The DNA Snapshot flyer for the suspect in the murder of Chantay Blankinship. A predictive, computer generated image of the suspect, based on DNA from the crime scene, is shown on the left. A photograph of Ryan Riggs, who was arrested in the killing, is shown on the right. (Image: Courtesy of Steven Armentrout, Parabon NanoLabs)

A Texas man confessed to murder in front of a church congregation just days after police released a DNA “Snapshot” matching his description, authorities say. Ryan Riggs, 21, was at church with his parents last week when he got up and told fellow churchgoers that he had killed 25-year-old Chantay Blankinship 18 months prior, prompting the pastor to call police, Brown County Sheriff Vance Hill said during a Nov. 16 press conference.

Hill said Riggs later confessed to authorities, who charged him with capital murder. One week before Riggs’ arrest, investigators had released an image of the suspect in Blankinship’s beating death and sexual assault—the image was computer generated by Parabon NanoLabs using their DNA phenotyping technology.

“Shortly after we received the profile we made it public. Within a matter of hours, we received numerous tips as to the identity of the suspect. Riggs was one of those persons identified at that time,” Hills said at the press conference. “We began attempts to locate Riggs. After Riggs learned that we were looking for him he fled investigators for several days.”

It wasn’t until Nov. 15 that Riggs confessed at North Lake Community Church in Brownwood, and then gave police “a full confession” with details that matched up to the evidence of the case, Hill said. The sheriff said the “Snapshot” played a large role in Riggs’ apprehension, and that he had not been on their "radar" prior to the phenotype analysis. 

“The profile sped up the process. Most definitely, I do believe that. If it wasn’t for the profile, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said. He also told reporters that the cost of the phenotyping service was $4,000, calling it “probably the best $4,000 this county has ever spent.”

Hill’s department became aware of the phenotyping technology, which estimates a person’s physical traits such as hair color, eye color, ethnic ancestry and freckling, after someone in the department saw it used on a TV show. This prompted Brown County Sgt. Scott Bird to reach out to the Virginia-based lab, which produced the profile within about 3-4 weeks of the suspect’s sample being sent, according to the sheriff.

Parabon NanoLabs founder and CEO Steven Armentrout told Forensic Magazine that it is not unusual for agencies to reach out after seeing the lab or its technology in the media.

“Snapshot has received a good deal of media and television show coverage (…) and we generally see an uptick in inbound inquiries when a major story breaks,” he said. However, this was the first case he had heard of in which a suspect turned themselves in after seeing a Snapshot.

“The Blankinship case is the only case we are aware of in which a suspect turned himself or herself in after a Snapshot report was made public. Gary Schara, alleged murderer of Lisa Ziegart, penned a confession and attempted suicide after police contacted him following a Snapshot release, but it is not clear whether Schara had seen media coverage of the release,” Armentrout explained.

Hill indicated the Riggs had seen the Snapshot, noticed the resemblance and became nervous after its release, spurring his initial avoidance of investigators.

Riggs is now in custody without bond. Authorities said he had been previously charged with illegal dumping in the same area where Blankinship’s body was found.

Blankinship’s body was found in a partially caved-in cellar close to her home on May 15, 2016. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and injured with a lawn mower blade, according to Hill, and her cause of death was a crushed larynx. DNA from the sexual assault and the lawn mower blade located by investigators was used to produce the Parabon Snapshot profile.

DNA phenotyping is a relatively new technology that has aided investigators in solving some cases, such as the double murder of a North Carolina couple in 2012. In that case, the resemblance between the Snapshot and a previously ruled out suspect led investigators to reexamine the Y-STR analysis that had ruled him out, and realize that he did not have the same biological father as his brother whose sample had been used for the analysis. Jose Alvarez Jr. was arrested in August 2015 and pleaded guilty to two counts of capital murder.

However, the technology has faced scrutiny for its limitations and skepticism about its accuracy and usefulness. Studies examining the technology have found limitations in its ability to predict some traits with full accuracy, including eye colors beyond blue and brown, and hair color, which it can predict with about 75 percent accuracy, according to a report in the journal Cell