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Police hope phenotyping will crack Sherry Black murder case

SHARE Police hope phenotyping will crack Sherry Black murder case

SOUTH SALT LAKE — South Salt Lake police hope a new method of predicting what a person looks like based only on their DNA will help lead them to the person who killed Sherry Black seven years ago.

On Nov. 30, 2010, Black, 64, the mother-in-law of former Larry H. Miller Group CEO Greg Miller, was found stabbed to death inside her bookstore, B&W Billiards and Books at 3466 S. 700 East. To date, there is no known motive for the killing, and police have not identified a suspect or a person of interest in the case.

The only pieces of evidence investigators have shared with the public over the years are an Armani Exchange men's belt found at the crime scene with a waist measurement of approximately 36-38 inches and a sticker on the back of the buckle with the number "323," and blood that was collected from the scene.

DNA testing determined the blood came from a male. That DNA was run through a national criminal database, but to date has not had a match, meaning the killer has not committed another violent crime since Black's death, has fled the country or is dead.

A second effort using the familial DNA process has also not turned up any results, said South Salt Lake Police Chief Jack Carruth.

On Thursday — the seventh anniversary of Black's death — family members and a coalition of law enforcers from South Salt Lake police, Unified police and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office announced a possible breakthrough thanks to new advances in DNA testing.

Investigators put their evidence through the DNA phenotyping process using the Virginia-based company Parabon-Nanolabs. Phenotyping predicts a person's physical appearance and ancestry using genetic codes. Based on that information, researchers can predict skin color, hair color, eye color and facial structure using percentages.

In the Black case, researchers put together three snapshot composites of the person who may have killed her based on the genetic composition of the DNA sample. The snapshot composites are what the man may have looked like at ages 25, 38 and 52.

"It is critical to note, snapshot composites are scientific approximations of appearances based on the DNA. They are not likely to be exact replicas of appearance, age or weight," said Unified police detective Ben Pender.

The snapshot composites also do not account for possible factors such as scars, tattoos, shaving a person's head or dyeing their hair color, he said.

But based on the new DNA testing, police believe they are looking for man who likely has African ancestry. There's a 46 percent chance the man has roots to West Africa, and a 34 percent chance he has ancestry ties to northern Europe, according to the report.


Researches say there is a 97.8 percent likelihood the man has light brown skin, and a 55.2 percent likelihood he has brown or black eyes. Based on the test results, researches believe with "100 percent confidence" that the man does not have blue or green eyes.

There is a 99.6 percent likelihood the suspect has black hair, with the same confidence his hair is not brown or blond. And there is a 75.4 percent chance the man has few or no freckles, according to the test results.

Investigators believe this is the first time a phenotype composite has been used in Utah. Pender said the new technology recently resulted in a case being solved in Texas.

Heidi Miller, Black's daughter, and her husband, Greg Miller, also announced Thursday that they are increasing the reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer from $50,000 to $250,000.

"We need to catch that person and put him away so he can't hurt anyone else," Heidi Miller said.

For the next few days, a hotline dedicated to taking tips on the case, 801-412-3688, will be manned 24 hours a day. After that, the Millers said it will be forwarded to the phone of the lead detective working the case.

"I believe that people who know something about this crime will see the information that's distributed today, and on behalf of the family, I would just implore you to come forward and share what you know so that we can catch the person who killed Sherry and do that before he hurts somebody else," Greg Miller said.

Carruth encouraged people with information to call — no matter how small or insignificant they might think their information is.

"We are very hopeful this will bring something to light for us. This is very much an active investigation. It has been since 2010. We've not slowed down our progress," he said.

The chief said the new information has helped investigators narrow the scope of possible suspects.

The fact that the killer hasn't shown up in any DNA databases for seven years "makes it even more scary, knowing that someone is out there walking among us that is capable of such a criminal act which is a ticking time bomb," Pender said.

"We won't stop investigating this case until the suspect has been identified, arrested and is held responsible for this cowardly act of violence."