It’s Monday morning, four days shy of Christmas, and she’s getting the gifts ready.
Growing up, she always wanted to be a teacher — even when she played school with her brother and sister as a kid, she was always the teacher, they would later say. She has since been a country club waitress and a pharmacist’s assistant, but now Christy Mirack has her own class of sixth graders. The 25-year-old isn’t going to disappoint. The night before, Mirack stayed up wrapping a children’s book — “Miracles on Maple Hill” — for each pupil. Every copy reportedly bears the same handwritten message: “Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a great 1993! Love, Miss Mirack.”
Her roommate is already at work. Mirack, a bubbly and enthusiastic blond woman, is alone, preparing to leave for Rohrerstown Elementary School in Lancaster, Pa. Before stepping out into the winter chill clamped down on Amish country, she slips into a brown leather jacket and burgundy gloves.
But the first school bell sounds on Dec. 21, 1992, and Mirack is not in her classroom. When the principal, Harry Goodman, calls the teacher, the phone rings and rings. Around 9 a.m., he drives to her townhouse, steps away from a nearby barn and grain silo. The front door is cracked open. He pushes in. Mirack is motionless on the living room floor, the students’s gifts scattered about. Her pants and underwear are ripped away. The dead body is still wearing the jacket and gloves, PennLive reported.
The police circulate a vague description of the suspect. The family offers a $10,000 reward. The description of a car is released. The FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico, Va., works up a profile of the killer (a loner, someone who doesn’t stand out in the crowd, an observer, LancasterOnline reports). Forensic testing excludes 60 suspects by 1995. Over 1,500 interviews are conducted. The case’s detective puts Mirack’s photo on his desk (“I see it every day and think about it every day,” he tells local media). Dying from cancer in 2002, Mirack’s mother, Gerry, makes a deathbed plea in the newspaper for new information. After 15 years, Mirack’s brother Vince puts up a billboard asking for tips. Two years later, he starts a Facebook page on the case.
But what would eventually point investigators in the right direction was genetic genealogy, a new technique that has shocked life back into numerous cold case investigations in just a short period of time.
As Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman explained at a news conference on Monday, the science — as well as a piece of chewing gum and water bottle collected in an undercover operation at an elementary school party — led to the arrest of Raymond Rowe.
The 49-year-old, a popular wedding and event DJ in central Pennsylvania who goes by “DJ Freez,” was taken into custody without incident Monday. He has yet to be officially charged and has no lawyer currently listed. Stedman said he expects to charge Rowe with first-degree murder.
In his comments Monday to reporters, the district attorney admitted his office was stumped by the 25-year cold case until they began working with Reston-based Parabon NanoLabs.
“Quite honestly at that point in time we didn’t have any more arrows in the quiver,” Stedman said. “Parabon was really our last shot. Little did we know at the time, it turned out to be our best.”
Genetic genealogy has been central to a number of recent cold case arrests. Splashing into the mainstream with the arrest of alleged Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo, the method points investigators toward possible suspects by matching publicly available genealogical information with DNA recovered from victims and crime scenes. Last week, the same science helped U.S. Marshals in Ohio solve the mystery behind a man living for decades under the stolen identity of a dead 8-year-old.
The new technique applied to law enforcement investigations, however, has raised questions about privacy. Speaking at the news conference Monday, Parabon NanoLabs’s founder and CEO Steven Armentrout argued those concerns are “mostly founded on misunderstandings about how the process works and the data involved.”
According to Armentrout, his laboratory uses GEDmatch, an open source database where users can upload their own genealogical information to connect with relatives. GEDmatch has also opened the resource up to law enforcement.
“We must make our own decisions about privacy matters,” Armentrout said. “Speaking for myself, I’ve chosen to upload my DNA to GEDmatch and I’ve made it publicly available for searching. This is something I don’t do lightly. But I have no misgivings if my DNA is ultimately used by law enforcement to implicate even my closest relatives if in fact their DNA is found at a crime scene. I do that because I’m confident in the methods we employ.”
DNA — semen — was found at the crime scene, both on a segment of carpeting under the victim’s body, and on her person. Although the sample was originally run through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), no matches to perpetrators or other victims were found during the years of stalled investigation. Parabon used that material to create a genotype file that was uploaded to GEDmatch.
The file was set to private, meaning the data would not show up in other genealogical searches. But it did allow the team to pull on possible strands of a suspect’s family tree.
“GEDmatch is designed to show the amount of shared DNA between two people,” Armentrout explained. “That allows a genetic genealogist . . . to make inferences, to find distant cousins, of the person that has the unknown DNA, to build out family trees, and ultimately come up with suggestions of who might be a suspect.”
The sample from the dead schoolteacher provided a link close to home.
“We do not solve these cases,” CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogic expert with Parabon emphasized to reporters Monday. “We provide a highly scientific tip, and law enforcement performs their traditional investigation to confirm or refute our theory. No arrests are made on our work alone. That said, our genetic genealogical technique and research on this case led right back to Lancaster and to the suspect.”
The name provided to law enforcement was Raymond Rowe. According to his bio on the website for his company, Freez Entertainment, Rowe “started as a break dancer in the early 80s then started DJing shortly after and soon became a popular house party DJ in the mid 80s.” His site boasts Rowe is now the “one recognized leader in the Central PA area” among local DJs.
At the news conference, Stedman admitted Rowe’s name had not come up previously in the Mirack case. Rowe, however, did live about four miles from the victim at the time of the crime. Stedman speculated the two may have met at a club or event before the schoolteacher’s murder.
Armed with the name, Lancaster law enforcement needed to follow up with concrete evidence. “We had to collect a surreptitious sample from him,” Stedman said.
Learning Rowe was set to DJ a May 31 event at a local elementary school, members of the Pennsylvania State Police went undercover inside the school. At the party, they observed Rowe chewing gum and using a water bottle. The undercover officers grabbed both after Rowe discarded the items.
On June 22, the final results from the state crime lab came in linking Rowe to the samples collected from Mirack. According to the district attorney’s office, there is a 1 in 200 octillion chance the match is to another member of the Caucasian population who is not Rowe.
“This killer was at liberty from this brutal crime for longer than Christy Mirack was on this Earth alive,” Stedman told reporters. Parabon “steered us in the path of holding him finally accountable.”