A U.S. Army veteran who vanished in 1976 was identified as a man found murdered that year in North Carolina, according to police.
Forensic DNA testing has revealed the man as Jimmy Mack Brooks, a veteran who was 26 at the time of his murder nearly 50 years ago, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in Pittsboro said in a May 25 news release. Brooks’ body was found in Moncure.
“It is bittersweet to be able to share this information with his loved ones who never stopped looking for him,” Lt. Sara Pack said in a statement.
In 1976, a homicide investigation into the murder victim, now confirmed as Brooks, was put on pause for decades due to “a lack of basic information or viable clues,” the news release said.
His body, which was missing a head and hands, was found in the Cape Fear River in Moncure, according to a news release from Othram Inc., an organization that worked with the sheriff’s office and the North Carolina Unidentified Project to identify Brooks.
Police were able to solve a 35-year-old cold case thanks to a piece of evidence already in their possession. In Fairfax County, Virginia, officials were able to arrest a man wanted for rape after a piece of DNA evidence collected in 1987 matched a sample in the FBI’s database, WJLA reports. Police are crediting advances in technology and genealogy for the arrest.”I really believe that we can do away with serial killers… serial rapists because we can identify them much more quickly,” said CeCe Moore, the chief genealogist for Parabon, a DNA lab that assisted with the case. “These people that have been able to stay under the radar, and not be a person of interest in these cases will be identified so much more quickly.”Fairfax police say that’s what happened with William Clark, 59, who was able to get married, have a family and carried out a career before he was arrested for the alleged assault of a 14-year-old that occurred in this cold case.Police said he told the victim he was a popular radio host and promised her prizes to get her to the station. “Sadly, it worked. So we think there may be other victims out there that didn’t come forward,” Maj. Ed O’Carroll of the Fairfax County Police Department told WJLA.Moore was able to rebuild Clark’s family tree after locating his distant relatives through DNA testing sites and using public records such as Census documents, birth certificates, marriage licenses, social media and newspaper articles to fill in the blanks.”We found connections to both his mother’s side and his father’s side, and he was the only one who fit in every way,” she said.Police tracked Clark down and arrested him while he was on his way to work this week.Despite this breakthrough, police still have to conduct an investigation and DNA examination as they normally would. But Moore said this tool could be crucial for the future of cold cases. “So, anyone out there who has perpetrated a crime like this, I do think they should be worried because even if they haven’t been identified for years or decades, we are closing in on them,” she said.
FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. (Video: WJLA via CNN) —
Police were able to solve a 35-year-old cold case thanks to a piece of evidence already in their possession.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, officials were able to arrest a man wanted for rape after a piece of DNA evidence collected in 1987 matched a sample in the FBI’s database, WJLA reports.
Police are crediting advances in technology and genealogy for the arrest.
“I really believe that we can do away with serial killers… serial rapists because we can identify them much more quickly,” said CeCe Moore, the chief genealogist for Parabon, a DNA lab that assisted with the case. “These people that have been able to stay under the radar, and not be a person of interest in these cases will be identified so much more quickly.”
Fairfax police say that’s what happened with William Clark, 59, who was able to get married, have a family and carried out a career before he was arrested for the alleged assault of a 14-year-old that occurred in this cold case.
Police said he told the victim he was a popular radio host and promised her prizes to get her to the station.
“Sadly, it worked. So we think there may be other victims out there that didn’t come forward,” Maj. Ed O’Carroll of the Fairfax County Police Department told WJLA.
Moore was able to rebuild Clark’s family tree after locating his distant relatives through DNA testing sites and using public records such as Census documents, birth certificates, marriage licenses, social media and newspaper articles to fill in the blanks.
“We found connections to both his mother’s side and his father’s side, and he was the only one who fit in every way,” she said.
Police tracked Clark down and arrested him while he was on his way to work this week.
Despite this breakthrough, police still have to conduct an investigation and DNA examination as they normally would.
But Moore said this tool could be crucial for the future of cold cases.
“So, anyone out there who has perpetrated a crime like this, I do think they should be worried because even if they haven’t been identified for years or decades, we are closing in on them,” she said.
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WVLT) – More than $5,200 in donated funds made advanced DNA testing possible in the case of Baby Wyatt Doe’s death in Oak Ridge.
The baby’s body was discovered along Melton Hill Lake in late March of 2020, and the case remains unsolved.
Now, the nonprofit Season of Justice has contributed the funds needed to pay for genetic testing at the OTHRAM advanced DNA laboratory.
Season of Justice Director Steve DuBois said his group specializes in helping fund cases like this.
“These type of cases that may need a little extra help. The technology and the research may not be there within your local. So that’s where we come in play,” said DuBois.
The Oak Ridge City Council formally accepted the $5,246 grant from Season of Justice at its Monday night meeting. This will give an edge to the Oak Ridge Police Department and area forensics investigators as they try to identify the baby and determine how he died.
Authorities said the baby was found with the umbilical cord still intact. In the spring of 2020, police and other community members gathered for a memorial service near the waterfront, with a donated wreath and teddy bears to honor the child.
The remains cannot be buried until the investigation is completed. Police have been asking the public to contribute any tips they may have about the case.
“Forensic-grade genome sequencing is the proprietary method that we’ve developed,” Spokesman Michael Vogen for the OTHRAM laboratory explained. “When CoDIS doesn’t deliver an answer, law enforcement agencies are turning to OTHRAM to look at tens of thousands of hundreds of thousands of markers of DNA.”
After being fully funded, the project could take several months.
In a Facebook live shortly after the remains were discovered, Oak Ridge Police Chief Robin Smith appealed to the public for help.
“So we’ve been referring to him as ‘Wyatt,’ our little warrior…we just want to finalize this investigation and we want to be able to put him to rest.”
“And so the very best outcome is that we’re able to find folks that are closely related to Baby Wyatt and the investigators can go confirm those findings and try to figure out who this baby is,” Vogen said.
If you have a tip to help solve the Baby Wyatt case, you can call Oak Ridge Police at 865-425-4399.
The Safe Haven Law allows mothers of newborns to surrender their baby unharmed to a safe place like a hospital or fire station anytime in the first two weeks after birth without fear of prosecution in Tennessee. You can call the Secret Safe Place for Newborns of Tennessee Help Line at 866-699-SAFE for help.
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (KNWA/KFTA) — The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) announced that the remains of a woman found partially buried in Caddo County in 1995 have been identified as 20-year-old Katrina Bentivegna of Midwest City, Oklahoma.
According to a press release, the OSBI Cold Case Unit, including criminalists in the Biology Unit at the OSBI Forensic Science Center, submitted Bentivegna’s DNA to Parabon Nanolabs in March of 2021. Parabon submitted results back to the OSBI with possible genetic matches in August of 2021.
Agents then contacted possible relatives requesting DNA samples to compare to Bentivegna’s. Recently, OSBI agents were notified that the comparisons were a match and Bentivegna’s family was notified that she was positively identified.
We are thrilled to be able to reunite Katrina with her family. While it took 27 years to be able to deliver the news, we never stopped working to identify Katrina. We pursue all options available at the time for victims and sometimes we have to wait for technological advances like forensic genetic genealogy. The first step in cases like this is to identify the victim. Now we continue our pursuit of justice for Katrina.
Ricky Adams, OSBI Director
Bentivegna’s dismembered body was discovered near Route 66 and Highway 281 in Caddo County on April 24, 1995. The Caddo County Sheriff’s Office requested OSBI assistance with the investigation.
According to a report, it was difficult to identify Bentivegna at the time because her feet, hands and head were removed from her body. In 1996, a skull was found that the OSBI later confirmed through DNA comparison belonged to the body found in 1995.
Over the years, agents have pursued numerous leads in an effort to identify Bentivegna with help from the Caddo County Sheriff’s Office, Oklahoma Office of Chief Medical Examiner, as well as the FBI.
“The family of Katrina Kay (Burton) Bentivegna is very appreciative of the hard work and countless hours of time the teams from the Caddo County Sheriff’s Office and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation put in to help identify the body of our beloved mother, daughter, sister, cousin, niece and friend. At this time, we request no contact or inquiries.”
Bentivegna’s maiden name was Burton. She was originally from Colorado and arrived in Oklahoma in the summer of 1993. She was married in November of 1993 and is survived by her son.
“I appreciate all the hard work the OSBI has put into identifying my mother,” Katrina’s son said. “There have been many unanswered questions over the past 27 years but now I have closure in knowing what happened to my mom.”
If you knew Katrina (Burton) Bentivegna or have any information on her murder, please contact the OSBI at (800) 522-8017 or email [email protected] You can remain anonymous.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) – Michael Politte was 14 years old when his mother died.
Rita Politte was beaten, then set on fire in December of 1998. Michael and a friend were sleeping in the next room and say they woke up to smoke.
That would traumatic enough for any teenage boy, but it gets worse. Michael was convicted of killing his mother.
“This kid never had a chance,” says Politte’s attorney Megan Crane.
Michael Politte has always sworn he’s innocent. He’s now 38 years old and shares his story from prison.
“I remember the hair on the back of my neck rising up–I didn’t know what to do,” said Politte. “What’s a 14-year-old kid supposed to do in that moment?”
After he woke up to smoke, he tried to put the fire out himself with a garden hose, but the hose wouldn’t stretch that far.
“I ran until to the into the hose all the slack is gone,” Politte remembers. “I knelt down to see what I can see. And when I did, I seen my mother’s legs and I seen blood on her legs and she was on fire from her waist up.”
Police expected Michael to be more emotional at the crime scene, maybe even shed tears. But he didn’t. He was quiet—and angry.
“I mean I can still hear it–I can hear the fire crackling,” said Politte. “There’s times I wake up in the morning that I can smell (it). It’s with me with me forever.”
Politte was defiant throughout the investigation. And a police dog alerted investigators to Michael’s shoes—three times. Testing revealed gasoline.
When the case went to trial, Michael had a public defender. Still Michael believed in the system. He believed the truth would come out. But with no explanation for gasoline on the shoes, a jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to life in prison.
He’s lived more than half of his life behind bars.
“I can’t describe the feeling of helplessness,” said Politte. “There’s no reason to exist anymore.”
In the years since Politte’s conviction, many question whether the court got it right. His case attracted the attention of the Midwest Innocence Project and the MacArthur Justice Center and a Kansas City law firm, Langdon & Emison, in part, because of his age.
“According to law enforcement, he just wasn’t acting right. He wasn’t emotional. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t upset. But psychologists tell us that’s what trauma often looks like, especially in a kid,” said Crane.
Politte’s attorneys point the court to another possible motive for the murder. The week of Rita Politte’s murder she was granted alimony, child support and part of her ex-husband’s pension and 401K. They also argue that her ex-husband, Ed Politte responded, “you will never see the day when you’ll get the money.”
Investigators found a boot print behind the burning trailer, but Ed Politte was quickly dismissed as a suspect in the case. He had an alibi. He was at work at the time of the murder.
Michael’s current lawyers sent investigators back to Hopewell to conduct new interviews. They now tell the court that investigation turned up witnesses who place a cousin of Ed’s near the scene of the crime the morning of the fire and circumstantial evidence suggests he had a financial windfall shortly after the murder. They argue the evidence implicates the cousins in a murder-for-hire scheme.
We contacted both men for a response. Ed sent this:
I’m grateful and Happy Mike is being released. Now about me, I did a dozen or so interviews with the law. I did a lie detector test, a blood test, a DNA test and fingerprints. I cooperated 100% with the law. I don’t know what else I could have done. My place of work was checked out. My coworkers were interviewed, I have a couple dozen witnesses that placed me 85 miles from my ex….That’s all I have to say. Your (sic) a reporter I’m sure you can verify what I’ve said. I will discuss this no further. Thank you for atleast(sic) getting my side.
New Evidence Supports Michael’s innocence claim
More than 20 years after the murder, evidence is now on Michael Politte’s side. Those gasoline-soaked shoes that help convict him—investigators got that wrong.
A newer test can now tell the difference between accelerants. The new test reveals there’s no gasoline on the shoes- the earlier test was positive for the adhesive in the shoes. That information was revealed six years ago.
The majority of jurors who are still alive and even a former member of the Sheriff’s Department are now advocating for Michael Politte’s release.
“It shouldn’t be this hard. We’re the greatest country in the world, but yet here I am, after six years of discovering that I was wrongfully convicted with false science, my jury was lied to, and I’m still sitting in a prison cell,” said Politte. “I don’t want to be angry—I just want to live.”
Release is not “The End”
As it turns out—Michael will be released from prison at the end of April. Not because a judge ruled in his favor, but because the parole board granted his release due to new sentencing guidelines for juveniles.
Michael told us one of the first things he’ll do after this release is visit his mother’s grave.
“She can probably finally rest,” he said. “I don’t think she’s been resting since she passed away knowing what happened in the aftermath.”
But that’s not the end for Michael. He says he will fight to clear his name and hopes the local prosecutor will reopen the case and look at new evidence. He said he would tell his mother, “Here, I am, and I’m going to continue to fight for you and I’m going to see it through.”
BOULDER, Colo. (KDVR) — There are hundreds of unsolved homicide cases, long-term missing person cases, and unidentified remains cases in Colorado where at least three years have passed since the crime happened.
The Colorado cold case task force created a list of those cases dating back to 1970. The Problem Solvers are working to highlight cold cases in our state.
Who killed JonBenét Ramsey?
It has been 25 years since JonBenét Ramsey was found dead. Her murder is considered by many to be one of the most notorious cold cases.
The 6-year-old was found dead in the basement of her Boulder home on Dec. 26, 1996 after her family reportedly found a ransom note inside the home. An autopsy revealed Ramsey was strangled to death.
As of Dec. 2021, the Boulder Police Department said they processed more than 1,500 pieces of evidence related to the murder of Ramsey.
At that time, the Boulder Police Department said “it was actively reviewing genetic DNA testing processes to see if those can be applied to this case moving forward.” BPD said nearly 1,000 DNA samples have been analyzed.
In 2019, Burke Ramsey, the brother of JonBenét, reached an undisclosed settlement in a $750 million lawsuit against CBS. The lawsuit said that Burke Ramsey’s reputation was ruined after a television series suggested he killed JonBenét.
In 2008, then-Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy wrote a letter to John Ramsey, JonBenét’s dad, saying new DNA evidence had cleared him, his wife and son. She formally apologized for the cloud of suspicion the Ramsey’s lived under for years.
“We believe at this point it is unlikely there will ever be a prosecution,” Boulder police said in 2008
Ramsey’s mom, Patsy, died of ovarian cancer in 2006.
Anyone with information related to this investigation is asked to contact the BPD tip line at 303-441-1974, send an email to [email protected] , or contact Northern Colorado Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or www.nococrimestoppers.com.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System shows there are currently 21,556 open missing persons cases in the United States and over 300 in Colorado.
Suzanne Morphew and Barry Morphew appear in images distributed by the Chaffee County, Colo. Sheriff’s Office.
Despite scolding prosecutors and law enforcement agents for engaging in “consistent” discovery violations, a Colorado judge has refused to dismiss a swiftly approaching murder trial against Barry Morphew, the husband who stands accused of murdering his wife Suzanne Morphew on or around May 9 or 10, 2020. Suzanne Morphew’s body has never been found.
District Court Judge Ramsey Lama of the 11th Judicial District said, however, that he would limit expert testimony about cell phone data, vehicle movement data, and DNA — in part because prosecutors filed information about expert witnesses too late in the process and therefore missed important deadlines.
The case has been fraught with contention for months, Judge Lama noted in a complex, mostly-single-spaced, and 20-page-long order filed on April 8. The judge cited some of the evidence which plays to the prosecution — and other evidence which plays to the defense:
Data on Mr. Morphew’s phone indicated that around the time she went missing, he turned left on Highway 50, west, passing the location of where Mrs. Morphew’s bike helmet was found on the side of the road before ultimately turning around to head to Denver for work. Mr. Morphew said he was following an elk and turned around near Garfield, a small community about 3-4 miles west of where Mrs. Morphew’s bike was found. That and other location data on his phone raised suspicion among investigators.
[ . . . ]
In the summer of 2020, CBI forensic analysis determined foreign unknown male DNA was found on various items of the crime scene: the interior cushion of the bike helmet, Mrs. Morphew’s bike, the glovebox and back seat of Mrs. Morphew’s Range Rover. Mr. Morphew, along with other investigative personnel working the scene, were excluded as the source of the sample.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Agent Joseph Cahill came to suspect the aforementioned DNA sample found in the car “belonged to suspects who may have perpetrated the crime,” the judge noted. And then came a hit on that DNA in CODIS, a nationwide DNA database maintained by the FBI.
Evidence photo 64 shows the interior of Suzanne Morphew’s car.
“[T]he unknown male DNA partially matched DNA found in three out-of-state unsolved sexual assault investigations: Tempe, Phoenix, and Chicago,” the judge wrote. However, “due to the limited genetic profile, this was only a lead and further investigation was necessary.”
The unknown DNA led to a showdown between the CBI and the local sheriff’s office, the judge noted:
Sometime in late April of 2021, CBI detectives working on the case became aware that the Chaffee County Sherriff’s Office was going to arrest Barry Morphew charging him with murder. Agents Cahill and Graham strongly opposed the arrest of Barry Morphew citing the need for more forensic testing and evidence collection in general. They both believed the arrest was premature and raised their concerns with Kirby Lewis, head of the Major Crimes Division of CBI who, in turn, brought those concerns to Deputy Director Chris Schaeffer. Mr. Schaeffer called the Chaffee County Sheriff, John Spezze, and advised against arresting Mr. Morphew at that time. He expressed the concerns of Agents Cahill and Graham. It was the first time in the Deputy Director’s career that he ever called a sheriff about holding off on the decision to arrest an individual. Shortly, thereafter, CBI Director John Camper, called the Sheriff and reiterated the Bureau’s concerns with arresting Barry Morphew.
Regardless, Chaffee County Sheriff’s Commander Alex Walker “authored a 129 page affidavit in support of the arrest of Barry Morphew on suspicion of homicide along with other charges,” Judge Lama noted. “The affidavit states numerous agents from CBI reviewed and edited the affidavit, but failed to state that the Bureau did not support the arrest of Mr. Morphew.”
“Notably, as of May 4, 2021, law enforcement had still not determined the source of the unknown male DNA found throughout the crime scene,” Judge Lama continued. “The Affidavit failed to inform the judge of said DNA and that Barry Morphew was excluded as the source.”
In part, Lama noted, that was because Walker received a letter about the DNA match “on May 19, 2021, twelve days after he penned his probable cause affidavit in support of the arrest of Mr. Morphew.” But the state did not attempt to cure the issue by the time a four-day hearing rolled around in August, Judge Lama indicated.
A prosecution evidence photo (exhibit 59) portrays an image of Suzanne Morphew dated May 9, 2020, at 2:03 p.m. It is alleged to be the last known photo of Suzanne Morphew alive.
A different judge, Chief Judge Patrick W Murphy, appears to have been wholly unaware of the DNA issue when he signed off on the arrest papers, and law enforcement officers took Barry Morphew into custody on May 5, 2021. Two weeks later, the state turned the CODIS data over to the defense on May 19, 2021. But then, Judge Lama wrote, the state struggled to figure out how to deal with it:
In the months leading up to and during the Preliminary Hearing, the prosecution had three meetings with law enforcement and CBI analysts to discuss the meaning of the CODIS match, its significance, and follow up investigation to rule out potential sources of the DNA. Information tending to negate the guilt of accused was discussed, but nothing was reduced to writing and disclosed to the defense in any of the three meetings. The Preliminary Hearing commenced on August 9, 2021 and lasted four days. The People called the following witnesses: Alex Walker, Kenneth Harris, Jonathan Grusing, Derek Graham, Andy Rohrich, and Kevin Koback. The People did not elicit any testimony concerning the foreign male DNA from any of these witnesses. The defense ultimately called Agent Cahill of CBI to present the information to the Court. The Court reserved ruling.
Eventually, on Sept. 17, 2021, a previous judge reasoned that the unknown DNA was “particularly significant because while it doesn’t prove a stranger abduction theory, it does at least support it,” and Barry Morphew was allowed to go free on bond pending trial after being jailed without bond for about five months.
Morphew’s defense moved multiple times for discovery and contempt sanctions — and to dismiss the case.
“The multiple and continuing hearings . . . have revealed substantial evidence that law enforcement personnel testified falsely, and the prosecutor presented this false testimony, in pleadings and at pretrial hearings on key issues related to the litigation,” the defense wrote on March 9. “This conduct has destroyed Mr. Morphew’s right to a fair trial. When these witnesses testify at trial, Mr. Morphew will have the right and obligation to point out to the jury that, in this very case on that very witness stand, the witness(es) told falsehoods in an attempt to cover up the truth about the investigation.”
“It will be imperative not only to point out the factual reasonable doubt, but to raise doubts about the law enforcement officers presenting the prosecution’s evidence,” the defense continued on March 9. “It is patently unfair to make Barry Morphew face trial on the shoulders of this false testimony. He asks this Court to dismiss this case because a fair trial cannot be held under the circumstances of these falsehoods and cover-ups.”
Judge Lama’s 20-page order from Friday spends pages upon pages recapping discovery matters, meetings, and other relevant dates before railing on the prosecution for botching many of the foregoing.
“In the instant case, the Defendant sat in jail for five months on a no bond hold prior to receiving a [hearing] on August 9-10 and 23-24, 2021,” Judge Lama wrote. “The Judge who found probable cause and set a no bond hold was not told that unknown foreign male DNA was found on various items at the crime scene or in the alleged victim’s car at the time of signing the warrant for Mr. Morphew’s arrest. (Citation omitted.) If the Judge had known at the time of reviewing the arrest warrant about foreign unknown male DNA and CODIS matches to out-of-state cases, he may not have required Mr. Morphew to sit in jail for five months pending the PEPG and Preliminary Hearing.”
After noting that it was defense attorneys, not the state, who finally noted the CODIS match to the original judge on the case, Judge Lama continued with stern language for the prosecution and for law enforcement (citations omitted):
It is clear to this Court there is a pattern of discovery violations in this case attributable to the People . . . . The People’s first discovery and disclosure-related violations occurred on July 22, 2021 while Chief Judge Murphy was still assigned to the case. These violations continue and are ongoing. As recent as March 30, 2022 (less than one month before trial is set to begin), the Court found another Rule 16 violation related to an expert report of Doug Spence. Over the last eight months and over multiple days of hearings, the Court has witnessed a pattern of disregard by the People towards its Rule 16 obligations, the Court’s Case Management Order, and subsequent Court disclosure-related orders made on the record. This Court has repeatedly noted it does not, in any way, condone the People’s behavior. The behavior has, in the Court’s eyes, been recognizably consistent. While the Court, for the reasons stated below, does not find this pattern willful based on the record, the Court does find this pattern to be negligent, bordering on, reckless.
Judge Lama said the “most obvious and egregious violation” surrounded the state’s lack of complete candor regarding the CODIS match to a possible unknown suspect’s DNA.
“These type of materials, as noted by Chief Judge Murphy during his ruling on bond in September 2021, lend themselves to an alternate suspect theory of the case,” Lama wrote. “Yet, we know law enforcement was well aware of this information for months prior to seeking Mr. Morphew’s arrest.”
The meetings about that CODIS information should have been reduced to writing and disclosed to the defense, Judge Lama rationed, because they involved “discoverable materials.” The failure to do so, Judge Lama wrote, was a violation of Colorado court rules and of previous court orders in this case in particular.
After citing specific communications among law enforcement investigators, Lama also chided Cahill for having “testified that he only reviewed 19 pages of the arrest affidavit” despite issuing “disclosures” which “indicated he had reviewed it in its ‘entirety’ and even offered specific critiques to the affiant.” And, the affidavit itself stated that it “was edited and reviewed by SA Kenneth Harris and CBI Agents Joseph Cahill and Derek Graham.”
Judge Lama also scolded the state for an “ineffective” system of preserving investigators’ emails — despite an order from previous Judge Murphy that such materials needed to be saved.
Elsewhere, Judge Lama upbraided the state for missing an already “extended deadline” on Feb. 28, 2022 for data involving “numerous expert witnesses.” Citing the “pattern of discovery violations,” the judge noted that he banned the state from calling any expert whose report was not turned over to the defense by that February deadline.
One witness the state admitted it would not be able to call was Doug Spence, the canine handler of a dog named “Rosco.” According to Judge Lama’s ruling, the state asserted that Rosco did not pick up a “hit” on or around Suzanne Morphew’s abandoned bike in the ravine where it was found; the state was hoping to argue that the dog’s alleged failure to pick up the alleged victim’s scent was proof that the bike had been hidden by someone else.
But that’s not the end of that story. At at hearing, the court allowed the defense to call Spence to figure out what information had indeed been gleaned from the dog. It turned out, according to Spence’s testimony and body camera footage admitted into evidence, that Rosco did pick up Suzanne Morphew’s scent on the nearby south Arkansas River. The dog pulled Spence downstream but lost the scent at a log.
The state backtracked by claiming the dog “kept trying to go in the direction of the Morphew home but could not get there due to a creek,” Judge Lama wrote. “This was false based on the testimony and evidence presented at the Hearing. Indeed, Mr. Spence unequivocally testified that had Rosco picked up a scent across the creek or in the creek he would have pulled him right into the creek and even crossed the creek if necessary. According to Doug Spence, his dog did not go into the creek because it did not alert to the scent of Mrs. Morphew in that direction or vicinity: Rosco simply lost the scent.”
“Mr. Spence unequivocally denied that his dog was attracted to the water or the direction of the Morphew home,” Judge Lama continued. “It is abundantly clear that the People failed to consult with Mr. Spence, an endorsed expert, prior to making their expert disclosures.”
And here, Judge Lama reasoned, is why that is important:
The People’s expert disclosures contained inaccurate statements authored by Sergeant Plackner and the district attorney, who in turn, drew additional inferences based upon statements that were never correct in the first place. Mr. Spence’s testimony is potentially exculpatory. At a minimum, in does not lend support to the People’s theory that Mrs. Morphew was never there and that Mr. Morphew staged a crash scene. According to Mr. Spence, Rosco picked up Mrs. Morphew’s scent at the scene.
Despite these and other failures, Judge Lama found that the state’s actions did not “amount to willfulness,” so the case will continue — but without a bevy of expert opinions as listed toward the end of the ruling.
“[T]he Court does not find a reduction of the charges to be an appropriate remedy,” Judge Lama ruled. “The Court is also mindful that the defense is now in possession of exculpatory information, which cures much of the prejudice.”
“Because the Court did not find willfulness on the part of the People, dismissal of the case is beyond this Court’s discretion,” the judge added.
One of the recent defense motions to dismiss, and the judge’s full ruling, are both below:
The capital murder trial of Derrill Richard “Rick” Ennis continued on Tuesday with multiple witnesses taking the stand, including a forensic analyst who said he found a DNA match between Ennis and a sample of “potential blood” and semen.
Ennis was arrested and charged in 2018 following a cold case investigation of the June 2006 disappearance of Lori Ann Slesinski of Auburn. Slesinski’s car was found engulfed in flames at the dead end of Dekalb Street in Auburn, but her body was never found.
Pete Macchia formerly worked in the DNA forensic biology unit for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences in the Montgomery Regional Laboratory. In 2006, he investigated the Slesinski case and looked for potential DNA evidence in her trailer.
Macchia was called to the witness stand on Tuesday, and Lee County District Attorney Jessica Ventiere asked if he found anything he thought could have been blood inside the trailer in 2006. He replied yes.
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Macchia told the jury that he swabbed the interior doorknob of the front door and ran a presumptive blood test of the sample, which returned as “possible blood.”
The process for this kind of test involves applying chemicals to the sample, Macchia said, and if it changes color “then it could be blood.”
“We refer to this as a presumptive test because it is not a confirmatory test. It just, it could be blood,” he continued.
Macchia said multiple items were sent to the Alabama Department of Forensics for testing, including the blood swab, sheets from Slesinski’s bed, DNA swabs from Ennis, and handcuffs and pants found in Ennis’s car.
Ventiere asked Macchia if he found a match for the potential blood swabbed from the door knob. Macchia replied, “Yes, there was a match.”
“Who did it match?” Ventiere asked.
“It matched to the DNA profile of Derrill R. Ellis,” Macchia said. On the report, Macchia said Ennis’ last name was misspelled as Ellis.
The sheets from Slesinski’s bed sent to the Alabama Department of Forensics were tested for blood and semen.
Macchia told Ventiere that all bodily fluids contain DNA and there are different tests for blood and semen.
Ventiere asked if any genetic materials were found on the sheets, and Macchia said they were “analyzed for the presence of semen with positive results.”
Ventiere asked if he was able to make a match to determine whose semen it was.
“Reading from the report, the major component of the DNA profile obtained from the stains on the sheet and the DNA profile of Derril R. Ellis match,” Macchia said, again referring to the mispelling of Ennis..
A pair of pants found in Ennis’s vehicle was also tested, but the results came back negative for “presumptive blood.”
The fur-lined handcuffs were also tested and Macchia said they came back negative for blood and semen.
The next individual to take the stand who was involved in the forensic analysis with the case was Jason Kokoszka, who was the chief of the forensic biology section in the Mobile Laboratory at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences from 2005 until 2017.
While on the stand, Kokosza confirmed what Macchia said about the DNA tests matching Ennis.
“The combination of genetic traits detected in a major component of Item 23, which is the stains on the fitted sheet, occurs in approximately one of 6.66 quadrillion random unrelated Caucasian individuals. In one of 69 quadrillion random unrelated African American individuals, and with a high degree of confidence Mr. Ennis or his identical twin is the source of the genetic traits previously detected in that major component of Item 23,” Kokoszka said.
Earlier on Tuesday morning a former Auburn police officer took the stand and told the jury what he saw while investigating the case in 2006.
Lee Hodge, an officer with the Auburn Police Department from 1980 until he retired in 2008, said he was on duty when the police department received the missing person report on Tuesday, June 13, 2006. He went to Slesinski’s mobile home located at Ridgewood Trailer Park in Auburn and the site where her vehicle was found.
When Hodge first arrived at the trailer, he told Ventiere he remembered seeing Slesinski’s family, friends and coworkers there.
Ventiere asked if he saw Ennis there and Hodge replied no.
Hodge said he noticed the door to the trailer “looked like it could have been forced” open and the door looked “splintered and damaged.” He also told the jury that the damage looked “fresh.”
Ventiere brought a poster diagram of Slesinski’s trailer and put it on an easel next to the stand for Hodge to explain to the jury the layout of the trailer.
Hodge stood up to point to the door he entered and had Ventiere label the rooms inside. The front door opened up into the living room area. To the right was the second bedroom that Hodge said could have been used for office or storage space. To the left was the kitchen and a hallway that led to Slesinski’s bedroom and bathroom.
Scratches and scuff marks were along the walls in the hallway, Hodge remembered, and he found a single gold loop earring on the floor in the hallway.
Ventiere asked Hodge to describe the layout of Slesinski’s room. He marked on the poster the location of her bed and a night stand table.
“One thing that was noticeable in the bedroom,” Hodge said, “the bedding was not neat. The bedding was all shuffled.”
Later, Ennis’ defense attorney, Todd Crutchfield, quoted Arlene Slesinski’s earlier testimony that her daughter’s bed was made when she visited the trailer before lunchtime on Tuesday, June 13, 2006, and Crutchfield asked Hodge if he disagreed with her testimony.
Hodge said that the bed was not made when he saw it. He had arrived at the trailer around 3 p.m., he said.
Also during his testimony, Hodge told the jury that a phone was on the floor and the cord that connected it to the wall was missing, and that was all that stood out to him at that time.
Slesinski’s friends and family had mentioned to Hodge that a green trash can was missing from the residence. Hodge said they told him it was supposed to be outside the trailer close to the front door, and he said the green trash can lid was found inside the trailer in the office/storage room the second time police inspected the trailer.
Hodge also said friends and family had told him rugs were missing from the kitchen, and that the temperature in the trailer was “extremely cold, which was not normal.”
The APD then interviewed the family members, friends and co-workers and created a BOLO – be on the lookout – for Slesinski and her vehicle, which went out across the state that Tuesday.
Then Ventiere asked Hodge what happened the next day, June 14, 2006. Hodge said the APD received a call that Slesinski’s vehicle was located and burned at the end of Dekalb Street.
“At that point going from a missing person complaint to then finding her vehicle being burned, at that time it kind of shifted the missing person to something a little bit more serious,” Hodge said.
Ventiere brought a large diagram of the area where the vehicle was found and put it on an easel. Hodge stood up to explain the scene.
He told the jury he entered Dekalb Street from Opelika Road, and he pointed to the bowling alley building where Ennis worked and said Slesinski’s vehicle was located on the cul-de-sac facing towards Opelika Road.
Ventiere asked if Hodge collected any evidence from the scene and Hodge replied that he collected a “partially burned hand-rolled cigarette” that was “a little damp but not saturated.”
“Being in the environment that we were in, that hand-rolled cigarette looked very fresh, meaning it hadn’t been there very long,” he said.
Hodge, who worked in narcotics for about 15 years, said that hand-rolled cigarettes are different from what is sold in stores.
“It’s rolled in cigarette paper, what’s called a leaf, most of the time it’s white, but to make a hand-rolled cigarette you basically put the tobacco inside the leaf or inside the paper and roll it,” Hodge said. “After you roll it, you’ve got to moisten it. Most people lick it to seal it up. It does not have a filter, so it’s open-ended on both ends.”
Hodge said that was all they found on that day, but law enforcement returned to the area and located a gas can in the wooded area behind the dead end of the street.
Ventiere showed Hodge several packages of evidence and asked him to identify each one. Hodge identified the package with the cigarette, the cans he used to put aside debris from the car fire for testing, the gold earring, Slesinski’s bed sheets and the green trash can lid.
Ventiere asked Hodge what was on the earring and Hodge replied “a piece of hair.”
On June 15, 2006, Hodge said, he went back to the trailer with forensic scientist for a more thorough investigation.
After breaking to take shelter inside the Lee County Justice Center during a tornado warning, the capital murder trial of Derrill Richard “Rick” Ennis reconvened Tuesday afternoon and Hodge returned to the stand for further questioning.
Ventiere asked Hodge if he searched Ennis’s vehicle. He replied that he was present during the search and police found fur-lined handcuffs inside the vehicle. Ventiere opened an evidence package showing the jury the handcuffs that were found.
Crutchfield asked Hodge about the results of the fingerprint test conducted on the gas can that was found in the woods. Hodge said, “There was no latent prints of value. In other words it couldn’t be identified.”
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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
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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.”
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‘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 Victorian coroner has delivered an open finding in the inquest into the murder of Maria James, who was stabbed to death in her home adjoining her bookshop in 1980.
Maria James was found stabbed to death in her home adjoining her bookshop in 1980
A fresh inquest was called after new evidence was unearthed by the ABC’s Trace podcast
The family of Maria James says it is disappointed with the outcome of the inquest
Victoria’s Deputy State Coroner Caitlin English conducted the fresh inquest after new information regarding the case was unearthed by the ABC’s Trace podcast.
Ms English recommended two people, Father Anthony Bongiorno and convicted murderer Peter Keogh, remain significant persons of interest in the case.
The family of Maria James has expressed its disappointment with the outcome of the inquest, describing it as “devastating”.
“We’ve been trying to get justice for our mum for many years and we were hopeful that we’d get some answers through the coronial process. We haven’t,” Mark James said.
“The findings handed down today have failed to name the person, or persons, responsible for taking our mum away from us in the cruellest way, which is incredibly disappointing.”
Adam James said the family would not rest until their mother’s killer was identified.
“We love her and miss her every day and will never give up trying to get justice for her,” he said.
Victoria Police said its investigation into the murder remained ongoing.
“Homicide Squad detectives remain absolutely committed to this case and achieving justice for the family of Maria James,” it said in a statement.
“Like all unsolved homicides, we believe it is still solvable and with the right information we could be in a position to provide her family with the answers they are desperately after.”
The coroner acknowledged there were several outstanding issues she was unable to take into account in her investigation, including mitochondrial DNA testing of 11 hairs found on a recently rediscovered quilt from the murder scene, and a potential witness now living in Italy.
Ms English found that Father Anthony Bongiorno should remain a significant person of interest in the investigation.
Father Bongiorno, now deceased, has long been considered by Ms James’s family and some former police investigators to be the most likely suspect in the case.
Ms English said Father Bongiorno’s alibi had been discredited and he had been seen near Ms James’s house before and after the murder.
“He had both motive, proximity and opportunity,” she said.
The coroner also stated that convicted killer Peter Keogh should continue to be considered a significant person of interest.
Keogh stabbed Melbourne woman Vicki Cleary to death in 1987, and once told an ex-girlfriend, “I’ll do to you what I did to the woman in the bookshop”.
“He had opportunity and proximity to the area and he may well have known Ms James and that she was alone in the bookshop,” Ms English said.
Ms English strongly criticised exhibit mismanagement by Victoria Police, which mislaid Ms James’s bloodstained clothing and pillowcases in the early 80s, leaving them unable to be DNA tested in later years.
She called on Victoria Police’s Chief Commissioner to order a complete physical search of police holdings for the missing items.
“In my view police should make every effort to try and locate the missing items, particularly given they lost them,” she said.
Mark James expressed the family’s discontent with the handling of the initial investigation by Victoria Police, and the subsequent loss of crucial crime scene exhibits.
“This is not good enough and we feel there should be ramifications because this has played a significant role in us being denied justice,” he said.
“No victim of crime, or their loved ones, should be denied justice because of mistakes or failures by police.”
A brutal murder and a faltering investigation
Maria James was murdered in her home adjoining her Thornbury second-hand bookshop in June 1980 in what was described as a “bizarre” attack.
She was stabbed 68 times in the front and back of her body.
Her murder has remained unsolved for decades. The case went cold until the ABC’s 2017 podcast “Trace” made numerous discoveries that sparked a new coronial inquest, which was held in September last year.
Ms James’s sons Mark and Adam have never given up hope that someone might be brought to justice.
Mark, who was 13 when his mother was murdered, remembered words his mother spoke to him the morning she died.
Mark James found out his mother had died from his local priest, Father Anthony Bongiorno.
He said the way Father Bongiorno broke the tragic news was “brutal”.
“Normally, when you give someone some bad news, you give them a few seconds to compose themselves, but when he gave me the bad news, my legs went to jelly and he didn’t give me any time, he just dragged me all the way to the principal’s office,” Mr James said.
“Why wouldn’t you give the kid 10 seconds to compose himself and absorb the news? I felt he was cold.”
Mark and Adam have long suspected Father Bongiorno and another priest, Father Thomas O’Keeffe, both now deceased, were involved in their mother’s murder.
Adam has alleged the priests abused him, and Maria James had been intending to confront Father Bongiorno with the accusation the day she was killed.
Priest emerges as ‘strongest suspect’
Police officers told the inquest Father Bongiorno had tried to barge his way into the crime scene as the murder investigation was getting underway.
Former detective Cliff Hall said the priest was adamant he needed to administer last rites to Maria James.
“It was pretty heated, he insisted on getting in … he was trying to push past me … reasonable amount of force … on both sides … I had to push him away to keep him out,” Mr Hall told the inquest.
Mr Hall said Father Bongiorno was hindering the investigation, and was put in the back of a divisional van and taken to Northcote Police Station.
When he was released, he again tried to enter the bookshop.
Veteran homicide detective Ron Iddles told the inquest that in his mind, Father Bongiorno was the strongest suspect.
The murder was Mr Iddles’s first homicide case and it is one that has gnawed at him since he left the police force in 2014.
It was Mr Iddles who took Adam James’s statement in 2013 about Father Bongiorno’s abuse.
He told the inquest Father Bongiorno had a strong motive to commit murder.
“Adam heard his mum [on the morning of her murder] talking to the presbytery, he thought she was talking to Mr Bongiorno … then on my leaving the Homicide Squad, an electrician had just come forward saying that he saw a priest covered in blood,” he told the inquest.
“Then you have a new witness … seeing Mr Bongiorno at the door of the [book] shop at 11am on the day of the murder.
“[Father Sean] O’Connell is the alibi, in 1977 he’s charged with harbouring an armed robber … in 1990 he’s charged with fraud.
Father Bongiorno died in 2002.
Missing exhibits and mistakes hampered investigation
The initial police investigation into the murder of Maria James was exhaustive and wide-ranging, but major flaws were later found in the way exhibits from the case were documented and kept.
Shortly after the crime, Ms James’s clothes were sent to be dried out before forensic testing, but vanished.
A year later pillow slips from the murder scene disappeared.
At some point a pillow from an unrelated case found its way into the exhibits, and formed the basis for DNA testing which led police to wrongly rule out suspects.
The mistake was not discovered until 2017.
Victoria Police exhibit tracker Sergeant Rod Jones was asked to do an audit of exhibits when the case was revisited.
Counsel assisting the coroner Sharon Lacy suggested to Sergeant Jones the litany of errors was unprecedented.
“Now, not raising a conspiracy theory but … do you have any other cases in which there are — through five different causes at five different points in time — errors of that magnitude?” she asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” Sergeant Jones replied. “They’re very unusual.”
Sergeant Jones said it would not happen nowadays, not on his watch.
“I’m very proud of management of the exhibits and that appals me that there’s a lack of accountability if you like,” he said.
DNA samples could be the case’s last shot
The rediscovery of two exhibits has opened potential avenues of inquiry for investigators.
A pillow has yielded a partial, mixed DNA profile — that is, some DNA from Maria James and some from an unknown male.
The male DNA matches that of convicted killer Peter Keogh, but would also be a match with 50 per cent of the population.
The DNA sample has not yet been compared against Father Bongiorno or Father O’Keeffe, something Ron Iddles told the inquest he would like to see rectified.
“I agree it should be done, if it can be done,” he said.
The discovery of hairs from Ms James’s bed quilt opens another forensic path for investigators to follow.
Molecular biologist Dadna Hartman, from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, told the inquest that a familial DNA sample could be used to do mitochondrial DNA testing.
Which means police could use a sample from Father Bongiorno’s sister, which was obtained in 2014.
Dr Hartman told the inquest that as things stood, this type of testing could be this case’s last shot.
“Other than the mitochondrial DNA testing that I’ve suggested for the hair samples, I believe that everything that’s been done recently … is all that we could hope to do with the current methodologies,” he said.