Edmonton police use DNA phenotyping in sexual assault investigation

The Edmonton Police Service has turned to DNA phenotyping as an attempt to put a face on a suspect wanted for a 2019 sexual assault.

Edmonton Police Service (EPS) say they are using DNA phenotyping, for the first time in its history, in trying to solve a sexual assault.

DNA phenotyping predicts physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence, and police will then use that information to narrow suspects and generate leads in criminal investigations.

“This is essentially a last resort after all other investigative avenues have been exhausted,” said Det. Colleen Maynes, with the EPS Sexual Assault Section. “It is by no means an immediate path to accusing a suspect. What it does is potentially give us leads in a cold case, and we can follow up with DNA testing from there.”

EPS says the assault occurred in early March 2019, near 103 Street and 114 Avenue. After the assault, she reportedly regained consciousness and was found by someone else in the area and they called 911.

“The survivor of the incident, she was just walking home. And the suspect just randomly attacked her. It was a very violent occurrence where she was left in the middle of a field in the snow, it was -7 that night I believe. She sustained many injuries and serious injuries,” said Det. Maynes.

“Door-to-door was done, CCTV, there are no witnesses, she was only able to give a limited description as he had disguised himself with a scarf, plus a toque, it was winter. So with such a limited description of the suspect, and with being able to have that DNA profile from the lab, with no hits, I’m left just sitting there and waiting for this suspect’s DNA to show up at another crime scene, or perhaps this person will be convicted and his DNA will be uploaded into the DNA database.

“I don’t want to wait. It was a vicious assault. A random assault and this victim deserves justice, as well as the public. The public needs to get this person off the street so this offence doesn’t happen again.”

Help from DNA technology company in U.S.

Due to this, investigators have contacted the Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia that specializes in advanced DNA analysis services to assist with the case.

“What we’re trying to do is actually generate new leads from that DNA, so when it doesn’t hit in a database, we can still analyze it, and tell the investigators something new about that person,” said Dr. Ellen Greytak, the director of the Snapshot Advanced DNA Analysis Division at Parabon.

However, there are questions about this investigative technique. Some experts say there isn’t enough science to accurately determine the appearance of one’s face.

“We know there are thousands of different genetic variants that determine the shape of the face, and we only know a very small proportion of them, something like five to 10 per cent,” said Dr. Benedikt Hallgrimsson, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at the University of Calgary.

“From where I sit, I don’t see that science is at a place yet where we can make accurate predictions.”

Phenotyping can determine eye, hair, skin clour: EPS

EPS say using DNA phenotyping, they are able to more accurately determine the ancestry, eye colour, hair colour, skin colour, freckling, and face shape of the suspect.

“There have been a lot of successes, sometimes the picture is completely off. So of course it is a prediction, but with those leads, I am able to follow up on it,” explained Det. Maynes. “I still have to do a bunch of investigative work, and obtain DNA from whoever may be identified as a person of interest, and have that compared to the DNA from my scene.”

“Following consultation with community stakeholders, the EPS is aware of the impact this release may have on a marginalized community,” said EPS in a statement. “Due to the severity of the occurrence, the need to advocate for a victim of a violent sexual assault and in consideration of the public safety interest, investigators believe the release of this image based on DNA evidence is required in order to further the investigation. As always, any leads generated from the release of a composite image would require further investigative steps.”

Edmonton police is asking if anyone has any information regarding the suspect or the assault to contact investigators at 780-423-4567 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

-With files from The Canadian Press

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