DNA links the now-dead man to the 1978 assassination in Ohio

CINCINNATI (AP) — 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 be responsible for three others murders in Ohio, prosecutors said.

Hamilton County Attorney Joseph Deters last week announced posthumous indictments against Ralph Howell, who died in a 1985 car accident, on counts of aggravated murder and rape in the murder of 19-year-old Cheryl Thompson.

“I have indicted several serial killers in my time as a prosecutor,” Deters said in a statement. “My office firmly believes that he is someone else.”

Thompson went missing in March 1978 after leaving home to meet her boyfriend at an Oakley bar, prosecutors said. About two weeks later, a state natural resources official found her body on the banks of the Little Miami River. Authorities said she was raped and died of asphyxiation caused by strangulation.

That year, a DNA sample taken from Thompson’s body at the time of the crime was sent to an independent genealogy company, which narrowed the search to a specific family tree that included Howell, and further investigation revealed he had been arrested in 1983 was a kidnapping charge.

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In that incident, Howell picked up a woman from 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 restraint, a misdemeanor, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

Howell family members who submitted DNA samples were ruled out as suspects in Thompson’s murder, but the tests showed the suspect was a close family relative. Ralph Howell’s body was exhumed and a DNA sample taken, which turned out to match DNA found on Thompson’s body, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Howell was suspected in the deaths of three other women killed in Hamilton and Butler counties between 1976 and 1978 in similar circumstances:

— Charmaine Stolla, 17, was last seen in February 1978 in Cincinnati. Her body was found off Old Colerain Pike the following month.

– Nancy Ann Theobald, 18, was last seen in November 1977 leaving the Clifton restaurant where she worked. Her body was found in Butler County the day after Christmas.

– 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 have no DNA from those murders, Deters said.

Prosecutors said Howell was employed as a delivery driver for the Cincinnati Enquirer and was a truck driver on the road, and “his possible victims are not necessarily limited to this geographic region.” Anyone with information on Howell or a similar unsolved homicide was asked to call investigators.

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