CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — If Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies are correct, Michael Lapniewski, Jr. was 19 years old when he murdered 82-year-old Opal Weil in 1987. In the 36 years since Weil’s death, her family had no idea what happened.
“Weil was found with obvious signs of trauma by her sister-in-law on February 9th, 1987, at her home,” said Pinellas County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Brenn.
At the time, police collected some hairs at the crime scene that didn’t match Weil’s. In December 2020, cold case detectives sent the hairs to Parabon Nanolabs for DNA and genealogical testing.
“Through extensive testing, Parabon was able to identify familial relatives and narrow it down to three possible males,” Brenn said. “Two of which were able to be eliminated.”
Detectives invited Lapniewski to a free dinner in his home state of Mississippi and got a DNA sample after the meal was over. They said they matched his DNA to the hair sample at the crime scene. Police said he lived a half mile away from Weil at the time.
Two months ago, Lapniewski was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. He heads to a pre-trial hearing in Pinellas County Court on Monday morning.
“This relies heavily on forensics because of the time that has elapsed,” said Joseph Cillo.
Cillo is an assistant professor at Saint Leo University and a former defense attorney. He said the trial is far from open-and-shut.
“The evidence isn’t really conclusive when it’s that old,” Cillo said. “The prosecutor has an uphill battle if the jurors are listening to the defense on cross-examination.”
He said DNA only proves someone was at a crime scene or with a victim — it does not prove they committed the crime.
“The jury is biased,” Cillo said. “The older the case, the more I think you’ve got to present evidence of conviction.”
But the same goes for the defense.
“But the defense attorney, as well, is going to have to relate to the jury,” Cillo explained. “You’re going to have to take them back to a time they may not remember.”
Four days after Weil was killed in her home, another elderly woman, Eleanor Swift, was murdered in her home too. According to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the cases are believed to be committed by the same person.
They said both murders involved forced entry at a family room or screen room with some type of pry tool. Neither case involved sexual assault, and both victims were elderly white women who lived alone. However, Lapniewski has only been charged with Weil’s death.