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June 24, 2024

Pa. State Police investigating 30-year-old homicide case after DNA breakthrough

New testing helped identify human remains that were found in 1992 by connecting them to relatives in Philly.

Investigations Cold Cases
State Police Cold Case Derek Mason Paul Kuehnel/USA TODAY NETWORK

Pennsylvania State Police are taking a closer look at a 30-year-old cold case after DNA technology revealed remains found in 1992 were West Philly resident Derek Michael Mason.

Pennsylvania State Police are reexamining a 30-year-old case after a DNA breakthrough helped identify human remains. 

On Jan. 21, 1992, troopers found a dead body in a wooded area along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Clay Township. In December 2023, police identified them as West Philly resident Derek Michael Mason and determined his death a homicide

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Brian McNally, a state trooper in Lancaster, said DNA testing led police to relatives in Philadelphia who provided new samples to confirm their genetic ties to the remains and helped police match up the discovery of the body with the timeline of Mason's disappearance.

"This pretty much was a brand new homicide once we found out who he was," McNally said. "There's a lot of what we call victimology to be done, just learning about Derek and his habits." 

Family members said Mason, known as "Hawkeye" or "Hawk," was last seen leaving his West Philadelphia home on the 500 block of S. 39th Street in October 1991, according to police. But Mason was never reported missing, impeding the investigation since he wasn't in the system, McNally said.

After making the connection in December and confirming the family's DNA samples, police have been interviewing associates to try to piece together what happened to Mason, McNally said. 

"We've put a significant amount of time and resources in this case just to get the ball rolling," McNally said. "And now that we have it rolling, we're not going to stop or slow down." 

In partnership with the district attorney's office, which helped fund the DNA testing, police used forensic genetic genealogy in this case. McNally said it generates a much more robust DNA profile that "pretty much sequences the entire person's genome," providing much more information than the short tandem repeat analysis typically used. With the new technology, police can submit information to databases and find relationships with those who have given consent for DNA comparison in law enforcement. 

In total, McNally said the state police have about 50 cold case homicides in their records, and many are part of a larger issue of missing persons going unreported. 

"Historically, [unreported cases] are coming from populations that were underserved by the police, that's a nice way to put it, minorities, LGBTQ+ people, people with mental health issues or low socioeconomic status," McNally said. "So, in a way, this is a way to make that right, too." 

Anyone with information on Mason's death can call McNally at 717-290-1967. State police are offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. 

"Someone out there knows what happened, we've just got to find that person," McNally said. "With it being 30 years ago now, it's just a matter of us getting to the right person and them being willing to stand up and do what needs to be done to give his family some closure."