Eve Wilkowitz, a 20-year-old publishing company secretary, was abducted, raped and strangled more than four decades ago when she returned to Bay Shore from her job in Manhattan.
The case was never solved — until now.
Suffolk County police and prosecutors told Newsday on Tuesday that advances in forensic techniques and genetic genealogy revealed that her killer is believed to be a man who died of cancer in 1991 and who lived four houses from the Bay Shore street where the victim’s body was found.
Authorities exhumed the suspect’s body earlier this month, and genetic analysis of his DNA found it matched semen found on Wilkowitz’s body, officials said.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Suffolk investigators have solved the 42-year-old homicide of Eve Wilkowitz, who was raped and strangled in Bay Shore in 1980.
- Suffolk District Attorney Raymond Tierney and Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison identified the suspect as Herbert Rice.
- Authorities exhumed the suspect’s body earlier this month, and genetic analysis of his DNA found it matched semen found on Wilkowitz’s body, officials said.
In a joint interview Tuesday, Suffolk District Attorney Raymond Tierney and Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison identified the suspect as Herbert Rice, who was 29 and living temporarily in his mother’s house on Center Avenue when the crime happened. He had a minor, nonviolent criminal record, officials said.
Tierney believes Wilkowitz was in the wrong place at the wrong time, walking home alone from the train station when she was assaulted.
“It was a sexual assault. It was a crime of opportunity,” Tierney said.
Harrison said the police never gave up.
“Being able to close out a case like this after 42 years, to show we are extremely hard working, brought closure to the family,” Harrison said. “People have to see we take these homicides personally.”
Robert Grogan, Wilkowitz’s roommate at the time of her death, said the past 42 years haven’t been easy.
“She was fantastic,” said Grogan, who told Newsday memories about his friend and the case haunted him through the years. “Walking through a mall and just seeing someone who resembles her …”
Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, commanding officer of the homicide squad, said he was one of the Suffolk detectives who investigated the case for many years.
Beyrer said Rice was a heavy drinker, but nothing suggested he was capable of homicide. Rice’s mother was interviewed during the original police canvases of the area, but her son wasn’t questioned by police.
Wilkowitz’s bound body was found in Bay Shore on March 25, 1980, three days after she got off a Long Island Rail Road train from Manhattan. Wilkowitz lived just blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Authorities said there was no evidence to suggest they knew each other.
In the months and years following the crime, Suffolk detectives ran down numerous leads. Eve Wilkowitz’s boyfriend and Grogan were cleared. They investigated reports of suspicious characters and, in one case, used DNA testing of a man the victim had once complained to police as having followed her from the train station, police said.
The Wilkowitz case began to take a fast track in 2020, when then-Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart brought in the FBI, investigators said. In an interview with Newsday at the time, Hart said the police were using emerging forensic techniques to solve the mystery.
Tierney said that since the police had been unable to find a DNA match between the suspected killer of Eve Wilkowitz and an existing DNA profile in the state database, authorities resorted to genetic genealogy to see if they could find a relative of the suspect in public DNA databases, like 23andMe.
The break came when police discovered Rice’s son’s DNA on a public genealogical website, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
After the son voluntarily gave a DNA sample to police, his genetic profile closely matched that of Rice, the official said. Based on that comparison, police said they were confident Rice was the man they were looking for.
By early 2022, both Harrison and Tierney sought to get an exhumation order of the suspect’s remains to firm up the genealogy link. Early this month, investigators secured a search warrant to retrieve Rice’s body, Tierney said.
The exhumation allowed investigators to collect genetic material, and further DNA testing determined it matched the DNA found on the victim’s body, Beyrer said.
Genetic genealogy has been a factor in solving numerous cases. The most notable was that of Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018. DeAngelo, known as the Golden State Killer, pleaded guilty in 2020 to a series of rapes and murders in California and is serving a life sentence without parole.
For Harrison, solving the case has a wider impact.
“When you make an arrest in a case that is 40 years old, the community begins to trust law enforcement, and that builds better public safety going into the future,” said Harrison, who took over the department in December.
Tierney and Harrison are scheduled to hold a news conference about the case on Wednesday. Wilkowitz’s sister Irene, who lives in Rhode Island, is expected to attend the news conference. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Beyrer said that the discovery of the identity of the killer came as a great emotional relief to the sister.
“From what Irene said, it was the first night in 42 years she was able to get to sleep,” Beyrer said. “That is why we do this job. That is the rewarding part of this job.”
With Cecilia Dowd