Human remains found near Lower Lake, California, in 1976 have been identified as belonging to Leopoldo Torres Melendez. Courtesy photo.
LAKE COUNTY, Calif. — The Lake County Sheriff’s Office said this week that DNA technology has helped it solve a decades-long mystery involving the identity of a murdered man whose remains were found near Lower Lake.
Lt. Corey Paulich said this week that the investigation has identified the remains as belonging to Leopoldo Torres Melendez, whose family said he had gone missing nearly 50 years ago.
Paulich said that on Nov. 28, 1976, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office received a report regarding human remains located in a heavily wooded area near Highway 29 in Lower Lake.
Throughout the investigation, it was determined the death was a homicide due to blunt force trauma to the head, Paulich said.
Despite exhaustive investigative efforts, Paulich said the remains were not identified and the murder victim’s identity remained a mystery.
In January 2007, the victim’s skull and teeth were sent to the California Department of Justice for analysis. In December 2007, a partial DNA profile was uploaded to the Combined DNA Indexing System, or CODIS. However, Paulich said the sheriff’s office never received a match due to the degradation of the bone and the victim’s DNA likely not being in CODIS.
In January 2020, Det. Jeff Mora requested assistance from Parabon Nanolabs, which is a DNA technology company, regarding the possibility of identifying the decedent through investigative genetic genealogy, Paulich said.
In August 2020, the remains were sent to Marshall University Forensic Science Center in West Virginia. Paulich said a DNA sample suitable for genetic genealogy was extracted from the skull.
In June 2021, Parabon Nanolabs delivered a genetic genealogy report. Paulich said the report listed possible matches for the victim and a list of family members to contact.
After numerous family interviews, Paulich said authorities believed the remains to be those of Leopoldo Torres Melendez, who was born in Puerto Rico and mentioned in the genetic genealogy report as a potential match.
An oral swab was obtained from a family member who identified herself as his biological sister. The swab was sent to the California Department of Justice to be compared to the DNA extracted from the victim’s skull, Paulich said.
This past August, the DNA results confirmed the family member was in fact the biological sister of the victim. Based on the totality of the evidence, Paulich said the sheriff’s office was able to positively identify the victim as Torres Melendez and notify his family.
Through interviews with the family, it was discovered that Torres Melendez was believed to have gone missing in the early 1970s, Paulich reported.
Paulich said Torres Melendez would have been approximately 41 years old at the time of his death and was last known to live in the San Francisco area.
Family members searched for Torres Melendez, but were never able to figure out what happened to him until now, Paulich said.
The sheriff’s office thanked Parabon Nanolabs, Marshall University Forensic Science Center and the California Department of Justice for their assistance.
Paulich said the sheriff’s office will continue this investigation, noting they hope to have provided a sense of closure to the family.
“Obviously this investigation is old and the suspect(s) are likely elderly or deceased,” Paulich said.