Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Four Cold Cases Solved by DNA

Mia Zapata

by Robert A. Waters

Time ticks away, each day lonelier than the last. Those days morph into years and the years decades. For families of unsolved murders, hope fades and loneliness hardens into despair. Then comes a phone call or a knock on the door--DNA has identified a killer. Here are four long-cold cases solved by DNA.

1—Death of a Rock Star. Louisville-born Mia Zapata was on the verge of stardom. The founder and lead singer of a punk rock band named The Gits, she had re-located to Seattle, Washington where she had scheduled a national tour to promote her music. On July 7, 1993, at about 2:00 a.m., Zapata left the Comet Tavern and began walking home. An hour later, her body was found on a deserted street. She’d been beaten, raped, and strangled to death, then posed in what detectives called a “Christ-like position.” Investigators could find no witnesses and no suspects. In 2003, a DNA profile that had been obtained from Zapata’s body was placed into a national databank. The profile matched a career criminal named Jesus Mezquia. The Cuban-born laborer had a long history of assaulting women, as well as arrests for burglary and domestic violence. After more than ten years of walking free, Mezquia was convicted of Zapata’s murder and sentenced to 36 years in prison.

2—Justice Denied. It took 34 years, but the 1976 murder of Marcia Lynn Christian was finally solved. The victim, of Newhall, California, had gone for a job interview and never returned home. “[Mrs.] Christian was sexually assaulted in her own car,” said Captain Paul Becker of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Office. “Hikers...spotted her buried with her hand exposed.” A blanket found in Christian’s car was stored for decades in an evidence room. It was recently sent to a lab and tested for DNA. The resulting profile was placed into a California databank where it matched Mark David Jackson. The killer, however, would never be brought to justice. He’d died of a drug overdose in 1997. Jackson had committed numerous crimes in his life, including kidnappings, rapes, and child molestations. He’d spent decades behind bars. This is one of the oldest cases in California to be solved by the use of DNA.

3-Why We Have the Death Penalty. On November 14, 1978, Armida Wiltsey left her house to go for a jog. A few hours later, her body was found off a running trail near Contra Costa, California. Wiltsey, a forty-year-old housewife, had been assaulted in a blitzkrieg attack. Police said she fought savagely for her life, however, and they recovered evidence from underneath her fingernails. At the time, it was of little value, but detectives saved the nail clippings. Cops focused their investigation on a man who had been convicted of murdering three other women, but were unable to find evidence to link him to the murder. Finally, in 2000, detective Roxanne Gruenheid pulled out the cold case and sent the clippings to the lab. DNA was extracted and matched to a long-time criminal named Darryl Kemp. In 1957, he’d been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Marjorie Hipperson. Fifteen years later, however, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, resulting in the eventual freeing of thousands of murderers across the country. Kemp was one of those. Within a few days after winning his freedom, police theorize that he confronted Wiltsey on the jogging trail, abducted and raped her, and strangled her death. In 2009, Darryl Kemp was again sentenced to death by a California court.

4—The Killer with Satan’s Name. This was the very first case in which DNA was used to convict a murderer. It also provided the first exoneration of an innocent man. On November 21, 1983, in Leicestershire, England, fifteen-year-old Lynda Mann was raped and murdered as she walked a lonely path home from a friend’s house. Three years later, Dawn Ashworth, 15, was also raped and murdered on the same path. Richard Buckland, 17, was charged. Except for a shaky, coerced confession, however, cops had no evidence. Investigators decided to try a new technology to strengthen their case. A local university professor named Alec Jeffreys had developed something called “genetic fingerprinting” and was asked to test semen collected from the two girls. Dr. Jeffreys found that the DNA profiles matched the same offender--but he was not Buckland. After collecting blood samples from most of the male population in the village, Colin Pitchfork was arrested. A convicted sex offender, his DNA profile matched that of the killer. Pitchfork quickly confessed and was sentenced to life in prison. The story is told in Joseph Wambaugh’s classic book, The Blooding.


SweetP59 said...

My Big brother was found murdered in the area of Big Sur CA, "other bodies were also found in the area" Hikers came upon his naked body...he had just turned 21, had left a wife and a brand new baby girl behind in Rosemead CA (hoping to join him soon) as he hitchhiked up to WA State (where he is from) looking for work along the way...California NEVER has investigated his murder...can evidence from 1976 still be viable now that they have so must more testing? I recently discovered the name of Randy Kraft in San Quentin Death Row......do you know of how many other families out there no nothing about why their family member is dead in California? and why CA doesn't care?

Robert A. Waters said...

My suggestion is to contact the jurisdiction responsible for investigating his death. Sometimes it takes pressure from family members to jump-start a cold case. Good luck in getting the case re-opened.

TxRose said...

Fascinating reading. The discovery of DNA and how it applies to the capture of criminals is probably one of the greatest discoveries in the past century.

I enjoyed this blog.

Unknown said...

That's not gonna work. Me and my family urged and kept calling the investigators and other officials to find out who beat my brother on his head with a crowbar till he died of massive brain trauma. They never even investigated. Instead they close the case with lame reasons here in el paso Texas. This whole city is a fascist chamber. If your a Mexican you get everything you want. If your not then move immediately!