Police know of no witnesses to the crimes and the identity of the killer in the “Marion murders,” as the slayings have come to be known, has been an enduring mystery for over a decade. But now, thanks to cutting-edge technology, police finally have a glimpse of what the suspect’s face may look like.
Parabon NanoLabs, a Northern Virginia company, has produced composite images that predict the attacker’s appearance using his DNA recovered from the scenes of the crimes.
Since the images were released earlier this month, police have gotten fresh leads from the public, and the families and friends of the victims have renewed hope that closure might finally come.
“As long as I’m alive, I pray they will find the killer and give the family some answers,” said Kay McCurdy, an acquaintance of Newman.
DNA phenotyping has become an increasingly popular tool in recent years to help crack cases. It’s assisted in more than 40 arrests and identifications of remains across the country, according to Parabon.
Ellen McRae Greytak, director of bioinformatics for Parabon, emphasizes that the composites are not photos of the suspect, but instead predictions made by software algorithms of likely skin color, eye color, hair color and freckling, as well as the shape of a person’s face and their ancestry, based on their DNA sequencing. The suspect’s actual appearance may vary.
“It gives police a sense of who they should, and, more importantly, should not be looking for,” Greytak said.
In other words, in cases with multiple suspects, the composite can help narrow the search by allowing police to concentrate on persons of interest who share the ancestry and features predicted by the DNA phenotyping and de-emphasize those that do not.
Fairfax County police said the DNA phenotyping in the Marion murders has shown the suspect in the killings was probably Latino. Parabon has produced three composite sketches of the suspect at the ages of 25, 40 and 55 they hope will jog someone’s memory and lead to a crucial tip.
Fairfax County Detective Chris Flanagan said the similarities between the women have led police to believe that may have been a reason they were targeted. There is no indication the women knew each other.
“Based on my experience, I think the offender is targeting a type of victim,” Flanagan said. “The type of victim that he can get over on and take control of.”
The story of the intertwined slayings began on Aug. 14, 2006, the last day Marion Marshall was seen alive. Police said surveillance video showed Marshall visited a grocery store in the Bradlick Shopping Center in Annandale around 11 a.m. that morning.
Police believe Marshall then drove to her home in the 6600 block of Bostwick Drive, where she encountered her killer while unloading groceries. It’s not known what happened next, but it’s possible the killer offered to help Marshall carry the groceries into her home, Flanagan said. There were no signs of forced entry on the house.
Marshall was found dead by a friend later that evening. Police said they have not discovered anything that was stolen from the home.
Marion Newman was last seen alive on Nov. 19, 2006, when she visited her mother at a senior living complex in Springfield, police said. Newman was scheduled to return to see her mother the next day, but failed to show. A friend found her body inside her home in the 7100 block of Reservoir Road on Nov. 21, police said.
Police said they have been unable to locate a ring that Newman wore, so it’s possible it was taken by the killer.
Police did not reveal until this month that the women had been sexually assaulted. DNA collected from the scenes allowed officers to link the cases to the same suspect, but his DNA profile has not produced any hits in a national database. Police said they have not forensically linked the suspect to any other cases.
Families of both women declined to comment, saying they feared for their safety.
Newman loved dogs and was a frequent visitor at the senior living community where her mother lived, McCurdy said. She said the first sign something might be wrong with Newman was when she failed to show up to the community to take her mother and friends to dinner, something that was part of her daily routine.
“The fact that she was so kind to her mother and friends to take them to dinner every night just shows you what kind of person she was,” McCurdy said.
Both the Fairfax County police and Parabon declined to comment on whether they are pursuing another technique they use in conjunction with DNA phenotyping — genetic genealogy. The technique was most famously used to identify the man accused of being the “Golden State Killer.”
The suspect’s DNA is uploaded to a commercial DNA database in a search for relatives. A genealogist then uses census records, newspaper obituaries and other sources of information to construct family trees to identify potential suspects.
Finally, law enforcement obtains a DNA sample from the target to test for a potential match against the suspect’s sample. The DNA is often collected from a discarded item such as a soda can or cigarette butt.
Parabon has helped solve dozens of cold cases using genetic genealogy in recent years.
For now, Flanagan said he hopes the new images combined with an old fashioned tip can break the case.
“What I really want the public to think about is not what they see on TV, not what they think a murderer may look like,” Flanagan said. “I want the public to think about the person that may have approached them that they didn’t know . . . the person that raked their leaves or offered to work on their gutters.”