s office is appealing to the public for help in finding her killer, offering up to $1,000 in reward money for information that leads to an arrest in the case.

“We have to reconstruct her life back in the ’80s,” San Diego Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Tim Chandler told NBC San Diego. “Where she worked. Where she lived. Who her friends were. Was she dating anybody?”

Powers moved to San Diego County sometime in 1983 or 1984, after leaving her husband who she been living with in Washington State, according to the sheriff’s office. Authorities say she likely lived in the San Diego or Escondido area until she was murdered, and that she may have lived around Fig Street in the city of Escondido and worked at a restaurant nearby.

She was born in Coldwater, Michigan, on Jan. 13, 1962, the sheriff’s office said.

They’re also hoping they can soon identify the male victim who was found near Powers.

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