25-year-old Vermont murder solved by DNA analysis

Sarah Hunter, a 36-year-old golf pro at the Manchester Country Club, was murdered 25 years ago. (Submitted photo)

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Tuesday July 3, 2012

SHAFTSBURY -- Advancements in DNA analysis have helped crack a cold case and lead to a murder charge against an imprisoned man in California for the strangulation of Sarah Hunter 25 years ago in Manchester.

David Allan Morrison, 52, is facing extradition to answer to the murder charge from California, where he is serving a 20-years-to-life sentence for unrelated crimes, Vermont State Police Detective Lt. Timothy Oliver said at a press conference at the Shaftsbury barracks Monday.

Hunter, a 36-year-old golf pro at the Manchester Country Club at the time, was reported missing the morning of Sept. 19, 1986, and her vehicle was found later that day at a gas station in Manchester Center on Route 7A. More than two months later, on Thanksgiving, Hunter's body was found in a wooded area near a cornfield in Pawlet.

An autopsy revealed Hunter had been sexually assaulted and was strangled to death a short time after being abducted.

Morrison, who worked at a gas station near the store Hunter's vehicle was found, was one of the first suspects in the case and was interviewed twice following Hunter's disappearance.

In January 1988 Morrison moved to California, leaving his 1968 Chevrolet Impala at a friend's house in Arlington. That fall Morrison was arrested for kidnapping, attempted murder and sexual assault of a female in Chula Vista, Calif. He later pleaded guilty to the charges and is still serving time.

Following his arrest, Vermont State Police seized Morrison's vehicle and vacuumed it for trace evidence. Although Oliver said Morrison was a "primary suspect," there was not enough evidence at the time to charge him with a crime.

More than 20 years later, in which time there have been significant advancements in DNA testing, hair strands collected from the vehicle have positively connected Hunter to Morrison's vehicle.

"Based on the DNA result and evidence collected through the investigation, detectives applied for and were granted an arrested warrant for David Allan Morrison for murder in the first degree," Oliver said.

After years of following leads and conducting interviews resulted in no arrests, a break came in 2009 when State Police Detective Sgt. Helaine Gaiotti was contacted by Detective David Bavencoff of the National City, Calif., Police Department. Bavencoff informed Gaiotti he would be interviewing Morrison in prison regarding a separate homicide with similar characteristic's to Hunter's and asked for information related to Hunter's case to ask questions about it as well.

While being questioned, Morrison denied the other killing but did not deny strangling Hunter. According to a police affidavit filed by Gaiotti over the weekend in Bennington Superior Court, Criminal Division, Morrison told Bavencoff he would deal with the Hunter case when he "felt it was right" and he did not "think I will take this to my grave."

He also told Bavencoff he "made peace with it. I know her family hasn't," according to the affidavit.

In that interview he also stated the case could have been closed 16 or 17 years prior if his request to be transferred to a Vermont prison had been met.

Morrison also said if he was going to say anything else about the case it would be to Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Tom Truex, who interviewed Morrison in 1986 and 1987 and worked on the case until his retirement. Truex agreed to fly to California to meet with Morrison, although the trip was postponed as additional DNA tests were requested on the evidence gathered from Morrison's vehicle. That evidence was sent to be re-analyzed at a Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory in Virginia in 2010.

"It was believed there was significant advances in DNA analysis that would confirm that forensic evidence gathered in Morrison's vehicle belonged to Sarah," Oliver said.

Upon review, it was determined DNA from hair found in Morrison's vehicle matched Hunter's DNA by comparing it to saliva from Hunter's sister, who lives in Maine.

A warrant for Morrison's arrest was issued June 29, 2012, and Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage said she hopes Morrison will be extradited to face the charge of first degree murder within 90 days.

"It's difficult. The interstate detainers that have to be filed and the time periods for those vary depending on whether he decides to come back or not," Marthage said.

Instead of calling Hunter's murder a "cold case," Oliver referred to it as an "open case" and said it was solved largely because Truex, Gaiotti and other law enforcement officials refused to let it go.

In addition to following up leads, Marthage said the case was able to be cracked due to advancements in mitochondrial DNA testing.

"There were a number of pieces of the investigation that were ongoing for the entire time, even from 1988. A number of interviews had taken place, so it had been going on for the last 20 years, but it really was the last three or four years when we started looking at whether there could be some further testing that has now changed and given us an ability we didn't have 25 years ago," Marthage said.

There remain a number of unsolved homicides from the mid-1980s in Vermont and New Hampshire, including a series of murders believed to be linked to an unidentified person dubbed the "Connecticut River Valley Killer."

There are seven murders commonly cited as being conclusively linked to the serial killer, as well as at least a half dozen others -- one of which is Hunter's.

Marthage said she has no reason to believe Morrison may be the Connecticut Valley River Killer. Marthage also said she does not believe he will be a suspect in other killings in this area.

"I think any of the cases at the time that were open, that he may have been a suspect in, he was looked at at that time," Marthage said.

According to the affidavit, Morrison has been identified or convicted in four other cases with a modus operandi similar to Hunter's case, including one incident in Arlington. In those cases Morrison approached lone females, abducted them using a firearm or physical force and transported the victims to remote areas before sexually assaulting them.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi.


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