Local detectives look to new DNA technology to solve decades-old murders

SEATTLE — Washington investigators are turning to DNA technology to find new leads in unsolved murder cases.

At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Seattle last week, developers from all over the nation showed off tools that promise to cut down the time it takes to solve a crime.

Jared Bradley showed off the M-Vac System, a tool that looks like a carpet cleaner and can collect DNA investigators didn’t even know existed.

“Just imagine what a carpet cleaner does - it sprays and vacuums at the same time,” Bradley said.

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The M-Vac was invented by his father, Dr. Bruce Bradley, to test for things like salmonella and E-coli in the food industry. Now, it’s being used by police investigators across the nation -- including the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab.

Bradley told KIRO 7 that even if someone is duct-taped and thrown into the Puget Sound, DNA can still be collected with the M-Vac.

“It’s being used on the touch DNA, which is the skin cells because that’s so difficult to collect,” Bradley said. “[It can be used on] rocks, bricks, all sorts of clothing… a Molotov cocktail wick, bedsheets … you name it.”

The M-Vac can also be used to test evidence from cold cases, including an unsolved crime committed in 1966 in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.

In that case, two flight attendants were bludgeoned using a piece of wood.

One woman was killed; the other survived the attack but suffered permanent brain injuries.

Seattle police told KIRO 7 they plan to retest the evidence found at the scene to see if it might match the DNA of serial killer Ted Bundy.

“At this point, we have a second eye going over it, to see what kind of physical evidence is there,” said Seattle police detective Rolf Norton. “Maybe it could be addressed with 2018 science.”

DNA collected at crime scenes isn’t just being compared to the DNA stored in state and national databases. It’s also being used to create high-tech mug shots.

A company called Parabon Nanolabs created a series of snapshots of the man police say killed Sarah Yarborough, a 16-year-old who was found raped and murdered near Federal Way High School in December 1991.

She was last seen leaving her home to go to a high school dance competition. Her car was found in the school parking lot and her body was discovered in a wooded area on campus later that day.

Twenty-seven years later, Parabon used DNA markers and genetics to create a series of composite sketches to predict what Yarborough’s killer may have looked like at ages 18 and 25, and how he may look today.

“For pigmentation, we’ll predict the person’s eye color, hair color, skin color and even the level of freckling on their face,” said Dr. Ellen Greytak from Parabon Nanolabs.

The King County Sheriff’s Office is hopeful that these sketches could bring in some new leads to finally solve her murder.

“If you look at this image and then look at the sketches, you can tell it’s the same person,” said Captain Ted Boe with the King County Sheriff’s Office. “The witnesses saw the same guy.”

DNA phenotyping is the same technology used to create mugshots in two other local cold cases.

In 1986, two young girls from Tacoma, 12-year-old Michella Welch and 13-year-old Jennifer Bastian, were murdered just four months apart.

While the new technology is exciting and promising to detectives, defense attorneys are casting doubt on the credibility of the company using DNA to create these sketches.

“We’re simply going on faith, on the people who own this company,” said defense attorney Peter Elikann. “[They’re saying], this is good stuff, trust us, believe it. That can’t be relied on in courts.”

Meanwhile, thousands of cold cases sit on the office shelves of police departments across the state, waiting for a break.

“Most of these murders have boxes and boxes of evidence that are stored in evidence rooms and haven’t been tested in 20, 30 or even 40 years,” said Cloyd Steiger, a 22-year Seattle homicide detective who is now chief criminal investigator in the Washington State Attorney General’s Office Homicide Investigation Tracking System.

“Do whatever you can to solve these cold cases,” Steiger said. “The chances of success if you don’t are zero.”

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