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 say may also be responsible for three other murders in Ohio, prosecutors said.
Hamilton County District Attorney Joseph Deters has announced a posthumous indictment of Ralph Howell, who died in a 1985 car accident, for aggravated murder and rape in the murder of 19-year-old Cheryl Thompson.
“I have prosecuted several serial killers during my tenure as a prosecutor,” Deters said in a statement. “My office strongly believes there is another.”
Thompson disappeared 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 shore of the Little Miami River. Authorities said she was raped and died of asphyxiation 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 which narrowed the search to a specific family tree including Howell.
“There was a brother, a cousin and an uncle. All three agreed to be tested,” Deters said, according to CBS affiliate WKRC-TV.
Further investigation revealed that he was arrested in 1983 for kidnapping.
During that incident, Howell picked up a woman on the side of the road and offered to drive her home, then put a rope around her neck and began strangling her, prosecutors said. She was able to escape. Court records show Howell pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful duress, a misdemeanor, WKRC-TV reported.
Members of Howell’s family who submitted DNA samples were ruled out as suspects in Thompson’s murder, but testing indicated the suspect was a close relative of the family. Ralph Howell’s body was exhumed and a DNA sample taken from his jawbone was found to match DNA found on Thompson’s body, prosecutors said.
“We couldn’t have done this without the science,” said former Loveland detective Steve Moster, who spent decades working the Thompson 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 who present similar circumstances:
– Charmaine Stolla, 17, was last seen in February 1978 in Cincinnati. His 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 Boxing Day 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 don’t have DNA from any of those murders, 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 on-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 has been urged to call investigators.