Traces of Truth: How one Virginia DNA lab is helping solve cold cases across the country

As DNA testing quickly advances, new clues are emerging to help detectives crack even their toughest cases — some that have gone unsolved for decades. 

One company in Virginia is helping to close those cases across the nation and they took FOX 5 through the process step by step, walking us through how that technology works while finally providing answers for victims and their families. 

Parabon Nanolabs in Reston, Virginia has been helping to bring justice to victims of heinous crimes since it opened in 2008. The DNA technology company can use familial DNA to identify samples that may have been taken in previous cases. 

"What Parabon really does is look at forensic DNA in a new way," said Ellen McRae Greytak, the Director of Bioinformatics at Parabon. 

Greytak says what this means is using DNA samples to identify individuals who have not previously been convicted of a crime and entered into the federal Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) or entered into another DNA database. 

"Forensic DNA has been used for decades  — it’s been amazing in solving cases when a person is in a database or when the suspect is someone that the police have looked at and they can do a direct comparison between the crime scene sample and that person. What we’ve done is come along and say, ‘you know, there’s a lot more information in DNA than just that one-to-one identity. We can actually generate new leads and give detectives new information just based on that DNA sample," Greytak said.

FOX 5 went to Parabon Labs to meet some of the scientists and technologists who help bring violent criminals to justice.

"This genetic genealogy team has helped law enforcement with over 310 positive identifications over the last almost six years. So we’re averaging one case per week where we’re able to help law enforcement identify the contributor of the DNA," said CeCe Moore, Parabon’s Chief Genetic Genealogist. 



Genetic genealogy is a way of determining who people are related to by testing DNA and building out a family tree based on that and traditional genealogical research. 

It allows researchers to determine who could be related and how closely, so in an investigation, detectives can narrow down a suspect list to a region, a family, or even a specific individual.

By analyzing DNA variations, it can provide clues about a person's ancestors and the relationships between families. For forensic investigations, it can be used to identify remains by tying the DNA to a family with a missing person or to point to the likely identity of a perpetrator.


So where does it all start? With law enforcement agencies and the DNA sample they want to examine. 

"Usually detectives are coming to us with cold cases where they really have exhausted everything that they can think of," Greytak said. "However, a lot of forward-thinking detectives these days are starting to realize as soon as that DNA profile doesn’t get a hit in the database, there are other pieces of information they can get from that DNA. And so we can do that analysis and help them on their way. Make it so that that case doesn’t go cold in the first place."

Once it’s determined that the sample is usable, it gets sent off to the lab. From there, it depends on what other information detectives have, or want to obtain. 

Parabon has the ability to develop a DNA profile, create a composite sketch of a particular suspect, or help law enforcement make a one-to-one match if investigators can provide a new DNA sample from an alleged suspect for comparison.

The company can even work with mixed samples containing DNA from several people and separate the suspect’s information. 

"As far as I know we’re the only ones who are able to do this with these difficult mixtures and it’s helped us with a lot of cases that couldn’t be solved otherwise," Greytak said. 

"This is also really useful in unidentified remains cases," she added. "So if remains are recovered, there’s very little information about that person’s appearance."


Hundreds of cases have been solved using their DNA technology, finally giving families and victims some peace of mind but a common misconception when it comes to this new technology is that law enforcement is using samples from popular DNA testing services like 23andMe or and MyHeritage. 

These sites have actually barred law enforcement use.

"So there are over 23 million people who have taken direct-to-consumer DNA tests but unfortunately the three largest companies who run those databases have barred law enforcement use," Moore said. "So we are limited to the two smallest databases." 

So Parabon relies on GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA.

"You hear it so much in the media — I've even heard it from my friends — like ‘I don’t want to take a 23andMe test because then, you know, law enforcement can use that information. No, no, no, no," Greytak said. "The only way that your DNA data would be included in a search in a law enforcement case is if you take a test at one of those companies and choose to download your data and then choose to upload it to GedMatch or FamilyTreeDNA."

Even further, Greytak says, the consumer has to ‘opt-in’ to allow their DNA data to be used in law enforcement matching.

"If we could use those databases, we would be extremely successful, even more successful than we already are, at identifying violent criminals, stopping serial killers, serial rapists," Moore said. "So it really is in the public's best interest for us to have access to that. At some point, maybe there will be enough pressure on the management of those databases to allow it." 


Parabon’s work continues to help solve violent crimes, sometimes in cases where all hope seems lost. 

"When survivors of violent crime have reached out to me and explained how much it’s meant to them to have a name and a face to put to their attacker, you know, that’s an incredibly meaningful, moving moment for me. To know that my work is having that kind of impact on people’s lives," Moore said. "When they finally get the name and the face and they know who is responsible for that crime, I’m told it lifts a huge burden off their shoulders and they can finally move on with their life." 

Even with the incredible work of DNA labs, there are still more than 2000 unsolved violent crimes in the DMV alone, with new cases coming in each and every day. 

So, Parabon does urge anyone interested in helping them solve some of the most heinous crimes to submit their DNA to GedMatch, FamilyTreeDNA or DNAJustice and opt-in for law enforcement matching. Here are the step-by-step instructions on how to do that with: 

Your DNA data could help bring peace to a family that has been suffering without answers for decades. 



In 2019, Jesse Bjerke pleaded guilty to the rape of a lifeguard at a condominium complex swimming pool on Labor Day weekend in 2016, as well as the rape of another woman in Fairfax County in August 2014. 

Alexandria Police were able to identify Bjerke, a former nurse at Inova Alexandria Hospital, after retrieving DNA evidence from the victim after she was raped and using genetic genealogy to match his sample to a family member who had submitted DNA to a law enforcement database. 

He was sentenced to 65 years in prison in October 2020.


In March 2023, Anne Arundel County Police and the FBI announced that they had identified the man responsible for a 1970 cold case murder of a 16-year-old girl.

Conyers, was a student at Glen Burnie High School and was last seen alive on Oct. 16, 1970, after she drove the family car to run an errand at the Harundale Plaza shopping center in Glen Burnie. After she didn't come home, her family filed a missing persons report. 

On Oct. 20, 1970, Conyers' body was found a short distance from the car in a wooded area between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Maryland Route 177 that extended into Millersville, Maryland.

With the help of Parabon and extensive cooperation with federal and state law enforcement partners, Anne Arundel County police were able to positively ID Clyde Forrest Williams III as the suspect in Conyers' murder. Williams is deceased but if he were alive, police say he would have been charged in the murder.


A Virginia cold case was finally closed after police in Fairfax County arrested a 51-year-old man from New York nearly three decades after he murdered a young woman. 

The 37-year-old mother was found stabbed to death inside her Springfield home in November 1994. When detectives first launched an investigation into Lawrence's death, they conducted interviews and collected DNA evidence, but they couldn’t find a match.

Decades later, police notified them a familial DNA match was found, and that’s what led them to Stephen Smerk, who was living in Niskayuna, New York at the time of his arrest.

Smerk was working in the D.C. region back in ‘94 at the time of the murder. So, detectives went to New York, they tracked him down, and they say 29 years after Lawrence was killed, Smerk confessed to her murder.


On April 23, 1985, construction crews clearing the grounds to build Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie unearthed a metal trashcan and inside, they found human remains. On April 5, 2019, Parabon Labs was able to identify the victim in this case as Roger Hearne Kelso — born August 28, 1943. 

Family says Kelso left this home in the summer of 1962 and was never seen again. Due to interviews and various items of evidence left on scene, detectives now believe Roger was murdered in or around 1963. 

It’s now a race against the clock as they still hope to identify his killer. 


In March 2024, a man was arrested for two murders dating back to 1986 and 1989 in Stafford County. On March 5, deputies took 65-year-old Elroy Harrison for into custody for his role in the 1986 death of 40-year-old Jacqueline Lard and the 1989 death of 18-year-old Amy Baker.

Lard had been working at Mount Vernon Realty on Nov. 14 when she, and her car, went missing. Her body was found in Woodbridge the next day.

Baker had been visiting family in Falls Church when she was murdered in March 1989, allegedly strangled by the suspect after leaving her car to seek help at a gas station after her car ran out of gas.

Following the DNA matches, Harrison was arrested at his home and charged with first-degree murder, abduction with intent to defile, aggravated malicious wounding of Lard, and breaking and entering with the intent to commit murder.


On October 9, 2010, D.C. resident Unique Harris had a sleepover for her young children and their nine-year-old cousin at her home. The next morning, the three kids woke up to find Harris gone. Her cell phone and keys were missing, but her purse and eyeglasses were all left behind. She was never seen again. 

During the investigation, police noted that her sofa had a hole cut in the fabric and a section of foam removed. A DNA sample was taken from the sofa fabric and in 2017, Parabon Labs helped confirm that DNA sample belonged to 43-year-old Isaac Moye, who had been a suspect in her murder from the state. 

Moye was convicted in Harris' murder in 2023 and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.


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