How a face built from DNA might help solve teen’s 31-year-old murder in Arlington

Teresa Branch’s red Pontiac Sunfire had been giving her trouble.

Earlier on the morning on April 19, 1986, the 18-year-old’s father had recharged the battery. But that night, while driving with a friend, it would stall twice again.

Branch told her friend to stay with the car while she jogged back to her parent’s house for help.

She never made it.

More than an hour later, a truckload of teens would spot the teen’s body in the parking lot of the Harmony Baptist Church at 1814 W. Arkansas Lane.

She’d been raped and shot.

Teresa Branch Arlington Police Department website

Years later, biological fluids recovered from the crime scene would yield a DNA profile — key evidence that investigators hoped would unlock the secret of who killed Branch. But comparisons to suspects over the years and entering the profile into a national DNA database in 2001 have led to no matches.

Now, Arlington police are hoping that a composite photograph of one of the possible suspects — generated without anyone ever seeing his face — may lead to an arrest in the case.

Parabon Nanolabs, a Virginia-based company, used analysis of a DNA sample from Branch’s case to predict the suspect’s physical appearance, including ancestry, hair and eye color.

Arlington Police Department Courtesy

Based on their analysis, the suspect is likely to be of Middle Eastern ancestry, light brown or fair skinned in complexion with brown or hazel eyes and black hair.

The company’s generated Snapshot composite of the suspect was released to the Star-Telegram on Wednesday by Arlington police. It shows what the suspect would have likely looked like at age 25.

“We continue to work our cold cases and look for ways to solve them,” said Arlington homicide Detective Ben Lopez said. “This was something we wanted to try on Branch’s case in hopes it would generate a lead.”

Parabon Nanolabs, a Virginia-based company, uses genetic traits from DNA samples to predict the suspect's physical appearance, including ancestry, hair and eye color. The technology could help police solve cold cases.

Claudio Branch, Teresa’s oldest brother, has spent much of his life trying to put his sister’s tragic death behind him. But the need for answers still resonates, he says, and he’s hoping that the latest effort will succeed.

“Solving this, finding out who did this — dead or alive — it actually doesn’t change very much. It really doesn’t change anything,” Claudio Branch said. “It just fills in a gap, knowing the final piece of the puzzle. It’s just like the final chapter of a book. Waiting to get that last chapter.”

‘A bit of a wild child’

Teresa Branch was a mixture of spunk and fire — a beautiful teen who, from an early age, looked more woman than child.

The attention she drew and her choice of clothes and make-up put her sometimes at odds with her mother.

Anyone with information about the slaying of Teresa Branch is asked to call Arlington police Detective Ben Lopez at 817-459-5373.

Branch began to rebel. If she couldn’t dress as she liked, then she wouldn’t go to school.

By her sophomore year, Branch was sent to live with her grandparents on their farm outside of Slidell in Wise County. Her grandfather, J.R. Branch, was a former Wise County Sheriff and the family hoped a new environment would rein Branch in.

“She was a bit of a wild child,” Claudio Branch said. “She just needed a little bit more parenting than my parents were able to really provide. Grandma and Grandpa kind of stepped in. She was going to school out there. She’d really kind of turned it around.”

A popular senior at Slidell High School, Branch frequently came back home to Arlington on weekends. On what would be her last visit, she brought a friend along.

Lopez said Branch and her friend were headed back to Slidell to take clothes and other belongings back to her grandparents’ house when the Pontiac stalled in the intersection of Pioneer Parkway and Bowen Road.

An apparent Good Samaritan, described by the friend to police as an adult white male with sandy hair, stopped and gave the teens a jump-start.

“She didn’t want to risk driving the car all the way back to Slidell,” Lopez said. “She said, ‘We’ll just go back to my mom and Dad’s.’ 

As Branch drove, her headlights began to dim, a sign the car was still losing power. She pulled into what was then known as the Cornerstone apartment complex and parked.

Lopez said investigators later determined that the car had a bad alternator, leaving the battery unable to hold a charge.

Leaving her friend behind, Branch began the jog back home, about a half mile away, at about 8:30 a.m.

Attacked, knocked unconscious

A few minutes later, a man driving home from work would spot the body of a female lying in the front yard of a home in the 2400 block of Avonhill Drive.

“The witness was driving south and drove past her, initially thinking it was just a teenager playing,” Lopez said.

But the man also noticed a northbound car with what appeared to be two people inside, pull over to the side of the road near the body.

“He’s looking in his rearview mirror and sees someone getting out,” Lopez said.

Branch_map (2)

Suspicious, the witness began to turn his car around to check out what was going on and spotted the woman being picked up and placed in the car.

“This was happening as the witness was turning around so the witness wasn’t sure whether it was one or two suspects who got out,” Lopez said. “However, the witness thought two people got out and stood her up to carry her to the car.”

He saw the car then turn east onto Arkansas Lane and disappear out of sight.

Lopez said he believes Branch was attacked and knocked unconscious on Avonhill within minutes of leaving her car on foot and heading back home. He said Branch had non-lethal trauma to the back of her head.

The witness described the car as a large, yellow or gold four-door car, possibly a 1966 to 1970 model Pontiac Catalina.

Lopez said he believes the car disappeared out of sight so quickly because Branch’s attackers likely pulled straight into the back of the nearby church parking lot. It was there, Lopez believes, that Branch was fatally shot just below the heart with a large-caliber gun.

At about 9:45 p.m. a carload of cruising teens would spot Branch’s body in the parking lot.

Confirm or eliminate suspects

When Branch was killed, DNA use in criminal cases was still in its infancy.

But in 2001, Arlington police entered the DNA profile into the Combined DNA Index System, hoping it was just a matter of time before the database revealed a match when compared to certain offenders in the criminal justice system.

Lopez said he had even received permission to have the database conduct familial searches on the profile, in hopes it would identify close biological relatives of the suspect, but to no avail.

“DNA is perfect for matching if the person is already in the database or if they’re already one of the suspects that you’re investigating,” says Dr. Ellen Greytak, Parabon’s Director of BioInformatics. “But if it doesn’t match any of those people, it can’t tell you anything else.”

But by using the suspect’s DNA blueprint to predict their physical appearance, Greytak said investigators have a new tool in generating leads. The service costs $3,600 for the analysis of one sample, she said.

“The investigators are going use that in conjunction with other information,” she said. “They’re not just going to look for anyone who matches the information. It’s going to be someone who matches the information and knew the victim or was in that area.”

“It’s sort of like a genetic witness,” she added. “It’s not going to tell them who the person is, it’s not going to give them a name, but it’s going to help eliminate people.”

Greytak said because some variables can’t be predicted by DNA, like weight and hairstyle, by default the predictions use average body weights and hair-styles that matched the time period of the crime.

If the composite helps lead investigators to the identification of a possible suspect, detectives can then use DNA comparisons to confirm or eliminate them in the case.

Family devastated by death

Claudio Branch said his sister’s death “disintegrated” his family.

Their mother, Mercedes Branch, was still recuperating from a serious car accident when her only daughter died. She had a nervous breakdown and had to be admitted into a psychiatric care facility.

“I think it just collapsed her psyche from the physical exhaustion of recuperation and now trying to deal with the mental and emotional exhaustion of your daughter not only being killed, but in such a gruesome, depraved way in a church parking lot that is just down the street from your house,” Claudio Branch said.

Three months after her daughter’s death, Mercedes Branch died from a prescription medicine overdose.

“She had been heavily medicated,” Claudio Branch said. “She had this fear that the person who did this to Teresa was coming after her, maybe the rest of us ... The thing that’s most troubling about my mother’s death is, I don’t know, was she trying to overdose or was it accidental.”

John Branch, Teresa’s youngest brother, had to go live with his grandparents.

Their father, Kenneth Branch, was a former Navy man who was already beginning to show signs of mental illness prior to the deaths of his daughter and wife. He began disappearing for stretches of time and building up a lengthy rap sheet for crimes like check kiting and forgery.

“The person who killed Teresa actually killed two women in my life in a short period of time,” Kenneth Branch told the Star-Telegram in a 2001 interview.

In May 2016, Kenneth Branch was killed after being struck by a car while walking across E. Lancaster Avenue.

Claudio Branch, now married with four children of his own, said through the years he has not allowed himself to dwell on his sister’s murder, but rather worked to “actively forget it.”

He says he occasionally got calls from cold case detectives about efforts still being made in his sister’s case. The latest came Wednesday, when Lopez asked to look at the photograph built from DNA.

Though he didn’t recognize the suspect, he hopes someone else will.

“This is science, biology, art and technology all thrown together,” Claudio Branch said. “It’s incredible.”

Deanna Boyd: 817-390-7655, @deannaboyd

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram