Crime - Sacto 911

Could DNA technology help identify body from dumpster fire nearly 20 years ago?

The Sacramento Police Department released this DNA phenotyping profile by Parabon NanoLabs in the hopes of identifying a woman found dead in a dumpster set on fire in 2001.
The Sacramento Police Department released this DNA phenotyping profile by Parabon NanoLabs in the hopes of identifying a woman found dead in a dumpster set on fire in 2001. Parabon NanoLabs via California Attorney General's Office

Her body was found in a Sacramento dumpster fire almost 20 years ago. All of her hair, clothing and skin had been burned away, and police have long since struggled to identify the young woman. But investigators are looking to change that through the use of specialized DNA technology.

In October, investigators sought help from Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based DNA technology that specializes in DNA phenotyping, Sacramento Police Department said in a statement. The company says that DNA phenotyping can predict physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence.

Parabon provided police with a composite image of what the victim may have looked like at 25 years old using individual predictions of ancestry, eye and skin color, freckling and face shape based on the evidence collected in 2001.

The victim in this case became known as "Jane Doe from the Dumpster," and her identity has remained a mystery for the better part of two decades.

This is the first time the Sacramento Police Department has used DNA phenotyping in its investigations, said Linda Matthew, a public information officer with the department.

It was in the early morning hours of June 29, 2001, when a motorist spotted high leaping flames in southeast Sacramento and called 911, thinking it was a house fire, The Sacramento Bee reported at the time. A fire engine responded to a small industrial neighborhood in the 7900 block of 18th Avenue near Power Inn Road, where they found a burning trash bin.

In the partially melted metal container amongst the ashes, firefighters discovered a charred body. Soot was found in her respiratory system, and forensic investigators determined the victim died in the fire.

All police knew at the time was that the victim was a female in her late teens or early 20s, estimated to be between 5 feet and 5-foot-6, and had suffered a broken nose at some point in her life.

Investigators also only had two clues to go on: a "perfect smile" and a single rivet from a pair of jeans with the brand name Structure imprinted on it. Both the dental records and the rivet proved fruitless in identifying the victim.

After exhausting all investigative leads, police teamed a talented identification technician with forensic investigators to produce a sculpture of the unknown woman's face. The artist's rendering was released to the public in 2002 – nothing ever came of it.

According to police, a preliminary autopsy report indicated the victim possibly was white or of another race and had light skin, which was depicted in the original facial sculpture of the victim. But the recent trait predictions from Parabon suggest, with 92.2 percent confidence, that she had brown or dark brown skin and her ancestry largely originated from west Africa, along with smaller percentages originating from south Africa and northern Europe.

Other trait predictions for the victim provided by Parabon concluded that she had brown/hazel eyes, black hair and no freckles.

Matthew described this technology as costly and a last resort.

According to Parabon's website, the phenotype report called Snapshot was built for law enforcement agencies and the military with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense's Threat Reduction Agency. The company says the process was "tested on thousands of out-of-sample genotypes and was shown to be extremely accurate."

It's used only when police have an unidentified victim "that we have absolutely no other leads on," said Matthew, something that doesn't happen too often. With unidentified victims, there are usually other ways to to figuring out who they are, she explained, including missing person reports, DNA and dental records.

Police are asking anyone with information regarding the death to call dispatch at (916) 264-5471 or Sacramento Valley Crime Stoppers at (916) 443-HELP, or submit an anonymous tip using the "P3 Tips" smartphone app. Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward up to $1,000.