1986 Cold Case Murder Victim Identified As California Woman After Nearly Four Decades

In February 1986, the body of a woman was found near campsites in San Diego County. 37 years later, thanks to advances in DNA technology, she was finally identified as Claudette Jean Zebolsky Powers.

May 31, 2023
Claudette Powers, 22, disappeared in September 1984. Her body was found in February 1986 but not identified until 2023.

After nearly four decades, a California woman’s body was finally identified as 22-year-old Claudette Powers thanks to advances in DNA technology.

Photo by: San Diego County Sheriff's Office

San Diego County Sheriff's Office

On Feb. 16, 1986, the body of a woman was found near campsites on the Los Coyotes Reservation in unincorporated San Diego County. After 37 years, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department announced that they were finally able to identify her as Claudette Jean Zebolsky Powers, thanks to DNA testing and Investigative Genetic Genealogy.

NBC News reported that authorities know Claudette’s cause of death, but they are withholding that information to protect the investigation.

An unidentified male murder victim was found nearby around the same time, but his body is still not identified. Police believe the two murders might be connected. The bodies were discovered approximately 14 miles apart, reported The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“They were the same age. They were dressed similar – wearing jackets, thermal jackets. So we think they may have been together but it’s not an area where you typically find people. It’s a really remote area," Detective Lisa Brannan told NBC San Diego.

Powers was born on Jan. 13, 1962 in Coldwater, Michigan. She lived in Washington while married in the early 1980s, then she left her husband and moved to San Diego around 1983. According to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, she probably lived in the San Diego or Escondido around the time of her 1986 murder. She might have lived on Fig Street and worked in that area. Her family last heard from her when her father passed away in September 1984.

To finally identify Powers, the Sheriff’s Department got a sample of her hair and compared it with profiles on publicly searchable genealogy websites they had access to. They also researched public data from obituaries, census records, and other sources. Once they found who they believed to be a relative of Powers, they identified themselves, explained their investigative process, and asked for their help.

During their research, they eventually identified Claudette's daughters, sister, and mother. They confirmed these familial relationships with the DNA sample, and they were able to positively identify the woman, who was only 22 when she was murdered.

Now that she has been identified, Claudette's family was able to lay her body to rest, but they still want to know what happened to her. Laura Freese, her youngest sister, hopes someone will take another look at Claudette's photos and remember something that might help solve the murder.

She told the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, "It's been really hard on our family. Somebody knows what happened. A neighbor, anybody that knew her knows what happened. If you are still alive and you knew my sister and you knew what happened to her, please come forward. Please, we need closure."

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is offering a $1,000 reward for information on Claudette’s death that might lead to an arrest. If you have any information or tips, call the Sheriff’s Homicide Unit at (858) 285-6330. You can remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477.

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