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Lincoln Insider: DNA advances haven't helped solve cold murder case of Tina McMenamin
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Lincoln Insider: DNA advances haven't helped solve cold murder case of Tina McMenamin

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Tina McMenamin

Tina McMenamin was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death in her apartment in July 1995. Police were confident they had her killer, but DNA on a hair found clutched in her hand didn't link him to the crime. 

Question: Could DNA evidence be tested in the unsolved murder case of Tina McMenamin?

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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.

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

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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