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New technology could help Galveston PD crack decades-old murder mystery

Decapitated woman found April 1, 1988

GALVESTON, Texas – Investigators with the Galveston Police Department are using new DNA technology to help crack a decades-old murder mystery.

In the late 1980s, Galveston's west end was still a fairly desolate place, and Galveston Island State Park was just a vast expanse of pristine uninhabited marshland.

It looks pretty much the same today, right down to the parking lot.

But on April 1, 1988, emergency crews descended upon a grisly scene.

It was in a remote part of Galveston Island State Park, about 30 yards off a path that, 28 years ago, a child flying a kite made a gruesome discovery.

"Officers arrived and (found) a victim who was a female and decapitated, and in the early stages of decomposition," said Detective Derek Gaspard, with Galveston Police Department.

Who was she? How did she get here? Who killed her and why? The answers have eluded detectives for decades.

Even the elementary question of what the woman looked like was a mystery.

"During this case in 1988, we received a lot of tips coming in from different missing females throughout the United States, as far as Kansas and New York," Gaspard said. "We were able to eliminate most of those, and (in) some of them, there just was not enough information to determine if it was the same person or not."

The case sat cold, until now.

Thanks to an old vial of blood and a new way to use DNA, a supposed likeness of the perhaps 25-year-old headless victim was accomplished.

The process is called phenotyping and the software is called Snapshot.

Dr. Ellen Greytak is the director of Bioinformatics at Parabon NanoLabs, Inc.

Parabon Nanolabs, Inc. developed Snapshot.

"We run it through the Snapshot algorithm — we deliver information from the hair color (and) ancestry eye color,” Greytak said. “We deliver that all back to the investigator.”

At $3,600 each, the Virginia company will take someone's DNA and construct what it says is a reasonable facsimile of what that person looked like at a given age.
 
Going back just two years ago, Galveston police couldn't do anything like this.

In fact, for decades, Galveston police was working under a wrong assumption, now corrected with 98 percent confidence.

"We were able to determine she was of Asian descent, which is completely a game changer, because she was considered a white female," Gaspard said.

So far, the computer-generated image hasn't solved this decades-old case.

But it was a huge turning point.

"What we were able to do is, once the DNA profile was generated, we were able to enter that into various databases to see if we could have a comparison of unidentified human remains throughout the United States," Gaspard said.

And for the Galveston Police Department, it has opened new roads where there were once only dead ends.

This technology could be useful in figuring out what assailants look like, too, if there’s DNA left behind at the crime scene.