Parabon Snapshots of Unknown Killers: Truth and Promise

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Part of note from killer

April Tinsley vanished on Good Friday, 1988. According to the FBI page on her disappearance and murder, the 8-year-old Fort Wayne, Indiana girl was on her way home from visiting a friend when she was kidnapped. April’s killer raped then murdered her. She was suffocated to death.

April’s killer has never been caught. Police have a description, an approximate age range, and a psychological profile indicating he is likely a “preferential” pedophile — a pedophile who is specifically attracted to children, likely within April’s age range. There are different kinds of pedophiles, according to most profiling research, and this kind can find it harder than others to hide their attraction to children.

The man who killed April Tinsley even left behind plenty of evidence. Including communications, beginning with a message scrawled on a barn door, reading in part, “I kill April Tisley (sic)… I kill again.”

Michelle McNamara wrote about April’s “communicative” (Michelle’s apt description) killer in a blog post at True Crime Diary in 2012:

Investigators say they believe whoever wrote the message was April’s killer.  They haven’t said why, but there are two possibilities.  The writing implement, said to be crayons, was found nearby, and DNA from the crayons could have been matloched to a sample found on April’s body.  The second possibility has been discussed on message boards, but not confirmed by investigators.  It’s alleged that when April’s body was found she was fully clothed but missing one shoe.  The rumor is that above “ha ha” was the question, “did you find the other shoe?”

As Michelle reported in that post, 7-year-old Sarah Bowker would disappear not long after that message on a barn door. She met the same fate as April. Strangely, while the coroner who examined both girls concluded their murders were related, the FBI disagreed.

The Tinsley murder had long been a cold case by the time April’s killer made himself known again in 2004. He did this by leaving seemingly barely literate notes inside baggies, accompanied by used condoms in various areas, clearly targeting little girls anew.

Still, the FBI didn’t become fully involved until 2009. They created a profile of the killer. CNN reported on some of the FBI’s conclusions about his psychological makeup:

Police believe he is a white male currently in his 40s or 50s who prefers and desires sexual contact with children, particularly little girls.

“This offender has demonstrated that he has strong ties to northeast Fort Wayne and Allen County,” the profile said. “This is where he likely lives, works and/or shops. You may be standing next to him in line at the grocery store, sitting beside him in the pew at church, or working beside him on the production line.”

Such profiles can be helpful in that they might spur local residents to tell police, “You know, I always wondered about this one guy (…)”

Criminal behavioral analysis — profiling — is a fascinating if imperfect art. In development since the 1970s, it’s accrued an aura of myth, thanks in part to great fiction like Silence of the Lambs. The truth about behavioral analysis is that it’s one tool in a vast investigative suite of them, and is rarely the factor that solves the case — it’s simply one helpful way to narrow down a field of suspects.

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“Snapshot” of Tinsley suspect

With the advent of easy and inexpensive DNA testing and the parsing of human genetic makeup, a new form of profiling has been filtering into news accounts of cold cases in the last couple of years, and it was recently applied to the DNA of the killer in the Tinsley case.

Parabon is an outfit in Virginia and they’ve been doing a steady business creating suspect portraits using an unknown subject’s genetic history as revealed through DNA. Here’s how they describe what they do with a product they call Snapshot:

Snapshot is a revolutionary new forensic DNA analysis service that accurately predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from DNA. It can also determine kinship between DNA samples out to six degrees of relatedness. Snapshot is ideal for generating investigative leads, narrowing suspect lists, and identifying unknown remains.

Parabon, as best as I can tell, uses the same data that Ancestry.com and 23andMe utilize from submitted DNA samples to develop a portrait of unknown killers as well as John and Jane Does. It’s a smart and understandable use of new technology and when I first learned of it, I was blown away. Anyone who has ever obsessed over a cold case in which there were known samples of the killer’s genetic material hears about what Parabon is doing and gets a little thrill at the prospect: What would a Parabon Snapshot of the Zodiac Killer look like? Or the vicious Golden State Killer, whom Michelle McNamara was writing a book about when she passed away?

My wife and I have had our DNA analyzed by both Ancestry and 23andMe. It wasn’t until I took a deep dive into what 23andMe concluded from my DNA sample that I thought about Parabon’s Snapshot profiles and felt a sudden twinge of disappointment.

As Parabon attempts to make clear in profiles such as the one they’ve released in the Tinsley case, their workups — highly detailed suspect sketches, basically — are based on the suspect’s most probable appearance, based on what their genetic material tends to predict.

Here’s the cold water about this kind of thing: even if your genetic material tends to indicate you’ll look a certain way, there is no guarantee you will. I learned this from my 23andMe experience.

23andMe breaks reports from your DNA down into numerous reports. These include:

  • Ancestry Composition (I am 99.2% northern European and 0.7% Sub-Saharan African)
  • Muscle Composition — I am a “likely sprinter,” my muscle composition primarily “fast-twitch” muscle fibers
  • Caffeine Consumption — I’m likely to consume less. I do not consume less. I consume large quantities of it.
  • Individual reports on your likely hair color, physical characteristics, and skin.

The reports in the last bullet point are where things get interesting.

According to 23andMe’s analysis of my DNA, I am most likely to have “light brown or blond hair.”

On my hair report, 23andMe actually states, “You are not likely to have red hair. 94% of customers who are genetically similar to you do not have red hair.”

I was born with coppery red hair. It’s gotten blonder as I’ve aged, but there’s no doubt about it. The report nails my hair type (lightly wavy), that I’m likely to be balding (I am), and the fact it’s light colored. But that’s it.

It seems like nitpicking but if the same data was used to make an unknown suspect profile, he wouldn’t have red hair — a highly distinctive feature.

My 23andMe profile correctly predicts I have light-colored eyes (green), but the part of the report that details potential facial characteristics of someone with my genetic makeup states clearly: “Steven, you are not likely to have a cleft chin.62% of customers who are genetically similar to you do not have a cleft chin.”

One of my most obvious facial characteristics is a clearly cleft chin.

23andMe also concluded I would have light skin, which I do, but not many freckles. That part is debatable. I don’t have nearly as many as some redheads, but I’ve certainly got some.

So far, it’s not hard to guess that a Parabon Snapshot reaching conclusions similar to 23andMe from my genetic data would have me — a redhead with some freckles and a cleft chin — as a light brown-haired man with few freckles and a square, un-cleft chin. My DNA tends to predict those things. I simply was an outlier and ended up born with the less likely traits. Just as many people are, every day, everywhere.

This is not a knock on Parabon. I think they’re doing very necessary work and hope they keep refining and improving their product. It’s a reality check for the many true crime devotees like me who see intriguing news stories about Snapshot-generated profiles and don’t bother to look past quickly turned-out reports breathlessly hinting that this might the thing that solves the case.

It’s a long-needed and possibly fundamental tool. Truth be told, I have no doubt a Parabon Snapshot or some similar forensic product will one day play a key role in solving a major case, especially when combined with a service that has Ancestry.com’s capacity for identifying possible familial relations, up to 3rd, 4th, 5th cousins.

But Parabon’s Snapshot is not a magic bullet. Reading the fine print on Parabon reports it is clear they are aware of this. Reading interpretations of their work in the press, it’s clear that the media is not. Sober, realistic assessments of possible breaks in long-unsolved and deeply unsettling cases like the murder of April Tinsley don’t traffic quite as well for a TV station or newspaper website.

A beginning

Michelle McNamara, the brilliant mind behind True Crime Diary, passed away in late April, 2016.

I was already established as a crime blogger when I discovered Michelle’s work 10 years ago, and I was blown away. There were moments when I thought I had a handle on this thing, but Michelle was the real deal. A talented writer with literary flair and an absolutely dogged reporter of the old school, willing to use her own time to knock on doors, make calls, and get the truth, in whatever way she could.

We struck up a friendship. It was on one hand a typical internet friendship — polite and distant in some ways yet cerebral and deeply involved in others. Through reading her work and exchanging emails with her I realized I’d made friends with a like mind who shared my tendency to get lost in obsessions with unanswered questions.

Michelle’s obsessions led to her securing a book deal to write about the unsolved Original Night Stalker rapes and murders that ripped through upscale California neighborhoods in the late 70s and early 80s. When she passed away she was very close to being done with the book. If I can help bring her book to the public in any way, I will.

In the meantime, I realized with a modicum of shock that Michelle’s death had jarred loose something inside me that I’d been resisting for a while.

I’d abandoned covering true crime stories in an in-depth close-up way for some time because I felt too psychologically fragile to deal. I’d branched out to covering other subjects like tech and pop culture. I’d even delved into comedy. As a result I eventually ended up writing an official tie-in book to AMC’s brilliant Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul

Michelle McNamara leaving this world far too soon made me realize I wasn’t done with true crime at all — even though my constant tweets about various crime stories all along had been telling me the same.

So here it is, in its very early form, my True Crime Wire. As I write it’s just a WordPress address. But as I gauge my own interest and ability to engage, it will likely become a standalone address. After all, true crime as a genre has been undergoing a substantial renaissance. The popularity of Making a Murderer and Serial alone are proof enough.

Here I’ll curate and aggregate crime stories, both old and unsolved and breaking. When I’m able I’ll add my own reporting. I may add contributors as I see fit. I’m not going to rush it. I’m going to be careful and also have to keep in mind my own professional work schedule, doing freelance writing and editing for Maxim magazine as well as writing more books.

And yes, this blog is dedicated to the memory of my friend Michelle, whom I never had a chance to tell just how gifted I thought she was. She could have ruled the true crime genre. If her book on the Original Night Stalker — which she re-dubbed the Golden State Killer — is as good as I expect, she may yet dominate the bestseller lists.

I hope so. And I hope she had at least some idea of how much I respected her work and appreciated her support. I didn’t always deserve it. But I’ll try to live up to it.