Charles WatsonAug 11, 2017, 11:16 pm

Anthropologist credits new technology in closing cold case involving Elizabeth man

Wilmane Nicolas, who was hit and killed by car back in 1993, was implicated in girlfriend’s murder

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HAMILTON — A murder that has gone unsolved for more than two decades is now in the books. The forensic scientist who cracked the case says a wealth of new technology helped to make the breakthrough possible.

New Jersey State Police Forensic Anthropologist, Donna Fontana could be considered what one would call a problem solver. She's the one who law enforcement agencies across the state often call on when human remains are found and need to be identified.

“We create a biological profile of that individual. So is it a male, is it a female? How old is that person? What is the ancestry? How tall is that individual?” Fontana says. She compiles those unique characteristics in her lab and then takes that information and enters it into National Institute of Justice's National Missing and Unidentified Person System, also known as NAMUS.

That was the case when Fontana's office received the remains of man who had been hit and killed by a car on Route 1 in Elizabeth back in October of 1993. And with only finger prints of a poor quality for law enforcement to work with, he had gone unidentified for nearly 23 years. That is until the unidentified man's prints were examined as part of a new pilot program the FBI set up with NAMUS.

“The FBI was able to search this particular finger print card, even after it had been looked at before, and because they're doing each latent finger print examiner is looking at these prints, they were able to come up with an identification,” Fontana says.

The prints returned a match to 31-year-old Wilmane Nicolas of Elizabeth, the same man who had been on the Union County sheriff's most wanted list after he was implicated in the murder of his Linden girlfriend Magolie Francois.

And just like that a search of the NAMUS database came up with a conclusion to a decades-old missing person and murder case. But Fontana says that's not always the case for hundreds of unidentified remains in the state.

At times she has to resort to last-ditch efforts like reconstructing the faces of remains to see if the public can help with an I.D. She says giving closure to the families' of missing individuals is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

“How could you not be thrilled? Because you are putting an unidentified person back to their family and possibly even solving a case,” Fontana says.

She adds that the technology has made a big difference in the world of forensic science and she expects the possibilities of identifying unknown individuals to increase over time.

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