The founders of Project Justice, a crime-fighting Las Vegas-based nonprofit that raises funds for the private investigative DNA lab Othram, are paying it forward one cold case at a time.
“In 2020, we were doing a lot of things for the community of Las Vegas, and we found this company called Othram, which is in Houston, Texas,” Justin Woo, who spearheaded the project, told Fox News Digital.
“And we were talking with them about the amazing things they were doing with DNA and forensic genealogy to solve crimes, and we gave them a condition: If you find a case for us in Las Vegas, we’ll fully sponsor that.”
That ended up being the 1989 unsolved murder of 14-year-old Stephanie Isaacson.
Woo is a Vegas-based tech entrepreneur and philanthropist. He co-founded Project Justice with his wife, Lydia Ansel, a DJ and prominent violinist.
With help from Othram and the donated funds, Las Vegas Police were able to identify Darren R. Marchand as their suspect in the cold case murder of Isaacson.
Marchand had been arrested and released in the 1986 death of Nanette Vanderburg, three years before Isaacson’s murder, Fox News Digital previously reported. DNA at both crime scenes matched.
Othram made the connections with just a tiny DNA sample — 15 human cells from Isaacson’s case — that Woo called a “Hail Mary.” Prior testing in 1998 and 2007 failed to yield any results. Marchand killed himself in 1995.
There are more than 250,000 active cold case homicide investigations in the U.S., according to Project Justice, with an average of 6,000 new cases added every year. However, advances in DNA testing are increasingly helping detectives crack cases.
After the Isaacson case, Woo and Ansel said they continued raising funds and funding projects, eventually founding Project Justice, which has donated money to about 100 cold case investigations, 22 of which have since been solved.
The solved case helped convince Las Vegas Police to expand their cold case unit from one detective to an entire department, Woo said. Las Vegas Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Justin got all excited about it, and he’s like, ‘Well, let’s do more cases.’ And so he asked a couple of his friends, me included,” Ansel said. “And we also fully sponsored one case, and he called it the Vegas Justice League. … And then, from there, we just saw the more we were doing, the more we were inspired to do. And we basically branched off, Justin and I, into something we call Project Justice, which is nationwide.”
Project Justice describes itself as a nonprofit dedicated to assisting American police departments by paying for state-of-the-art DNA testing at independent labs.
“As technology rapidly evolves, local law enforcement are challenged to access these emerging resources, and Project Justice is committed to supporting their efforts,” a spokesperson told Fox News Digital.
In addition to donating their own money, Woo and Ansel are also raising money for more cases at their website, ProjectJustice.com. So far, they’ve received donations from $10 to a $494,000 contribution from a single donor.
Since the 2018 arrest of the “Golden Gate killer,” James DeAngelo, in California, advances in DNA testing have increasingly helped detectives crack cold cases around the country.
Earlier this week, New York prosecutors touted “cutting-edge” SNP testing for its role helping solve the Long Island serial killer case.
Suspect Rex Heuermann, a New York City architect who lived for decades in an upscale suburb 20 miles from where a series of bodies were found more than a decade ago, was charged with a fourth murder Tuesday after lab workers matched hairs found on the victims to Heuermann, his wife and his daughter.
He is believed to have inadvertently transferred his family members’ DNA to the victims while they were out of town.
Fox News’ Bonny Chu contributed to this report.