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DNA from fingernails helps solve 1988 killing of California woman: "Needle in a haystack"

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

A suspect in a 1988 sexual assault and killing of a 79-year-old woman in a small northern California community has been identified thanks to advanced DNA testing done on scrapings from the victim's fingernails, authorities said Tuesday. The district attorney said finding the evidence was like discovering a "needle in a haystack."

Terry Leroy Bramble was 32 when he sexually assaulted, stabbed and strangled Lucille Hultgren inside her home, Galt Police Chief Brian Kalinowski said.

Bramble was homeless and a registered sex offender when he died in 2011 of natural causes while living under a bridge on Highway 99 in Galt, Kalinowski said.

Bramble's DNA, collected during a 1992 sexual assault conviction in San Joaquin County, matched DNA found in fingernail scrapings collected from Hultgren's body, helping detectives solve the 34-year-old cold case, said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.

"The fingernail scrapings became the key to solving this case," she said.

Schubert said DNA testing has advanced so much that a very small amount of genetic material is needed to get a DNA profile.

In the past, a DNA sample had to be the size of a quarter to be able to get a profile, but "now it's less than a billionth of a size of a Sweet'n Low package," Schubert said.

Lucille Hultgren and Terry Leroy Bramble Galt Police Department

She said finding the fingernail scrapings ⁠was like discovering a "needle in a haystack."

On May 23, 1988, two friends who had gone to Hultgren's home to check on her after she didn't attend church the day before found her dead in her bedroom and called police, Kalinowski said.

A mother of two adult children, Hultgren lived alone after her husband's death the previous year, Kalinowski said.

The coroner at that time said Hultgren had died two to five days before her body was discovered and that the cause of death was stab wounds to the chest and strangulation, Kalinowski said.

Hultgren's killing was the only cold case in the town of 25,000 people 30 miles south of Sacramento, authorities said.

Authorities said the motive for Hultgren's killing is still unknown.

Hultgren's lone living son gave a statement to authorities, thanking them for their work.

"I'm glad to know the case was solved," the statement said: "I wish the man was still alive to face the consequences. I wish my older brother was still alive to hear the news."

Meanwhile, the Galt Police Department sent condolences to the family.

"Although we're unable to bring Lucille back, we hope by identifying the suspect responsible for her death it can provide some closure for her family," the Galt Police Department said in a statement.

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