DNA links Tenn. inmate to 1999 Charleston slaying
WALTON,W.Va. -- A few snowflakes rode on the breeze as Sgt. Bobby Eggleton walked across a grassy spot beside U.S. 119 south of Spencer. It was quiet, except for the hum of an occasional passing car.
Thirteen years earlier, the lifeless body of a woman lay sprawled in this grass -- naked and with the telltale marks of strangulation ringing her neck.
Eggleton stopped in the center of the wide spot by the road: "This is where we found her," the Charleston police officer said.
The woman's name was Terry Clark. She was 41 and lived in Charleston. Her killing went unsolved, and the trail turned cold.
In spring 2000, Charleston Lt. S.A. Cooper, a detective at the time, said, "We are confident -- because of the evidence we have in place -- that we may be one tip away from solving this crime."
But that tip never came . . . until now.
'She was someone we took sympathy on '
It was Memorial Day weekend 1999 when city detectives got an early morning call that said the body that had been found in Roane County was Clark, a Charleston resident.
Clark's neck was covered in marks from being strangled with a cord, and there was a wound on the back of her head from a blunt object.
"The medical examiner said the strangulation is what killed her," West Virginia State Police Sgt. D.W. Skeens told the Gazette-Mail at the time of her death. "He said [the blow to the head] may have dazed her, but not killed her."
Officers went to her apartment at 1528 Lewis St. on Charleston's East End and found an "obvious crime scene." Cooper said there were signs of a struggle, the clothing that Clark had been wearing that day was strewn on the floor and there was blood. Someone had broken a glass door and forced his way into the apartment.
At the time, Charleston police had not ruled out the house as the location for the killing, but Lt. Randy Young, who has since retired from the department, said that was unlikely and instead pointed to a possible kidnapping at the apartment, or perhaps the suspect broke into the residence after the killing.
Detectives didn't know a lot, except that whoever killed Clark took her to Roane County and dumped her body on a heavily traveled road.
Police officers knew Clark, who sometimes worked as a prostitute on the East End.
"She was someone we took sympathy on," Cooper said.
Clark's autopsy revealed blood and semen from the suspect, which investigators entered into CODIS -- the Combined DNA Indexing System -- in hopes that they would get a match.
CODIS is a computer program that maintains local, state and national DNA database profiles from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence and missing persons, according to dna.gov.
Every state has a statutory provision that requires agencies to enter DNA profiles into CODIS for all offenders convicted of particular crimes. CODIS software then lets crime labs compare DNA profiles to unsolved cases electronically.
"In 1999, DNA technology was nowhere near where it is today," Cooper said, "but there was enough of a sample to provide a profile for the time."
Detectives knew, if they could get a sample of DNA from the suspect, they could match it with the fluids found on Clark and in her apartment.
The hunt for a DNA match led to a long list of suspects.
"I worked thousands of hours and exhausted several leads on this case," Cooper said.
A local suspect was quickly ruled out when his DNA sample did not match. Police tracked a second suspect from West Virginia to New Jersey and finally to Georgia before he also was cleared.
"We ran out of suspects," Cooper said. "I worked nonstop on that case for nearly a year and, for a couple of years after that, it was on a regular basis. Information stopped coming in and the case went cold."
About three years ago, a few new leads turned up, but police still could not link a suspect to the killing.
"It's frustrating when you work as long as we did on this case," Cooper said. "You think about the manner in which she died -- it was very violent -- and you want to get justice for the victim and the family."
From the beginning, Clark's slaying raised suspicions about a connection to the 1993 strangulation of Mary Jane Perry Stafford, whose body, nude from the waist down, was found about 25 feet off of a Charleston road.
Stafford's killing has never been solved. Her body was found over a hillside on East Woodland Drive in Charleston.
Both women appeared to have been unemployed and lived in the 1500 block of Charleston's East End.
More recently, in August 2011, Megan Kathleen Harrison was found naked from the waist down and floating in the Elk River in Charleston. Harrison had been in the water less than 12 hours when she was discovered. Charleston police have not arrested anyone in connection to her death.
Cooper, however, said there is no connection between any of the deaths, other than similar methods of operation. Stafford's body was too decomposed to collect DNA evidence.
Clark's death eventually became an unsolved homicide, relegated to old files that police look through from time to time.
In 2011, though, they finally got a break when the State Police Crime Lab notified detectives that it had a DNA match to the profile entered into CODIS more than a decade before. Daniel Turner, a former Walton resident who is incarcerated in a federal prison in Memphis on drug charges, matched the profile.
Turner lived no more than a few miles from where Clark's body was found.
"He never popped up on our radar. We spent hundreds of hours in Roane County, and he was never mentioned as a suspect," Cooper said. "Not once."
Matching the DNA
Forensic analyst Mary Heaton, who has been working at the State Police Crime Lab since 2007, was first notified there was a possible DNA match to the Clark homicide in May 2011.
The suspected killer was incarcerated in 2007, and his DNA should have been put into the CODIS database around that time.
DNA profile checks are run weekly to see if there are any matches to longstanding cases, but the profile from Clark's slaying was left out.
Heaton said the profile the State Police had for Clark's suspected killer did not meet the necessary requirements to be added to the national CODIS database. There are 16 areas of DNA that are used for testing and identification, and results in 10 of those areas are required for addition to the database.
In Clark's case, there were only nine areas. However, since her death had been violent, the State Police was able to have the profile added to a special file that would be matched periodically against the full CODIS database, but it was not included fully into the system.
Heaton said that limited profile might be one of the reasons it took so long for a possible DNA match to pop up in connection to Clark's death.
The lab didn't lose any time once it was notified about the possible match. Heaton sent a letter to Charleston police, telling them she had a lead in the Clark case and asking if they wanted the information confirmed.
"We always ask if they want the information confirmed and re-tested because there are numerous reasons someone's DNA could be at the crime scene," said Meredith Chambers, DNA technical leader for the crime lab.
Heaton added that a DNA match "is great, but the [police] need to have other evidence to put a case together."
Heaton said that, aside from notifying law enforcement there is a possible match, the lab can't release any information until secondary tests on the DNA are complete.
In June 2011, she retested the DNA sample and submitted her results to show that the DNA samples matched. It wasn't until then that Heaton was given a name and profile information for the matching suspect.
"All we know is that this profile matched a number in the system," Heaton said. "It's not like "CSI," where we get a photo and all of their information."
'He said, 'Oh, my goodness'
When Eggleton took over cold case investigations at the department in early 2012, he started looking into Turner's background and found that he was arrested on methamphetamine and gun charges in 2007.
In July, Eggleton traveled to Memphis with the idea that Turner, 45, was going to tell him little, but the conversation was eye opening for the detective.
While jail officials were notified that Eggleton would be making a visit, they are not required to tell inmates when a law enforcement officer will be visiting them.
"I introduced myself as someone from West Virginia," Eggleton recalled, "and he said, 'Oh my goodness.'"
The two men talked about West Virginia for a while, specifically about the "derecho" storm that hit the region at the end of June.
"After about an hour, I said 'Dan, you know I didn't come here to talk about the weather,'" Eggleton said.
Turner calmly responded, "Why don't you put your cards on the table. You might be surprised about what you hear," Eggleton recalled.
"When I first went in, he was quiet and on a fact-finding mission. After we started a rapport, he kind of trusted me a little bit."
At this point, Eggleton turned on a tape recorder with Turner's consent.
Turner told Eggleton that he was doing and selling drugs in 1999 when he "got set up" by a woman named Susan.
Before Eggleton let Turner continue, he fished a photo of Clark out of his folder and showed it to him to make sure they were talking about the same person. Turner nodded.
"She had given him some kind of story, but they knew each other just on a drug connection," Eggleton said. "He thought she had kids and didn't know her real name."
On the night Clark was killed, Turner went to her East End apartment to make a drug deal. Clark, who sometimes worked as a prostitute, was in bed with Turner when a male and female rushed into the room, according to a transcript of the recorded conversation between Eggleton and Turner.
Turner told Eggleton he knew he had been set up. "I heard the . . . door, and I said, 'Who's in the house,' and she said, 'Nobody,' and at the same time, I seen the doorknob turn."
When the couple entered the room, a fight immediately broke out.
"There wasn't no, 'What are you doing,' nothing like that, because there wasn't no reason for them to be there. That was way too early. They was supposed to be there in an hour or so," Turner said, according to the transcript.
"I guess they decided to rob me and I didn't realize it and I know [the robber] didn't realize that I had a [gun] with me because once I pulled that out and shoved it in his face he backed up," Turner said.
At some point, Clark got involved in the altercation, hitting Turner on the back, shoulders and neck with a boot.
"That girl was hitting me with a shoe," he said. Somehow the shoestring "got around her throat because that's what made her finally settle down. She wouldn't stop hitting me with it so, somehow, I got it and wrapped it around her. It all happened so fast," Turner said, according to the transcript.
"I am almost sure it was my shoe that she was hitting me with and I might have hit her a couple of times . . . it wasn't a violent thing. No, I mean, yes, it was a violent thing, but these people was trying to rob me and it's not like I was protecting my dope. I really wanted out of there with my skin," Turner said.
Clark fell to the floor.
In a panic over being robbed and beaten, Turner grabbed his clothes, threw Clark over his shoulder, got in his truck and sped out of town.
"I really didn't think she was dead. I didn't realize she was dead [until] I got out of town and my heart slowed down and that's when. . . .
"I didn't go nowhere to kill nobody and it's haunted me ever since," Turner said, according to the transcript. "I didn't do that on purpose."
Turner admits he was high the night Clark was killed, but that her death was an accident.
After realizing what happened, Turner just kept driving -- almost an hour -- until he pulled over on a small shoulder of U.S. 119 just outside Walton. Eggleton said he dragged Clark from his vehicle and left her on the side of the road.
"I really didn't know what to do so I set her on the side of the road and prayed for her ever since," Turner said.
Turner -- who was living with his father at the time of Clark's death -- stayed out of Charleston and was never named as a suspect.
Years later, Turner was arrested on drug charges. A West Virginia State Police officer was supposed to show up during his briefing before he was incarcerated at the federal facility in Tennessee, but the trooper didn't show.
Turner said he was going to confess that day. He has been incarcerated since 2007 and is up for release in 2015 on his drug conviction.
Before he told Eggleton the story of Clark's death, Turner said he had told only one other person -- his cellmate in Tennessee, who is actually Turner's rabbi.
Eggleton traveled to Memphis a second time with Charleston Police DNA technician Mark Kinder so they had comparable DNA swabs to match to the CODIS hit.
"I want the punishment to fit the crime, now that you know what the crime is," Turner said, according to the transcript. "I am ready to do this."
At the end of the interview, Turner made one request to Eggleton.
"You tell her mom I said 'I'm sorry,'" Turner said.
On Friday, a Kanawha County grand jury issued an indictment formally charging Turner with murder. Turner will be extradited to West Virginia for trial.
The indictment brings the police department one step closer to closing the 13-year-old case.
"It's gratifying to let a victim's family know that you never gave up on a case and that all of the hard work of a lot of people has paid off," Cooper said. "It doesn't bring their daughter back, but closure is a good thing."
Reach Kathryn Gregory at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.