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Previously untested DNA from ‘unprovable’ rape case leads to arrest in 1979 California campground murder

Harold Carpenter, Patricia Carnahan

Harold Carpenter, Patricia Carnahan (El Dorado County DA’s Office)

DNA from a sexual assault kit that sat untested for decades has led to the arrest of a suspect in the cold case murder of a California woman who was raped, strangled, and beaten to death more than 40 years ago.

Harold Warren Carpenter, 63, was taken into custody on Monday in Washington state and charged as a fugitive from justice as he awaits extradition back to California, where he has been charged with murder in the 1979 slaying of Patricia Carnahan, authorities announced.

According to the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office, a woman was found “beaten, strangled, and left for dead” on Sept. 28, 1979 at a campground in South Lake Tahoe. Investigators gathered evidence from the scene, including a sexual assault kit that provided police with a DNA sample.

Authorities were not able to identify or arrest any suspects in the brutal slaying, but they were also unable to identify the victim. As a result, then-unknown victim was buried in a nondescript potter’s grave marked simply: “Unidentified Female.”

Carnahan was finally identified as the victim in 2015 after investigators with the El Dorado County Cold Case Unit re-opened the investigation into her death. With the help of a forensic anthropologist from Cal State University, authorities exhumed Carnahan’s remains and placed photographs of the jewelry she was wearing when she was attacked in the newspaper. Family members were able to identify a pendant Carnahan was wearing. Authorities then confirmed the victim’s identity through DNA testing before releasing the remains to her family for a proper burial.

The killer’s identity continued to remain a mystery until a break in the case came from an entirely different state, investigators say. As part of an effort to eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits (SAK), law enforcement authorities in Washington earlier this year tested an SAK collected as evidence in a 1994 rape investigation that had been deemed “unprovable.”

The results from the DNA analysis were uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is a series of national law enforcement DNA databases maintained by the FBI. The sample from the unprovable rape case came back as a match for the DNA evidence collected from Carnahan’s SAK, identifying the suspect as Carpenter.

Investigators from El Dorado County say they developed probable cause to charge Carpenter with murder and traveled to Spokane, Washington, where they assisted law enforcement in Carpenter’s arrest.

“Cases like this illustrate the need to test every sexual assault kit and get their DNA profiles loaded into the federal database,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement. “Every untested kit could be a potential break in a cold case. Hard work and cross-state collaboration made this case successful. I’m grateful for the hard work from law enforcement to pursue justice in this case.”

Carpenter is currently being held without bond in Spokane as he awaits the extradition process, which has already begun. He is not being charged in the 1994 rape case because the statute of limitations has already tolled and the victim is deceased.

Authorities urged anyone with information on the case to contact the Cold Case Unit at at (530) 621-4590 or via email at [email protected].

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.