Wednesday, October 8, 2008


It’s a defense attorney’s worst nightmare when DNA from his client is found on the victim. In this article, I’ll describe four cases in which the so-called genetic fingerprint identified and helped convict murderers. In a future article, I’ll write about some of the many innocent inmates DNA has helped exonerate.

William Morrisette. On July 25, 1980, 47-year-old Dorothy White didn’t show up for work and didn’t call in sick. The Hampton, Virginia woman was always reliable so co-workers drove to her home to check on her. There they found White’s body lying on the kitchen floor. Blood seemed to be everywhere, and she was nude except for her blouse which had been pulled up above her breasts.

Investigators determined that White had been raped and stabbed repeatedly. According to a court document, the fatal injury was “a slash wound across her throat, which totally severed the trachea, the right carotid artery, [and] the jugular vein...” Police technicians extracted semen from White’s body. Cops interviewed hundreds of suspects, but the murder remained unsolved for nineteen years.

Between 1980 and 1999, a new technology came onto the stage. DNA. In 1988, Virginia had used genetic markers left on the bodies of several murder victims to convict a serial killer named Timothy Spencer. The sister-in-law of Dorothy White heard about the so-called Southside Strangler and the miracle DNA that had sent him to death row. She contacted the Hampton Police Department and asked them to take another look at the long-cold case of Dorothy White.

By this time, Virginia had created a databank that contained DNA profiles of all convicted felons in the state. The semen from White’s body was tested and entered into the system. A hit confirmed that William Wilton Morrisette had left the DNA. Morrisette had been an employee of White’s boyfriend and had done yard work for the victim. His DNA was in the databank because he’d been convicted of an “abduction and maiming” and burglary. It is believed that he used an offer to do additional yard work as a ruse to get inside the victim’s home. He was convicted of sexual assault and murder and sentenced to death.

Diego Olmos-Alcade. In the early morning, three nights before Christmas, 1997, Colorado University student Susannah Chase [pictured above] quarreled with her boyfriend. She left his house and began walking to her apartment in Boulder. She never made it. She was abducted, raped, beaten with a baseball bat, and left for dead. Semen was recovered from Chase’s body and the DNA placed in the national registry.

It took ten years, but investigators finally got a cold hit on a serial sex offender named Diego Olmos-Alcade. When he was convicted of abducting and raping a woman in Wyoming, his DNA was submitted to the national databank. Olmos-Alcade had an extensive arrest record for sexual offenses. In addition to spending seven years in a Wyoming prison, he was suspected of sexual assaults in Colorado and New Jersey.

Olmos-Alcade faces the death penalty when he is brought to trial, probably sometime next year.

Gerald Abernathy. On April 10, 1982, Wendy Stark stopped at the Hillandale Shopping Center in Rockville, Maryland. Stark, a former cheerleader and a student at the University of Maryland, planned to shop at Zayre’s department store before continuing to her job as a waitress. She was tall and blonde, just the type of victim Gerald Abernathy was searching for.

Five months earlier, Abernathy had escaped from the Prince William County Jail. He’d spent most of his life in prison for numerous sexual assaults and at least one other murder.

Abernathy kidnapped Stark at gunpoint. He drove her to a secluded area and raped her. At some point, Stark bolted out of the car and ran toward a house. She made it to the front porch and tried to open the door while Abernathy followed behind her. Once Stark reached the porch, he caught up to her and fired four slugs into her body. She died a few hours later.

The case was a mystery from the beginning. The killer had fled and, because it was a random attack, could not be identified.

In 2007, a cold case detective accidentally found a box containing a cotton swab and hair samples from the case. He submitted the evidence to the lab for testing. According to an article in the Washington Post, “investigators linked the genetic fingerprint through a nationwide database to Gerald A. Abernathy, who died of lung cancer last year at age 66 in a North Carolina prison. He had been serving a life sentence for an unrelated kidnapping and murder since 1994.”

While Abernathy escaped justice, Stark’s mother was pleased just to know the name of the killer. “I’m glad he’s dead,” she said, explaining that she wouldn’t have to “hear any terrible details of what happened to her” at a trial.

Robert Rhoades. Rhoades was a sexual predator and serial murderer who was already on California’s death row when a DNA cold hit linked him to the torture murder of 18-year-old Julie Connell. He’d previously been convicted of the kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder of 8-year-old Michael Lyons of Yuba City.

Julie Connell was a studious straight “A” student who attended Arroyo High School in San Leandro. On the afternoon of April 20, 1984, she was abducted from Kennedy Park in Hayward. Five days later, her body was found in an animal corral near Castro Valley. She’d been raped and her wrists tied with green twine. One of her wrists had been slashed as if the killer wanted to “bleed her out.” When that didn’t work, he cut her throat.

The case went cold and was unsolved for fourteen years. In 1998, investigators submitted foreign DNA recovered from Connell’s body to the California databank. It matched the death row inmate. At his trial, the prosecutor said, “[Rhoades] silenced the only witness to these atrocities by slitting her throat – not once, not twice, but three times. The jury took an hour to convict him and he was again sentenced to death.

In addition to Lyons and Connell, Rhoades had been convicted of sexually molesting his 4-year-old stepdaughter and kidnapping and sexually assaulting yet another victim. She survived only because she jumped out of his truck and escaped.

Robert Rhoades is currently on death row at San Quentin.


Linda said...

Even though Robert Rhoades wasn't caught until 1990 my friend who was 16 at the time and myself 18 at the time had the horrific misfortune of crossing paths with him in August of 1974. In those days hitchhiking was quite common and we were returning back to Colorado after having hitchhiked down to the Phoenix area to see my family. It was near midnight as we stood on the Interstate and a State Trooper had just stopped to warn us to be careful. Having hitchhiked since I was 16 I was savvy to the fact that some nuts were out there but felt no real fear as there were two of us.
His semi pulled over and we both hopped happily inside. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as he drove and made small talk, he had said he needed to make a quick run to Utah but would then take us over to CO. But as we neared the Utah border he said he was tired and needed to pull over for awhile.
At this point his conversation turned weired telling us that he had picked up some girl who had her blouse held together with pins and all she did was pull a string and the blouse fell off. He also took out some small white pills and asked is we wanted some speed. Suddenly he told us that he had a gun in his briefcase in the sleeper where my friend was sitting and that he was going to rape both of us. If we didn't comply he would shoot us both and dump our bodies out in the desert where we sat and nobody would ever find us.
I had a blackjack in my bag for protection and I pulled it out and whacked him on the head. He sat there shaking his head so I hit him a few more times then opened the door and jumped to the ground and ran for my life down the road which had very little traffic. A few cars came by and I frantically stood in the road waving my hands and screaming for help but nobody stopped. I then veered off into the desert a hundred yards or so and lay down flat and waited. I was terrified that he would come looking for me and that he may already have murdered my girlfriend.
I'm sure this all happened in a matter of minutes yet it seemed like an eternity to me and his truck lights came fully back on and he pulled back on the road and drove on. Once he was gone I ran back yelling for my girlfriend and miraculously he had let her go including the 4 bags of ours he had stowed in the back of the trailer. He told my girlfriend it was me he really wanted and not her.
Shortly after that another trucker came by and gave us a lift up the road to a trading post that was closed for the night and dropped us off there. We spent the entire rest of the night hiding behind the store and terrified this maniac would return for us.
The following morning we called the police. Since we were now on an Indian Reservation it was the Reservation Police who came and took us to the station for a report and that was the last I ever heard of it until 24 years later while watching an episode of FBI Files on TV with my son and daughter. I was watching the story of the serial killer trucker and thinking "Man that seems familiar." and when the episode was over and they showed the real trucker who was convicted and not the episode actor I knew immediately it was him.
Now having read all the news stories online of this animal and what a horrific serial killer he was I feel truly blessed that my life and that of my friend was spared. My guardian angels certainly stepped in that night.
Just thought you'd like to know how
far back this killers history goes and I see now he's locked up for life in Illinois. May he rot in hell.

Reivyn said...

I too had an encounter with him... In 84 .... Around the time juice went missing.... I knew her since I moved to San Leandro in 3rd grade.... & I too hitchhiker now & again... But he gave me a weird vibe.... There is more to it... Luckily an older friend saw me walking alone & drove by... And stopped what I think would have happened... As he had followed me & parked & had gotten out of the car.... I didn't realize until I saw his picture in the paper 14 years later what had happened.... I am glad he was caught... & I would not be surprised one bit if there was more damage he did... After seeing the woman's post above & having my own experience...

Unknown said...

There are two Robert Rhodes that are convicted serial killers.

Unknown said...

Think you all are referring to the two different Robert Rhoades'.... One was a trucker with torture Chamber, the other was California tweaker who killed innocent kids

Unknown said...

I dated Michael Lyons mother Sandy 11 years after the sick Rhoades struck tragedy to her family in Yuba City. she is the strongest willed woman Ive ever met. Sandy We love you

Unknown said...

his mother is the strongest willed woman I've ever met I dated her 10 years after the tragedy Sandy we love you ... you inspire me and many others. xoxo

suzi d said...

Loved your hitchhiking details. Was just watching the same show. Yikes!
What a story!