Police turn to DNA phenotyping as experts attempt to put a face on crime

More police using new technology, but is it ready?
Posted at 4:53 PM, Feb 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-08 00:34:24-05

AURORA, Colo. --  For more than 30 years at Ft. Logan National Cemetery, Constance Bennett has been living up to her name.

"I still like to come here often and visit them," she said, sitting down beside the tombstone that bears three names, all with the same date of death. "It was January 16, 1984. Worst day of my life. They called it the 'Hammer Murders' at the time."

In the middle of the night, someone broke into her son Bruce's Aurora home, brutally murdering him, his wife Debra and their daughter Melissa, and bashing in the face of their 3-year-old daughter Vanessa, the only survivor.

"Melissa would have been 8 years old the next day," said Bennett. "I had dropped off her present that night."

At the time, police suspected the same man in a series of brutal murders and assaults, and investigators desperately looked for clues.

"We actually volunteered time off to start canvassing the area. We weren't paid; we just did it," said Detective Stephen Conner, who was a patrol officer at the time. "The crime terrorized the community then."

But no suspect was ever identified. There were no eyewitnesses to give descriptions. And while DNA linked the Bennett murders to another murder, the case went cold; the suspect was a ghost.

So last year, Det. Conner decided to take a chance hiring a Virginia-based company called Parabon.

The company promises to create descriptions and digital snapshots based on genes, showing on its website examples of how much a blind "DNA snapshot" can look like the actual person, down to the color of their skin, eyes and hair (if it's not dyed).

Parabon credits its technology with helping to solve a murder in North Carolina in which the DNA snapshot looked very similar to the man who eventually confessed.

But some scientists are concerned about the accuracy of this new field of forensic technology.

"There is still a lot of research to be done in this area, and as of this point, there hasn’t been a lot of funding," said Dr. Mark Shriver, a professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, who studies how genes influence facial features.  

His research was used by companies like Parabon, and showed that much of the face is determined by genes. But he said larger databases are needed to have more accurate results.

"We have enough data at this point to prove that we can actually make these sorts of predictions with other traits — things like ancestry, things like sex," said Shriver. "We found a handful of genes — maybe 50 or so at this point -- that we can reliably model effects for. So we know that those 50 genes affect the region of the face, but there are many more."

We put it to an unscientific test: A Denver7 employee gave her genetic information from 23&Me to Shriver and his colleagues.

In minutes, they created 3D models, and we showed them to the real person, Denver7 Anchor Anne Trujillo.

"I think it kind of does [look like me]. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it. It could be one of my relatives." said Trujillo. "Now, when I showed this to my mom, sister, daughter and husband, they all said, 'That does not look like you.'"

Detective Conner said the snapshots are most useful in eliminating suspects.

"It's going to be a general appearance of the the person could look like," said Det. Conner. "I can eliminate all Hispanic males, Asian males, black males. So now I'm focused in on just simply white males, but white males that are light-complected, that have freckles, that have light-colored hair, or green or light green-blue eyes." 

The Parabon snapshots of the "Hammer Murderer" show him as a young man and an old man, and Conner said it was "creepy" to see the face of a man who felt like a ghost.

"Hopefully, this will be able to tell us where he's at," said Conner, who estimated 50 phone calls had come in since the snapshot was released last August.

Meanwhile, Constance Bennett has never given up hope that someone would be caught and believes DNA or someone coming forward is the only way the case will be solved.

But she is tired of waiting for justice and worried that she is running out of time.

"It's important to me that people don't forget about it," she said, crying. "I haven't forgotten."


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