New technology uncovers lead in UCF student’s cold case

Maria Muth (left), Tina Franke (middle) and Orlando Police Chief John Mina (right) discuss the new development in UCF student Christine Franke's 15-year-old murder case Friday at the Orlando Police Department headquarters. The OPD finally has in its possession a composite sketch of Franke's killer. Photo by Meredith Burow.

On Oct. 21, 2001, UCF student Christine Franke was murdered.

On the day she died, the 25-year-old education major worked a shift at Cigarz bar on Universal Citywalk, according to an Orlando Police Department press release. When Franke’s shift ended at 4 a.m., she walked with coworkers to an employee parking lot at Universal.

That was the last time anyone saw Franke alive.

Her body was found the next day in her Colonial Gardens apartment by a friend and neighbor. She had been shot in the head.

After 15 years, the Orlando Police Department was still following every lead but despite their efforts, the case had grown cold — until today.

In a press conference held by OPD today, the fifteenth anniversary of the discovery of Franke’s death, police officials presented a new development in the case: a composite photo of Franke’s killer.

This is the first composite image available to the public. While DNA evidence was found at the crime scene, the killer’s records were not in the FBI’s national DNA database. Homicide detective Mike Moreschi said there have been no witnesses to the murder at the police department’s disposal.

Recently Orlando homicide detective Mike Fields discovered Parabon NanoLabs, a company that produces a detailed profile of someone based on their DNA. Police Chief John Mina said he hoped the profile would be beneficial in solving the case. Moreschi, 48, said the company uses the same science behind Ancestry.com, connecting DNA evidence with a person’s ancestral traits, specifically race.

“They use some of that same stuff here … they’re able to pair it down and tell us the race of the person that we’re looking for, which helps pair down, obviously, our suspect pool as well,” Moreschi said. “And so earlier this year we did send off the suspect DNA in this case to that lab, and they produced not only the physical characteristics but also the composite drawings that you see here.”

Parabon NanoLabs calls its DNA analysis tool Snapshot. Its website states Snapshot is “a revolutionary new forensic DNA analysis service that accurately predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from DNA. Snapshot is ideal for generating investigative leads, narrowing suspect lists, and identifying unknown remains.”

From the Snapshot results, the department was able to narrow down their suspects; they now know they’re looking for a black male who isn’t listed in the national DNA database.

Christine Franke was 25 when she was found shot to death in her own apartment on Oct. 21, 2001. She was a UCF student majoring in education. Photo courtesy of the Orlando Police Department.

As this “sketch” is now technology-based rather than from a witness’ memory, there remains the concern that this picture isn’t an accurate representation of Franke’s killer. Moreschi said he has faith in the lab results, however, and that department is confident in the validity of the image due to the extremely small margin of error in the science behind the photo.

Moreschi said he didn’t see running the image as a gamble at all.

“I think it’s a small enough margin of error in the realm of a homicide investigation,” Moreschi said. “We’ll accept that.”

Franke’s mother, Tina Franke, and older sister, Maria Muth, were among the detectives and chief of police on stage. Muth said that even though the two will never stop missing Christine, it would be nice to have some closure.

“I’ve had so many thoughts, theories, questions — I’ve probably thought of everything imaginable,” Muth, 45, said. “I can’t say I was shocked or surprised or not surprised or anything, I was just happy to have something positive to connect to what had happened.”

Muth said she is optimistic the release of the photo will yield progressive results and that she finds hope in the fact that her family is one step closer to having closure.

“I think getting a face out there, and [with] public media and social media and everything, that there’s got to be somebody who finds this face familiar and will step forward,” Muth said. “There has to be. Looking at how fast things travel and the age we’re at today with technology, I have very high hopes.”

Composite image of the suspect courtesy of Orlando Police Department.

Composite image of the suspect at 25 years old, courtesy of Orlando Police Department.

Franke’s family had only just seen the composite picture the day before and said they can’t quite pinpoint their feelings on the subject.

“I have mixed emotions when I look at it; I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel,” Franke, 67, said. “You know, you would expect a murderer to look, I don’t know, evil — but he just looks like an average person. I don’t know.”

Mina said he is hoping the image of Franke’s murderer will strike some memory in a viewer’s mind.

“What we want is [for] this to jog people’s memories — or maybe this reminds them of someone they saw back then or now — and give us that anonymous call, and then let us do the rest,” Mina, 48, said.

In regards to the murderer himself, Mina had a personal message to share.

“He’s going to be behind bars. We will bring him to justice eventually,” Mina said. “These guys don’t give up and we’re never going to ever stop looking for him.”

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Composite image of the suspect now at 40 years old, courtesy of Orlando Police Department.