State police use DNA to look for cold-case killer

Investigators are trying to solve a double homicide from 2009 with a new forensic DNA analysis called “Snapshot.”
Investigators are trying to solve a double homicide from 2009 with a new forensic DNA analysis called “Snapshot.” Graphic provided

Law enforcement is using technology to find out who killed two central Pennsylvania women.

Christine McWhorter, 22, and her aunt Beatrice Daniels, 31, were shot in the Chestnut Terrace Apartments on Federal Drive in Mount Union in January 2009. Since then, there have been no arrests and no real information.

On Wednesday, state police and the Huntingdon County District Attorney’s Office announced they were trying to find information in a new way.

Investigators say they are working with Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs, a company that specializes in DNA phenotyping, a process they call “Snapshot.”

The company calls the process “a revolutionary new forensic DNA analysis service that accurately predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from DNA.”

In other words, instead of taking a suspect and matching that person to the DNA, investigators are taking the DNA and trying to reverse the process to find a person.

According to police, Parabon returned an analysis of a “person of interest” who is African-American, with medium to light skin and green or hazel eyes with zero to few freckles.

“We are requesting the assistance of the public in attempting to locate a person with these characteristics who possibly had a connection to the victims or associates of the victims,” police said in a statement.

DNA has been used as evidence in trials for years, but it has had an evolving role in investigations.

In 2000, then-Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar asked for a warrant for the arrest of an unknown man based on the DNA recovered from a rape victim in 1997. The warrant preserved the case without letting the statute of limitations expire.

The phenotyping is a different use.

“It’s clearly just an investigative technique. You wouldn’t be offering in court the results of that test. When they obtain the suspect, they are going to obtain DNA from the suspect and compare to evidence,” said Penn State Law distinguished professor David Kaye.

He said the DNA wanted poster generated by the phenotyping is very different from the request for a warrant.

“The police are asking for additional information based on different features in the DNA,” he said. “The real question here is how good is this method. How accurate is it?”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce