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‘Closure’: Cold case rape and murder of woman believed to have been beaten to death with wine bottle in 1981 finally solved

Ronney James Lee (L) and Laura Kempton (R)

Ronney James Lee, left, and Laura Kempton. (New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office)

Laura Kempton was just 23 when she was raped and murdered in her home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in September 1981. Well over 40 years later, law enforcement said they have finally solved the long-puzzling Granite State cold case.

“The Kempton family wishes to express our deepest gratitude to the Portsmouth police department for solving Laura’s case,” her family said in a victim impact statement. “Their diligence and determination, along with extraordinary personal commitment over the past decades, have led to this moment for Laura.”

Justice, however, will prove elusive because the man suspected of the awful crime died in 2005, according to a press release issued by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

Kempton was last seen alive during the early morning hours of Sept. 28, 1991. She returned to her apartment alone after a night out with a friend. The next morning, an officer attempting to serve a court summons made the grim discovery, the AG’s office explained.

“As [Officer Ron Grivois] approached, he noticed that one of the panels on the wooden door to her apartment was missing and a piece of thin metal blocked most of the resulting hole in the door,” a report by the AG’s office explains. “Through the remaining opening in the door panel, he could see a body lying on the floor. Officer Grivois saw that the upper part of the body was covered with a blanket, but two legs were visible and bound with a white cord. He also could see what appeared to be blood splattered on the far wall of the apartment.”

There was also a green pillowcase found wrapped around her head and neck.

An autopsy showed Kempton was killed by blunt force trauma to her head. The murder weapon is believed to have been a wine bottle.

An image of the wine bottle believed to have been used to kill Laura Kempton

The wine bottle believed to have been used to kill Laura Kempton. She died from blunt force trauma to the left side of her head. (New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office)

Years passed, and the case went cold. A major break came in 2002 when technology allowed the testing of physical evidence recovered from the crime scene to produce a male DNA profile, the AG’s report notes. Then the case went cold again. Two more decades passed.

In May 2022, Portsmouth Police Detective Erik Widerstrom was notified that a profile uploaded to a third-party public genetic genealogy database might help solve the case.

That profile led investigators to the biological parents of the suspect. A task force of multiple law enforcement agencies from New Hampshire and Maine, along with Identifinders International, used forensic genetic genealogy technology to determine that those parents had exactly one son — Ronney James Lee.

Law enforcement later learned that Lee died of acute cocaine intoxication at 45 on Feb. 9, 2005.

He was 21 at the time of the slaying.

In June, an analyst directly compared Lee’s DNA profile — culled from a “blood card” taken during his autopsy — to a cigarette butt, thigh scrapings of the victim, and sperm left on the green pillowcase covering Kempton’s head. He was a confirmed match.

The AG’s office said that if Lee were still alive, they would seek charges of first-degree murder for knowingly causing Kempton’s death before, after, or while engaged in the commission of, or while attempting to commit aggravated felonious sexual assault and alternatively, for purposely causing Kempton’s death by striking her with a blunt object.

“It is my hope that this conclusion and announcement will be the long-awaited first step in providing what closure the criminal justice system can provide for Laura Kempton’s family and community,” New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said. “The Portsmouth Police Department should be commended for its commitment and perseverance in seeking justice for Ms. Kempton and her family.”

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