- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Two years ago, the Rapid City Police Department hired its first “cold-case” investigator to bring fresh eyes to old, unsolved homicides.

The investigator, a detective who came out of retirement to work on decades-old crimes, has largely focused on one case in the past half-year: the 1968 killing of 60-year-old Gwen Miller.

In some ways, the investigation seems to have little modern consequence. The detective’s main suspect is already dead, and there’s no indication that solving the case might lead to other victims.

And yet, Detective Wayne Keefe, 53, is committed to closing the case and others like it because he says the victims’ families need closure.

He has gotten in touch with the Miller case’s original investigators and the victim’s relatives, as well as read volumes of old reports. Now he is waiting for the results of a DNA test that will show if his suspect was indeed Miller’s killer.

The police department chose to focus on the Miller case because it offered promising leads, mainly old forensic evidence that can be tested using new technology.

Keefe started out by trying to understand what happened between the night of Feb. 28, 1968, and the early morning of Feb. 29, when authorities believe Miller was killed.

Miller, a hospital pharmacist, was found dead in bed as if she had died in her sleep. She was single, had no children and lived alone. A colleague of hers at the Bennett-Clarkson Memorial Hospital, now Rapid City Regional, discovered Miller’s body at her 3901 Hall St. residence.

Miller was lying on her back, her hair neatly arranged. There was no blood on the bed or signs of a struggle. But a window in her back door had been smashed, prompting the Pennington County coroner to order an autopsy. It revealed the woman had been raped and strangled to death.

Authorities initially believed robbery was the motive for the murder, since Miller’s billfold and checkbook could not be located. They later said robbery could have been just an afterthought since other valuables in the home were not taken.

Investigators came up with a theory involving a man with a history of “sexual perversion”: that he had watched from the bushes as Miller took a bath, changed into nightclothes and got into bed. Miller’s autopsy showed also that she suffered several broken ribs, attributed to the man kneeling on her chest while assaulting her.

He left fingerprints on Miller’s headboard and body hair on the bed. Before fleeing, the attacker was believed to have straightened up her room, tidied the bed covers and rearranged her hair.

However, no one heard Miller scream or her backdoor window break.

What neighbors saw that night, according to a recent television report, was a taxi dropping off a man at Miller’s home. Fingerprints found in her house matched prints later found in the taxi, the report said, but their owner could not be identified. The police department declined to verify this information, and other investigation details, citing Keefe’s ongoing work.

After Miller’s killing, investigators from the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and city police questioned dozens of people. Some underwent lie detector tests. Investigators canvassed Miller’s neighborhood and sought help from colleagues nationwide, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/2iqYTtU ) reported.

Information on the Rapid City government’s page on “unsolved homicides” also says authorities followed a tip that Miller may have been killed by a former pharmacist in Lincoln, Nebraska, who was addicted to drugs, and that they checked out a watch engraved with Miller’s name that turned up in Mitchell.

Investigators had several suspects, but no one has ever been arrested in Miller’s death. She was buried in the eastern South Dakota town of Cresbard, where her sister lived.

Keefe began working on the Miller case spring of 2016. First, he read the original investigation reports, some of which he said were written on onionskin paper. He pored over old newspaper stories on the internet and in the Rapid City library’s microfilm section.

He also talked to Miller’s surviving relatives and the case’s four original primary investigators.

Keefe started his job in November 2014, a couple of months after retiring as a local detective handling juvenile crimes. He had no plans for retirement, he said, so jumped at the chance to marry his investigative skills with his interest in genealogy.

“Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more interested in working on ancestry and my family tree and looking at old stuff,” Keefe said in an interview at his office. “The thought of going back in an investigative capacity, looking at some of these old cases, was very intriguing.”

Keefe’s job, a part-time position that involves 20 hours of work a week, pays $22.27 an hour. Before Keefe was hired, there was practically no one handling cold-case investigations, said Keefe’s supervisor, Capt. James Johns, who heads the police department’s criminal investigations.

Keefe’s first task in his new position, he said, was to review the police department’s homicide cases to come up with an accurate list of unsolved ones.

Rapid City’s devastating flood of June 1972, in which 238 people died, also decimated police files. The department’s record section was then located in the basement of what is now the Cornerstone Rescue Mission on Main Street, and silt from the flood destroyed much of the paperwork. Only two pages of police reports on the Miller case survived, Keefe said.

Fortunately, the sheriff’s office, then located in the old county courthouse, had their Miller reports intact. While reviewing the police department’s old files, Keefe said he also scanned the documents to make digital copies.

Keefe is currently investigating 11 cold cases that the police department believes offer the most promising leads. The advent of forensic DNA testing has opened up avenues that did not previously exist.

Forensic DNA testing, discovered by a British geneticist in 1984, started becoming more common in the U.S. after the establishment of the FBI Laboratory in December 1988, said John Butler, a fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who has written books on forensic DNA profiling. The legal framework for the national DNA database maintained by the FBI Laboratory didn’t come until a federal law was enacted in 1994.

Keefe sent DNA samples in the Miller case to the state laboratory in Pierre, the only lab in South Dakota accredited to conduct forensic DNA testing.

He said he also reached out to relatives of a man who had been among the five or so initial suspects in Miller’s killing. Keefe said evidence he reviewed told him there was a strong chance the man was Miller’s attacker, although the department declined to disclose the suspect’s name.

The man is dead, but Keefe said that solving a case does not just mean putting the culprit behind bars; it is as much about providing answers to the victims’ surviving relatives.

“The case needs to be closed for the family of the victim,” he said. “One of the things that is important for the entire public to know is that we don’t give up working on these. They don’t go away.”

The suspect’s family, Keefe said, had no idea their relative was ever a murder suspect. The detective found them online, called them and explained his work. He asked the man’s relatives for a DNA sample, and they obliged.

Now Keefe is just waiting to hear back from the state lab. Because the lab prioritizes active cases, it’s difficult to know when the DNA test result will come back.

If the DNA test shows a match, Keefe will have solved a crime that happened when he was just a few years old. If it comes back negative, he will continue looking at other possibilities. He has to: Keefe said only when he finally solves a case will the significance of having a cold-case detective become apparent.

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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