Southern California Police Solve 52-Year Murder Mystery, Identify Victim at Last

(CN) — For more than five decades, law enforcement worked to identify both the victim and perpetrator of a 1968 murder in Huntington Beach, California. After the half-century manhunt, authorities announced Thursday genetic genealogy tools helped them find the killer and identify the victim as a woman from Maine.

On March 14, 1968, three boys were playing on a large farm in the Orange County city of Huntington Beach when they came across the lifeless body of a young woman. Homicide investigators determined the woman had been raped and severely beaten by her murderer, who also slashed her neck.

A photo released by Orange County, California authorities shows Anita Louise Piteau, a young woman from Maine who was at the center of the county’s oldest unsolved murder case. Investigators said advances in genealogical testing allowed them to identify both Piteau and her killer. (Courtesy of Orange County District Attorney’s Office)

For 52 years, the murder victim remained a Jane Doe. An unmarked grave in a cemetery in nearby Newport Beach held her body as investigators labored to uncover clues about her identity.  

Despite evidence collected from the crime scene, including a cigarette butt found near the victim’s body, investigators did not turn up any leads on the victim or the killer. The case went cold for decades until 2001, when officials examined the victim’s sexual assault kit and analyzed DNA found on her clothes.

Nine years later, the analysis of the sexual assault kit showed some of the DNA belonged to a man — and also matched DNA on the cigarette butt found at the crime scene — but authorities could not tie it to any suspect.

Authorities also developed a partial DNA profile for the victim after examining blood found on her blouse.

In 2011, investigators entered the victim’s DNA sample into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) missing person database and her fingerprints were run in the FBI national fingerprint database, but she remained unknown to investigators.  

That year, investigators also submitted evidence to the California Department of Justice for a search of family records using CODIS, but again the effort generated no workable leads. 

In 2019, Huntington Beach Police Department detectives worked with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to use investigative genetic genealogy (IGG) to construct a possible family tree of the suspect.

Using the new tools, investigators determined the suspect was Johnny Chrisco, a man who died of cancer in 2015 and buried in Washington state.

Chrisco, who was not initially a suspect in the case, had been discharged from the Army after failing a psychological exam that diagnosed him with positive aggressive reaction, a condition that produced a pattern of explosive anger, chronic resentfulness and impulsiveness.  

This year, using the same IGG technology, detectives worked with forensic scientists — including genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick — to construct the victim’s family tree.

On Thursday, authorities said the genealogical tools helped identify the victim as Anita Louise Piteau of Augusta, Maine.

Piteau was 26 years old at the time of her murder and was one of seven children, including two sisters and a brother who are alive today.

Investigators are still working to determine whether Piteau and Chrisco may have known each other and continue to ask the public for assistance in the matter.

In a statement Thursday, Huntington Beach Police Chief Rob Handy commended active and retired officers who kept working the case. 

“The fact they never stopped working this case for more than five decades is a tremendous testament to the two departments and our law enforcement profession,” said Handy. “Although the suspect was no longer alive to face the consequences, providing the family with the information of what happened to Anita and allowing them to properly lay her to rest is of tremendous importance.” 

Investigators from both law enforcement agencies transported Piteau’s remains to her family in Maine and attended a memorial service for her this past weekend.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement the IGG technology was pivotal in the case and helped bring justice to Piteau’s family.

“The death of a 26-year-old woman who was left in a farm field raped, beaten and her neck slashed haunted generations of Huntington Beach police officers who refused to give up on identifying Jane Doe and finding the person who robbed a young woman of a lifetime of memories,” Spitzer said. “The death of Johnny Chrisco prevented the full imposition of justice for Anita’s murder and that is a wound that will never heal, but it was the dogged pursuit of justice that ensured that it was not if, but when, we would finally be able to tell Anita’s loved ones who killed her.” 

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