Genealogy helps ID woman found dismembered in Arizona desert in 1971

MOHAVE COUNTY, Ariz. — Genetic genealogists have helped Arizona authorities to identify a woman whose body was found dismembered and stuffed into a sack in the desert in January 1971.

The body of Ohio native Colleen Audrey Rice, 39, was found Jan. 23, 1971, in the desert 30 miles southeast of Kingman, a couple of miles down Hackberry Road east of U.S. 93, Mohave County Sheriff’s Office officials said. Contemporary newspaper accounts indicate it was a trio of hunters who stumbled upon the grisly find.

“The victim was located in a canvas sack that had been tied at the top with a white cotton rope,” authorities said in a news release. “The sack was a white, cotton, loosely woven sack with the words ‘Deer-Park Ames Harris Neville Co.,’ printed in green.”

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The woman, whose body was too decomposed to identify by sight, was described as between 35 and 40 years old, standing about 5 feet, 4 inches in height and weighing between 125 and 140 pounds. She had curly, dark brown hair with some gray, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.

She had been well-dressed in a multicolored long-sleeve blouse, a black cardigan and stretchy burnt orange pants. She wore black leather ankle boots and no jewelry.

Her NamUs file indicates she had a long scar on her abdomen, and a 1971 news story in the San Bernardino County Sun stated that a pathologist believed the woman had given birth three times, including one birth via Caesarian section.

Officials with Othram Inc., the Texas-based forensics lab that helped identify Rice, said, however, that little is known of Rice’s relationships or whereabouts after she left home.

“She married William Davis in 1946 in Ohio,” an Othram news release stated. “She was estranged from her family, so little is known of her life or how she came to be in Arizona.

“It is unknown if she had children, as no records could be found.”

Authorities seeking to identify Rice in 1971 — and find her killer — had little to go on. An artist from the Museum of Northern Arizona made a sketch of what the slain woman looked like, based upon the features of her skull.

Appeals to the public to help identity the woman in the sketch went nowhere. The case went cold.

In 2022, Mohave County cold case investigators partnered with Othram Inc. to determine if advanced DNA testing and the company’s patented genome sequencing techniques could lead to the woman’s identity. The sheriff’s office provided $1,000 toward the effort.

Othram crowdfunded the remaining $6,500 in five days, authorities said. Testing began late last year.

Once a DNA profile was established, genealogists began creating the unidentified woman’s family tree, which led to distant relatives. They were able to track down a closer relative, who underwent a DNA test.

The test proved that Rice was the woman found in the desert 52 years ago.

Authorities announced the identification on the anniversary of the date Rice was found.

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“The investigation is ongoing into the suspect and/or suspects responsible for her death,” the sheriff’s office news release said. “The MCSO continues to seek the public’s assistance with providing any information they may have on the later years of the victim’s life.”

Anyone who has information regarding Colleen Rice’s life or death is asked to contact the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office at 928-753-0753 ext. 4408. Tips can also be called in toll free at 1-800-522-4312, reference DR# 71-0383.

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