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MCPD Use New DNA Technology to Create Composite of Suspect in 1992 Murder

The body of 57-year-old James Essel was found inside the Sugarloaf Mountain Market in Comus, by a customer, on the evening of Sunday, March 22, 1992. Essel had been stabbed multiple times. Over the course of the 25 years since the crime, Montgomery County Police not stopped investigating this crime, but they have also not been able make an arrest in this case.

At a press conference on Monday, Montgomery County Police unveiled new technology they can use to help investigate unsolved cases — DNA Phenotyping. MCPD detectives have recently sought the services of Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company based in Virginia that specializes in DNA phenotyping: the process of predicting physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence. Using DNA evidence, in the Essel case blood left by the suspect at the homicide scene, Parabon’s Shapshot DNA Phenotyping Service has produced a composite (referred to as a Snapshot composite) depicting how the suspect in this case may have looked.

Last year, MCPD issued release and called for the public’s help with this case. Mark Janney, and cold case detective with MCPD said the press release led to a number of tips, and each was followed up, but in each case the suspect was eliminated through the use or DNA testing.

“We were back at ground zero with the case,” said Janney. Because investigators had the DNA on this case, MCPD thought this was a good case to work with Parabon. “We felt it was a good case to enlist the help of Parabon with, they were able to analyze the DNA and come up with a composite of the subject. We also had them do an age-enhanced composite for 25 years later because we don’t know the age of the suspect at the time of the murder.”

Parabon’s Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service used the DNA evidence (blood) left by the suspect at the scene to produce trait predictions for the suspect. Individual predictions were made for the subject’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape. By combining these attributes of appearance, Shapshot composites were produced depicting what the suspect might look like at a certain age and with a certain body-mass index. The default ages and default BMIs were used because age and BMI cannot be determined from DNA.

“We pick out the pieces of DNA that actually determine what they might look like. Instead of treating DNA like a fingerprint, we treat it like a blueprint of that person,” said Ellen Greytak, Director of Bioinformatics, for Parabon. “We have a large database of thousands and thousands of volunteer subjects who have given us their DNA and information about their appearance. So we have been able to find specific DNA traits for specific aspects of a person’s appearance. What is in common at the [genetic level] among people with blue eyes that is different from people with brown eyes, and so on for all physical features, hair color, skin color, and ancestry. From all of that we can build the composite.”

Police said that it is important to note that Snapshot composites are scientific approximations of appearance based on DNA, and are not likely to be exact replicas of appearance. Environmental factors such as smoking, drinking, diet, and other non-environmental factors – e.g., facial hair, hairstyle, scars, etc. – cannot be predicted by DNA analysis and may cause further variation between the subject’s predicted and actual appearances.

With the release of the suspect composite, detectives are hoping someone will recognize the suspect and call the Police Department.

More information about the 1992 Homicide of James Essel.

In the evening of Sunday, March 22, 1992, a customer of the Sugarloaf Mountain Market located at 23800 Old Hundred Road in Comus found the owner of the market, 57-year-old James Essel, deceased inside the store; Essel had been stabbed multiple times. The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled his death a homicide. Since that time, detectives have been following various leads and information obtained during this homicide investigation. Investigators have determined the following:

 Detectives believe that the murder occurred between the hours of 5:30 pm and 6:00 pm on Sunday, March 22.

 Detectives believe that Essel was stabbed to death inside the store during an apparent robbery.

 Evidence at the store indicated that Essel struggled with the unknown male suspect during the apparent robbery.

 Blood left by the suspect supports the theory that the suspect sustained an injury during the struggle.

 A DNA profile of the suspect was obtained from the blood evidence that he left at the scene. The DNA profile was entered into a national database in 1992 but as of yet, there has been no match.

 A witness observed a black, Pontiac Fiero in the parking lot of the store during the time frame of the murder.

 Investigators have reason to believe that the suspect was known to the area and may have been a prior customer to the store.

 Detectives also have reason to believe that the suspect possibly smoked Marlboro or Marlboro Light cigarettes.

Anyone with information regarding the suspect(s) or anyone that believes he/she may have details that might advance this investigation is urged to contact the Major Crimes Division at 240-773-5070. For those who wish to remain anonymous, Crime Solvers of Montgomery County is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for any information that leads to the arrest of the suspect(s). Tipsters can call Crime Solvers of Montgomery County toll-free at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477).


Top: Montgomery County Police Cold Case Detective Mark Janney addresses the media. Photo by Germantown Pulse.

Next: Ellen Greytak, Director of Bioinformatics, for Parabon NanoLabs talks about the technology used to create composites of suspects from DNA evidence. Photo by Germantown Pulse.

Next: The Snapshot Composite of the suspect as he may have looked 25 years ago.

Next: The Snapshot Composite of the suspect as he may look at age 50, 25 years after the murder of James Essel.

Next: James Essel, murdered at the Sugarloaf Mountain Market in March of 1992.

Next: MCPD evidence photo showing blood left at the scene of the crime in 1992.

Photos courtesy MCPD.

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