After years of searching for the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1974, Cathy Terkanian thinks she might have finally found her — although the story doesn’t appear to be headed for a happy ending.
Police are working to identify remains they dug up in a western Michigan backyard. They say it might belong to Aundria Bowman, who has been missing since 1989, when she ran away from her home in Hamilton, Michigan, at age 14.
The road to finding the remains started with a relatively new law enforcement tactic — mining DNA from genealogy websites like ancestry.com — that led investigators to Aundria’s adoptive father, Dennis Bowman, and then to a young girl’s body buried in a backyard in Fillmore Township, near Holland.
For Terkanian, DNA helped her identify her long-lost daughter 10 years ago, although the information she learned about the girl she named Alexis wasn’t what she’d hoped to hear.
“I had my daughter in New Orleans in 1974,” said Terkanian, 62. “My mother had Stage 3 breast cancer and her life was falling apart. I was 17, and there were a lot of problems in my family at the time, and adoption looked like the best thing for my daughter.”
Terkanian, who gave up her daughter when the girl was 9 months old, began searching for her more than 20 years ago.
“The internet was fairly new, and I started searching different websites, trying to find her,” she said. “I called the adoption agency (that handled her case in 1974), and they told me to put my name and number in their file, and if Alexis ever came looking for me, they’d give it to her.”
In 2010, Terkanian received a letter from a social worker in Norfolk, Virginia, which gave her hope — although it was short-lived.
“This letter said ‘we have some important news for you,’ and I thought they were going to tell me I was going to meet my daughter,” she said. “But it turned out they wanted my DNA, because the police had found a Jane Doe body in Racine, and they thought it could be my daughter.
“That’s how I found out she was missing. Before that, I had no idea.”
She said the social worker didn’t release much information.
“She said a detective in Virginia had told her my daughter went missing in 1989, but she wouldn’t tell me who the detective was, where my daughter went missing from, and what my daughter’s new name was,” Terkanian said.
“My husband started searching missing persons websites in all the states, using Alexis’ birthday, and he found a girl with that birthday named Aundria Bowman who had come up missing from Allegan County, Michigan.”
Terkanian said she contacted a police detective in Virginia, who told her the man who’d adopted her daughter, Dennis Bowman, had a criminal record prior to the adoption.
“I found out he had abducted a 6-year-old girl before he adopted my daughter,” Terkanian said. “He admitted it. I still can’t believe they gave my child to this man.”
Allegan County Undersheriff Mike Larsen confirmed Bowman had a criminal record in Virginia before adopting the child and said Bowman has long been a person of interest in the girl’s disappearance.
“I took over as captain in the detective bureau in 2014, and the Aundria case was one of the cold cases I inherited, which I thought was solvable,” Larsen said. “I worked the case, interviewed both the adoptive mother and father, and worked with private investigators hired by other parties. But we never came up with anything solid.”
Aundria was last seen when she ran away from home on March 11, 1989. Shortly before she ran away, she reportedly had accused her adoptive father, Bowman, of molesting her.
At the time, Bowman was on parole after serving six years in a Michigan prison for trying to kidnap a 19-year-old woman at gunpoint in 1980. Bowman was released from prison in 1986.
“We’ve been looking at Dennis Bowman as a person of interest right from the start,” Larsen said. “We’d follow up on various leads through the years, but cases without a body are incredibly difficult to move forward.”
The undersheriff said the case took a turn in November when Bowman was arrested and charged with the 1980 murder of Kathleen Doyle, who was killed in Virginia at age 25.
“This was the big break we were looking for,” Larsen said.
Michigan State Police Lt. Sarah Krebs said DNA taken from a genealogy website helped investigators solve the Doyle killing.
“(Bowman’s) relatives were on the genealogy site, and police in Virginia searched their database and made a connection,” Krebs said.
Bowman, 70, is in a Norfolk, Virginia, jail awaiting trial on first-degree murder and rape charges in Doyle’s death. Norfolk Circuit Court online records show no attorney representing him.
After police found the DNA match, Bowman was arrested in Michigan and extradited to Virginia, Larsen said.
“In assisting (police in Virginia), we took (Bowman) into custody in Allegan County,” Larsen said. “During the course of that investigation, through means I can’t release yet, we obtained information that Aundria may be buried in his backyard in Fillmore Township.”
Authorities dug up skeletal remains from the site in February, which are being tested at Western Michigan University, Larsen said.
“If we’re able to charge him at any point (for Aundria’s killing), we’ll extradite him to face charges here,” Larsen said.
Krebs said DNA from genealogy websites is helping police solve several cold cases.
“It’s been groundbreaking for law enforcement,” she said. “Before this, the only place law enforcement could look for DNA matches was CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System) database,” which contains the DNA of convicted felons.
“If your person was not in CODIS, and most are not because they weren’t offenders, then … we couldn’t get a match, and you’re not solving that case,” Krebs said. “With the genealogy sites, there are millions of DNA samples.
“In the (Doyle) case, those investigators in Virginia took DNA from the crime scene, but there was never a CODIS match. But they later went to a company that does genetic typing and research, and they were able to come up with a hit, using (Bowman’s) family’s DNA.”
Krebs said since law enforcement began tapping genealogy websites, companies have made it easier for users to keep police from accessing their DNA files.
“A lot of the ancestry sites have strengthened their policies on who can search and why,” Krebs said. “Some of them require you opt-in to be searched by law enforcement because they’re protecting their patrons’ rights.
“That’s made it harder for law enforcement, but there are still millions of people who have opted to allow us to search their DNA.”
Krebs said state police last year were able to solve the case of an unknown woman, who was dubbed “I-196 Jane,” after a hunter stumbled on her remains near Interstate 196 in Covert Township in October 1988.
Investigators last year compared the DNA found in 1988 with samples on a genealogy website and matched it to Marcia Bateman, 28, of Oklahoma City, whose family had reported her missing two months before the remains were found in Michigan.
“That case probably would have never been solved if police didn’t have access to the genealogy database,” Krebs said.
Larsen said the results of the DNA taken from the remains dug up from Bowman’s backyard could be available “soon.”
Terkanian said she’s convinced the remains belong to her daughter, and said if Bowman is ever charged with Aundria’s murder, it will give her some closure, although she said she’s still struggling to cope with everything that’s happened.
“I’m angry,” she said. “This was my only daughter, and she was killed and buried like that. This nearly killed me, but it didn’t. I’m back at the gym. I’m still fighting for my daughter.”
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