3 On Your Side Investigates: The Labor Day Murder
Technology provides eyewitness account of suspect behind 28-year-old killing using DNA
STARKVILLE, MS (WLBT) - Revolutionary technology finally gave police what they needed to crack a nearly 30-year-old murder case that rocked a north Mississippi city.
“It’s tragic what happened in that house. I don’t like it. I don’t care where in the world you go -- you won’t find a worse crime than this," said Starkville cold case Det. Bill Lott.
On September 3, 1990, 81-year-old Kathryn Crigler was at her home off Highway 182 that day, recovering from a recent leg amputation.
Because of Crigler’s disability, her friend Betty Jones would often keep her company.
“There’s a knock on the door. Betty lets the guy in, and he immediately attacks her," Lott said.
The incident report indicates the man used a knife to cut Jones' throat.
“He kills her and then he goes in there and rapes Kathryn Crigler. He leaves her for dead," Lott said.
Crigler managed to crawl to the phone and call 911.
When police arrived, they found the gruesome scene and paramedics transported Crigler to the hospital.
She died two months later.
“My nightmare is having to watch that crime scene video I told you about. 1990. It’s like you’re right there after it happens. I hate that I have to live with that. I hate I had to see that,” Lott said. “You’ve gotta remember back then, the evidence was basically fingerprints back then. And blood typing. Statements were direct evidence."
Initially, Officer David Lindley worked the case until he became the department’s police chief years later and handed the case over to Lott in 2004.
Lott brought the rape kit evidence to a lab in Brandon the very next year, which managed to develop a semen-DNA profile that they could then test other people against.
“The number one suspect back then that everyone felt did it, he didn’t match right off. He’s the very first person we test,” Lott said.
The department ended up testing more than sixty people. Nobody matched.
Then Lott saw information about a company called Parabon that used a killer's DNA profile as a blueprint to figure out what they looked like.
Think of the software involved as a sketch artist and the DNA as an eyewitness of sorts.
“When I saw that Parabon had actually, you know, played a part in helping develop DNA for the Golden State killer case, I said, well that’s time for us to try," Lott said.
In that case from the 1970s, a man killed at least eight people in California, and police said the suspect had ties to dozens of rapes.
Parabon compared the DNA of the murder suspect with a public genealogy website to narrow the killer’s family and where they might live.
Less than a week later, police arrested Joseph DeAngelo, a former cop.
Lott said those genetic genealogy techniques were used in the Labor Day Murder case, but couldn’t elaborate further.
Parabon also provided a sketch from the suspect’s DNA profile, giving police an idea of what the man looked like when the crime occurred and what approximate age he would be today.
“It’s unreal. Eye color. Blue eyes and dirty blond hair like Mrs. Crigler said he would [have],” Lott said, referencing statements Crigler told her family after the attack.
That technology helped narrow the list of possible suspects even further, eventually pointing to one man: Michael Wayne DeVaughn of Prentiss County.
“As I was doing my investigation, it was starting to develop the probable cause that led to the arrest. And the DNA was the deciding factor,” Lott said.
A cigarette butt taken from DeVaughn matched the semen-based DNA profile developed more than a decade ago.
Lott isn’t saying how DeVaughn got on their radar, though.
3 On Your Side reached out to law enforcement in north Mississippi and found that, before a drug charge landed him in jail this summer, DeVaughn didn’t have much of a criminal history at all.
Booneville Police Chief Michael Ramey said DeVaughn had been picked up on a felony charge of possession of a controlled substance.
Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar told the Daily Journal that DeVaughn had no credit history either, and kept a low profile.
Lott wouldn’t elaborate on the murder suspect, either, because he wants to make sure the man gets a fair and impartial trial.
Family members keep in contact with Lott often, especially Jones' niece, Jennifer Taylor.
She said her kids think the world of him.
“When I got the call from Sgt. Lott, it was disbelief. It was shock. You wait so long to hear those words,” Taylor said. “We greatly appreciate Lott and everything he did for the family and never giving up on this case, and also the Starkville Police Department and everyone who worked on the case.”
Lott said the victims' families weigh heavy on him even now, because they still haven’t had closure.
“Could you imagine? Could you imagine your mom, your sister, your aunt, being killed like that, and it’s rocked along for 28 years and you’ve kinda lost hope, and you kinda put it in the back of your head," Lott said. "And all of a sudden, it pops up and some guy’s arrested.”
Still, some parts of the case may never leave the detective’s mind.
“I don’t think people realize when I was walking around here in a haze, I wasn’t talking or smiling -- I like to smile. I’m normally happy. I hope I get my smile back. I’m normally a happy person,” Lott said, his voice quivering with emotion. "It’s a long journey. Just got a little ways more to go.”
Taylor said she’s hopeful to get some much-needed answers as the case unfolds.
Lott said in the coming weeks, the case will go before an Oktibbeha County grand jury, and there’s a chance DeVaughn will be indicted for Crigler’s death, too, which would be a second count of capital murder.
“We just want justice. For my mother, this is a miracle. She never thought she’d see this day," Taylor said.
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