GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For nearly 25 years, the remains of a woman found near Grand Rapids have been referred to only as the Ada bones, her face only an approximation in clay.
Now, authorities know her name.
Stephanie Renee Judson, a mother of two, was originally from Benton Harbor.
She may be the final victim in a series of a dozen killings that happened in the 1990s. Authorities don’t know who was responsible.
Judson’s remains were discovered by a maintenance worker amid the brush and bramble of a roadside park along M-21 in Ada Township on July 31, 1997. At the time, authorities had no way to identify her.
Her name was the result of recent genealogy testing.
“It’s incredible,” Kent County Sheriff’s Department Detective Dustin Cook said of the method.
Last year, the department turned over DNA from a femur to genealogy tracers from the nonprofit DNA Doe. DNA Doe then compared the DNA against samples in a public database of family trees.
A hit: They found distant relatives in Mississippi. That led them to Judson’s family in Benton Harbor.
The family had never stopped looking for Judson. Just last year, her son wished her a happy birthday on Facebook.
“You are missed wherever you are,” he wrote.
Judson’s family declined an on-camera interview with Target 8 but wanted West Michigan to know that she had a “heart of gold” and that her family loved — and still loves — her deeply.
“At a young age, (Judson) kind of got caught up in the party lifestyle and then relocated from the Benton Harbor area up here to Grand Rapids and (family) lost contact with her,” Cook said, though he added that she always reached out to her family on birthdays and holidays.
Judson struggled with substance abuse, Cook said, and was trafficked for sex. She was in her late 20s when she was killed.
Her age, her lifestyle and the way her body was disposed of led investigators to believe she is a victim of a killer or killers who stalked vulnerable sex-trafficked women in the 1990s. Including Judson, 12 women were killed between 1994 and 1997.
Judson’s family said she moved to Grand Rapids with Gregory Kelly. Court records show he was a violent offender who died of COVID-19 in 2020 while serving prison time for sex trafficking.
Cook declined to identify any suspects in Judson’s murder. Anyone with information about Judson’s death or any of the other killings can call Silent Observer at 616.774.2345 or Cook at 616.632.6136.
While Cook was grateful to give the family some answers, he was disappointed they came too late for Judson’s mom, who died two months before detectives first tracked down Judson’s sister.
“She wanted her mom to be here in person to hear this news,” he said, “but she did say, ‘That just goes to show, even my mom being in heaven, she never stopped working to find her daughter.’”