Forensic botany and mysterious murder cases sound like a plot straight out of a television crime drama. However, this very real drama began in Kansas City, Kan., when Markus Lee was shot and killed in his yard. After exhaustive efforts, detectives were left with only one slim lead to go on — a rental car matching the description of a vehicle leaving the scene of the crime, which contained no other clues than a few elm and cottonwood leaves scattered on the floorboard and in the trunk. Since cottonwoods are rare in upland Kansas City but were present near the spot where Lee was murdered, detectives recognized that the leaves could possibly tie the rental car, and those associated with it, to the murder scene.

Seeking expert advice and assistance, the detectives called on Jason Holliday, assistant professor of forest genetics and biotechnology. Holliday willingly volunteered to determine if the cottonwood leaves from the rental car were from the same tree present at the crime scene, collaborating with Ruslan Biyashev, a research manager who works with Professor M.A. Saghai-Maroof of the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, to do so. Although his results proved that the leaves were not a match, his efforts and cooperation with the detectives, who could then rule out the rental car’s association with the crime, were very much appreciated.

In a letter to Dean Paul Winistorfer, FBI Special Agent M. Alexander Menzel Jr. recognized the case’s two victories: (1) that two detectives, lacking traditional forms of evidence, turned to forensic botany in an attempt to solve a murder, and (2) that Holliday, contacted by detectives he didn’t know from hundreds of miles away, agreed to volunteer his time and efforts on
a mission all knew was a long shot.