2018 was a breakthrough year when it came to cold cases. Though not all the cases that saw progress have technically been solved—or led to a conviction—the forward momentum still brings hope of resolution to victims’ families. In one case, information gleaned from a DNA website led to the April arrest of a suspect in the California East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer case, making headlines worldwide. And more recently, in November, a serial killer already behind bars confessed to the murders of 90 additional women.
Read on for more about those explosive cases, as well as other unsolved cases that made major strides in 2018.
The Murder of April Tinsley
Back in July, John D. Miller was arrested for the 1988 rape, murder and abduction of April Tinsley, 8, who had vanished while walking to a friend’s house in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Police reportedly matched DNA from Tinsley’s underwear to condoms used by Miller—and according to CNN, Miller confessed to the heinous crimes.
Three days after Tinsley disappeared on April 1, 1988, her body was found in a ditch about 20 miles from her home. According to the FBI, the suspect scrawled a threatening note on a barn near where Tinsley’s body was found, but that note was not uncovered until two years later. Written in crayon, it read: “I kill 8 year old April Marie Tisley [sic] I will kill agin [sic].”
In 2004, other young girls in the Fort Wayne area began finding similar notes addressed to them, accompanied by used condoms. One note read, “Hi Honey I been watching you I am the same person that kinapped an rape an kill Aproil Tinsely you are my next vitem [sic].”
Last May, Detective Brian Martin contracted a Virginia DNA company, Parabon NanoLabs to analyze the DNA samples they had from Tinsley’s case. This led officials to Miller, who will stand trial for the child’s murder in February 2019.
“April Tinsley’s murder investigation was the first case on which we employed the Snapshot phenotype prediction capability,” Steve Armentrout, CEO of Parabon, tells A&E True Crime.
He says the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children referred Parabon to the Fort Wayne Police Department (FWPD) in the spring of 2014. The company performed the analysis later that summer.
“Although phenotyping alone was not sufficient, four years later our genetic genealogy team, led by CeCe Moore, was able to provide FWPD with a lead that enabled them to solve the case,” says Armentrout. He also says it was “gratifying” to give Tinsley’s family closure after all these years.
Suspect Arrested in East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer Case
Perhaps the biggest cold case to attract global attention in 2018 was that of the Golden State Killer, aka the East Area Rapist.
In April, a retired police officer, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested and charged with multiple murders and rapes in Northern and Southern California over an 11-year-stretch between 1975 to 1986. Authorities charged him with 13 counts of murder, as well as other crimes including rape and robbery in six counties.
The unsolved home-invasion-style attacks received wide media coverage over the years, including by crime writers like the late Michelle McNamara, who gave the criminal his “Golden State Killer” nickname (and posthumously published a bestselling book about him, entitled I’ll Be Gone in the Dark).
Authorities pinpointed DeAngelo using data from a genealogy website where people submit their DNA results in hopes of tracking down ancestors. Using DNA from one of the killer’s long-ago crime scenes, they matched it to genetic material from a relative of DeAngelo’s who was active on internet genealogy forums. They then obtained a discarded sample of DeAngelo’s DNA, which matched what had been found at the crime scene. DeAngelo was arrested—and the shock of the news that he was former police officer took hold.
“I was not surprised [that he was a former cop], but I was appalled,” says Kenneth Mains, a detective specializing in cold cases. “Police officers are just like any other profession—you have good and bad. Unfortunately, when a police officer is bad, it will create headlines because we are supposed to be held to a higher standard.”
Mains also mentions Dennis Rader—aka the BTK Killer—as a respectable member of society in a position of authority that may have given him access to people and places he wouldn’t have otherwise received. “This allows them to kill with a feeling of superiority…and impunity,” he says.
According to Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, “The East Area Rapist/Golden State killer case involved an incredible amount of passion, persistence and dedication by countless professionals.”
Schubert started working on the case professionally in 2001 when she formed the D.A.’s cold-case unit. “As a child who grew up in Sacramento at the time of the attacks, I knew firsthand the impact it had on our community,” she says. “This case has been a long journey for justice in what is undoubtedly one of the most horrific serial-killing cases in California history. The journey will continue with the prosecution of James DeAngelo.”
The Murder of Frank McAlister
In January 2018, a man named Brian Hawkins showed up at a TV news station in Redding, California with something he needed to get off his chest. Hawkins, then 44, cried as he told a KRCW reporter that he had been involved in the 1993 murder of a young man named Frank McAlister. “Every minute of every day has been a nightmare,” Hawkins said to the reporter. “Frank never got to have a life, but we were teenagers and now I’m 44 and still haven’t even had a life and now most likely won’t anyway.”
Frank McAlister was 19 years old when he disappeared. His remains were not located until the following year, when a hiker stumbled across them in Shingletown, California. After Hawkins confessed to his involvement in McAlister’s death, he went next door to turn himself in to local police. There he reportedly named two others in the crime: siblings Curtis and Shanna Culver.
In October, all three were ordered to stand trial for McAlister’s murder, which allegedly took place along with a robbery during a thwarted drug purchase.
According to Redding police, Hawkins and Curtis Culver stabbed McAlister to death and left his body in the woods. The group took his money and car and drove back to Redding, where they abandoned the victim’s car.
Hawkins reportedly found God in the 25 years since McAlister’s murder, and he wanted to do what was right by confessing.
Detective Kenneth Mains says these types of years-later confessions aren’t common, but they occur from time to time. Why? “People underestimate the toll that taking someone’s life has on a person,” he says. “Obviously people are different…but those who have killed [may] think about it continually, either to relive the fantasy or because they feel remorse.”
The Murder of Michella Welch
In June, a suspect was arrested for the 1986 rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl, Michella Welch. A genealogist used a DNA sample from the decades-old crime scene to “build a family tree using public websites,” which eventually led police to suspect Gary Hartman, 66.
Police were reportedly able to match Hartman’s DNA to crime-scene DNA from 32 years prior, after picking up a napkin Hartman had used to wipe his mouth after dining at a local restaurant.
Hartman was arrested and taken into custody during a traffic stop. He was charged with first-degree counts of murder and rape.
Welch had been babysitting her two younger sisters when she went missing from North Tacoma’s Puget Park in March 1986. She had left the park to grab lunch to bring back for her siblings. A search dog reportedly found Welch’s body later that night, and officials said she died from blunt force trauma to the head. Unfortunately, the case quickly went cold—until last summer’s DNA revelation led police to Hartman.
DNA sites are “being used more recently by smart detectives and admirable civilian genealogists who are helping [out] because they care about the victims and the victims’ families,” notes Mains. “With the rapid [advancements in] DNA, I think police departments should employ genealogists to not only help solve cold cases, but all crimes.”
According to Hartman’s attorney, Bryan Hershman, his client was held on $5 million bond after his arrest. He will stand trial for the Welch’s death. “My client insists he is innocent, and he is charged with probably the single most God-awful crime a person can be charged with,” Hershman told ABC News in June.
The Confessions of Samuel Little
Another case that made shocking new developments in 2018 was one that already seemed to be done and dusted. Serial killer and former drifter Samuel Little received a sentence of life in prison back in 2014 after being convicted of killing three women in Southern California between 1986 and 1989. But according to the FBI, Little recently admitted his role in many more deaths.
Last summer, DNA connected Little to another unsolved murder in Odessa, Texas, and investigators went to interview Little in prison. He and Texas Ranger James Hollander developed a “rapport” of sorts, which encouraged Little to confess to additional murders—a whopping 90 of them, in fact, between 1970 and 2005. All the victims were women. Investigators have since been able to connect 34 unsolved murders to Little’s recent confessions. If they can tie Little to more than 48 of those murders, he will surpass serial killer Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, as the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.
Cold Cases That Had Major Breaks in 2017
Phenotyping: How a DNA ‘Snapshot’ Can Create the Face of an Unknown Criminal
Who Is Serial Killer Samuel Little?
The Golden State Killer and Other Serial Killers Who Mysteriously Stopped Murdering
Why Do Some Serial Killers Stop Killing? It Might Be Hormonal