Years after 3 killings, DNA technology allows evidence to point to a suspect

Arundel crime technicians had foresight to save clues

July 14, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The unsmoked Newport cigarette was just a few feet from the 14-year-old Glen Burnie girl's body. A crime scene technician picked it up, bagged it and marked it as evidence.

On it was Lisa Haenel's blood -- and someone else's saliva.

That was January 1993. Year after year, as DNA technology improved, lab workers analyzed tiny pieces of the cigarette -- pieces not much bigger than a speck of dirt -- to try to create the best DNA profile possible. Finally, last fall, they were able to match it to DNA from a convicted murderer, Anne Arundel County police said.

DNA also connected the suspect in Haenel's case to two mothers who had been killed in Gambrills in the late 1980s, Boontem Andersen and Mary Elaine Shereika, according to police. They said this paved the way for them to charge Alexander Wayne Watson Jr. this week with three counts of first-degree murder.

"Witnesses tend to forget," State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said at a news conference yesterday to announce the charges. "DNA is a timeless stamp that could always be used as evidence."

Yesterday, on a day when Watson made his first court appearance in the county, detectives and crime scene technicians told the story of how that cigarette and other minute clues helped them tie together the cases, exposing what police believe is a serial killer who lived just doors from his victims and began preying upon women when he was a teen-ager.

Now 34, Watson, a stocky man with a shaved head and close-cropped beard and mustache, responded to questions with only "yes" and "no" during a brief bail-review hearing in Annapolis. The proceeding was largely a formality because he was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of Debra Cobb, 37, an office manager in Prince George's County.

Weathersbee said his office has not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

John Gunning, a public defender appointed yesterday to represent Watson, declined to comment last night, saying he was just beginning to learn about the case.

The beginning

For Anne Arundel detectives, the investigation began in the Four Seasons neighborhood of Gambrills on Oct. 8, 1986, the date of Andersen's killing. Andersen, 34, was sexually assaulted, stabbed and strangled, and left bound and nude in her bathtub, where her fiance's 11-year-old son found her.

One of the crime scene technicians to collect evidence from Andersen's home on Snow Hill Lane was Jeff Cover. He had joined the Anne Arundel County crime lab a year earlier, after a stint in Baltimore.

Cover said the brutal way in which Andersen was killed and that she was found in a bathtub stuck in his mind. "You always walk away with some images burned in your gray matter," he said.

Cover was present during Andersen's autopsy. Several swabs of someone's body fluid were taken from her corpse and tested. More important, they were preserved for future testing.

On May 23, 1988, Shereika, 37, had been out for an early-morning jog near her home in Four Seasons when a man police believe was familiar with her route grabbed her and dragged her into a rye field. There, he sexually assaulted, beat, stabbed and strangled her.

Again, Cover was at the autopsy and helped collect fluids from her body. Some swabs were tested; others were saved.

At the site of freshman Lisa Haenel's murder on Jan. 15, 1993, in a ravine off a path she walked each morning to Old Mill High School, crime scene technicians found that the teen-ager had not been sexually assaulted, so they did not take the same kind of DNA samples from her body.

But a few feet from her nude body lay a Newport cigarette, unlit, and with what appeared to be blood on it. That blood turned out to be Haenel's, police said, and saliva from the filter end was used to create a DNA profile, possibly of her killer.

Today, the place where Haenel's body was found is marked with a white wooden cross bearing her name and ladybug decorations.

When forensic DNA technology first became available in the mid-1980s, Anne Arundel police were among the first to use it, Cover said.

The testing then was good, but now it's great, he said. DNA has become an even more useful crime-solving tool since the advent of the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, in the late 1990s. The federal database contains more than 1 million genetic profiles of convicted felons. Maryland enters information for most of its violent felons, Cover said.

At yesterday's news conference, Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan called DNA the "greatest thing that's happened in police work since fingerprints."

Shanahan praised the evidence technicians for having "enough foresight and professionalism" to collect and save evidence for so many years.

Cold-case work

It was the DNA that police said provided the conclusive link to Watson, but six years of detective work by the cold-case unit filled in other blanks, said Sgt. David Waltemeyer, who supervises homicide detectives.

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