HOLMBERG: DNA snagging ghostly serial killers — and it all started in Virginia

Posted at 11:08 AM, Oct 04, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-05 23:28:18-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Armchair detectives waiting to see  if genetic fingerprinting will implicate or clear University of Virginia coed abduction suspect Jesse Matthew in several other missing women cases should know this has happened before in Virginia. In a very big way.

The so-called Southside Strangler case in 1987 and '88 was a total game-changer: The first time ever a killer was nabbed and, later, executed based on, what was then, brand-new  DNA evidence. The first time a convicted killer was set free based on that very same evidence.

And the first time communities terrorized by a ghostly, traveling sexual predator who seemed un-catchable could breathe easy - together - knowing it was finally over.

Richmond's nightmare began on September 19, 1987, in the 4500 block of Devonshire Drive - not far from Forest Hill Park. Nice neighborhood. Debbie Davis, 35, was found strangled to death inside her home. She had been raped and basically tortured.

October 3. Dr. Susan Hellams-Slag suffered the same fate on the other side of the park, in her W. 31st Street home. Her husband found her body. I can't imagine what he's had to endure.

Nov. 27. Manchester High freshman Diane Cho was raped and strangled to death in her family's apartment on the other side of Chippenham Parkway, in the 7500 block of Gavilian Court. She was just 15. (Her mother would later completely melt down in court.)

It was crazy. How could someone scout these neighborhoods, find these women, break in, abuse them at length and slip away without being seen?

My old friend and homicide detective Ray Williams said the city was "lit up like Christmas" at night. Supposedly, virtually every dog was snapped up at the city pound.

Investigators and profilers slaved away, coming up empty, but certain it was a local white guy behind the clearly similar cases. Who else could linger in these neighborhoods? Plus, that was the profile for this kind of serial murder.

Then, just a few days later on December 1, Susan M. Tucker was raped and strangled in her Arlington condo. That's almost 100 miles north of Richmond.

Arlington detective Joe Horgas caught that case and was eventually able to link it up to a series of rapes prior to 1984 in which a black suspect terrorized his victims, using similar technques, but didn't kill them.

Clearly, the serial rapist had escalated his sexual violence, Horgas figured. Could there be other cases? Horgas reached out to other police departments throughout the region.

Richmond answered back, sharing their trio of nightmares.

"As soon as you look at the crime scene photos and everything, it sticks out at you," Horgas recalled when we talked recently on the phone.

But he was pitching a black a suspect. Richmond wasn't catching.

"Richmond was looking for a white guy," Horgas said. "That's where all my frustrations and everything were. They were the top dogs. They had all kids of homicides. We didn't (usually) have any homicides. They knew what they were doing."

But he kept pushing, trying to link the cases with what was then the emerging technology of DNA sampling and matching of this most characteristic genetic fingerprint. The state lab in Richmond had been at the very forefront in getting legislation allowing this new science to be used in criminal cases and establishing DNA databases. The actual testing and analysis was going on here and a lab in New York. This was all very new and exciting stuff.

Richmond had sent its nightmare samples off for testing. Arlington sent theirs. The suspect Horgas felt really good about - a burglar named Timothy Spencer who had been locked up in the mid-'80s and was paroled to a halfway house in Richmond right before our attacks started - agreed to have his DNA sampled
News of the match went off like a bomb. It worked!

There was cheering at the state lab here and the one in New York. They knew this new science would take off and be funded without begging. Police departments and prosecutors around the world took notice. And budding Richmond novelist Patricia Cornwell, who had assisted at the state lab (and was a spunky young woman in a flak jacket I'd see shining a Kel-lite at local murder scenes) would became a best-selling and trend-setting author writing about it this new Sherlock Holmes in a test tube. Now it's a crime novel and TV drama staple.

And Joe Horgas?

"Yeah, right up to the moment that the Lifecodes (Corp. lab) said it's a match, Richmond was laughing at me basically," Horgas recalled.

How did it feel when the news came in of the match?

Horgas burst out laughing. "Ha! It was celebration time!"

But there was no celebrating for Timothy Spencer. He was quickly convicted and executed in Virginia's electric chair in 1994. He started to make a final statement before he died, then clammed up. But before, he lashed out at the scientists and detectives who nailed him, saying they were liars and set-up men. (Read an account of that execution here:

The DNA evidence that doomed Spencer also cleared David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man who had confessed to the 1984 rape and murder of attorney Carolyn Hamm in Arlington. That was also Spencer's work, striking near his mother's home.

Hargas retired from the Arlington force, but is still working as a background checks expert. A book, "Stalking Justice," was written about his work in the Spencer case.

The man behind the Virginia state lab's groundbreaking work in DNA databanking at the time - Paul Ferrara - died of brain cancer not long ago. A truly great guy - one of my favorite people. This wouldn't have happened without him.

So as you consider our current missing-student case and possible links to others, remember the work that makes it possible to reach into the darkness and pull out the worst kind of predators and - at the same time - to clear those wrongly accused.

It all started here.