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How advanced DNA technology led police to suspect in Rachel Morin murder

Posted at 6:27 PM, Jun 18, 2024

BEL AIR, Md. — It was a DNA dead end.

That's how Dr. Kristen Mittelman described Rachel Morin's murder investigation.

"A lot of the times these perpetrators are not in the database, as in this case. Victor was not in the database," she recalled in an interview with WMAR-2 News' Elizabeth Worthington on Tuesday.

That database is called CODIS, which stands for Combined DNA Index System. It's what the FBI uses to match DNA found at a crime scene to people already in the system, like convicted offenders or missing persons.

After Morin's body was discovered along the Ma & Pa Trail in Bel Air, a DNA hit in CODIS linked the suspect to another crime - the assault of a 9-year-old girl and her mother at a home in Los Angeles a few months earlier. Surveillance footage from that case provided police with a physical description. But they still had no name.

"There are people in CODIS with 13 crime scenes, five crime scenes, seven crime scenes, and there's no identification of that person, yet their DNA has been found in crime scenes and entered into CODIS so many times, knowing that they're are serial predator," Dr. Mittelman told WMAR-2 News.

That's where her company comes in. Othram was founded in 2018 to help solve previously "unsolvable" cases. They build DNA profiles using hundreds of thousands of markers and basically build a family tree with distant relatives. Fifth and sixth cousins are helping crack cases.

"It's like a little sonar. You know you're this far away from this person, this far away from this person, and this far away from this person. So you could only belong here in a family tree," Dr. Mittelman explained.

Dr. Mittelman says Othram’s technology makes the process more predictable. They can tell up front if they’re going to be able to build a DNA profile before they actually consume the evidence. Because once you sequence a piece of DNA, it’s gone for good. Othram doesn’t charge its clients until they successfully build a DNA profile.

"When they first started with this technology, they were apprehensive; they weren't sure if this technology was going to actually work and law enforcement budgets are limited. So spending the money on something like this means you're taking the money from something else. And so they would give us one case, or their most difficult case, or something that just had no other hope. Whereas now, because of the ability to predict whether or not we're going to help or not, and because we don't charge if we can't build a profile on help, law enforcement has started to really trust the process. And they give us their entire backlog of cases."

In 2019, Othram had five identifications. Now, the team of scientists has thousands.

One of them is Victor Martinez Hernandez, Morin's alleged killer. He fled his home country of El Salvador, where he's also wanted for murder, in January 2023, and entered the U.S. illegally. He was caught in Tulsa late Friday night. Harford County Sheriff Jeff Gahler credits Othram's technology with preventing him from striking again.

"For us to get that hit, it probably would've taken another act of violence," he told WMAR-2 News on Tuesday.

"Because he was not in CODIS, even committing the next crime and his DNA being found, it would have just linked another crime scene, but again, with no identity," Dr. Mittelman said. "And so they would have had to have an eyewitness, they would have had to have a better description. [...] So I feel like it would have been really difficult to solve this case for the next one [crime] or the next one using any other technology because he wasn't someone that was easy to find. He wasn't someone that even belonged in the United States at the time. And so it would have been a really difficult case to solve without having DNA technology."

Authorities are currently in the process of transporting Hernandez back to Maryland to face charges.