HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Evidence in the death of township teen Tiffany Valiante tested by a forensic lab was mishandled by the New Jersey Transit Police Department, according to a report released Tuesday by a forensic specialist hired by her family.
“We have extensive experience over decades performing analysis on evidence with degraded DNA; however, in this instance, we were able to obtain very little DNA for comparison due to the manner in which the evidence was collected and maintained,” Dr. Julie A. Heinig, laboratory director of Forensics and DNA Technical Leader with the DNA Diagnostic Center, said in a statement Tuesday.
Heinig cited problems with how evidence was packaged by the New Jersey Transit Police Department, saying some of the evidence tested was stored in plastic bags over paper ones. This caused “moisture-inducing bacterial contamination,” she said.
A judge previously ordered the police department to hand over evidence for testing, some of which included a headband, t-shirt and shoes.
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In her report, Heinig cited problems with how evidence was packaged by the New Jersey Transit Police Department, saying some of the evidence tested was stored in plastic bags over paper ones. This caused “moisture-inducing bacterial contamination,” she said, adding that not handling evidence properly can make it difficult to preserve any DNA.
Heinig also said other pieces of evidence were improperly logged, saying they were not labeled with initials of those who handled the them to maintain a chain of custody. She said doing is is industry standard.
Tiffany’s blood from her blood card could only be identified using paternity testing because it was improperly preserved, she added.
The police department declined to comment on the matter Tuesday.
Valiante, who was 18 at the time of her death, died in 2015 when she was struck by a New Jersey Transit train a few miles from her home. The state Medical Examiner’s Office ruled her death a suicide within 48 hours after her death.
Her family, however, continues its assertion that the teen bound for Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, New York, showed no signs of being suicidal, believing she was a murder victim.
“We know her killer or killers are still free and must be held accountable for Tiffany’s death,” Valiante’s parents, Stephen and Dianne Valiante, said in a statement Tuesday, adding that they’ll be appealing to the state Attorney General’s Office to continue investigating her suspicious death.
The state Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Since Tiffany’s death, the Valiantes have fought for permission to independently test the evidence from the scene, releasing it from the New Jersey Transit Police Department’s custody.
“This report by DDC reinforces our view that there was a gross rush to judgment by investigators, who hastily determined Tiffany’s death was a suicide; they never treated the scene like a crime scene and, clearly, mishandled key evidence that we now conclusively learn was useless when finally subjected to DNA testing,” Paul D’Amato, the family’s attorney, who is handling the case pro bono, said in a statement Tuesday.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
CROWN POINT — Longtime Region attorney Thomas Vanes was convinced he’d convicted the right man in the 1980 rape of a Hammond gas station attendant when The Innocence Project called from Chicago in 2001, looking for the victim’s sexual assault kit.
It was sobering, Vanes said, to learn analysis showed the convicted man’s DNA didn’t match a sample collected from the rape victim all those years ago.
“Part of why I was so eager to help find the old rape kit was because it was going to prove that I was right,” Vanes said. “In fact, it proved I was dead wrong.”
Larry Mayes was released from prison in December 2001 after serving nearly 21 years of a 75-year sentence, but he wasn’t the only man to be wrongfully convicted in a series of crimes involving some of the same evidence in the fall of 1980 in Hammond.
The legal saga for Mayes, co-defendant James Hill and Pierre Catlett continued in 2012, when Lake County prosecutors charged all three of them with murder and robbery in the Nov. 14, 1980, shooting death of off-duty Hammond Lawrence J. “Larry” Pucalik at the former Holiday Inn-Southeast at Interstate 80/94 and Cline Avenue in Hammond.
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After a Lake Criminal Court jury found Hill guilty of murder in 2018, the Lake County public defender’s office — where Vanes now serves as assistant chief public defender — worked on Hill’s unsuccessful appeal.
But it was the public defender’s office’s work on behalf of Catlett that finally led, in part, to Hill’s conviction for murder being set aside in 2021 and the state’s decision last month to drop charges against Hill and Catlett.
Lake County First Assistant Deputy Prosecutor Peter Villarreal wrote in a motion to dismiss the cases, “After a thorough and exhaustive review of the currently existing evidence from this incident that occurred in 1980, there is insufficient credible evidence to prove these charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The state withdrew its charges against Mayes in 2014, after he was found to be incompetent to stand trial. He died last year after suffering a stroke, the defense team said.
Members of the defense team quickly became convinced of Catlett’s innocence, which motivated them to double down on their efforts to clear their client of the charges.
Chief Public Defender Marce Gonzalez favors a collaborative approach among attorneys, and a decision was made to treat Catlett’s case “as seriously as a death penalty case,” Vanes said.
“Part of the reason for that decision was probably at least two dozen to three dozen police officers had worked on that side of the case for decades,” he said.
‘The key to the case’
Vanes, attorneys Joseph Curosh III and Casey McCloskey, paralegal Erica Williamson and investigator Shaun Cavazos pored over every record they could find, spreading papers out across more than a dozen tables in a training room they called their war room.
“A lot of the best work comes from just obsessing over a file until you’ve exhausted every avenue you can think of,” Vanes said. “One of the things we obsessed about was the towel.”
After Pucalik was killed, Hammond police found the getaway car parked a mile west of the motel in the now-demolished Kennedy Park Apartments complex.
The stolen blue 1973 Chevrolet Impala matched a description given by the motel clerk and was missing a hub cap later found in the parking lot outside the motel, according to court records.
Inside the car, police found a white towel on the front passenger-side floorboard and a hidden note with identifying information that linked the Chevrolet to another crime: the rapes two days earlier of two female hitchhikers who were picked up by two men on a ramp near the Borman Expressway and Grant Street in Gary.
The owner of the car, a Gary man, told police the towel had not been in his vehicle when it was stolen. One of the hitchhikers said she was handed the towel to wipe off after she was raped, Vanes said.
“We’ve always looked at the towel as kind of the key to the case,” Vanes said. “It certainly turned out to be the key to our client’s innocence.”
DNA has been around since the late 1980s, so it would have made sense for any of the dozens of police officers who worked on the case over the years to send the towel for testing at some point, Vanes said.
An opportunity arose when the Northwest Indiana Major Crimes Task Force reopened the Pucalik case in 2011, reigniting an investigation that led to murder charges being filed the following year.
“It’s completely inexplicable why it wouldn’t have been tested,” Vanes said. “For at least 30 years, that towel was ignored.”
The towel was introduced, in a sealed brown paper bag, as evidence at Hill’s murder trial in 2018, but when Catlett’s defense attorneys later examined the bag they found no lab markings to indicate any testing had ever been performed.
“We pushed to have it tested, and the dominoes started falling,” Vanes said.
The results showed sperm cell DNA from two unknown men and one of the rape victims was on the towel, he said.
“It’s absolutely DNA evidence from the rape, but who it is, God only knows,” Vanes said. “It’s not Catlett. It’s not Mayes. It’s not Hill. As far as we know, it’s nobody in the DNA databases.”
The murder charges against Hill and Catlett theoretically could be refiled, because they were not dismissed with prejudice.
“But I think this is as dead as a case can be,” Vanes said. “They put forth their best effort, and it went nowhere. If it gets refiled, it will not be against these guys. The possibility remains in theory that this could be solved. There’s DNA out there.”
However, the chance of identifying any suspects from the DNA is slim, he said.
“The reason for that is males who were rapists in 1980 probably aged out of committing crimes by the time the DNA databases began collecting in the late ’90s,” he said. “It just may be a situation where the people who committed this rape are dead.”
Prosecutors drop murder charges in 1980 slaying of off-duty officer
Suit cost city millions
When Curosh and McCloskey met with Catlett several weeks ago to inform him of the dismissal, they could see a weight being lifted off his shoulders, Curosh said.
“He was absolutely relieved and thrilled that this was finally over,” Curosh said. “It was something that’s been hanging over his head since 1980, when Hammond police first had him as a suspect. It just followed him around, and finally it’s concluded.”
Catlett always maintained his innocence and told police in 1980 that he didn’t know Hill, the attorneys said.
During a recent deposition of retired Hammond police Detective Capt. Michael Solan, Hill approached Catlett’s lawyers and insisted he had never met Catlett, they said.
Mayes won a $9 million verdict against Hammond and Solan in 2006 for his wrongful conviction in the gas station attendant rape case, but the amount was later reduced to $4.5 million in an out-of-court settlement.
Hill, who also was found guilty of the rape and later had his conviction set aside, still has a wrongful conviction lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Hammond. After the Lake County prosecutor’s office withdrew charges against Catlett and Hill last month, a federal judge denied the city and Solan’s supplemental motion for summary judgment, clearing the way for the suit to proceed to trial.
Hammond, Solan and other officers also are facing a civil lawsuit in an unrelated case filed by a Chicago law firm on behalf of Darryl K. Pinkins and Roosevelt Glenn. The two men each served long prison sentences before they were exonerated in a “bump and rape” of a woman abducted from Hammond in 1989.
The Hammond Police Department declined comment for this story, because of the pending litigation. The Hammond Law Department did not respond by press time to a request for comment.
Catlett was in his mid-20s and lived in Harvey, Illinois, when the crime spree that culminated — as far as investigators knew — in Pucalik’s homicide. Hill was a 17-year-old senior at Roosevelt High School in Gary. Mayes, who also was from Gary, was in his 30s at the time.
Vanes, who was working as a deputy prosecutor in 1980, knew Pucalik personally and volunteered to be the liaison to the Hammond Police Department as its officers investigated the homicide.
“I remember from my days in the prosecutor’s office that there was a real division within the detective bureau in Hammond as to whether it was Hill and people from Gary versus Catlett and people from Illinois,” he said. “They did not make that connection between them in the ’80s. I don’t know when that came, but I think it was kind of a forced marriage. There was no connection visible to the naked eye back in the 1980s.”
WATCH NOW: Case against man convicted of killing Hammond cop collapsing? Judge overturns murder conviction
‘Forced puzzle pieces’
One of the latent questions about the investigation is what went wrong, Vanes said.
“I mentioned how obsession can lead to some good things,” he said. “It can also steer people down the wrong path, and I think the obsession with a number of police officers over 40 years to solve this — well, you can always make a puzzle fit if you start forcing pieces in, you know, but if you do that, you’re not going to get the right picture.”
One of the “forced puzzle pieces” in the case involved statements by the motel clerk and one of the female hitchhikers, who each described a left-handed suspect, attorneys said. Catlett, Hill and Mayes were all right-handed.
The public defender’s office uncovered another “forced puzzle piece” when a detective with the Major Crimes Task Force brought investigatory paperwork to his deposition that the state had not turned over to Hill or Catlett’s defense teams as part of discovery.
From that paperwork, attorneys learned a male schoolteacher, who had observed two men get out of the blue Chevrolet and into a burgundy “switch” car at the Kennedy Park Apartments after Pucalik’s homicide, was taken by police six days later to observe Catlett’s sister’s burgundy Oldsmobile Cutlass in Illinois.
“He said, ‘That’s not the car.’ He ruled it out as being the switch car,” Vanes said. “Now, what’s bizarre about that was at Hill’s trial in 2018 — 38 years after the fact — the prosecutor called him as a witness, gave him a picture and he said, yeah, that’s our client’s sister’s car.”
The schoolteacher wasn’t the only witness who described a burgundy- or maroon-colored car.
After a a robbery at a KFC restaurant Oct. 19, 1980, a witness described seeing two suspects get out of the same car used in the rape of the gas station attendant Oct. 5, 1980, and enter a maroon Buick Electra with “big, flashy wheels or tires with whitewalls,” Vanes said. That witness also described a blue denim bag, a piece of evidence seen during the rape of the gas station attendant and recovered after Pucalik’s homicide.
In a recent deposition, the schoolteacher told the defense attorneys he initially thought the burgundy car he saw was a Buick or Oldsmobile Cutlass, because they had similar body styles.
“He kind of went with whichever way the wind was blowing … and the wind was blowing from the police officers,” Vanes said. “He adopted what they wanted to hear, which is easy to do. You know, people, sitting in front of a police officer, you just assume that whatever they suggest or indicate they know, that it must be true, and some people just go along with them.”
It’s also possible the schoolteacher, who is now almost 70 years old and lives out of state, simply didn’t want to be bothered with the case anymore, Vanes said.
Years lost behind bars
Catlett, now almost 68 years old, spent about 2 1/2 years in the Lake County Jail and another 9 1/2 months on home detention before the murder case was dismissed.
Hill, 59, may be one of the only people in the history of American jurisprudence who has had two convictions — one in the rape case and another in Pucalik’s homicide — set aside because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence to Hill’s defense ahead of trial, said Scott King, Hill’s attorney.
Hill served 17 1/2 years in prison following his rape conviction in 1982. In 2009, more than 10 years after his release from prison in 1998, a Lake Criminal Court magistrate set aside his rape conviction. DNA evidence excluded him as a participant in the rape, and the state failed to turn over evidence, including that the rape victim had been hypnotized to sharpen her memory of the attack.
Vanes, who prosecuted Hill, said he didn’t learn the woman had been hypnotized until the early 2000s, after DNA analysis cleared Mayes and prosecutors went back to the woman to ask if she was certain she had correctly identified Mayes as her attacker.
“Her answer was, ‘After I was hypnotized, I was sure,'” he said. “And they go, ‘Oh, no,’ because hypnosis was forbidden. … They (the police) never disclosed that to anybody. Not to us (the prosecutors), not to the defense. Nobody.”
Hill spent another five months in pretrial confinement in 2012 and 2016 on charges in Pucalik’s homicide, and two years and eight months in prison following his conviction in 2018. He was released on his own recognizance in May 2021, after his murder conviction was overturned.
Mayes used to stop by a law office Vanes shared with Richard Wolter, who was Mayes’ defense attorney in 1982, Vanes said.
“You know in theory that people get prosecuted when they’re innocent, but when you find out that it’s the person you see in the mirror, it’s a lot more impactful,” he said.
Mayes once approached Vanes in federal court to “do a victory lap,” but he was never angry or hostile about Vanes’ role in his wrongful conviction, Vanes said.
During the course of their investigation, attorneys for the public defender’s office discovered a folder stored in a property room at the Hammond Police Department that contained a 200- to 250-page list titled “suspects,” Curosh said.
The list included individuals’ mugshots, aliases, criminal histories and more. The list was so long, the lawyers stopped counting how many people were included, McCloskey said.
“There’s person after person, mugshot after mugshot, statements from other agencies,” he said. “Here’s a potential suspect. We think this person did it. All the way down. It just kept going and going and going.”
Vanes said the defense team initially relied on the prosecutor’s office to provide evidence in the case, but Curosh and McCloskey eventually decided to “go to the horse’s mouth” and subpoena the Hammond Police Department.
A police captain provided a 32-page file in response to their subpoena, Curosh said.
Solan had testified during a court hearing in the 2000s that the department’s file consisted of “five banker’s boxes,” so the attorneys suspected there were more records they had not yet seen.
The captain “went the extra mile” and eventually found a box containing the list of possible suspects and two other folders stashed in a property room, where the records should never have been stored, Vanes said.
Who killed Officer Pucalik?
The team never determined if the Major Crimes Task Force knew of the list of suspects during its investigation, McCloskey said.
“Where did those people go? And are there DNA samples from any of those individuals to compare against what we know now?” he asked.
In total, sperm cell DNA from three unknown males — two in the rape of the hitchhikers and one in the rape of the gas station attendant — has now been discovered.
Vanes said by the time the Major Crimes Task Force, which was led in this investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, reopened the case, Solan had retired and been “pretty well tarnished” by the multimillion-dollar verdict for violating Mayes’ civil rights.
The investigation in 2011 was supposed to be a fresh start, but the attorneys learned the first person to brief the task force was Solan and that Solan had written a 50-page briefing manual for the officers, Vanes said.
“The reinvestigation by ATF and the Major Crimes Task Force, as far as we could see from the paperwork given to us, they never looked at anyone other than the same three suspects that have always been front and center in this case,” he said.
In his 45 years at the bar, no other case has taken up as much of Vanes’ time, he said.
“It’s kind of like my alpha and omega,” he said. “It’s at the start. It’s toward the tail end here. It involves a kid from the neighborhood.”
Vanes grew up on the same block as Pucalik in Hammond’s Hessville neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Pucalik, a father of one, was killed at age 33.
While reminiscing during an interview last week, Vanes recalled a time when Pucalik and another boy “fooled” him into joining an organization known as the Junior Police.
“When I was a 7-year-old squirt, he was like one of big 10-year-olds,” Vanes said. “One of the kids on the block who taught you things you didn’t learn at school.”
The Junior Police were like the Cub Scouts with different uniforms, he said.
“They came to me one Saturday after the meeting and said, ‘Boy, if you’d of been there and your name was called, you’d of won a prize, so you better join,'” Vanes said. “Being a 7-year-old squirt, I believed them. So, I joined the Junior Police. There was no prize. After a few Saturday mornings of marching around on the hot asphalt in the parking lot, I quit.”
But Pucalik stuck with it and went on to become a police officer, Vanes said.
“I would have been honored to prosecute the people who actually killed Larry Pucalik,” Vanes said. “But given the way things went, I never had that chance. To this day, no one has had the chance to prosecute the people who actually killed Larry Pucalik.”
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A Nelson County judge found a Waynesboro man guilty Tuesday of two felony charges in connection with a November 2021 sexual assault.
Michael Raymond Elzer, 65, pleaded not guilty in Nelson County Circuit Court to one count each of aggravated sexual battery and object sexual penetration by force.
Elzer was arrested Nov. 11, 2021 during a weekend visit to his coworker’s Lovingston hunting cabin. Elzer was staying in the cabin with his coworker, the victim and her boyfriend. A Nelson County sheriff’s deputy responded to the cabin after a 3:51 a.m. call from the victim.
The victim testified Tuesday she and her boyfriend arrived at the cabin about 8 p.m. Nov. 10 and ate with Elzer and his coworker. She said the four drank various alcoholic beverages, smoked marijuana and played cards. After she and her boyfriend went to bed around 11 p.m., the victim testified, she awoke to Elzer assaulting her.
The victim testified she started kicking and screaming and woke her boyfriend lying beside her in bed. The victim’s boyfriend testified he saw Elzer leaving the couple’s bedroom when he woke.
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In her statement to a Nelson County sheriff’s detective, the victim said Elzer apologized to her on her way out of the cabin and she screamed at him, “I never said you could touch me.”
The victim testified she had had no physical contact with Elzer before the event.
Elzer testified he entered the couple’s bedroom around 12:30 a.m. to shake both awake. He denied making any inappropriate sexual contact with the victim.
The victim and Elzer consented to DNA testing, and a forensic nurse examiner testified Elzer’s DNA was found on the victim, while the detective testified the victim’s DNA was found on one of Elzer’s hands.
Elzer’s defense attorney, Tom Berry, argued the victim had to be awake during the attack, given she said she was moved in her sleep. The victim testified to waking up about a foot farther down the bed from where she fell asleep.
Berry argued inconsistencies in the victim’s boyfriend’s statements cast doubt on his client’s guilt. He also suggested the group’s close contact before the assault — seated closely together at a table, high-fiving and sharing smoking devices — complicated the DNA evidence.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Daniel Rutherford told the court the DNA evidence in the case spoke for itself.
Judge Michael Doucette found Elzer guilty of both counts based on evidence he said was “undeniable” and revoked Elzer’s bail “given the nature of these charges.”
William “Ricky” Virgil, a Kentucky Black man who spent 28 years in prison for murder was released after DNA evidence exonerated him in 2016. He then sued the city of Newport, Kentucky and the police for a wrongful conviction shortly after. Unfortunately, Virgil died before he ever got the chance to confront the police in court who are being accused of framing him, according to WCPO.
During the last few decades, we have seen a sharp increase in high-profile exonerations of Black people, particularly Black men because of the heightened sense of social justice in the country.
Virgil’s civil trial was originally set to begin in federal court in August 2021 in Covington, Kentucky. But U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning delayed the case so the accused officers could appeal.
At the time, Elliot Slosar, Virgil’s attorney, accused the police officers of stalling and warned that 69-year-old Virgil might not survive a long delay in the trial. His worst fears came true because on Jan. 2, Virgil died, according to WCPO.
Officers Marc Brandt and Norm Wagner and their attorney, Jeff Mando, claim that the appeal was not meant to stall the trial, but their right so they could get a fair ruling from the court. Now in the hands of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, a trial might not take place until 2023.
On April 13, 1987, a coworker discovered the body of Retha Welch, a 54-year-old psychiatric nurse who worked in jail ministry, in the bathroom of her Newport home. She had been raped, stabbed 28 times and severely hit on the head.
Welch had met Virgil while ministering inmates. He had been released from prison a few months before her death and said the two had a sexual relationship.
Less than two weeks later, Newport police arrested Virgil for Welch’s murder. In 1988, after a trial based entirely on circumstantial evidence, the jury convicted him.
Virgil had always maintained his innocence. Attorneys for the Kentucky Innocence Project took an interest in Virgil’s case and won a motion for DNA testing in 2010.
In 2015, a Campbell County Circuit Court judge gave Virgil a new trial and then in August 2016 Joe Womack, a prosecution witness, took back his testimony that Virgil confessed to him about murdering welch while the two were inmates with each other, according to WCPO.
He wrote in an affidavit that officer Norman Wagner shared with him details of the Welch murder.
Womack then shared his allegations to a jury in December 2016 and they decided not to re-indict Virgil and instead dismissed him of all charges weeks later.
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When Virgil first filed his lawsuit in 2016, he sued the cities of Norwood, Cincinnati and Newport, as well as officers from all three departments for their roles in a joint investigation into a possible serial killer. He alleged they withheld and fabricated evidence, and that the city of Newport failed to train its officers.
As the case moved through the court system, Bunning dismissed claims against the cities of Norwood and Cincinnati, and all law enforcement except for former Newport officers Wagner and Marc Brandt, “who the record shows may have withheld exculpatory evidence relating to alternate suspects and pretrial payments to a witness.”
In a case involving a man who has been on Death Row for more than four decades, Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office and the inmate’s lawyers are battling in the Florida Supreme Court about allowing DNA testing of evidence.
The dispute is unusual, at least in part, because Moody’s office is objecting to an agreement that Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell reached last year with lawyers for Death Row inmate Henry Sireci to allow the DNA testing.
Moody’s office appealed to the Supreme Court after an Orange County circuit judge issued an order approving the release of evidence for testing. In a brief filed March 4, Moody’s office contended that the state attorney could not enter the agreement without the support of the attorney general, whose lawyers play a key role in death-penalty appeals.
“The circuit court’s order in this long-final case violates Florida’s comprehensive statutory and rule-based scheme governing postconviction DNA testing, a scheme that balances the state and public’s interest in the finality of lawful convictions with the desire to safeguard the reliability of verdicts,” the brief said. “The state attorney could not unilaterally waive the requirements of that scheme: By statute, the attorney general serves as co-counsel in all capital collateral proceedings, and her express objection vitiated any purported agreement with appellee (Sireci).”
But Sireci’s attorneys filed a 76-page brief Thursday countering the state’s arguments, saying state attorneys have discretion to allow DNA testing in cases where inmates argue they are innocent. Sireci, now 73, was sentenced to death in 1976.
“Appellant (the state) apparently disagrees with the current state attorney’s decision to allow Mr. Sireci … to conduct one final round of DNA testing before the state carries out his execution,” Thursday’s brief said. “But Florida law does not give the attorney general the right to obstruct this well-established exercise of official discretion.”
Sireci was sentenced to death in the 1975 murder of used-car dealer Howard Poteet, who suffered 55 stab wounds, according to court documents. Sireci, who has received legal representation from a national organization, the Innocence Project, has maintained that he did not kill Poteet.
In 2010, Lawson Lamar, then the state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, reached an agreement that allowed DNA testing in the case, but the results were inconclusive, the briefs filed this month said.
Worrell agreed in May 2021 to additional DNA testing. A circuit judge authorized the testing, and Moody’s office said it found out about the decision in a newspaper story.
Moody’s office fought the testing, but Circuit Judge Wayne Wooten issued an order in October clearing the way for evidence to be sent to laboratories for analysis. An appendix to Wooten’s order said the evidence included such things as hairs, a bloody denim jacket and towels.
In its March 4 brief, Moody’s office pointed to the importance of concluding Sireci’s case.
“Appellee’s latest efforts to relitigate his conviction deny the state, the victim’s family, and the public finality in this brutal 1975 homicide,” the brief said. “Yet he has not shown — and cannot show — any valid basis for postconviction DNA testing.”
But in the brief Thursday, Sireci’s attorneys cited numerous convictions that have been overturned because of DNA testing.
“Most fundamentally, the interests of crime victims and the state itself are advanced — not thwarted — by rules that do not unduly complicate or burden a capital defendant’s access to DNA evidence,” the brief said. “Every time an innocent person is in prison or on Death Row, the person who actually committed the crime has not been brought to justice. Thus, wrongful convictions harm not just core principles of justice and due process, but the safety of the public.”
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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.”
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – Nearly thirteen years after the death of a newborn girl whose body was found alongside a road in the Town of Theresa, Dodge Co. officials gathered Friday to announce the investigation into the death of “Baby Theresa” had been resolved and her mother identified and taken into custody.
The mother, identified as Karin Luttinen, made her first court appearance on the same day as the news conference to announce her arrest. Sheriff Dale Schmidt explained that after consulting with the local District Attorney’s Office, they determined the proper charge in this case is Concealing the Death of a Child, relating to the issue of a woman. The charge carries a possible sentence of up to three and a half years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Court records indicate that Luttinen’s cash bond was set $2,500 and that she had posted it following the hearing.
Aneeq Ahmad, Luttinen’s attorney, stated that due to ethical rules during the active investigation, comments on behalf of Luttinen are limited.
“As the District Attorney explained, this case involves the death of a stillborn child, which is always a tragedy for the parents involved,” Ahmad stated. “Further facts about the case will come to light over the course of the legal process. As every person is presumed innocent under the law, I would ask that the community respect Ms. Luttinen’s privacy in the meantime.”
The newborn’s body was discovered inside a garbage bag on April 29, 2009, along Lone Road, near the Village of Theresa. The investigators working on the case started calling her “Baby Theresa” to offer her an identity, naming her after the village near where she was found.
Schmidt recounted everyone working to identify the girl’s family members so they could give her a respectful and dignified burial. “Baby Theresa” was laid to rest on May 11, 2009, Schmidt continued, noting that no family members may have been found to attend, but the Dodge Co. community were there to pay their respects.
The criminal complaint offered clues into how investigators tracked down Luttinen after years of searching, starting with the DNA recovered at the scene. At the time “Baby Theresa” was found, officers were able to gather genetic evidence from the newborn as well as the bag and its other contents. Some of the DNA discovered was determined to belong to a close female relative that investigators assumed was from child’s mother.
According to the complaint, results from a Family Tree DNA sample identified someone with the last name of Luttinen as a potential match. Family Tree is a DNA testing agency that offers genetic testing to determine relationships between individuals or to learn more about a person’s ancestry. The company’s privacy statement indicates DNA submitted may be used “to comply with the law and requests from government bodies” including law enforcement agencies. The complaint does not indicate when officers learned of the possible connection.
Investigators first made contact with Luttinen, along with her longtime boyfriend whose name was not included, in January of last year. At the time, they both agreed to submit DNA swabs. Analysis showed that DNA collected at the scene was found on the scene and the pair were almost certainly the parents. In a phone call, authorities informed Luttinen’s boyfriend that he was the likely father, to which he expressed repeated surprise. After that, the complaint continues, the call was placed on speakerphone and Luttinen was told she was the mother, eliciting just the word “OK.”
Five years after “Baby Theresa” died, the district attorney’s office filed a charge against the DNA profile believed to belong to the mother. While the Sheriff’s Office and prosecutors did not know the mother’s name, by moving forward with the charge in 2014 they were able to beat the six-year statute of limitations. That is why they are able to prosecute Luttinen now, Schmidt indicated.
In further interviews, Luttinen and her boyfriend both claimed not to know she was pregnant. Luttinen told investigators she thought she may be pregnant but was in denial. Toward the end of the pregnancy, the complaint states she thought she knew for sure she was pregnant, but her mind could not grasp the concept. The complaint details the events that culminated in “Baby Theresa” being born.
During Friday’s news conference, Dodge Co. Medical Examiner P.J. Schoebel stated that an autopsy performed the next day did not find evidence that the child had been murdered. Instead, investigators determined her death was the result of ‘fetal demise,’ which Shoebel said indicated that she died prior to or during birth. After speaking with Luttinen and weighing her description, the medical examiner determined the cause of death would remain. As a result, a reckless homicide would not apply.
At the conclusion of the news conference, Schmidt complimented Det. Vickie Brugger and Schoebel as the lead investigators on the case, saying “(t)hey never gave up and pursued absolutely every lead imaginable since Baby Theresa was discovered in 2009.” He also acknowledged the entire Dodge Co. Sheriff Office’s criminal investigative division for assisting Brugger and Schoebel. Schmidt also individually thanked:
Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Timothy Bauer – conducted the funeral service.
Todd Michael and the staff at Cornerstone Funeral Home – donation of services.
Matt Lober – vocalist at the gravesite during the funeral.
Retired Sheriff Todd Nehls – providing resources in the initial investigation.
Retired Correctional Officer Hanna Mueller – conducted a forensic drawing of Baby Theresa.
Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg – provided legal guidance and prosecution of this case.
Raleigh, N.C. — Tuesday a big boost was announced for public safety in Wake County, as Congressmen David Price and Deborah Ross announced the county is getting $1.5 million dollars.
State and county leaders said the funding would help with two projects aimed at improving public safety and cutting down on a backlog of untested DNA kits.
Improving wait times for those seeking justice
When we talk about how slowly the wheels of the criminal justice system turn, the delays often stem from prosecutors’ waiting for DNA tests to be completed.
“Our state has struggled to process all of the evidence, especially for survivors of sexual assault,” says Representative Deborah Ross.
District Attorney Lorrin Freeman says Wake County having its own DNA testing lab is going to help them locate suspects, get justice for victims, and move cases through the system faster.
“It also will help us exonerate people who don’t need to be charged,” says Freeman.
Currently, Wake County prosecutors wait up to nine months to get results.
Construction is already underway for the 950-square-foot lab, which will be housed in the Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification on Hammond Road.
“This is a huge asset to our community,” says Freeman.
‘World class’ facilities for emergency personnel
During the height of the pandemic, the Wake County emergency management team was crammed into a tiny windowless basement in the county building downtown. Emergency personnel from several different entities were all housed in one, small room in the Waverly F. Akins office building.
Because of the new funding, that’s about to change. They are getting a brand new space.
A million dollars will go to help with creating a new emergency operations center.
“This is a worthy and long-overdue investment in public safety,” says Ross. “There’s no better use of our tax dollars than saving lives.”
Wake County’s emergency operations center is moving out of the cramped, antiquated basement it has occupied for years — and into a newly renovated much larger area in the county building outfitted with the latest technology.
“We want to have a world class facility for those charged with our safety,” says Matt Calabria, county commissioner. “We have got to protect the people who protect us. We have to empower them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.”
An Omaha man returned fire with his Glock 21 handgun after gunmen shot into a large crowd outside a North Omaha bar last summer, an Omaha police detective testified Wednesday.
Five people were injured in the shooting. One of them, 19-year-old Jazsmine Washington, died. She suffered two gunshot wounds to her right arm and a third, fatal one to her rib cage, said Omaha Police Detective David Preston Jr.
While bullets of various sizes — 9 mm, .40-caliber and .45-caliber — ricocheted in the air early on July 4, just a single .45-caliber projectile was recovered from Washington’s body.
After a traffic stop and some detective and forensics work, investigators determined Davelle Giles to be the person who fired the .45-caliber bullet that killed Washington.
Giles, 26, will stand trial on charges of second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony, Douglas County Judge Stephanie Shearer ruled Wednesday.
Giles’ attorney, Assistant Douglas County Public Defender Kyle Melia, argued that Giles unintentionally killed Washington because he returned fire after at least two others started the shooting. He therefore should face a manslaughter charge, not a murder charge, Melia said.
But Shearer said firing into a crowd is an intentional act and ordered him to face the second-degree murder charge. Nebraska law says the charge applies when a killing is done intentionally but without premeditation.
The gunfire erupted about 3:17 a.m. near a parking lot on the east side of 24th Street between Grant Street and Willis Avenue. According to video surveillance from two neighboring businesses, people in a crowd of more than 100 began to flee and duck for cover when they realized shots were being fired from at least two people in an alleyway on the west side of 24th Street, Preston said. Those people have not been identified, Preston said.
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Investigators later learned that Giles was at the party and caught on the surveillance videos about 3:04 a.m., wearing a white T-shirt, ripped jeans, a red hat and white tennis shoes. Three times, Giles was shown raising his T-shirt, exposing a handgun tucked into his waistband, Preston said.
As people began to run and hide from the gunshots, Giles, who was in the southwest corner of the parking lot, appeared composed and walked away after looking north toward where Washington’s body laid on the ground.
In addition to 9 mm and .40-caliber shell casings, police found five spent .45-caliber casings, which forensics testing later determined were all fired from the same gun.
On July 20, OPD gang unit officers pulled over Giles, who was a suspended driver driving a Dodge Challenger without a front license plate. After monitoring jail calls, officers learned that he also drove a 2000 Honda Accord that was registered to his mother. A .45-caliber Glock 21 handgun was found in the back pocket of the front passenger seat.
Ballistics tests confirmed that the five shell casings and projectile found in Washington’s body were fired from that gun. The gun was swabbed for DNA, and Giles was found to be a major contributor to the DNA on the gun and magazine, Preston testified.
Police also checked Giles’ cellphone, which Preston said showed GPS data connected him to the area at the time of the shooting and two videos taken before the shooting occurred — one hours before and one minutes before.
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The first video was recorded about 10 p.m. July 3 by Giles, wearing the same clothes he was wearing in the businesses’ security videos and showing him in possession of a large-caliber Glock-type firearm, Preston said.
The second video was taken about 3:10 a.m. Giles holds his phone selfie-style, recording video of himself and people behind him smiling. They appeared to be having a good time, Preston said, before the shots rang out seven minutes later.
With only one set of remains so far meeting the criteria for a possible victim, researchers searching for unmarked burials from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre are recommending more excavations at Oaklawn Cemetery.
The researchers presented their findings and recommendations Tuesday to the public committee overseeing the city’s investigation into possible massacre graves.
Excavations at the cemetery in June recovered 19 sets of remains, which have since been analyzed.
DNA testing on samples from the remains is set to begin soon to aid in identification.
However, of the sets of remains, only one, which had gunshot wounds, meets all the criteria for a possible victim of the massacre, officials said.
“He was a young man in his early 20s. He had a minimum of three gunshot wounds … that contributed to his death,” Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist and member of the research team, told the committee.
One of the bullets was recovered from inside the cranium.
“He matches all the criteria we need to go forward,” Stubblefield said.
But, she added, while a few other sets of remains do meet some criteria, only the gunshot victim had obvious signs of trauma.
The goal now is to look for “more individuals showing evidence of gunshot trauma in a way that resembles the death certificate data that we have,” Stubblefield said.
“We need to do intensive and continued excavation of Section 20, extending to cover more of the New Potter’s Field area.”
The researchers also recommended on Tuesday that archaeological surveys go forward at other previously identified areas of interest, including Newblock Park.
The remains recovered during last summer’s excavation were initially analyzed in an on-site lab, and samples were taken.
They were later reinterred to await the results of DNA and other data analysis.
Officials announced Tuesday that DNA testing will be handled by Utah Cold Case Coalition Intermountain Forensics.
The samples are on their way to the lab, said Danny Hellwig, representing the Utah firm.
“We’ve cleared our plate to be ready for these samples, and we will start working on them as soon as they come in the door,” he said.
He said the analysis likely would be a monthslong project.
Records and newspaper reports indicate that at least 18 Black males killed in the massacre were buried in Oaklawn. It is that group the researchers are hoping to find, with the possibility that more victims might be discovered in the same vicinity.