DNA Evidence Left at Scene Used to Create Suspect Composite in 1992 Unsolved Homicide of James Essel

Montgomery County Police Department Cold Case detectives investigating the 1992 unsolved homicide of James Essel in the Comus area have recently sought the services of Parabon NanoLabs (Parabon), a DNA technology company in Virginia that specializes in DNA phenotyping: the process of predicting physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence.  Using DNA evidence (blood) left by the suspect at this homicide scene, Parabon’s Shapshot DNA Phenotyping Service has produced a composite (referred to as a Snapshot composite) depicting how the suspect in this case may have looked.

How The Suspect Composite Was Created

Parabon’s Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service used the DNA evidence (blood) left by the suspect at the scene to produce trait predictions for the suspect.  Individual predictions were made for the subject’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape.  By combining these attributes of appearance, Shapshot composites were produced depicting what the suspect might look like at a certain age and with a certain body-mass index (BMI).  The default ages and default BMIs were used because age and BMI cannot be determined from DNA.

It is important to note that Snapshot composites are scientific approximations of appearance based on DNA, and are not likely to be exact replicas of appearance.  Environmental factors such as smoking, drinking, diet, and other non-environmental factors – e.g., facial hair, hairstyle, scars, etc. – cannot be predicted by DNA analysis and may cause further variation between the subject’s predicted and actual appearances.

Snapshot Suspect Composite

Above composite:

  • 25 years old and with an average body-mass index (BMI) of 22.
  • NOTE: These default values were used because age and BMI cannot be determined from DNA

Above composite:

  • at approximately 50 years old with an average body-mass index of 23.
  • NOTE: These default values were used because age and BMI cannot be determined from DNA.

The 1992 Homicide of James Essel

In the evening of Sunday, March 22, 1992, a customer of the Sugarloaf Mountain Market located at 23800 Old Hundred Road in Comus found the owner of the market, 57-year-old James Essel, deceased inside the store; Essel had been stabbed multiple times.  The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled his death a homicide.  Since that time, detectives have been following various leads and information obtained during this homicide investigation.  Investigators have determined the following:

  • Detectives believe that the murder occurred between the hours of 5:30 and 6 p.m. on Sunday, March 22
  • Detectives believe that Essel was stabbed to death inside the store during an apparent robbery.
  • Evidence at the store indicated that Essel struggled with the unknown male suspect during the apparent robbery.
  • Blood left by the suspect supports the theory that the suspect sustained an injury during the struggle.
  • A DNA profile of the suspect was obtained from the blood evidence that he left at the scene.  The DNA profile was entered into a national database in 1992 but as of yet, there has been no match.
  • A witness observed a black, Pontiac Fiero in the parking lot of the store during the time frame of the murder.
  • Investigators have reason to believe that the suspect was known to the area and may have been a prior customer to the store.
  • Detectives also have reason to believe that the suspect possibly smoked Marlboro or Marlboro Light cigarettes.

Anyone With Information

With the release of the suspect composite, detectives are hoping someone will recognize the suspect and call the Police Department.  Anyone with information regarding the suspect(s) or anyone that believes he/she may have details that might advance this investigation is urged to contact the Major Crimes Division at 240-773-5070. For those who wish to remain anonymous, Crime Solvers of Montgomery County is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for any information that leads to the arrest of the suspect(s). Tipsters can call Crime Solvers of Montgomery County toll-free at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477).

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Homicide Victim, James Essel

Sugarloaf Mountain Market as it looked at time of homicide. Market located at 23800 Old Hundred Road in Comus.

Example of a black Pontiac Fiero – A witness observed a black Pontiac Fiero in the parking lot of the store during the time frame of the murder.