ELKINS — A Randolph County native is using cutting-edge science to help law enforcement develop leads in crimes and identify potential criminals. The use of his company’s snapshot genetic genealogy analysis will be featured in the ABC News series “The Genetic Detective” on Tuesday at 10 p.m.
The series will follow investigative genetic genealogist CeCe Moore and her work with the DNA technology company Parabon NanoLabs. Parabon was co-founded by Randolph County native Steve Armentrout.
Armentrout, Parabon CEO, said he founded the company in 2008 with his wife. The company mainly focuses on two aspects, the first being building strings from DNA and the other analyzing DNA.
Armentrout said the Snapshot program that is now available to law enforcement began with a Department of Defense contract in 2011. He said the original intent of the program was to help identify bomb makers that create IEDs.
“We were able to build out more capabilities then they originally thought and we were able to make it available to law enforcement,” Armentrout told The Inter-Mountain in a phone interview. “It is relatively new. It was made a product and available to law enforcement five years ago.”
Parabon began working with law enforcement in 2015 with its DNA capabilities. Over a four-year period, with funding from the Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Research program, Parabon developed its Snapshot DNA Phenotyping and Kinship Inference technology to support DNA-based identification of enemy combatants, U.S. fallen soldiers and violent criminals.
Parabon’s work analyzing trace amounts of DNA laid the groundwork that would later enable genetic genealogy to be used by law enforcement.
Since the introduction of its investigative genetic genealogy (IGG) service in May 2018, the snapshot team has generated leads for police agencies from crime scene DNA that have resulted in 100 positive identifications — a rate of more than one per week. The accomplishment is particularly noteworthy given that most of the cases were unsolved for decades prior to the introduction of Snapshot.
“Traditional DNA work treats it like a fingerprint. If it is not in a database you will not get a hit,” Armentrout said. “We reverse engineer the DNA to build a profile that includes a picture and geological data.”
Armentrout said the growing popularity of DNA research sites like ancestory.com and 23andMe made genetic genealogy possible.
Genetic genealogy is the lead identification tool that can be used to identify human remains by tying DNA to a family with a missing person, or to point to the likely identity of an individual whose DNA was found at a crime scene. Genealogists are able to do this through the use of comparative DNA analysis.
Armentrout explained that once the DNA is analyzed it is turned over to the genetic genealogist, who will then use more traditional genealogy to build the lead. He said Moore pioneered the use of the genetic genealogy databases.
“We don’t expect to get a fill match, you may get a third cousin,” Armentrout said. “She (Moore) and other genetic genealogists will then use more traditional genealogy to build family trees to narrow down on who the suspect is.”
Armentrout said Parabon has assisted with 500 cases throughout the country.
“Our leads have generated a profile of about one a week,” he said. “To be successful, some relative had to be interested in genealogy to download their DNA into one of the databases. It is all voluntary. Those who submit DNA know it can be used this way.”
He said once a profile and lead is developed it is handed over to the investigators.
“They will then use traditional DNA matching to compare it (the suspect’s DNA) to the crime scene DNA,” he explained.
“We are a lead generation company.”
“The Genetic Detective” will premiere at 10 p.m. Tuesday on ABC and will follow Moore and her work and show the work the team is doing to assist law enforcement.
Moore has used her research skills to help identify more than 100 violent criminal suspects.
“I had a growing passion for genetic genealogy and I recognized its power very early on. Yet at the time, in 2010, there was no such thing as a professional genetic genealogist so I had to blaze my own trail in order to make this my full-time career,” Moore said in a press release.
“I knew the potential these techniques had for solving mysteries — really, for any type of human identification.
“Whether it is an adoptee looking to find their birth parents or helping law enforcement track down a potential suspect, this process provides answers in a new way and helps a family move beyond something that’s painful or has been burdening them.”
In the series premiere, Moore and her team works with Seattle’s Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and takes on her first-ever cold case as a genetic genealogist — the double homicide of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg.
The young couple disappeared in 1987 after taking a ferry from Vancouver to Seattle and were later found miles apart, gagged, bound and brutally murdered, according to the release. With a smattering of clues, but no real leads, the case was cold for 30 years.
The episode includes interviews with Cook’s parents, Gordon and Leona Cook, Van Cuylenborg’s brother John Van Cuylenborg, Snohomish County Ret. Sheriff Rick Bart and Detective Jim Scharf and radio reporter Hanna Scott.
“The Genetic Detective” will also examine the murder of 8-year-old April Tinsley with Indiana’s Fort Wayne Police Department; the double homicide of mother and daughter Sherri and Megan Scherer with the New Madrid County Sheriff’s Department in Missouri as well as the murder of Genevieve Zitricki with the Greenville Police Department in South Carolina; the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge with Idaho Falls Police Department in Idaho; the Ramsey Street Rapist with North Carolina’s Fayetteville Police Department; and the 2018 rape of 79-year-old Carla Brooks with Utah’s St. George Police Department.
Steve Armentrout’s sister, Missy Armentrout McCollam, is the executive director and founder of the Old Brick Playhouse in Elkins and is excited to see her brother receive recognition for his company.
“My brother has always had an alternative way of looking at things,” she said.
“That helped him with this system. He is really good at breaking down something and building it back up in a different way.”
Armentrout and McCollam are the children of Max and Johnnie Sue Armentrout.