Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Murder solved by DNA evidence 26 years later

Man tied to 1982 slaying of a woman in Kensington died in prison last year

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Detectives from the Montgomery County Police Cold Case Unit recently solved a 26-year-old murder by using DNA evidence, bringing closure to both the family of the victim – and to the family of the detective who investigated the crime.

Police said Gerald Anderson Abernathy, a convicted offender who was serving a life sentence for kidnapping and murder in a North Carolina prison, was responsible for the 1982 murder of Wendy Stark, a 20-year-old University of Maryland student who worked in Rockville.

Abernathy died at age 66 of lung cancer while still in prison in October 2007, according to police.

Marjory Stark, the victim’s mother who lives in Damascus, said the family felt a sense of closure.

‘‘It was so stunning, it was such a shock after all these years that at first I could hardly believe it,” she said Tuesday. ‘‘I kept asking the police officer on the phone, ‘Are you sure?’”

The murder had gone unsolved because forensic technology that could identify the bodily fluids of the killer had not been developed at the time of the crime, according to police.

Recently, county police DNA analysts determined that a 1982 evidence sample was suitable for DNA testing. The DNA sample was entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and matched the DNA profile of Abernathy.

Lucille Baur, a police spokeswoman, said that detectives in the Cold Case Unit routinely go through case files and look for evidence that could be tested by modern technology.

‘‘Going back through their files, they saw a sample of bodily fluids,” Baur said. ‘‘There’s always a risk ... you never know if a sample can produce a DNA profile and the amount was not visible to the naked eye. So that gives you a sense of how microscopic a sample they had.”

In addition to the Stark family, the closing of the case made an impact on the family of former detective Barney Gillespie, who had investigated the case for years. Gillespie died two years ago, but his son Dave Gillespie now serves as the director of Special Investigations for the county police. Dave Gillespie said the discovery would have made his father proud, according to Baur.

‘‘Former Detective Barney Gillespie did not want to retire from the department until he solved the case,” she said.

Baur said that a couple of other cold cases have been solved in a similar manner.

‘‘It takes real tenacity and dedication to work on these cold cases. You are going back and trying to review evidence from many years ago,” she said. ‘‘They have so many dead ends and just have to keep trying. To then have a case like this where they can find a resolution ... and bring some form of closure to the family; that is the true payoff.”

For Marjory Stark, knowing what really happened to her daughter has allowed her to come to some peace. She said the scenario described by police with the new evidence was totally different from the nightmarish scenarios suspected by the family for 26 years.

Police believe Stark was on her way to work in Rockville on April 9, 1982 when she was randomly abducted by Abernathy from the parking lot of the Hillandale Shopping Center in Silver Spring around 4 p.m.

Abernathy had escaped from a Virginia jail in 1981 and was hiding in Kensington at the time of Stark’s murder, police said.

According to police, Abernathy sexually assaulted Stark at an unknown location. At around 9 p.m., she attempted to escape from Abernathy’s car by running to a house on Mitscher Street in Kensington. Abernathy shot and killed her while she tried to enter the home.

He left the area the day after the murder and was arrested in Pennsylvania five days later, police said.

Marjory Stark said she had envisioned a completely different scenario.

‘‘I thought a million different things happened but thought it was someone on campus following her, someone following her from work or someone who knew her in some way ... and it turns out to be this horrible person who escaped from prison,” she said. ‘‘For us, to find out that it was a predator and a horrible, horrible person, it’s closure and it’s good to know what happened.”

Wendy Stark was at the Hillandale Shopping Center picking up Easter candy for an upcoming dinner with family living in Manassas, Va., at the time, according to her mother.

‘‘She was very vivacious and wonderful around people,” Marjory Stark said. ‘‘She was the idea person in our family and just lovely.”

The family can at least have some sense of peace now, Stark said.

‘‘At least I won’t die not knowing, I always wondered if that would happen,” she said. ‘‘It’s all closure and I’m happy he died in prison and there will be no trial. I couldn’t bear for someone to try to justify such a horrible thing.”