Authorities have made an arrest in connection with the violent murder of Mildred McKinney, a 73-year-old woman who was slain in her Central Texas home in 1980.
Steven Alan Thomas, 53, was arrested Monday and accused of capital murder. The crime has haunted residents of Southwestern Williamson County for nearly 32 years.
When police notified the victim's family, telling them that DNA testing had finally found a suspect in their loved ones brutal homicide, there were mixed feelings. McKinney's grandson, Bob Stapleton, said the family is happy that an arrest was finally made but are sad it came a little too late.
"My family and I are very grateful with this unexpected news -- news which comes bittersweet that it was not realized before the passing of first our father and then our mother over the last year and a half," Stapleton, son of McKinney's daughter, Patricia Stapleton, said in a statement issued through the sheriff's office.
"But it does not alter our sincere gratitude to the Williamson County Sheriff's Office ... Without their resolve, their determination, and their passion for this cold case we may have never known closure to my grandmother's story. She was a glorious woman who my family and I love and cherish and who will continue to live on in our fondest memories."
McKinney's homicide occurred on Nov. 4, 1980, at her Sherbourne Street residence, in what was then an unincorporated area of Williamson County and is now a part of Austin. McKinney's daughter found her mother on a bedroom floor. According to police, McKinney had been "beaten, tied, sexually assaulted and strangled to death."
In 2010, Patricia Stapleton, then in her seventies, gave one of her last interviews to KXAN before she died in 2011. She described how the walls of her mother's home had been covered in blood and how a table and vacuum cleaner had been stacked on her mother's body.
"I started looking around the house and I got to the bedroom and I could see my mother's legs hanging out from the bathroom," Stapleton said. "She was half in and half out."
Police had no immediate suspects, but the case did gain national media attention in the mid-1980s when convicted killer Henry Lee Lucas -- a man considered one of America's most prolific serial killers -- confessed to killing McKinney. But, DNA evidence later proved Lucas was not responsible for the crime.
There were local rumors and speculation that McKinney's slaying might be linked to the Aug. 13, 1986 slaying of 31-year-old Christine Morton in her Round Rock home. The two women lived about 12 miles apart and both had been beaten to death with a blunt object. In 1987, Morton's husband, Michael Morton, was convicted of killing her and sentenced to life in prison. He always maintained his innocence and, at 57-years-old, he was released last year after 25 years behind bars. DNA has allegedly linked 58-year-old Mark Norwood to the killing. Norwood is awaiting trial.
The first break in McKinney's unsolved homicide happened on June 27, when the Williamson County Sheriff's Office was contacted by the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab. Officials notified the law enforcement agency that DNA from a federal database had allegedly linked Thomas, formerly of Garland, TX, to McKinney's murder.
Sheriff's officials interviewed Thomas twice -- once in Dallas and once at his parents' home in Austin. According to Sgt. John Foster, Thomas gave a saliva sample, but denied knowing the victim.
"Thomas stated that he never had sexual intercourse with her and didn't recognize her home. He also denied sexually assaulting and murdering her," Foster said.
On July 21, detectives were notified by the crime lab that Thomas' saliva sample was allegedly a match to DNA evidence found at the McKinney murder scene. Further analysis had also determined that a latent fingerprint print from the scene of the murder belonged to Thomas, police said.
Authorities are not yet saying why Thomas, a self-employed carpenter, had his DNA in a federal database. According to Foster, investigators are not releasing any more details at this time because they want to "protect the integrity of the case and future prosecution of Steven Thomas."
Thomas was arrested Monday by the Williamson County Sheriff's Office and members from the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force. He was charged with capital murder in the rape and strangulation of Mildred McKinney and was ordered held at the Williamson County Jail on a $1.5 million bond. Jail records Wednesday did not list an attorney for him.