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How a Virginia technology company is helping solve murders

RESTON, Va. - The crime was particularly brutal. A 22-year-old was found dead after she had been violently and sexually assaulted.

For more than 30 years, the murder of Roberta Walls has been a mystery for investigators in Virginia Beach, but now they have a composite profile of a person of interest in the case.

Greytak's profile

That profile came from the work of Parabon NanoLabs in Reston. "I always want to help solve a case," said Ellen Greytak, the scientific lead with Parabon's Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service.

"Investigators are coming to us because they need information that's information they can't get anywhere else," she said.

Parabon specializes in a technology called DNA Phenotyping, which is the process of using DNA evidence to predict what people look like and their ancestry.

With a DNA sample, Parabon can predict someone's eye color, skin color, freckling, hair color, the shape of their face, as well as their heritage. Their predictions come with a level of confidence.

So far, they can't predict things like weight, age, or hairstyle. "There's only so much we can do, but all the information we provide is information the investigators didn't have before," said Greytak, who tested the technology on herself.

A forensic artist then uses the information to develop a composite image of what the person could look like. This allows investigators to narrow their suspect lists in cases like murder, sexual assault, missing people, assaults, and unidentified remains.

Investigators in Hampton Roads have taken notice.

In addition to Virginia Beach, detectives in Isle of Wight County are currently using the technology in efforts to solve the murder of 28-year-old Carrie Singer. The case remains unsolved, but Parabon has helped other departments solve cases.

"The first time we solved a case it was like, 'My gosh, this is a family that's been waiting for years to know who committed this crime,'" Greytak said. "We've been able to help them."

At a cost of $3,600 per DNA sample, the company hopes it saves investigators valuable man power and resources to help them find the right link to solve cases.