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Federal funding revives cold cases

| Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012

State police pored over reports in hundreds of cold cases across the state dating back decades before zeroing in on DNA evidence they say points to a suspect in the slaying of a Beaver County woman more than 32 years ago.

The killing of Catherine Janet Walsh, 23, of Monaca in 1979 was among the 203 unsolved violent crimes police chose out of 500 cold cases to re-examine with funding from a five-year, $470,000 federal grant. It was the seventh that yielded an arrest so far in cases going back to 1977.

"The potential is there for many more arrests," said state police Sgt. Anthony Manetta, who is managing the grant. "But you have to go back to the seven. Those are seven people who were killed, whose family members struggled for years for a resolution. They can at least find some comfort in the fact that an arrest was made."

State police received the Department of Justice grant in 2007. Investigators reviewed about 500 unsolved homicides, missing person cases where police suspect foul play and skeletal remains cases before determining there might be DNA evidence to test in 203 of them. Of those cases, police sent evidence from 98 to laboratories for testing. Analysis of the evidence led to the creation of 45 DNA profiles and the arrests of eight people in connection with seven homicides.

"I think it's a wonderful thing," said Rhonda Urquhart, criminal justice systems supervisor of the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime, a nonprofit agency based in East Liberty. "I think technology has come so far that it can give families hope that not all is lost -- that they may get the answers they are seeking eventually."

The answer for Walsh's family may have come Sunday, when state police arrested Bridgewater Borough Councilman Gregory Scott Hopkins, 65.

Walsh's father discovered her in her bed, bound with rope and strangled with a bandana, on Sept. 1, 1979. Police found DNA evidence on Walsh's nightgown, the rope securing her hands behind her back and the bedsheet that covered her body, according to the criminal complaint filed against Hopkins. New tests of the evidence matched DNA taken from Hopkins, who police had as a suspect, in December.

Police charged Hopkins with homicide. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Hopkins' attorney, James Ross, has said his client is innocent.

Manetta declined to discuss the Hopkins case. He said investigators using the grant money focused on cases where there was a possibility DNA existed, then checked to see what evidence police gathered in the case. Despite the time that passed in the cases, basic police protocols preserved some of the evidence.

"(Evidence) was dried, folded up and put into a paper bag and put in a box in the evidence room," Manetta said. "And then 20 or 30 years later, you open it up, take it out and submit it to the lab and we still get DNA off it."

Advances in DNA technology have created new ways to find potential evidence. Lab staff can create DNA profiles out of much smaller samples than before and from sources beyond saliva, blood, semen and vaginal fluids, said Lisa Ludvico, an assistant biology professor at Duquesne University who teaches DNA courses.

"We leave behind pieces of ourself all the time," Ludvico said, adding that "touch" DNA has become more popular in the past 10 years. "If a crime analyst knows where to look for these things, we can swab that area and get the skin cells that are invisible to the human eye."

The DNA profiles created from the evidence in the cold cases are entered into CODIS, a national DNA database, in case there's a potential match to a suspect elsewhere. In one case, police charged Lawrence Donachy, 36, of St. Marys, Elk County, after a DNA sample taken while he was imprisoned in another case matched evidence in the 1999 rape and killing of Irene Challingsworth, 57, of St. Marys.

Police pursuing the state's cold cases continue to work with evidence, and they will continue to assess cases through the end of this month, Manetta said.

"If cold-case families are paying attention, it's going to give them some hope that their case maybe one day will be solved as well," Urquhart said.

Additional Information:

At a glance

State police made arrests in these cold cases using a federal grant:

-- Mary Irene Gency, 16, beaten to death in Fallowfield, Washington County, in 1977

-- Catherine Janet Walsh, 23, strangled in Monaca, Beaver County, in 1979

-- John Mayerchak, 51, shot in Lehigh County in 1985

-- Louis Jones, 81, stabbed in Warren County in 1996

-- Irene Challingsworth, 57, stabbed in Elk County, in 1999

-- David Walter McEntire, 42, beaten to death in Monroe County in 2005

-- Kenrick Bogle, 62, stabbed in Berks County in 2007

Source: Pennsylvania State Police

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