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62 years after girl's killing, Spokane police solve the "Mount Everest" of cold cases

Tracing family trees to catch killers
Tracing family trees to catch killers 01:56

Police in eastern Washington say they have solved the slaying of a 9-year-old girl, 62 years after the crime occurred. The Spokane Police Department used advanced DNA analysis, forensic genealogy and traditional detective work to name John Reigh Hoff as the killer of young Candice "Candy" Elaine Rogers in 1959. Hoff died in 1970.

"This is kind of the case that's been the giant logjam for cold cases," Spokane Police Department Major Crimes Detective Zac Storment said during a news conference Friday. 'I keep saying it's the Mount Everest of our cold cases, the one that we could never seem to overcome. But at the same time, nobody ever forgot."

Candy Rogers Cold Case Murder Solved

Unrelenting determination coupled with advancing technology helped solve one of Spokane’s most heinous and haunting crimes: the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl, 62 years ago. In March 1959, the Spokane community was shaken by the disappearance of a little girl, 9-year-old Candice (Candy) Rogers. During the sixteen-day search that ensued the community rallied with an outpouring of support and involvement. Optimism and activism turned to sadness and fear when her body was discovered in a wooded area in Northwest Spokane County. She had been raped and strangled to death with a piece of her own clothing. The ensuing investigation would haunt family members, investigators, and the community for decades to come. On March 6th, 1959, Candy Rogers was out selling campfire mints in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood where she lived. Family members became concerned when she didn’t return home as darkness set in. That angst intensified as Candy remained missing into the evening and soon every available police officer as well as citizens and other organizations joined in the search. At a time with no cell phones, GPS, or security cameras, investigators had very little to go on. Boxes of campfire mints believed to be the ones Candy was selling were soon found strewn along Pettet Drive, seemingly heading north away from West Central. The mints were the only indication, however inconclusive, of where Candy had gone. In the hours and days after Candy’s disappearance the community united together in search of her. At one time a command post was established at what now is the intersection of Petite Dr. and the TJ Meenach Bridge. Approximately 1200 searchers gathered and scoured the area in vain. Multiple entities, including the US. Air Force, assisted in the search. The Air Force provided a helicopter crew providing a bird’s eye view of the search area. Tragically, the day after Candy’s disappearance, a US Air Force Sikorsky H-19 helicopter involved in the search struck high tension power lines and crashed into the Spokane River. Airman Marlice D. Ray, SSgt William A. McDonnell, and Lt Kenneth G. Fauteck were killed in the crash. Two crew members survived. Search efforts continued in the weeks following Candy’s disappearance. On March 21st, 1959, two airmen from Fairchild were out hunting in a wooded area off Old Trails Rd, about seven miles from Candy’s house. They discovered a pair of girl’s shoes in the woods. On their return to the base they continued to talk about their discovery and wondered if the shoes could be related to the search for Candy. They reported their findings, and as daylight broke the next morning a search party descended on the area. Only a few minutes into the search the body of Candy was discovered buried under a shallow layer of brush and pine needles. In the days, weeks, and months that followed investigators poured over thousands of tips and leads, but none ever led to a viable suspect. In 1959 there was no registered sex offender program, but individuals with similar criminal histories were contacted. Several suspects were developed, but police weren’t able to get enough evidence to make an arrest. Months turned to years and frustrated yet determined detectives continued to work on the case, but kept running into dead ends. As decades past the now cold case was handed down from retiring detectives to the next generation of investigators. The out-going individuals made impassioned pleas for their successors to not give up pursuing answers in Candy’s case. In 1959 technology and forensic testing ability were virtually unrecognizable from the capabilities of today. DNA, while recognized as a scientific concept, would not be utilized to solve criminal acts for decades to come. With no way of knowing the future of trace evidence and sensitivity of ensuing testing procedures, it is a testament to the diligence of investigators in 1959 that evidence was preserved in such a manner DNA could be extrapolated 62 years later. Early in 2021, SPD investigators working with WSP crime lab experts learned of a state-of-the-art DNA testing method offered by a laboratory in Texas. A sample of semen collected from Candy’s clothing was provided to that lab. The specimen was inputted into a genealogy database, which narrowed potential matches down to three brothers. One of the possible matches was John Reigh Hoff; Hoff was the only one of the three brothers who had offspring. Detectives had a new lead but work remained to find the killer. Investigators contacted the daughter of John Reigh Hoff, and upon learning the nature of the inquiry, she dropped everything and met with detectives. Hoff’s daughter submitted a DNA sample which was analyzed. The results showed it was 2.9 million times more likely that Hoff’s daughter’s DNA was related to the recovered specimen than the general population. Investigators now had significant evidence which pointed to Hoff being the culprit, but were faced with a difficult question; how certain is certain enough? Hoff was deceased, and therefore there would be no criminal trial, no adversarial process where each side presents evidence. All the information gleaned would come from this investigation, and detectives decided they had an obligation to be as certain as possible. With indications John Reigh Hoff was the perpetrator, SPD investigators requested and were granted a warrant allowing them to exhume the body of Hoff and collect sample DNA. The result showed a match between John Reigh Hoff and the semen specimen collected from Candy, with a probability threshold indicating it was 25 quintillion (18 zeroes) times more likely the sample came from John Reigh Hoff than an unrelated person chosen at random from the general population. The scientific evidence conclusively indicated the DNA sample collected from Candy’s clothing was that of John Reigh Hoff. The DNA findings coupled with corroborating evidence allowed the investigators to determine John Reigh Hoff was responsible for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Candy Rogers. John Reigh Hoff was 20-years-old at the time of the murder. He grew up in Spokane, and resided about a mile from Candy in the West Central neighborhood. He entered the Army at age 17, and was stationed at missile sites surrounding Fairchild AFB. In 1961, two years after Candy was murdered, Hoff was convicted of Assault 2nd degree with intent to rob. In that incident Hoff accosted a female, forcibly removed the victim’s clothes, tied her up using her own garments, and strangled her before fleeing the scene. The victim survived, and Hoff spent six-months in jail for the attack. Based on his conviction, Hoff was declared a deserter from the Army and discharged. He was employed as a door-to-door salesman and worked at a lumber yard in the time after his expulsion from the military. In 1970, at the age of 31, Hoff committed suicide. The case resonated with the department and the community for decades. When asked to estimate how many hours had been spent investigating Candy’s case, Sgt. Zac Storment replied “this isn’t measured in hours, this is measured in careers.” It took the determination of a community, the evolution of technology, and the perseverance of generations of detectives to finally solve the mystery surrounding the horrific killing of Candy Rogers. 62-years-later there is finally some semblance of closure.

Posted by City of Spokane Police Department on Friday, November 19, 2021

The case began on March 6, 1959, when Rogers was selling Camp Fire Girls mints in a Spokane neighborhood. She had set out from her home about 4 p.m. and disappeared.

After 16 days of searching, two hunters found Rogers' shoes northwest of Spokane. A subsequent search found the girl's body hidden in a pile of pine needles and tree boughs. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

"It is our hope that at least by solving this case it brings a measure of comfort and closure to the family and to the loved ones in this community as well," Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said.

Candy Rogers Spokane Police Department

The case went unsolved for six decades, though detectives made progress along the way. More than 40 years after the crime, investigators were able to isolate a DNA sample from body fluids found on Roger's clothing. The testing ruled out one suspect but turned up no matches in a federal database.

As technology improved, the detectives tried again.

"The Candy Rogers DNA was very difficult to crack," said Storment. "We'd presented it to another lab last year, in 2020, hoping they could do it. They declined it; they declared the DNA too degraded to work."

Earlier this year, law enforcement officers reached out to another DNA lab that uses forensic genealogy, the Texas-based company Othram. The company was able to build a genealogical profile that helped narrow down to the list of potential suspects to three brothers including Hoff.

When Hoff's daughter, Cathie Hoff, learned her father was a suspect, she volunteered to give a sample of her own DNA to help the investigation.

"By that point, you know, I had already looked up... a little girl murdered in 1959, so I knew who it was. It's just really sad to find out that someone that — not even just your dad, but just someone in your family —  could do something like that," Cathie Hoff said in a video played at the police press conference, CBS affiliate KREM-TV reports.

Cathie Hoff said she lived most of her life up until this point thinking her father died by suicide because he was suffering from depression.

"Now I think, 'No... he was evil. …It was an escape," she said. 

Analysts concluded that it was 2.9 million times more likely that Hoff's daughter was a genealogical match to the sample found on Rogers' clothing than a random member of the public would be. Storment then obtained a search warrant to exhume Hoff's body, and subsequent testing allowed police to identify Hoff as Rogers' killer.

Rogers' parents died before the crime was solved.

Candice "Candy" Elaine Rogers KREM-TV
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