Sheriff's office goes new tech on 1987 cold case

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These computer-generated images show a composite rendering of what the murder suspect might look like, based on analysis of DNA found at the scene.

Someone somewhere knows - or knew - who killed Margit Schuller in 1987.

The Burton woman was washing clothes in the Palmetto Apartments laundromat when she was shot and killed on the evening of Nov. 1. She was found by her 12-year-old daughter.

Schuller's is one of 30 unsolved cases of murdered, missing and unidentified people the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) continues to routinely revisit in the hopes that new eyes - and improving technology - will help solve it.

BCSO recently contracted for assistance from Parabon-Nanolabs of Reston, Va., a prominent DNA testing facility. The company helped investigators crack the Golden State serial killer case more than a year ago, and has since helped solve more than 55 cold cases across the country, one dating as far back as 1967.

Parabon applied its Snapshot DNA forensic analysis service to evidence collected at the scene of the Burton crime. The result was a detailed report that included not only the gender, ancestry and pigmentation (including skin, hair and eye color and freckling) but a composite image.

Based on the DNA, the sketch shows the suspect to be an African American male around age 25, as well as what he might look like now.

The technology is part of the ever-evolving science of phenotyping and biogeographical DNA analysis.

"Regular DNA analysis at the county lab would be able to tell you male or female," said Maj. Bob Bromage, who handles the cold cases for the BCSO. "This goes further and adds characteristics. Then Parabon does the biogeographical DNA, and determines where this person falls in the world - their ancestry. They evaluate the DNA for physical characteristics that are common in their ancestry."

Not every case warrants the use of such high-powered technology. In this case, the BCSO wanted more information about the suspect's appearance based on body fluids found at the scene.

When Sheriff P.J. Tanner was elected in 1999, he initiated a cold case committee composed of retired law enforcement officers and medical doctors. The all-volunteer group meets monthly to review the cases. When possible, they meet with the original investigators, re-interview witnesses and, as forensic technology has advanced, resubmit evidence for further testing.

It's not the first time such evidence was submitted for DNA testing.

The Schuller murder was one of the first cases picked up when DNA was used in an attempt to solve the case, Bromage said. It was submitted to the Law Enforcement Division but the technology at the time did not develop a profile.

"Our lab has since developed a profile and, as technology improves, that profile is more robust. What that shows is that person is not in CODIS," Bromage added.

CODIS - an acronym often heard in TV police dramas and true crime shows - stands for the Combined DNA Index System, the FBI's program that supports criminal justice DNA databases as well as the software used to run those databases.

The National DNA Index System (NDIS) is one part of CODIS and contains DNA profiles contributed by federal, state, and local participating forensic laboratories, according to the FBI's website.

In this case, Bromage considers the lack of the suspect's DNA in CODIS interesting. "Usually you don't start and stop [at this level of violence]," he said. "You're looking at the high probability that this person had contact with law enforcement before and after. This suspect will become a higher-risk victim himself by engaging in gun violence. Could this person be deceased? Yes. He may or may not be. Was he familiar with the area? That's a fair guess."

Bromage thinks someone might recognize the person from the sketch or might have heard the individual admit something, but one thing is certain: "This person clearly is a violent offender," he said. "If this person was arrested in the '90s and convicted of anything, there would have been submission of DNA into CODIS."

This might not be the only case BCSO submits to Parabon-Nanolabs. The sheriff's office is also looking into the 1995 case of an unidentified murder victim from Cottonhall Road in Yemassee.

"We're evaluating this case for biogeographical DNA to find out where in the world she came from. Both cases were subjected to biogeographical testing in 2007 when it was a newer thing to try to figure out where in the world that this person's ancestry came," said Bromage. "You have to know where this person is from to better target social media, national media or international media to identify this murder victim. Someone is missing her and this technology is made for that."

The unsolved cases are difficult and get repeat attention. They're worked by seasoned investigators over the years.

"Sometimes you get a break and sometimes you don't. You keep momentum going and you make your own luck, and that's what we do," Bromage said.

With the proliferation of DNA testing websites and laboratories, the options for submission are numerous but not all labs are created equal.

"We evaluate the technology out there. If that resource is available, we're going to use it. This is a way to further a murder case. We're trying to protect people. This is in the interest of the victim and the victim's family. We owe that to them," Bromage said. "You have to know what cases will benefit from this technology. We owe it to them to stay up to date on technology, and study our craft."

The press release that announced this next step in the Schuller murder investigation stated that anyone with information about the suspect's identity can contact Bromage at 843-816-8013. A reward of $5,000 will be considered for that information if it leads to the identification and arrest of the suspect.

If a person wishes to remain anonymous, call Crimestoppers of the Lowcountry at 843-554-1111.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton

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