Question: Could DNA evidence be tested in the unsolved murder case of Tina McMenamin?
DNA evidence made — and then broke — the case against a suspect in the grisly and high-profile murder of an 18-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln freshman nearly 25 years ago.
Tina McMenamin was sexually assaulted and stabbed in her apartment near 48th Street and Nebraska 2 on July 25, 1995, shortly before her shift at a nearby Godfather’s Pizza began.
Investigators found a single blond hair clutched in her hand, which became pivotal DNA evidence linking a Lincoln man named Gregory Gabel to the crime.
Prosecutors, using that and other evidence against Gabel, charged him with McMenamin’s murder. Then, two years into the case, a second DNA test excluded Gabel and prosecutors dismissed the case.
Nearly a quarter-century later, no one has been convicted in the young woman’s murder.
That’s not for lack of trying — including efforts to conduct additional DNA tests as the science became more sophisticated.
Former Lincoln Police Sgt. Larry Barksdale worked on the McMenamin case — and was among investigators who revisited it for years in an effort to find evidence of her killer.
Because the sample from the root ball of the hair was small, investigators decided to do a relatively new DNA test — waiting until the lab at the University of Nebraska Medical Center became certified to conduct it, said Barksdale, who retired from LPD after a 41-year career and is now an assistant professor of practice at UNL’s forensic science degree program.
Once police got the DNA profile, they began trying to match it to suspects.
They collected voluntary DNA samples from white men with long, blond hair — the description of a person seen running from the apartment complex that night.
One of those men was Gabel, who’d been at a nearby convenience store the night of the murder and talked to officers on the scene.
The DNA sample came back as a match, a one-in-1,049 chance that it was Gabel’s DNA.
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After he was charged, authorities decided to send what remained of the sample for a different kind of DNA test in an effort to bolster their DNA evidence.
Mike Adamowicz, director of the UNL forensic science college, said “stacking” DNA evidence with multiple tests was common for prosecutors in the 1990s since the tests — like the first one done on the hair found in McMenamin’s hand — yielded less-specific results.
Using more than one such "low-discrimination" tests would make the DNA evidence stronger in court.
So prosecutors sent the sample for a different sort of DNA test. When it excluded Gabel, the case unraveled, though many investigators remained convinced Gabel was the killer and questioned whether there'd been a problem with the second test.
No one was ever able to prove that, Barksdale said.
In the years since, Adamowicz said, DNA science has become much more sophisticated and a new testing methodology — different than the tests run on the hair found in McMenamin’s hand — became the standard.
The new method can test smaller quantities of DNA and glean more information — with higher powers of discrimination — making it easier to link DNA to a suspect.
Since that new methodology became the standard it has been continually improved, Adamowicz said.
“Over the past 20 years those sorts of ... methods have been improved and refined so you can use even smaller quantities of DNA and get more information off them.”
Although the DNA on that single hair in the McMenamin case was gone — consumed by the testing process — Barksdale said investigators combed through the evidence in McMenamin’s murder looking for other possible DNA samples as the science improved.
Using grants for DNA testing in both cold cases and unsolved sex assaults, LPD sent evidence from the case to labs at least three times, Barksdale said. The tests never yielded results.
“It has been pored over, gone though, re-gone through, probably at least three times to try to find other evidence we could submit,” he said.
A complicating factor in the case: There was ample evidence that bleach had been used at the scene, which can destroy DNA evidence.
“The bottom line is there’s nothing,” Barksdale said. “Whatever there was, was used up and nothing else produced information.”
Tom Casady's list of the 10 most infamous crimes in Lincoln history
Crimes of the times
This is simply one man’s perspective from the early 21st century (first written in 2010). I had to make a decision about crimes that occurred at locations that are inside the city today, but were outside our corporate limits at the time they occurred. I chose the latter.
Before beginning, though, I have to deal with three crimes that stand apart: the murders of three police officers in Lincoln. I’m not quite sure how to place them in a list. They all had huge impacts on the community, and on the police department in particular. Because these are my colleagues, I deal with them separately and in chronological order.
Patrolman Marion Francis Marshall
Shot in the shadow of the new Nebraska State Capital, Gov. Charles Bryan came to his aid and summoned additional help.
Lt. Frank Soukup
Marion Marshall was technically not a Lincoln police officer, so Lt. Soukup was actually the first Lincoln police officer killed on duty. One of his colleagues who was present at the motel and involved in the gunbattle, Paul Jacobsen, went on to enjoy a long career and command rank at LPD, influencing many young charges (like me) and leaving his mark on the culture of the agency.
Lt. Paul Whitehead
In the space of a few months, three LPD officers died in the line of duty. Frank Soukup had been murdered, and George Welter had died in a motorcycle crash. Paul Whitehead's partner, Paul Merritt, went on to command rank, and like Paul Jacobsen left an indelible mark at LPD and the community.
No. 1: Starkweather
The subject of several thinly disguised movie plots and a Springsteen album, the Starkweather murders are clearly the most infamous crime in Lincoln’s history — so far. One of the first mass murderers of the mass media age, six of Charles Starkweather’s 11 victims were killed inside the city of Lincoln, and the first was just on the outskirts of town. I didn’t live in Lincoln at the time, but my wife was a first-grader at Riley Elementary School and has vivid memories of the city gripped by fear in the days between the discovery of the Bartlett murders and Starkweather’s capture in Wyoming.
The case caused quite an uproar. There was intense criticism of the police department and sheriff’s office for not capturing Starkweather earlier in the week after the discovery of the Bartletts' bodies. Ultimately, Mayor Bennett Martin and the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners retained a retired FBI agent, Harold G. Robinson, to investigate the performance of local law enforcement. His report essentially exonerated the local law officers and made a few vanilla recommendations for improving inter-agency communication and training.
Now I know that many readers are mumbling to themselves “how obvious.” Hold your horses, though. It’s not quite as obvious as you might think. I had two experiences that drove this fact home to me. The first was a visit by a small group of journalism students. Only one member of the class had any idea, and her idea was pretty vague. You need to remember that the Starkweather murders were in 1957 and 1958 — before the parents of many college students were even born.
The second experience was a visit by a Cub Scout den. I was giving the kids a tour of the police station one evening. We were in the front lobby waiting for everyone to arrive. As I entertained the boys, I told the moms and dads that they might enjoy looking in the corner of the Sheriff’s Office display case to see the contents of Starkweather’s wallet — discovered a couple of years ago locked up in the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office safe. After a few minutes, one of the confused fathers asked me who Starkweather was, and why it was significant.
No. 2: Lincoln National Bank
On the morning of Sept. 17, 1930, a dark blue Buick carrying six men pulled up in front of the Lincoln National Bank at the northwest corner of 12th and O streets. Five of the men entered the bank, while a sixth stood outside by the Buick, cradling a machine gun. Observing the unusual events, a passerby called the police. The officer who responded, Forrest Shappaugh, was casually instructed by the machine-gun-toting lookout to just keep going, which he wisely did. Returning with reinforcements, he found that the robbers had already made good on their getaway, netting $2.7 million in cash and negotiable securities.
Ultimately, three of the six suspects were arrested. Tommy O’Connor and Howard Lee were convicted and sentenced. Jack Britt was tried twice but not convicted by a hung jury. Gus Winkeler, a member of Al Capone’s gang, winged a deal with County Attorney Max Towle to avoid prosecution in exchange for orchestrating the recovery of $600,000 in bearer bonds. The following year, Winkeler was murdered in Chicago, the victim of a gangland slaying. The final two robbers were never identified.
The Lincoln National Bank robbery stood as the largest cash bank robbery in the United States for many decades. It precipitated major changes at the Lincoln Police Department. Chief Peter Johnstone was rapidly “retired” after the robbery, the department’s fleet was upgraded to add the first official patrol cars, the full force was armed and a shotgun squad was organized. Forty-four years later when I was hired at LPD, the echo of the Lincoln National Bank robbery was still evident in daily bank opening details, and in the Thomspon submachine guns and Reising rifles that detectives grabbed whenever the robbery alarm sounded at headquarters.
No. 3: The Last Posse
My first inkling about this crime came when I was the chief deputy sheriff. One of my interns, a young man named Ron Boden (who became a veteran deputy sheriff), had been doing some research on Lancaster County’s only known lynching, in 1884. I came across a reference in the biography of the sheriff at the time, Sam Melick, to the murder of the Nebraska Penitentiary warden and subsequent prison break. Melick had been appointed interim warden after the murder and instituted several reforms.
Several years later, a colleague, Sgt. Geoff Marti, loaned me a great book, Gale Christianson’s "Last Posse," that told the story of the 1912 prison break in gory, haunting and glorious detail.
To make a long story short, convict Shorty Gray and his co-conspirators shot and killed Warden James Delahunty, a deputy warden and a guard on Wednesday, March 13, 1912. They then made their break — right into the teeth of a brutal Nebraska spring blizzard. Over the course to the next few days, a posse pursued. During the pursuit, the escapees carjacked a young farmer with his team and wagon. As the posse closed in, a gunfight broke out and the hostage was shot and killed in the exchange, along with two of the three escapees.
There was plenty of anger among the locals in the Gretna-Springfield vicinity about the death of their native son, and a controversy raged over the law enforcement tactics that brought about his demise. Lancaster County Sheriff Gus Hyers was not unsullied by the inquiry, although it appears from my prospect a century later that the fog of war led to the tragedy.
Christianson, a professor of history at Indiana State University who died earlier this year, notes the following on the flyleaf:
“For anyone living west of the Mississippi in 1912, the biggest news that fateful year was a violent escape from the Nebraska state penitentiary planned and carried out by a trio of notorious robbers and safe blowers.”
Bigger news on half the continent than the sinking of the Titanic during the same year would certainly qualify this murder-escape as one of the most infamous Lincoln crimes in history.
No. 4: Rock Island wreck
The Aug. 10, 1894, wreck of a Rock Island train on the southwest outskirts of Lincoln was almost lost in the mist of time until it was resurrected in the public consciousness by author Joel Williams, who came across the story while conducting research for his historical novel, "Barrelhouse Boys."
The wreck was determined to be the result of sabotage to the tracks, perhaps an attempt to derail the train as a prelude to robbery. Eleven people died in the crash and ensuing fire, making this a mass murder, to be sure. G.W. Davis was arrested and convicted of the crime but later received a full pardon. The story was told in greater detail earlier this year by the Lincoln Journal Star.
A historical marker is along the Rock Island Trail in Wilderness Park, accessible only by foot or bike from the nearest trail access points about a half-mile away at Old Cheney Road on the north, or 14th Street on the south.
Here’s the big question that remains unanswered: Was there really significant evidence to prove that George Washington Davis committed the crime, or was he just a convenient scapegoat? The fact that he received a gubernatorial pardon 10 years later leads me to believe that the evidence must have been unusually weak. If he was railroaded, then my second question is this: who really pried loose the tracks with the 40-pound crowbar found at the scene?
No. 5: Commonwealth
On Nov. 1, 1983, the doors to Nebraska’s largest industrial savings and loan company were closed and Commonwealth was declared insolvent. The 6,700 depositors with $65 million at stake would never be fully compensated for their loss, ultimately receiving about 59 cents on the dollar for their deposits, which they all mistakenly believed were insured up to $30,000 through the Nebraska Depository Insurance Guaranty Corporation, which was essentially an insurance pool with assets of only $3 million.
The case dominated Nebraska news for months. The investigation ultimately led to the conviction of three members of the prominent Lincoln family that owned the institution, the resignation of the director of the State Department of Banking and the impeachment of the Nebraska attorney general and the suspension of his license to practice law. State and federal litigation arising from the failure of Commonwealth drug on for years.
At the Lincoln Police Department, the Commonwealth failure led to the formation of a specialized white-collar crime detail, now known as the Technical Investigations Unit. At the time, municipal police departments in the United States had virtually no capacity for investigating financial crime and fraud of this magnitude, and we quickly became well known for our expertise in this area. The early experience served LPD very well in the ensuring years.
No. 6: Candice Harms
Candi Harms never came home from visiting her boyfriend on Sept. 22, 1992. Her parents reported her as a missing person the following morning, and her car was found abandoned in a cornfield north of Lincoln later in the day. Weeks went by before her remains were found southeast of Lincoln.
Scott Barney and Roger Bjorklund were convicted in her abduction and murder. Barney is in prison serving a life term. Bjorklund died in prison in 2001. Intense media attention surrounded the lengthy trial of Roger Bjorklund, for which a jury was brought in from Cheyenne County as an alternative to a change of venue. I have no doubt that the trial was a life-changing event for a group of good citizens from Sidney, who did their civic duty.
I was the Lancaster County sheriff at the time, involved both in the investigation and in the trial security. It was at about this time that the cellular telephone was becoming a consumer product, and I have often thought that this brutal crime probably spurred a lot of purchases. During my career, this is probably the second-most-prominent Lincoln crime in terms of the sheer volume of media coverage.
No. 7: Jon Simpson and Jacob Surber
A parent’s worst nightmare unfolded in September 1975 when these two boys, ages 12 and 13, failed to return from the Nebraska State Fair. The boys were the victims of abduction and murder. The case was similar to a string of other murders of young boys in the Midwest, and many thought that these cases were related -- the work of a serial killer. Although an arrest was made in the case here in Lincoln, the charges were eventually dismissed. William Guatney was released and has since died.
No. 8: John Sheedy
Saloon and gambling house owner John Sheedy was gunned down outside his home at 1211 P St. in January 1891. The case of Sheedy, prominent in Lincoln’s demiworld, became the talk of the town when his wife, Mary, and her alleged lover and accomplice, Monday McFarland, were arrested. Both were acquitted at trial. The Sheedy murder is chronicled in a great interactive multimedia website, Gilded Age Plains City, an online version that builds upon an article published in 2001 by Timothy Mahoney of the University of Nebraska.
No. 9: Patricia McGarry and Catherine Brooks
The bodies of these two friends were found in a Northeast Lincoln duplex in August 1977. Their murderer, Robert E. Williams, was the subject of a massive Midwest manhunt during the following week. Before his capture, he committed a third murder in Sioux Rapids, Iowa, and raped, shot and left for dead a victim who survived in Minnesota. He is the last man to be executed in Nebraska, sent to the electric chair in 1997.
No. 10: Judge William M. Morning
District Court Judge William Morning was murdered in February 1924. He was shot on the bench by an unhappy litigant in a divorce case. His court reporter, Minor Bacon, was also shot, but a notebook in his breast pocket deflected the bullet and saved his life.
Many other crimes
Choosing Lincoln's 10 most infamous crimes was a challenge. Although the top two were easy, the picture quickly became clouded. We tend, of course, to forget our history rather quickly. Many of the crimes I felt were among the most significant are barely remembered today, if not completely forgotten.
Some readers will take issue with my list. In choosing 10, here are the others I considered, in no particular order. They are all murders:
-- Mary O'Shea
-- Nancy Parker
-- Charles Mulholland
-- Victoria Lamm and Janet Mesner
-- Martina McMenamin
-- Regina Bos (presumably murdered)
-- Patty Webb
-- Marianne Mitzner
I also thought about the five murder-suicides in which a mother or father killed multiple family members before taking their own life. Though tragic, these crimes did not command the same kind of attention as the others, perhaps because there was no lengthy investigation, no tantalizing whodunit, no stranger-killer, nor any of the details that come out in the coverage of a major trial.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSreist.