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Laura Kempton's cold case murder in Portsmouth NH solved with genetic genealogy, AG says

Cold case murder in Portsmouth NH solved with genetic genealogy, AG says
Cold case murder in Portsmouth NH solved with genetic genealogy, AG says 02:46

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - The brutal murder of 23-year-old Laura Kempton of Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a case that has haunted investigators for four decades. On Thursday, however, they announced it's a case that is now closed. 

"It's important for us to send a message to the public and everyone affected by terrible crimes that we never stop working," New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said. 

The man they now say is responsible for her murder is Ronney James Lee, who was 21 when police say he broke into Kempton's Portsmouth apartment the morning of September 28, 1981, beating and sexually assaulting her. 

Ronny James Lee New Hampshire Attorney General

Advances in DNA technology, specifically genetic genealogy, helped to reach the conclusion. 

"Using samples from the scene and the body during autopsy, a suspect male DNA profile was identified," Assistant Attorney General Rachel Harrington said. 

Investigators say it was a crime of opportunity as Lee had a history of breaking into apartments in the area with a motive of robbery or sexual assault. 

He died of a drug overdose in 2005 and will never be brought to justice, but investigators are convinced he's the killer beyond a reasonable doubt. 

"It's difficult to think whether we have enough evidence, DNA, facts and circumstances to lead us to that conclusion," Formella said. 

Laura Kempton Photo via New Hampshire Attorney General

Kempton was an aspiring hairdresser attending the Portsmouth Beauty School at the time of her death.  In a statement read at a press conference her family expressed their gratitude. 

"Your diligence and determination and extraordinary commitment led to this moment for Laura," the family said. 

Investigators call it a bittersweet day, both satisfying and sad. 

"Of course to finally resolve these cases, sit down with victims' families and provide some sense of closure or knowing, hopefully that will provide some relief," said Assistant Attorney General Scott Chase, who heads the cold case unit. 

Investigators say New Hampshire has 130 cold cases that are still being pursued.  

Genetic genealogy is increasingly being used by investigators to solve cold cases. It's what prosecutors said helped arrest Matthew Nilo, a lawyer accused of raping and kidnapping several people in Boston back in 2007 and 2008. 

Even if a suspect hasn't willingly uploaded their DNA into a public system, investigators can match the DNA to a relative who may have used a genealogy website, and follow the trail from there.

"I think we can expect a ton of crimes to be solved that are decades old," Boston-based professional forensic genealogist Michael Brophy told WBZ-TV for the Nilo case. 

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