Calif. cold case solved after suspect commits suicide

Robert Hathaway, 48, hanged himself on Feb. 15, days after detectives collected his DNA in connection with the 1983 murder of Priscilla Strole
CBS San Francisco

FAIRFIELD, Calif. - Robert Hathaway, the suspect in a brutal 1983 murder of a Northern California woman, hanged himself shortly after speaking with police last month, reports CBS San Francisco. In his suicide note to his wife, Robert Hathaway said he "took the coward way out."

Hathaway, 48, had been identified by police as the suspected killer of Priscilla Strole, who was sexually assaulted and beaten to death in her Fairfield home on Aug. 31, 1983. Investigators connected Hathaway to the crime when they re-opened the cold case and matched his fingerprints to those collected at the scene.

On Feb. 11, detectives Dave Hoen and Mel Ferro visited the suspect's home in Fairfield, about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, with a warrant to obtain a DNA sample. Hathaway provided the sample but denied any involvement in the crime, police said. Four days later, he committed suicide.

Investigators said Hathaway's DNA sample matched semen collected at the scene over 30 years ago and the murder case was officially closed on Feb. 20.

Hathaway, who was 17 at the time of the murder, was a friend of Strole's son, Kyle Stracner, said Fairfield police Sgt. Troy Oviatt in a press release Tuesday.

"With the suicide of Robert Hathaway, the family of Mrs. Strole will never know why Hathaway killed [her]," Oviatt said.

Police said that Stracner, then 15, left his house around 7:30 p.m. on the night of the murder to spend time with friends. When he returned home around 9:45 p.m., he knocked on the door and got no response. Looking through a window, Stracner saw his mother lying naked on the floor, according to Oviatt.

Stracner called police from a neighbor's house. Authorities found Strole on the living room floor of her home, beaten to death. She had been sexually assaulted and had received injuries to her face and head from kitchen knives, a can opener and a piece of decorative wood, according to police.

"It was a very gruesome homicide scene. There was a violent struggle," Oviatt said. "All the items were used from the home."

Hathaway went to the same school as Stracner and had been to his house before, according to police. "[Strole] would have known him as her son's friend. He would not be a stranger," Oviatt said. There was no sign of a forced entry, leading police to believe the suspect was let into the house willingly.

Detectives found the house ransacked, with many items broken and a jewelry box stolen. No suspect was identified in the crime until Hoen and Ferro revived the cold case in 2012.

"The case was never closed. Homicides remain open. We don't put the case in a box on a shelf, we revisit them periodically," said Oviatt.

Realizing that the fingerprints found at the scene had not been run through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) since 1983, detectives decided to pass them through the system again. On Jan. 28, they found a match: Robert Hathaway, whose prints were on file for a December 1986 burglary arrest.

The suspect committed suicide before police had the opportunity to arrest him. Police believe that no one else was involved in the killing.

"There were no other prints or DNA evidence at the crime scene. He committed the crime and acted alone," Oviatt said.

CBS San Francisco reports that Kyle Stracner died several years ago. The victim's brother still lives in Fairfield, and Oviatt said he was surprised and relieved that the case had finally been solved.

"He's been living with the crime for 31 years, and he's very appreciative of the police," Oviatt said. "There are still questions that will never be answered, but at least the family has some closure."