West Virginia scientist helps detectives use DNA to solve cold cases

Special Reports

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WOWK) – Did you know when you take one of those recreational DNA tests, like Ancestry.com, you could be helping solve a cold case on the other side of the country. In some cases, it seems more like the script for a new crime show. But now, a top-notch scientist from West Virginia is rewriting the rules and turning DNA maps into DNA traps for criminals.

A reign of terror during the 70s and 80s struck fear into the hearts of many on the west coast.

“The Golden State Killer is the worse of the worst of the worst that ever happened. 13 murders. 50 plus rapes,” Ronald Harrington, whose brother was named as a victim of The Golden State Killer.

Thanks to DNA detective work, this case is one of the dozens where arrests have been made giving families like the Harrington’s closure. 

“The most important tool at the present time revolves around this issue of DNA sourced public databases being used to solve long ago cold case crimes,” said Harrington.

A scientist originally from Elkins, West Virginia is at the forefront of this technology. Doctor Steven Armentrout is CEO and co-founder of Parabon Nanolabs in Virginia. 

“So the new tech we made available just a year ago is called genetic genealogy,” stated Armentrout.

So here’s how it works, when you take a recreational DNA test at home, you can then choose to have your DNA uploaded to a site like GEDmatch to find other family members. That’s where Parabon steps in.

“We can take that DNA sample from the crime scene and upload it to a public genealogy database,” said Armentrout. “We are able to narrow down the list of possible contributors to that DNA to just a few people. It might just be all the sons of a particular family.”

So far, they’ve helped solve over 55 cold cases. The first was in Washington state.

“We got two good matches on each side of that person’s family tree,” Armentrout said. “And literally, C.C. Moore, our lead genetic genealogist, solved that (47 year old) case over a weekend.”

“We arrested a 77-year-old Edmonds man who is suspected of murdering Twenty-year-old Jody Loomis in 1972,” said Capt Robert Palmer, Snohomish County Sheriff’s office, “His name is Terrence Miller. He was identified as a suspect through the process of genealogical DNA.”  

Here’s where state-run crime labs, like the one in Charleston, come into play.

“Once we extract the DNA, we run it on one of these machines to determine how much human DNA or male DNA is detected,”  said Melissa Runyan, forensic science supervisor of the West Virginia State Police Crime Lab’s DNA section.

Melissa Runyan sees this as another tool to help investigators close these cold cases.

“They’re starting to use that more on primary cases that they have exhausted all of their leads,” said Runyan. “They find an actual sample from that individual to be able to send to the crime lab to make that association like we would normally do in a case.”

Earlier this year, another arrest was made in a high profile cold case involving two teenagers, Tracy Hawlett and JB Beasley, who were killed in south Alabama twenty years ago. Parabon made a familial match which gave investigators the tip they needed.

“In the Alabama case, it was a lead that the sheriff was then able to use to go out and get a DNA sample,” said Armentrout. “And using good old fashioned traditional DNA matching tech, that got a hit.”

Coley McCraney was arrested and charged with their murders this bringing closure to families and an entire community.

“It’s always exciting to see the work applied effectively and to know the relief it brought to the families,” stated Armentrout.

A feeling Tracy Hawlett’s mother shared with CBS News. 

“All I’ve ever wanted to do was stand in front of someone one day and ask them why,” said Carol Roberts, Hawlett’s mother, “Why you thought you had the right to take my daughter’s life.”

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