Ohio authorities say DNA technology has led them to a serial killer in Cincinnati – 37 years after his death

Cheryl Thompson was found dead in the Little Miami River on April 8, 1978.  The murder has remained a cold case.

Cheryl Thompson was found dead in the Little Miami River on April 8, 1978. The murder has remained a cold case.

Ohio authorities said new DNA technology helped them solve the 1978 murder of a University of Cincinnati student. Prosecutors say the suspect, who they linked to three other murders at the time, was charged Thursday — more than three decades after his own death.

Ralph Howell of Roselawn was posthumously charged with first-degree murder and rape, according to the Hamilton County Attorney’s Office Thursday. He died in a car accident in 1985 and was not charged in either case.

He was charged Thursday in the 44-year cold case of Cheryl Thompson, a University of Cincinnati student whose body was found on a riverbank in southwest Ohio.

Thompson went missing on March 24, 1978 after leaving her home in Wooster Pike, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. News reports at the time said she was due to meet her boyfriend. She never showed up.

Two weeks later, an employee at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources found Thompson’s body near a river in Loveland, a city northeast of Cincinnati, The Enquirer reported. The coroner ruled that her death was strangulation and blunt force murder. It was also determined that she had been raped, prosecutors said.

Hamilton County Attorney Joe Deters said a rape kit was collected from Thompson’s body and kept at the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office. He said the forensic limitations of the time prevented law enforcement from gathering leads on that evidence.

Prosecutors said the DNA sample from Thompson’s body was sent to an independent genealogy company earlier this year, which narrowed the results down to a simple family tree.

Howell’s cousin, brother and uncle agreed to undergo a DNA test, Deters said, adding that although they told investigators Howell had died in the 1980s, all were ruled out as suspects.

Cheryl Thompson's body was found on the banks of the Little Miami River in 1978.  Prosecutors on Thursday charged a man in connection with her death.

Cheryl Thompson’s body was found on the banks of the Little Miami River in 1978. Prosecutors on Thursday charged a man in connection with her death.

Last summer, investigators exhumed Howell’s body, which was buried at Rest Haven Memorial Park in Evendale, to obtain DNA evidence, prosecutors said. His jawbone was removed, and DNA recovered from his corpse matched DNA recovered from Thompson’s body, Deters said.

The Loveland Police Department and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation continued to investigate Thompson’s death decades after her death.

Renewed interest in Thompson’s case lured investigators to a recently formed cold case unit through the BCI, Loveland Detective Steve Moster told The Enquirer in 2020.

‘Ralph Howell was a serial killer’: Prosecutors are linking him to 3 other murders

Prosecutors said Howell was involved in the deaths of three other women in Hamilton and Butler counties, Ohio, between 1976 and 1978 based on the similar circumstances surrounding those murders.

These women are:

  • Charmaine Stolla, 17. She was last seen on February 24, 1978 at 1208 Dewey Avenue in Cincinnati. Her body was found on March 12, 1978 on Old Colerain Pike.

  • Nancy Ann Theobald, 18. She was last seen quitting her job at an Arby’s restaurant in Clifton on November 16, 1977. Her body was found on December 26, 1977 on Becket Road in Butler County.

  • Victoria Hincher, 24. She was last seen leaving her home at 5:30pm on October 20, 1976. Her body was found 11 days later on New London Road in Butler County.

Prosecutors say all three women were strangled and raped. Investigators have no DNA from those murders, Deters said.

“We have no doubt that Ralph Howell was a serial killer,” Deters said.

Suspect arrested in 1983 after failed kidnapping

Howell was arrested in 1983 on charges of kidnapping, prosecutors said in a press release.

In that incident, according to prosecutors, Howell stopped a woman in a truck carrying newspapers by the side of the road and offered to give her a ride home. Howell was a delivery driver for The Enquirer at the time, Deters said.

According to court records, the woman said she was pulled over by Howell in the Cincinnati neighborhood of California. He drove a black and white trailer. She said Howell asked her to get in the truck three times, adding that she refused twice but got into the truck the third time he asked to do so.

The woman said Howell told her his name was Jim Miller.

“I’m not an animal, you know. I won’t hurt you. I go your way I’ll take you with me,” she recalled, as Howell testified to have told her.

Once the woman was in his vehicle, Howell placed a rope around her neck and began strangling her, prosecutors said. He told the woman he wanted to have sex with her. She was able to fight him off and escape, prosecutors said.

She kicked open the door of the truck and tried to jump out, but he caught her coat and blouse, the woman testified. He made the truck swerve to close the door again, she said.

“All I want to do is sleep with you,” the woman recalled Howell’s words.

“You’ll have to kill me first,” she replied. “You won’t touch me.”

She said Howell then apologized, saying he had “never done that before.”

The woman said she asked if Howell was married. “Yes,” he replied, according to witnesses.

She asked if he would like someone to do the same to his wife, to which he replied “no,” the woman testified.

According to witnesses, the woman said Howell then tried to rest his head on her lap as she tried to slide out of the truck.

She said Howell then dropped her and withdrew.

Court records show Howell pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint, a misdemeanor.

This article originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio Authorities Identify Cincinnati Serial Killer 37 Years After His Death