Two years ago, as investigators were in their fourth decade of searching for a suspect in the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer attacks, six California prosecutors sent a letter to Nevada’s attorney general with a simple request:
Start taking DNA samples from Nevada inmates who had been in custody before that state’s DNA collection law took effect.
Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert and the other DAs were looking for a needle in a haystack, hoping to find an inmate in another state whose DNA matched that from the killer’s decades-long crime spree in California.
“I started looking at the Nevada laws and thought, ‘What the hell? We really ought to talk to them,’ ” Schubert said. “Nevada borders California, and we knew from our own history there would be other crimes.”
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Their September 2016 request dovetailed with a similar one from Washoe County District Attorney Christopher Hicks in Reno. Within three months, Nevada Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt declared that DNA could be taken from any inmate, “regardless of the date of conviction.”
The result was explosive: Instead of finding a Golden State Killer suspect, authorities say the new DNA testing led them to an inmate believed to be a Colorado serial killer in a case had that vexed investigators since 1984.
The identification of that suspect – Alex Christopher Ewing, a 58-year-old former Sacramento resident – was announced last month by detectives in the Denver area who had never given up on solving two grisly rape and murder cases that left four people dead.
“It was obvious that this case haunted our detectives and our officers who responded that night,” Aurora, Colo., Police Chief Nick Metz said. “It was a case that haunted the families and the victims to the core.”
The fact that it came from a DNA hit after all these years, Metz added, “sent the chill through my spine.”
‘The answer has always been in the DNA’
For Schubert, the case is a validation of her years-long focus on cold cases, the ones she calls a “journey for justice” that often relies on DNA evidence collected long before authorities knew the true value of such specimens.
On Friday, she and other officials announced yet another breakthrough using DNA: the arrest of Benicia resident Roy Charles Waller, 58, as a suspect in the NorCal Rapist attacks that victimized at least 11 women from 1991 through 2006.
“The answer has always been in the DNA,” Schubert said Friday. “I have often said in my career that DNA is the silent witness to the truth.”
The charges against Ewing mark a step forward in one of the most notorious murder cases since the April announcement in Sacramento that a Golden State Killer suspect had finally been arrested.
Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer living quietly in Citrus Heights, was arrested after a DNA hit through a private genealogical website tied him to a series of murders and rapes between 1975 and 1986.
DeAngelo is in the Sacramento County Jail awaiting trial on 13 murder counts and 13-rape related charges in six California counties.
But the search for a suspect in that case ultimately helped lead authorities to Ewing.
Ewing had been in custody in Nevada since 1984, serving a 110-year sentence for convictions of burglary, escape and attempted murder stemming from his attack on a couple with a pickax handle.
Now, because of Nevada’s shift in DNA collection procedures, he has been charged with the January 1984 hammer slayings of four people in Colorado, including a 7-year-old girl he allegedly sexually assaulted before killing her and attempting to kill her 3-year-old sister, authorities say.
The announcement that he was a suspect in the two unsolved attacks came about because of the extraordinary efforts investigators made to preserve crime-scene DNA until it could be used to pinpoint a suspect, the same types of efforts that led to DeAngelo’s arrest.
A family’s horrific slaying
The gruesome details of Ewing’s alleged crimes – a criminal history that stretches from California to Florida and includes charges of attempted murder, burglary and escape – are spelled out in documents filed in Colorado courts.
The cases stem from two attacks carried out six days apart starting Jan. 10, 1984, when an intruder entered the Lakewood, Colo., home of 50-year-old Patricia Louise Smith while she was having lunch and bludgeoned her to death.
Authorities believe the intruder also sexually assaulted Smith and left DNA behind on a carpet.
Six days later, police in Aurora discovered a horrific scene inside the home of Bruce and Debra Bennett
His mother went to the house after he didn’t show up for work and found her son’s blood-soaked body in the kitchen at the foot of a staircase.
Bennett, 27, died from multiple skull fractures that an autopsy determined had been caused by blows from a claw hammer, including 16 to the top of his head. His throat had been slit, and his right ear hit so hard it was nearly cut in half.
Aurora police Detective Wilson Egan followed a trail of blood up the stairs from Bennett’s body to the master bedroom, where he found the body of a blood-covered woman clad only in a pair of underwear.
Debra Bennett, 26, also had been attacked with a claw hammer, an autopsy found, with her skull caved in and two teeth missing from her lower left jaw.
Then the detective went into another bedroom, a children’s room, where he discovered the body of Melissa Bennett, who had celebrated her 7th birthday the night before with her family and grandmother. An autopsy found evidence she had been raped and sustained nine blows to the front of her head.
“One of the indentations indicated the weapon used was a ‘claw hammer’ as the claw marks in her skull were distinct,” court documents say.
Nearby, the detective found a blood-soaked teddy bear and the dead girl’s 3-year-old sister next to it, alive but in a coma from a beating. The girl, who authorities say also showed signs of sexual assault, was the sole survivor of the attack.
Both attacks went unsolved for decades, but authorities never gave up. Immediately after the slayings, they collected DNA left behind on the victims and a comforter in the children’s room.
Years of trying to find a match
Five years later, Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents tested the evidence again, but DNA analysis was in its infancy at the time and produced no suspects.
By 2001, analysis determined that the DNA recovered from the Bennett murders had come from one suspect. It was entered into Colorado’s DNA database but came back without a match.
Authorities issued an arrest warrant in the name of “John Doe” that was entered into a national criminal database in 2002, but the case sat cold for years.
By 2010, however, DNA from the Patricia Smith crime scene had been entered into the national Combined DNA Index System – known as CODIS. Authorities discovered that DNA profile matched the suspect from the Bennett slayings.
“There were numerous similarities between the two cases to include, a home invasion burglary, sexual assault and the use of a hammer as the murder weapon,” court documents say.
But detectives still didn’t have a suspect to match to the DNA – until Nevada began taking samples from all inmates.
Nevada had passed a law in 2013 allowing for DNA to be collected from inmates convicted of felonies. But the law wasn’t applied retroactively until 2016, when the state attorney general’s legal opinion declared it could be.
“As a result of the clarification Ewing was subjected to DNA collection,” court papers say, and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office paid him a visit last May at a state prison in Carson City to take swabs from his cheek.
His sample information was processed and then entered into CODIS.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation Director John Camper said his investigators run its unsolved DNA cases through CODIS each night, and on July 10 CBI was notified a match had been found to DNA evidence from the Smith slaying: Ewing.
Then a second match came in tying Ewing to the Bennett slayings, court documents say.
On July 12, two days after the first DNA match singled out Ewing, Aurora police Detective Michael Prince visited him in prison for an interview. The suspect told Price he had lived in the Denver area in 1984, working in construction and plumbing, court documents say.
“Ewing stated that the primary reason he left Colorado was because it was too cold,” court documents say, adding that Ewing told the detective “that he may want to consult with an attorney.”
The next day, on July 13, a Nevada judge signed a search warrant allowing authorities to obtain a fresh DNA swab from inside Ewing’s cheek.
That DNA evidence was taken back to Colorado and analyzed against the decades-old crime scene evidence.
The results came back July 19: the probability of the DNA found on the comforter coming from someone other than Ewing was one in 230 quadrillion.
The success authorities say they have had in the Golden State Killer case – and now the expected prosecution of Ewing in Colorado – has officials urging that DNA analysis be expanded nationwide.
Only 29 states currently have laws allowing for DNA samples to be taken from suspects arrested or charged in various crimes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and prosecutors want that expanded nationwide.
“Every state in this country has unsolved cases,” said George Brauchler, the Arapahoe County, Colo., district attorney whose office will prosecute Ewing in the Bennett slayings. “If you are one of those handful of states – Montana – that doesn’t have the DNA law that we have, that Nevada now has, pass this.
“Do this for the victims of those cases that are still hanging out there wondering if they’ll ever get justice for their cases.”