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New DNA Tech Helps Catch Killers from Hopeless Cases

In Lancaster County, Pa., evidence this week led to an arrest in a murder case 46 years after it happened, with new highly scientific testing conducted by a private company pointing to the suspect.

(TNS) — The man who killed Lindy Sue Biechler in 1975 took the time to wrap a tea towel around the wooden handle of a butcher knife from her kitchen before stabbing her 19 times and leaving the knife sticking out of her neck.

In those days, the main evidence a killer was worried about leaving behind was fingerprints. DNA from biological evidence wouldn’t be used in police work until 1986.

But the killer left semen and his blood behind on the 19-year-old woman’s clothing in her apartment in Manor Township in Lancaster County.

And it was that evidence that this week — 46 years later — led to an arrest in the case after highly scientific testing from a private company pointed to David Sinopoli, 68, who lived in the same apartment building as the victim before she was killed.

The case illustrates the importance of proper collection and retention of possible evidence from crime scenes with an open mind toward future advances in technology, as the original investigators did in Biechler’s case.

“Fortunately they collected what they did at the time, not knowing anything about DNA,” said District Attorney Heather Adams, who announced the break in the case Monday. “We certainly wouldn’t be where we are without everything that happened along the way, from day one.”

The evidence from the Dec. 5, 1975 killing near Millersville also was carefully stored at the police department over more than four decades, not lost, discarded or ruined from exposure, moisture or bacteria.

“When an agency successfully brings evidence forward from that many decades ago,” said CeCe Moore, the chief genetic genealogist at Parabon, the company that helped crack the case, “It’s like reaching back in time.”

It was the second break in a cold case in Lancaster County in less than four years using Parabon. In 2019, Raymond Rowe, 50, pleaded guilty in the 1992 rape and murder of schoolteacher Christy Mirack. So why aren’t other counties in central Pa. seeing similar results? It comes down to a county’s size, whether there are suitable unsolved cases, and resources.

Lancaster County has twice the population compared to Dauphin and Cumberland counties and about 100,000 more residents than York County, so it would make sense that they might have more potential cases with evidence that could benefit from specialized testing.

It also takes money for employees to find and focus on old cases when new ones are flooding in, which can pose obstacles for some counties. Lab tests also add thousands in costs, but could potentially save staff costs by solving crimes sooner through science, according to Moore. The Biechler case cost $28,000 so far, with the police agency helping to split the cost with the district attorney’s office.

Lancaster County is the among the few counties in central Pa. with a dedicated cold-case unit, including two detectives and a prosecutor, who work with local police agencies. In early 2019, the team, with help from the local departments, prepared a list of all unsolved cases and prioritized them based on potential solvability.

Other nearby county district attorneys, including Cumberland, Dauphin and York, did not have such a list when PennLive asked, nor a unit as formalized as Lancaster’s. All of the counties, however, do have investigators who can and do work on cold cases.

Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo said he is familiar with the work of Parabon but hasn’t identified a case yet that would work, as only certain cases with particular evidence are likely to yield results. The most promising cases involve semen and blood evidence, as those can be difficult to explain away when found at a murder scene.

Parabon last year helped police in Adams County charge a man in connection with the 1987 rape and murder of Edna Laughman, 85. The arrest of Chris Joseph Larry Speelman, of New Oxford, came 34 years after the crime and 18 years after DNA evidence initially exonerated the original suspect.

The work that Parabon does with genetic genealogy is vastly different from the DNA work that police crime labs do. And they work with more detailed DNA than is stored on the national database, known as CODIS.

Police labs work with short tandem repeats, or STRs, in about 20 locations on the human genome for each person, whereas Parabon works with 700,000, allowing searches that could reveal ethnicity, hair and eye color, freckling, extended relatives and more.

That means Parabon needs to work with original evidence or DNA swabs to get a full profile. They can’t get what they need from the more limited profiles stored in the CODIS system.

The government labs don’t have the expensive specialized equipment to do the analysis and comparisons like private labs, Moore said. But she’s hoping government leaders eventually see the potential and start buying the kind of equipment that Parabon uses to create family trees and identify suspects.

“I think it should be a priority to be doing this kind of work in-house,” she said, adding that it could be valuable in recent crimes as well as cold ones.

In the Biechler case, a DNA sample was gleaned from the killer’s semen and blood at the murder scene as far back as 1997. But the suspect hadn’t been convicted of a felony where his DNA was added to the FBI’s national database, so the crime scene samples never matched anyone.

And since close relatives never uploaded their DNA to public genealogy websites, the samples also didn’t initially provide any leads when Parabon was hired to help Lancaster County look into the case. The closest relatives Moore could find through searching DNA profiles voluntarily loaded onto or were 10th cousins.

(Companies such as, 23andme and other for-profit sites don’t allow law enforcement to search their results. But people can take their own profiles created by those websites and add them to the free public databases.)

Moore wasn’t ready to give up. She already had helped Lancaster County a few years earlier identify a suspect in the 1992 rape and strangulation killing of Christy Mirack. That case was straightforward: a relative of Raymond Rowe added their DNA to a genealogy website, looking to find more members of their family tree, which helped investigators find the link to Rowe.

Moore looked at the cases as “sister cases,” because brothers of both victims had pooled their money over the years to rent billboards asking for clues in the cases.

Moore continued analyzing at the case in her free time, eventually spotting a distinct pattern of distant relatives of the suspect being from Gasparina, Italy, and migrating to the same area of Lancaster County.

As she assembled family trees of people who shared long strings of identical blocks of DNA, it became clear the suspect didn’t have ancestors from any other place other than the small town in Italy.

Moore then used Census, immigration, newspaper announcements and other records to add names to her family tree. She was looking for the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of people from Gasparina.

The “nontraditional” approach wouldn’t have worked if the migration pattern was scattered around the United States or if relatives had all migrated to a large city like New York City. But in Lancaster County,there were just 2,300 people with heritage from Gasparina, Italy. Half of them were female and even more could be crossed off the list because they were too old or too young at the time of the killing.

That left a manageable number of people to research. Then Moore stumbled across the address for Sinopoli, who was on the list, and she recognized an address he once listed: 104 Kloss Drive, the same as the victim.

The tip was handed over to Manor Township police and the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office who then started efforts to surreptitiously get a DNA sample from Sinopoli. They followed him around and hit pay dirt in February when they saw Sinopoli discard a brown paper bag folded over at the top in a public trash can at the Philadelphia airport. At the bottom of the bag was a used coffee cup with his DNA. That was eventually matched to the blood and semen from the crime scene.

The work by Parabon is considered a tip or lead, not part of the court process, Moore said. It’s up to police to confirm or refute the tip through their own work.

It’s not known how many cases could have been solved with new technology but for the fact the necessary evidence was never collected, or was lost or destroyed. Moore said she regularly hears from rape victims or relatives of homicide victims who reach out to the company, based in Reston, Va., looking for help.

Moore tells them to contact their police departments to see if they have any evidence from the case that could yield DNA.

“A lot of them get back to me and say DNA wasn’t collected or it was all consumed by prior testing or it didn’t survive,” Moore said. “Or they just can’t find it, that’s a lot of what I hear.”

Evidence such as clothing, tarps, ropes or zip-ties collected from crime scenes in recent decades should be tested for DNA again, even if they already were previously tested, because techniques to find DNA, untangle it when its mixed from multiple people and clean it up even when it’s degraded are constantly improving, she said.

With that in mind, Moore said the company always make sure not to use all of the DNA available from a crime scene in their testing. They need to ensure some survives in case their testing doesn’t reveal a suspect and future testing with improved technology could.

A recently-developed technique using a wet vacuum, called M-Vac, can find DNA on objects touched by a killer that could be missed by simply swabbing or traditional methods. The vacuum helped identify a man in 2013 who used a rock to kill a 17-year-old girl in 1995 in Salt Lake City.

Parabon also helped solve its first case getting DNA from a single hair without a root, which was previously thought impossible. The company got a DNA profile that led to the arrest of a pedophile who lived four doors down from a 5-year-old girl who was killed 40 years ago.

They’ve also used evidence that at first could seem useless, including getting a complete DNA profile from an empty tube that once held a DNA swab.

Rapists who wear condoms still leave evidence behind. So do the hands of an attacker who strangles someone, Moore said.

So far, Parabon has helped police make arrests in about 200 cases in four years, or about one per week.

“There’s always hope. There’s always something,” Moore said. “That’s the message I’d like to get out to these offenders: We will identify you. It’s just a matter of time.”

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