A Look at the DNA Tech Company Helping to Solve Cold Cases

DNA technology company Parabon NanoLab’s breakthroughs in genetic analysis have upended the notion of a “cold” case, as it has helped law enforcement agencies make arrests and identify suspects in five decades-old unsolved murders since May.

When a life is brutally taken, the only semblance of solace afforded to devastated loved ones and haunted investigators is the possibility of justice, and when evidence leads nowhere and cases go cold, those pangs of hope only grow deeper.

But DNA technology company Parabon NanoLab’s breakthroughs in genetic analysis have upended the notion of a "cold" case, as it has helped law enforcement agencies make arrests and identify suspects in decades-old unsolved murders since May. 

"It’s been a very exciting time," Dr. Ellen Greytak, Parabon NanoLab’s director of bioinformatics, told InsideEdition.com. "We’ve been busy."

Founded in 2008 to "create breakthrough products using DNA," Parabon NanoLab develops programs that analyze biological data in new ways. 

The company in 2011 set out on a research project for the Defense Department that used algorithms to analyze a person’s DNA to identify their unique characteristics and create computer-generated sketches of what that person might look like at various ages.

Parabon offered the tool, known as Snapshot, to law enforcement as a way to identify the many John and Jane Does, as well as find suspects in cold cases.

“If you have a suspect list, it gives you a really good way to prioritize … or try to generate new leads," Greytak said. 

And then in May, Parabon announced its relationship with CeCe Moore, who developed the genetic genealogy methods being used.  These methods can identify people through DNA shared with distant relatives.  With Moore leading Parabon's new genetic genealogy division, they tapped into GEDmatch, one of the few online ancestry databases that is public, and got to work.

"We don’t know ahead of time whether there will be relatives, but there are about 1 million people in there," Greytak said. "We upload the data to GEDmatch and see are there close enough matches … and that’s when the real painstaking genealogy work comes in. There’s so much information to wade through."

After officials at Parabon uncover information that could be connected to a case, it’s up to law enforcement to identify specific suspects and confirm their hunches through traditional DNA matching.

"We don't always find a single individual — we essentially give [police] leads and it’s up to the agency to do the investigation," Greytak said.

In the span of two months, the company has ushered in breakthroughs in at least five cases that many believed would remain unsolved.

On May 18, police in Snohomish County, Washington, arrested William Earl Talbott II, 55, in the 1987 killing of Canadian couple Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. Talbott pleaded not guilty. 

On June 22, Gary C. Hartman was arrested in the 1986 rape and murder of 12-year-old Michella Welch. The 66-year-old nurse had no criminal record. He pleaded not guilty. 

Three days later, Raymond Rowe, a popular DJ from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was arrested in the 1992 killing and sexual assault of Christy Mirack. He has not yet entered a plea.

That same day, officials in Brazos County, Texas, announced James Otto Earhart, a convicted murder who had been put to death in 1999 for the killing of a 9-year-old girl, was responsible for the 1981 death of Virginia Freeman.

On Monday, police in Fort Wayne, Indiana arrested John D. Miller for the 1988 murder of 8-year-old April Tinsley. He has pleaded not guilty.

All of the suspects were arrested or identified using leads produced by Parabon.

“These investigators, their goal in life is to solve these cases before they retire," Greytak said. “When we get the call that they have exciting news, they’re able to report they were able to solve this case after so long, and that’s great."

In many instances, it appears those arrested were never before considered suspects, but such advances have made identifying them possible.

“If these people had a strong connection to the case, they would’ve already been found," Greytak said. "A lot of these cases, it’s someone out of nowhere, [who was] never on the police’s radar … living a quiet life while their victim’s family has been tortured all this time."

The developments in technology may prove to be a game changer, as law enforcement agencies across the country tap Parabon in the hopes that their cold cases may one day be solved. 

"It’s amazing, because in all of these cases, they already got the DNA … it wasn’t a change in the amount of information available, it was a change in the way it was analyzed," Greytak said. "And it’s now leading to the information that solves that case."