Technology catches up with probe of killings

DNA data too small in early exam leads to arrest 19 years later

August 10, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Howard County police Detective Keith Fisher remembers exactly where he was 19 years ago when he learned that Rebecca H. "Dolly" Davis was killed outside her Elkridge home. For Fisher, the news meant the death of a family friend and the end of his community's sense of security.

The 70-year-old churchgoing woman was stabbed and sexually assaulted, her body hidden in the woods behind her home on Lawyers Hill Road. After that, women were afraid to stay alone in their homes, and residents wondered for years whether a killer was stalking their streets.

"This was the case in the county that caused people to put dead[bolt] locks on their doors," says Fisher, who remembers seeing Davis at Grace Episcopal Church, where she was active. "She was well-known in the Elkridge area."

Fisher never dreamed he would investigate the case -- let alone find evidence for an arrest. But Thursday, based on his work, Howard County police charged Vernon Lee Clark, 43, a former Elkridge resident, with murder in Davis' death. Baltimore County police simultaneously charged

Clark in the fatal beating of Evelyn Dieterich of Catonsville in 1981.

Howard police believe Clark was Davis' gardener, and Baltimore County police believe he was Dieterich's handyman and collected trash in her neighborhood.

By chance

Fisher's opportunity arose by chance -- he was the only detective in the office when a tip came in last August. He has been with the department since 1990 but had been a violent-crimes detective four months.

The Davis case was one of 11 homicide and manslaughter cases in 1980, and one of two unsolved killings. More than 30 county detectives looked at the case. They revisited and re-examined the evidence. They called in psychics, interviewed suspected national serial killers, reviewed hundreds of leads and accumulated enough paperwork to fill two filing cabinets. Like Fisher, many spent hours and hours on the case, tortured that they could not solve the high-profile crime.

"You forget the solved cases. You never forget the unsolved ones," said former Detective Jack Burke, who called in the psychic. "We were desperate."

The right time

Fisher stumbled upon the critical piece of evidence at the right time. The tip called in last August "looked like a good lead," said Fisher. "Because of that lead, we had to pull the evidence."

The lead led nowhere, but when Fisher looked at that case, he found a slide with DNA evidence from the crime scene. It had always been there but was determined to be too small to test.

Some of "the evidence collected 19 years ago was not valuable 19 years ago," Fisher said. "The last time anyone looked at anything seriously [in the Davis case] was before the technology was there" to test the sample.

He called R. C. Bartley, the department's forensic services supervisor, who recommended using the latest DNA technology. The 2-year-old test enables scientists to makes copies of the smallest sample to conduct multiple tests and detect matches with suspects' DNA, even if the sample has been contaminated with air or bacteria.

In this case, the sample was "minute," Bartley said. Fisher termed the evidence smaller than a pen point.

Bartley had re-examined the case several times since he arrived at the department in 1984, but evidence was insufficient to charge anyone.

"Outdoor cases [like the Davis case] are always more difficult because the evidence is exposed to the elements and the technology wasn't there," Bartley said.

Investigators sought specifically to see whether DNA from the Davis case would match that of Clark, who is serving life plus 28 years at the Maryland Department of Correction Annex in Jessup on a murder charge in an Elkridge death. Kathleen Gouldin, 23, was fatally shot and sexually assaulted in her ground-floor apartment in July 1989. Clark was convicted of that crime in April 1991, the first homicide solved in the county largely because of DNA.

In 1990, county officials first conducted tests comparing Clark's DNA to that found in evidence in several unsolved killings in Elkridge, following up on the success in the Gouldin investigation.

But the technology at that time required a dime-size saturated sample, with no more than a little contamination. No arrests were made.

Then new technology became available. "Now, we can test blood visible on a thread," said Charlotte Word, deputy laboratory director at Cellmark Diagnostics in Germantown, which tested the sample in the Davis case this year and compared it to Clark's DNA samples collected in the Gouldin case. On March 2, the results came back.

Knowing Clark's relationship with Dieterich, Fisher contacted Baltimore County and officials conducted similar testing.

Another match was made. The result was Thursday's arrest.

"I was thrilled," said Lt. Tim Branning, who in 1980 was one of the first two detectives to respond to the case. "I thought about the Davis case every time I drove by Lawyers Hill Road, and that was hundreds of times."

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