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Can a Family Member's DNA Solve a Fairfax Rape and Morgan Harrington's Murder?

Police can now search for related DNA in state and national databases.

A 26-year-old woman was walking along Jermantown Road, carrying two full Giant grocery bags to her townhouse at around 10 one night in September 2005. She didn't get far before she sensed someone behind her.

The strange man said he was waiting for a friend, but something about him made her feel uneasy, said Det. Mike Boone, a Fairfax City Police Department violent crimes investigator who worked on the case. She kept walking and was almost at the front door of her townhouse when she heard his footsteps racing toward her. He grabbed her, lifted her and carried her into a dimly lit, wooded area near Rock Garden Drive, where he tried to strangle and rape her.

She screamed and fought. A neighbor heard her cries and walked to the edge of his driveway. He could hear her, but couldn't see what was going on. The attacker dragged her even farther into the darkness, but the neighbor didn't give up, remaining at the end of his driveway, searching.

Spooked, the suspect fled, leaving behind crucial DNA evidence in the blood and skin under his victim's fingernails.

This DNA connected the attacker to the , who disappeared during an October 2009 Metallica concert at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. But after over five years of feeding that skin and blood evidence through state and national DNA databases, police have yet to find an exact match.

Now they might not need to.

Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS) now has the ability to search DNA databases for near-misses. This technique, called familial DNA searching, looks for those already in the database who have DNA similar to that obtained from the crime scene. Instead of needing an exact match to show up in the search results, this new practice lists those DNA profiles that bear a strong similarity to the crime scene profile, suggesting that the persons who provided the DNA may be related.

Virginia became the third state to be able to use this new technique in March. California used familial DNA searching to nab a murder suspect in the "Grim Sleeper" case. Colorado's state district attorney developed the software required to run familial DNA searches and gave it to Virginia's DFS, no charge.

For the Harringtons, it couldn't have come soon enough. Dan and Gil, Morgan Harrington's parents, have continued in their communities, and the search for her killer fresh in the media. They hope that some day someone will remember and come forward with the information needed to catch him.

The Harringtons appealed to legislators to make familial DNA searching a reality in Virginia. Advances in DNA technology might lead to Morgan's killer.

If a familial match is found, police could go from looking for a 25-35 year-old man, six feet tall, of medium build with black hair, beard and mustache to a much more narrowed down pool of suspects.

But familial DNA search success, at least in the Fairfax City rape and Harrington murder cases, isn't a given. The attacker would need to be related to someone who had been arrested for a violent crime in which police sampled his or her DNA.

In the meantime, state police search for a common denominator between the two crimes, committed years and 100 miles apart.

Know any information? Call (434) 352-3435.

Sarah Osborne April 12, 2011 at 12:13 PM
I hope this new search technique leads to a brake in the case. It would be wonderful to read an article about how the Harringtons no longer have to fear another woman falling victim to their daughter's murderer.
tcaros January 03, 2012 at 05:56 AM
The pollice must have compared the cases. It looks like both involved a female victim in 20s (maybe both white) , alone at around 9-10 PM when it's dark, and both walking. I disagree with investigators in VA about the suspect being from the area or knowing the farm. I think if you compare both cases this is an opportunist. He looks for women walking alone around populated areas. He may get a rush from grabbing them and dragging them in a wooded area. He probably parks nearby and goes on foot. He looks for shopping centers. I looked on the map and the Food of All Nations is in the Ivy shopping center, very close to where she disappeard. They should check the camera footage of the cars being parked there. He was on foot and looking for a victim. I think Morgan Harrington probably was killed nearby where she was walking. He grabbed her and asssualted her nearby. That's why the shirt was found. Someone picked it up. He then picked up the body because he was afraid he may have left evidence. He drove out in the country, probably not knowing the area at all. He carried the body as far as he could where he felt safe leaving it. He probably didn't even realize where he was. All this theory about him being familiar with the area is not feasible. It was a crime of opportunity and just as disorganized as the Fairfax assualt. The 2 crimes were about 4 years apart.

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