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Colorado Springs Police use DNA technology to solve 1999 cold case

Jennifer Watkins

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- For the past 21 years, Colorado Springs Police have worked to solve the assault and murder of Jennifer Watkins. Now, thanks to the help of modern DNA technology, investigators have identified Ricky Severt as the person responsible.

On November 6, 1999, Watkins was reported missing by her husband after she failed to return home after her shift at Memorial Hospital.

Two days later on November 8, at 10:00 a.m., Watkins's body was discovered under a stairwell in an area of the hospital under construction. According to police, two elevator service employees were in the process of inspecting an elevator shaft when they noticed a "distinctive smell" and found the shape of a body wrapped in plastic and bound with duct tape.

Investigators say when they unwrapped the plastic they found a woman wearing a teal-colored uniform smock, a purple blouse, and black pants. Police also say it was evident the victim was sexually assaulted.

An autopsy performed by the El Paso County Coroner's Office identified her as Jennifer Watkins and reported she died as a result of "blunt force trauma" to the head.

Two DNA profiles, other than the victim's, were collected from the scene and sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for analysis, one of which was later confirmed as her husband who was cleared as a suspect. With no suspect immediately identified the investigation became a Cold Case for nearly 20 years until DNA technology was used to further the investigation.

Starting in 2017, Cold Case detectives partnered with Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia, to utilize DNA Phenotyping to predict the physical appearance and ancestry of the unidentified suspect.

By June of 2018, investigators managed to composite an image of a person of interest. It was submitted to the Genetic Genealogy research, which uses advanced DNA testing to establish the relationship between the subject and their ancestors. In criminal cases, it's used to identify an unknown victim or offender.

In August 2020, CSPD was notified of a potential match, identifying the suspect as Ricky Severt.

(Left) Snapshot composite from DNA Phenotyping (Right) Ricky Severt, 2000

Investigators confirmed Severt worked as an employee in the maintenance department at Memorial Hospital and would have been working a swing shift on November 5, 1999. Police did interview Severt, who denied seeing Wakins before her death.

Further investigation revealed Severt had died in a car accident on November 2, 2001, on Highway 94.

However, police were able to collect familial DNA from the suspect's surviving relatives. In September 2020, CBI determined that the percentage of the general population be excluded as a contributor to the DNA collected in this case was 99.99994%, except for Severt.

The case was sent to the Fourth Judicial District Attorney's Office in October 2020. The District Attorney's Office completed the review in December 2020 and said they were confident the person responsible for Watkins murder is Severt.

Due to his death, the murder investigation of Jennifer Wakins will be closed out as Exceptionally Cleared / Death of Offender.

“After all these years, we are grateful to finally give Jennifer Watkins’ family the answers they deserve. No matter the length of time, we will always work to serve this community, and I am proud of all the Cold Case detectives throughout the last 21 years who have never stopped working for Ms. Watkins. Not for one moment did they ever lose sight of what was most important: Finding the truth for the Watkins’ family. And thank you to our partners. We would not have been able to solve this case without your time, skill, and dedication,” said Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski.

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Shelby Filangi

Shelby is a digital content producer for KRDO.com. You can learn more about Shelby here.

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