Whoever kidnapped, raped and stabbed Lisa Ziegert before dumping her body in a wooded area in southern Massachusetts left a sliver of DNA on the middle school aide’s corpse.
For a quarter-century, that DNA was a dead-end — like all the other evidence in the case — as investigators scoured New England for Ziegert’s killer.
The DNA did not match convicted felons or sex offenders in federal or state databases. It did not pan out as new investigative methods made better use of blood and tissue samples found at crime scenes. The 1992 case that shocked the town of Agamaw, Mass., has long been cold.
Now, prosecutors say, that DNA has given them a new lead in the case — and a new face.
Investigators have used a process called DNA phenotyping to paint a digital picture of Ziegert’s killer, according to the Hampden District Attorney’s Office.
The process uses DNA to make predictions about the suspect’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling and face shape. The “snapshot” picture was produced by Parabon NanoLabs, based in Reston.
DNA typically has been used as a biometric identifier, like a fingerprint, that connects a person to a crime scene. But investigators must already have the suspect’s DNA on hand to make a match. Phenotyping makes an educated guess about a person’s bone and face structure, then produces an image that includes predictions of the suspect’s eye and hair color.
Zieger’s killer, according to the Snapshot by Parabon, was likely a man of European descent with fair or very fair skin. He had brown or hazel eyes and brown or black hair. There’s about a 40 percent chance that he had freckles.
“For the first time in twenty-four years, we have a face to this crime,” Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said in a statement released Wednesday. “The technology we have put to use is at the leading edge of the industry. No expense, effort, or means will be spared to bring the person(s) to justice who killed Lisa. We will never forget her.”
The image depicts what the suspect would have looked like at age 25 and with an average body-mass index. Another image details what he would look like at age 50.
The process is the first break in Ziegert’s killing in decades, but investigators say it is far from perfection. Snapshot is inadmissible as evidence in court. It also can’t take into account massive changes in a suspect’s body-mass index and can’t account for a different hair color or scars.
Still, the company says it’s being used in more and more municipalities to breathe new life into cases that were long cold.
Police in North Carolina used the technology to get a composite of the person who killed University of North Carolina student Faith Hedgepeth in her apartment in 2012, according to Parabon’s Facebook page.
And authorities in Slidell, La., hope the technology helps them identify a badly decomposed body that was probably dumped near Lake Pontchartrain, according to CBS-affiliate WWL-TV.
The body was partly dismembered, missing both arms. The victim had a heart surgery scar and traces of blood-pressure medication in his blood.
In Ziegert’s case, investigators had less genetic material to generate a lead on a suspect — the DNA on her body, along with DNA where her body was found four days after she disappeared.
Ziegert, who was 24, also moonlighted as a clerk at a card shop in Agawam.
She was abducted sometime in the early evening hours of April 15, 1992. Investigators noticed signs of a struggle in the card shop’s back room.
But Ziegert’s purse and school materials were not touched. Nothing was missing from the store’s cash register, and her car was still in the parking lot.
Gulluni, the prosecutor, told the Associated Press that investigators have chased down thousands of leads and looked at hundreds of possible suspects without success.