More than four decades after the murder of a young New Hampshire woman, law enforcement officials have solved the crime through the use of DNA analysis and forensic genealogy technology, the state’s attorney general said Thursday.
But solving the case doesn’t bring the satisfaction of seeing justice: The man responsible for killing 23-year-old Laura Kempton died of an overdose in 2005, Attorney General John Farmella said.
Farmella told reporters at a news conference in Portsmouth, where the killing took place in September 1981, that investigators’ conclusion was “bittersweet” but stressed their determination.
He said the investigation after so many years should “send a message to anyone affected by a case that has gone cold that we will never stop working on these cases.” “We will never forget these victims.”
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A police officer found Kempton dead in his apartment after attempting to serve a subpoena for parking meter violations. An electrical cord was tied around her ankles, and a phone cord was around her neck and shoulder. There was blood on a rug under her head, and an autopsy concluded she died of blunt force trauma.
Kempton, a Portsmouth beauty school student who worked at a gift shop and ice cream parlor, was last seen earlier that morning returning to her apartment alone after a night out with a friend, police said.
Evidence collected at the scene, including a cigarette butt, a pillow and a glass bottle, revealed a man’s DNA profile years later.
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The investigation continued for the next 40 decades with detectives chasing hundreds of leads and suspects, though no one was able to identify the suspect.
But in 2022, the Portsmouth Police Department teamed up with the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory, the Maine State Police Forensic Laboratory, the Attorney General’s Cold Case Unit and Identity Finders International to use advanced forensic genetic genealogy technology to cross-reference multiple DNA samples recovered from crime scenes to identify the suspect.
In 2023, analysis of DNA samples identified Ronnie James Lee as Kempton’s killer.
Formella said Lee worked as a security officer in 1981. Lee’s family members were briefed on the outcome of the investigation. Investigators declined to release their names to reporters.
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The Associated Press tried to reach several people believed to be associated with Lee, but messages were not immediately returned.
Lee died at this age on February 9, 2005, due to a severe cocaine addiction.
Lee was 21 years old when the crime took place in 1981.
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If he were alive today, Farmella said, Lee would be charged with murder. Instead, no charges may be brought against Lee, although the case may be closed and identified as “resolved.”
“It is my hope that this verdict and announcement will be the long-awaited first step in providing the closure the criminal justice system can provide for Laura Kempton’s family and community,” said Attorney General John M. Farmella. “The Portsmouth Police Department is to be commended for its commitment and perseverance in seeking justice for Ms. Kempton and her family. I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to the members of our office’s Cold Case Unit and all of our law enforcement partners who were involved in the investigation and eventual resolution of this case.”
Kempton’s family released a statement on the matter, expressing “deep gratitude” to the Portsmouth Police Department.
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“His diligence and commitment, combined with extraordinary personal commitment over the past decades, has led to this moment for Laura,” Kempton’s family said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.