TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Cutting-edge technology and techniques have helped Pinellas County Detectives make an arrest in a 1987 cold case murder.
Opal Weil, 82, was killed in her home. At the time, her niece said the murder devastated the entire family.
“We were violated as a family,” Rita Smith said. “She was very vivacious, very outgoing, very well liked.”
Five years after the murder, Smith told News Channel 8 she could not let the crime go and wanted the killer to be found.
“I’m the type that would like to know who did it and why so I could put it to rest,” Smith said.
Detectives arrested 55-year-old Michael Lapniewski in Mississippi after collecting a DNA sample from him and linking it to a hair sample found at the crime scene at the time of the murder.
Finding Lapniewski was not an easy process.
The company Parabon used DNA collected at the crime scene to develop a profile and then used a genealogy database to find possible relatives of the suspected killer.
“What we are able to do with that data is to put it into a genetic genealogy database, and places where people have chosen to put their DNA data, and opted in to law enforcement matching,” said Dr. Ellen Greytak with Parabon.
She is not able to comment on any specific case but said the genealogy database and DNA are the starting point of their work.
“Our genealogists are able to build family trees and then go back in time because we know that sometime in the past, they must have shared ancestors, so the trick is finding them. So you build those family trees back and find those ancestors and then look forward to see who is living now,” Greytak said.
Parabon does not use data from the popular DNA companies 23andMe or Ancestry because of legal limitations.
“We do not have access to databases like 23andMe and Ancestry DNA. Those are private databases. We do not see anything, we don’t use them,” Gretak said.
Those databases are the most popular and could open up millions of possible matches for Parabon.
“That would change everything. Many, many more cases would be solvable, but we need people to be okay with what we’re doing with DNA,” Gretak added.
Still, the company has been successful in linking a number of suspected killers to known cases.
“In the end, it’s the genealogy techniques, really the DNA just gives our genealogists sort of a piece of the puzzle, they then have to put it together building those family trees and figuring out who that person is, I mean really that’s just investigation,” said Gretak.
In 1987, four days after Opal Weil was murdered in her home, Eleanor Swift was killed. Nine days later, 86-year-old Maria Elz was attacked but survived. Detectives at the time thought the cases were connected.
Dr. Joseph Cillo is a professor of criminal justice at St. Leo University and said it’s possible Lapniewski committed other crimes.
“Someone who is going to kill again because that’s what they do. There is no explaining that need to kill,” Cillo said.
He said detectives will now likely look here and across the country at other locations where Lapniewski has lived to see if he can be connected to other crimes.
“Connecting them isn’t that difficult if you understand what you are looking for. Look for similarities that are not normal or natural,” Cillo said.
He says sequential or serial killers often get away with crimes for years because they move frequently.
“They have cooling off periods, so that’s what throws investigators off because the cooling off period and they move local, geographically across the country, that’s why sequential killers and serial killers stay uncaught for 20, 30, 40 years,” Cillo added.
Lapniewski has only been charged with first-degree murder in the case of Opal Weil. No other charges have been filed.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said this is an open and active investigation.