Can DNA of Murdered Woman Heat Up 1977 Cold Case? (Multi-Video)

DNA rendering of Jane Doe hopes to shed light on a 1977 Delaware murder. (Courtesy of the New Castle County Police)
DNA rendering of Jane Doe hopes to shed light on a 1977 Delaware murder. (Courtesy of the New Castle County Police)

By Adam Duvernay, Delaware News Journal

A skull found in a Townsend area drainage ditch 41 years ago has a new face.

Cold case detectives with New Castle County Police have a new image of a Jane Doe found badly decomposed in 1977.

The rendering, built with DNA-based reconstruction technology, is an eerie match to previous interpretations of the dead woman’s face.

(Courtesy of the Delaware News Journal)

Updating the woman’s look may add new life to the oldest open case county police are currently investigating.

The first mystery is her identity; finding her killer comes next.

“It’s very difficult to solve a cold case homicide when we don’t even know who our actual victim is,” said Ret. Sgt. Glenn Davis, one of two county cold case detectives.

Retired Sgt. Glenn Davis (Courtesy of Tom Nutter, Delaware Today)
Retired Sgt. Glenn Davis (Courtesy of Tom Nutter, Delaware Today)

The woman’s remains were found in a drainage ditch near Townsend on June 27, 1977.

Investigators don’t know if she was killed near that Old Union Church Road ditch or just left there. She may have been dead for months before her remains were discovered.

A report from the June 28, 1977, Evening Journal said a passing motorist found her. A Morning News article published Aug. 18, 1977, said she was found by someone on foot.

“Identifying the woman was difficult, simply because there was so little left to identify,” the Morning News article said, quoting investigators working the case at the time.

She’s considered a homicide victim. Police won’t say in what way she was killed, hopeful that secret will help corroborate a criminal confession that may arise in the future.

The state medical examiner’s office reconstructed the woman’s face in 1998, police said.

They produced sketches and a bust of how they imagined her face before the killing.

New technology has shown how close to the mark that reconstruction was.

Cold case detectives had Bode Cellmark Forensics in Virginia extract DNA from the remains in late 2016.

The DNA samples then were sent to Parabon NanoLabs, a company in Virginia which specializes in predicting physical appearance from DNA.

Their services also put the county police’s Jane Doe into a national database which collects DNA voluntarily from people with missing family members for possible matches.

Parabon offers “Snapshot DNA Phenotyping,” which predicts physical appearance from genetic evidence.

(Law enforcement now has a new DNA tool that helps nab suspects and close cases. The service, developed by Parabon NanoLabs of Reston, Virginia, is called the Parabon® Snapshot™ DNA Phenotyping Service (Snapshot). It predicts the physical appearance of individuals from the smallest of DNA evidence samples, creating a composite image or “snapshot” of any DNA source. Courtesy of Parabon and YouTube)

The snapshot provided what investigators said is a more accurate and scientifically-backed look into the past — a face that once belonged to their Jane Doe.

The woman was blonde and her eyes were a light blue, both features a credit of north European ancestry, according to the Snapshot details released by county police.

Sgt. Glenn Davis (Courtesy of Tom Nutter, Delaware Today)
Det. Brian Shahan (Courtesy of Tom Nutter, Delaware Today)

Recreating her face from DNA required at least two assumptions the woman’s remains did not provide, police said.

She was given a body mass index of 22, an average healthy score, and she was aged to 48 years, both features which cannot be gleaned from DNA.

“This picture we’re looking at from Snapshot is more detailed. They can scientifically say the skin tone and the eye color,” said Det. Brian Shahan, part of the team investigating the cold case.

“Once we find out who she is, then we can go back to who she was, who she was associated with, if she was married or if she had children, everything.”

The detectives said learning her identity is the first step to solving her murder.

The August 1977 Morning News article said the woman was found nude and that police at the time surmised she was killed elsewhere and dumped in the drainage ditch.

Investigators today said it’s still not entirely clear to them where she was killed.

The article provided other details, including that investigators believed she had children, was missing 13 teeth, had cracked cartilage in her throat and that her hair had once been dyed dark brown and bleached.

Investigators believed she had a “pointed nose.”

The Morning News article also detailed difficulty medical examiners had determining what the woman looked like when she was alive.

Quoted investigators said sketches they made at the time from her remains were likely “75-80 percent accurate.”

(Learn More. A tech company has come up with a new way to analyze DNA to solve old crimes and it’s already showing results. Dr. Ellen Greytak at Parabon NanoLabs says the company recently developed new algorithms to analyze unidentified DNA samples against DNA submitted to a public genealogy database called GEDmatch. Many of the samples were submitted by people researching their ancestry. Courtesy of Inside Edition and YouTube. Posted on Jul 20, 2018.)

“Now, armed with a probable likeness of the woman … police have a better chance of identifying her,” the article quoted from an investigator.

Forty-one years have proven that hypothesis overly optimistic.

“We’re just frustrated that we don’t have her identified,” Shahan said.

Putting out a modern interpretation of the Jane Doe’s face, the investigators hope, will bring new eyes to the case and, possibly, connect them with her relatives or friends.

“People nowadays are able to relate to this picture as opposed to the picture that was put out in 1998. It gives fresh eyes and fresh perspective to the case,” said county police spokeswoman Sgt. Heather Carter.

“When people hear the word DNA, they feel more solid about that information and maybe their willing to look at this further.”

Anyone who believes they can identify this Jane Doe can contact detectives at 302-395-2781 or 302-395-8216.

More information can be found on the county’s website.

(See in Action! Inside Edition tested out new crime-fighting technology which uses DNA obtained from a simple mouth swab to produce an actual image of her face. The sample was sent to Parabon NanoLabs, which has assisted police departments in 37 states to identify persons of interest in their investigations. Chief scientist Ellen Greytak says the new technology can reveal a suspect’s eye color, skin color, hair color, and even the shape of his or her face. Courtesy of Inside Edition and YouTube. Posted on Jun 1, 2018.)

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