DNA technology has been used to link the rape and murder of a University of Cincinnati student more than four decades ago to a now-deceased man who authorities suspect may also have been responsible for three other murders in Ohio, prosecutors said.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters announced a posthumous indictment of Ralph Howell, who died in a 1985 auto accident, on aggravated murder and rape charges in the murder of 19-year-old Cheryl Thompson.
"I have prosecuted multiple serial killers in my time as prosecutor," Deters said in a statement. "My office firmly believes he is another."
Thompson went missing in March 1978 after leaving her home to meet her boyfriend at a bar in Oakley, prosecutors said. About two weeks later, a state natural resources officer found her body along the bank of the Little Miami River. Authorities said she had been raped and she died of asphyxia caused by strangulation.
This year, a DNA sample taken from Thompson's body at the time of the crime was sent to a third-party genealogy company that narrowed the search to a specific family tree that included Howell.
"There was a brother, a cousin, and uncle. All three agreed to be tested," Deters said, according to CBS affiliate WKRC-TV.
Further investigation revealed that he had been arrested in 1983 on an abduction charge.
In that incident, Howell picked a woman up on the side of the road and offered to drive her home, then put a rope around her neck and began to strangle her, prosecutors said. She was able to escape. Court records indicate that Howell pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint, a misdemeanor, WKRC-TV reported.
Family members of Howell who submitted DNA samples were excluded as suspects in Thompson's murder, but the tests indicated that the suspect was a close family relative. Ralph Howell's body was exhumed and a DNA sample taken from his jaw proved to be a match to the DNA found on Thompson's body, prosecutors said.
"We couldn't have done this without science," said former Loveland detective Steve Moster, who spent decades working on Thompson's case before retiring.
Prosecutors said Howell is suspected in the deaths of three other women killed in Hamilton and Butler counties between 1976 and 1978 that display similar circumstances:
- Charmaine Stolla, 17, was last seen in February 1978 in Cincinnati. Her body was found the following month off Old Colerain Pike.
-- Nancy Ann Theobald, 18, was last seen in November 1977 leaving the Clifton restaurant where she worked. Her body was found the day after Christmas in Butler County.
- Victoria Hincher, 24, was last seen leaving her home in October 1976. Her body was found in Butler County a week and a half later.
All three women were strangled and raped, but investigators do not have DNA from any of those killings, Deters said.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Ralph Howell was a serial killer," Deters said.
Prosecutors said Howell was employed as a delivery driver for the Cincinnati Enquirer and was an over-the-road truck driver, and "his possible victims are not necessarily limited to this geographic region." Anyone with information about Howell or a similar unsolved homicide was asked to call investigators.
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