RED WING, Minn. -- The deaths of three unidentified babies found in the backwaters of the Mississippi River has confounded investigators from the days their remains were found from 1999 to 2007, but within the last six months or so, DNA analysis has generated new leads in at least one of the cases, giving hope of finding more answers about their tragic ends, according to a retired Goodhue, Minn., investigator.
Using methods and techniques similar to those of ancestry.com, Goodhue County investigators have followed the new leads and found people to interview, said Glen Barringer, a retired investigator with the sheriff's office.
"We did get some leads that (the department) has been following up on. It kind of goes from one lead to another," Barringer said. "It's very time-consuming for (the lead investigator) when he has a chance to work on it. But for the '99 case, we did get some names."
The dramatic developments come almost a year after authorities made a public appeal for donations to fund DNA analyses of the 2003 and 2007 cases. At the time, the sheriff's office had secured funding for the first case and was working with Parabon NanoLabs, a company in suburban Washington that probes public genealogy databases for clues.
Goodhue authorities turned to the public for financial help because of the expense associated with DNA work. Each DNA sample sent for analysis to Parabon cost $5,000. Barringer said the department was able to collect the $10,000 for the other two cases within 10 days.
Barringer said he continued to work the case until his retirement earlier this year after 39 years with the department. The case has been taken over by investigator Jon Huneke.
The developments, especially in the first case, constitute the biggest breakthroughs since the babies' remains were found over an eight-year period.
"We were miles ahead, but we have miles to go," said Barringer, who remains in contact with the cases' lead investigator as a resource.
Calls seeking comment from Huneke were not returned, but Capt. Collins Voxland, who oversees the office, declined to specifically confirm the new revelations, calling it an active investigation.
"Working with Parabon has created new avenues to follow up on, what those avenues are -- we're going to keep that close to our work product," Voxland said.
He also said that as an active investigation, keeping the investigation under wraps allows investigators to maintain an "element of surprise."
"At the end of the day, this information could be off-base and we're still back at ground zero, or this information could help solve it," he added.
The first newborn, a Caucasian girl, was found wrapped in a towel by a fisherman in November 1999. She was located near Red Wing. Authorities believe "Jamie" had been in the water near Bay Point Park a week or two after being born alive.
Four years later, in December 2003, a Caucasian boy washed ashore on a Lake Pepin beach and was found by four teenage girls. Investigators suspect that "Cory" lived four to five days.
In March 2007, a newborn girl was found in a marina slip by two workers from Treasure Island Resort and Casino near Red Wing. The ethnicity of "Abby" was either American Indian or Hispanic. Authorities estimate she had been in the water for up to six months.
Barringer said blood DNA samples were taken by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension after they were found. He said he focused on the 1999 case first as lead investigator out of concern that the DNA taken from the remains of the first baby was degrading.
Barringer said he was uncertain that a family tree was generated in the 2003 case. He sent off DNA samples to Parabon a month before he retired, and was aware that investigators were "working on some things." Little useful information so far has emerged from the DNA analysis in the third case, he said. If the child was of Hispanic descent, it could be harder to trace.
The latter half of Barringer's career encompassed the period in which the babies' remains were found, and he believes it is critical to solve the cases if it is possible. He said he would have delayed retirement if he felt the cases were on the verge of being solved. But he recognized that solving the cases would take time, possibly years.
"We had a family that donated three grave sites for these babies," Barringer said. "All cops have cases that haunt them."
But now he sees more hope for finding answers and possibly solving at least one and maybe more of the cases that have been cold for so long.
"We're at 50 to 70% (chance of solving them). Before we were at 10%," Barringer said.