Woman who found remains feeling relief more than 2 decades later as body identified
For more than two decades, Jen Leach of New Brighton has kept a cold case close to heart.
“You do your best to follow the case,” Leach said while opening a folder full of files and newspaper clippings surrounding the human remains she found 23 years ago.
“We came across her body through the cattails, so it wasn’t like we could see her very easily, and Nathan just said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a body,’” Leach said about her late husband, who was with her during that walk at Long Lake Regional Park.
“We spent the next couple of days, of course, in shock and just trying to process, ‘Did this really happen?’” Leach added about the days that followed the discovery.
Due to the condition of the remains, who they found remained a mystery — until a break in the case shared late last week.
According to a news release, the New Brighton Department of Public Safety (NBDPS) identified the remains as Gail Johnson, who was 40 at the time. Investigators credit advancements in DNA testing and genetic genealogy for the development.
“[It was] pretty surreal. Very happy, happy that they didn’t forget about her. Certainly, we didn’t,” Leach said.
Officials say Johnson was last known to live in Minneapolis. They are considering her death suspicious.
“It’s a huge step. We’ve gone 23 years not knowing who this person is,” said Sgt. Mitch Singer with the NBDPS.
Singer was part of the department when Johnson was found.
“It’s kind of nice to be able to see some closure for me, for a family,” Singer said.
While he says investigators never gave up hope, Singer credits a big part of this break to the organizations that helped — including the national nonprofit DNA Doe Project.
“We’re able to use smaller and smaller amounts of DNA now to get good profiles,” Tracie Boyle, a team leader with the DNA Doe Project, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS about the advancement in DNA technology and science.
She and her team used Johnson’s DNA to create a family tree and confirm a connection.
“Now that they know who she is, they can start tracking her whereabouts, where she was last seen, who she last spoke with, and then hopefully, they’ll be able to find out what happened to her,” Boyle said.
For Leach, she hopes to continue to add to her file as investigators continue to piece together what happened.
“We just really felt like, you know, someone somewhere has to care and wonder where she is or what happened to her,” Leach said.
Since sharing her identity, the NBDPS said they’ve received some calls about Johnson. They encourage others to contact 651-288-4141 to help them figure out what happened to her.