The UQ graduate who cracks cold cases
UQ graduate Dr Angela Williamson didn’t initially plan on catching serial killers.
A forensics expert, Williamson (Bachelor of Science (Honours) ’98; Doctor of Philosophy ’02) manages major forensic programs for the United States (US) Department of Justice, and also works for the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program – the real-life unit that inspired the Netflix crime thriller series Mindhunter.
Her work involves cracking cold cases, and in 2018 she helped to identify the most prolific serial killer in American history, Samuel Little.
For Williamson, who now lives in Washington DC, it’s a world away from the cane fields of Bundaberg where she grew up.
As a youngster, Williamson had her sights set on becoming a vertebrate palaeontologist.
“I was always obsessed with dinosaurs,” she said.
But by the time she arrived at UQ, Williamson realised she had outgrown that childhood interest. Another daydream she entertained was to be like Dana Scully, the fictional medical doctor and FBI agent in The X-Files.
She changed tack, studying biology, zoology and parasitology as an undergraduate, soaking up the sun in the Great Court between classes. Williamson looks back fondly at her time as a student.
“I just had a great time and that's why I stayed at UQ for seven years,” she said.
In 2002, Williamson completed her PhD in microbiology, working on developing vaccine candidates against parasitic infections.
Around that time, modern forensic science was coming into its own, and Williamson was drawn to the idea of working in a field where she could see immediate tangible impacts.
After a research fellowship at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Williamson got a forensics job in Queensland, working for three years examining evidence for sexual assault and homicide trials. A DNA sampling method she was trained in there – where a scalpel is used to scrape fabric for cells – would later come in handy.
In the unsolved case of JonBenét Ramsey, an American child who died at age six, Williamson would later use the same technique to clear Ramsey’s immediate family of the murder. Williamson said many other cases were cracked using the same technique, though she is still frustrated that the Ramsey case remains unsolved.
In Queensland, Williamson was also involved in testing some evidence in the Daniel Morcombe case. Morcombe, a 13-year-old, was abducted and murdered while waiting at a bus stop on the Sunshine Coast in 2003. His disappearance became one of the most publicised and extensively investigated crimes in the state’s history.
“It definitely impacted me a lot,” Williamson said.
“There are times when it’s in your community and you suspect it’s not a happy ending. Those cases can be hard, but I was privileged to be able to work on them.”
The job was a formative one for her, but the US beckoned – there was a dream career as Dana Scully to be lived out.
“I was inspired by the fictional TV character, and I arrived in the US with two suitcases,” Williamson said.
She spent eight years at the Bode Technology Group, America’s largest private forensic DNA laboratory, and at the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), leading their forensics and biometrics unit.
“Unfortunately, there are hundreds of John and Jane Does in this country who are children – they don't have a name and you don't know who killed them,” she said.
“I really worked on identifying deceased children.”
While she was at the NCMEC, then US Vice-President Joe Biden spearheaded a national cold case effort focusing on sexual assault. Williamson was hired to oversee the program, which led to her US Department of Justice (DOJ) work.
These days, Williamson is a senior official at the DOJ, working on big-picture programs such as the funding of national and state forensics and crime initiatives. Her work with the FBI is more granular: she works at the individual case level, lending her knowledge as a subject matter expert on DNA and body-fluid identification.
“At any one time, it could be 10 to 15 cases,” she said.
On the day she is interviewed for Contact, Williamson has been consulting on a cold case, discussing where to find stored evidence, years after the crime was committed, to forensically test it.
An average sexual assault or homicide case, Williamson estimates, usually takes about six months to solve – but many cold cases can take far longer.
Investigations into Samuel Little, who the FBI has linked to at least 60 murders, is still ongoing (Little died in December last year and had confessed to killing as many as 93 women).
Many of Little's crimes were committed in jurisdictions where cold case investigators were funded by the DOJ. Williamson was heavily involved because of her DOJ role, and was able to leverage a network of investigators across the US.
She was initially going to oversee forensic testing of evidence, but “Little had a knack for not leaving behind DNA, which so many of these offenders do”.
The job switched to crime analytics, painstakingly combing through databases and old news clippings to match Little's confessions to specific victims.
“For two years that case was pretty much my life,” Williamson said.
“Most cases don’t end, especially if it’s part of a series. That’s the one thing about the United States: all the serial offenders. It’s not so common in Australia.”
Source: ABC News (US)
Through her investigations into murders and sexual assaults, Williamson regularly encounters examples of humanity at its worst.
So how does she process or cope with the heinous acts she sees in her line of work?
“I focus on violent crime – the worst people in society,” she said.
“But you’ve got to remember that these people are a snippet of society doing bad things. They’re not the majority.
“In contrast, I work with the best people in the world. I work with detectives, prosecutors and victim advocates who dedicate their lives to the cause. They sacrifice family time and their own personal lives to solve these cases.
“Their dedication, and how they go above and beyond for victims and their families, outweighs the bad.”
Despite working on several high-profile cases, Williamson said the cases she is most proud of solving remain – for the most part – outside of public consciousness.
“Cold cases are often solved because someone is championing them – family members who are educated and know to go to media or know to call up law enforcement,” she said.
But there are many cases where victims have been in less fortunate situations.
“Being the voice for those victims and getting them solved – I don’t care what the media thinks [in those cases] when you know that you’ve fought for that victim and that you’ve got an answer,” she said.
“In the Sam Little investigation, Little said that he always picked victims who wouldn't be missed as much. But what he got wrong was that they were all missed by somebody. And every victim we identified, every phone call we made – someone cared.
“That’s what it’s all about.”