PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Michael Lapniewski stood before a Pinellas County judge on Monday morning. The 55-year-old is accused of killing 82-year-old Opal Weil 36 years ago.
On Feb. 9, 1987, Weil was found dead at a home in unincorporated St. Petersburg. Investigators said she had been choked and beaten.
Hairs found at the scene helped investigators develop a partial DNA profile.
Investigators believed the same person murdered an 84-year-old Seminole woman, Eleanor Swift, who was was suffocated with a couch cushion in her home just days after Weil.
In December 2020, a Pinellas County cold case unit asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to conduct additional testing on the hairs found at Weil’s home, and sent them to Parabon Nanolabs for further genealogical testing.
“Through extensive testing, Parabon was able to identify familial relatives and narrow it down to three possible males,” Pinellas County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Brenn said. “Two of which were able to be eliminated.”
Records show Lapniewski moved several times after he lived in Pinellas County in 1987. Investigators learned he had been living in Waveland, Mississippi. With the help of police in the area, they were able to get a DNA sample from Lapniewski after offering him a free meal, which led to his arrest.
Dr. Bryanna Fox is an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology at U.S.F. and a former F.B.I. Special Agent. She says it’s likely Lapniewski has killed more than once.
“It seems very likely he didn’t just desist out of the thin blue sky, when he was never caught, he never seemed to have anything that changed in his life, so why would he just all of a sudden stop,” said Fox.
However, she says linking him to other cold cases will not be easy.
“One thing that people don’t really know is that most cold case information is not digitized, there are literally hard paper files in boxes in cold case units. The first thing that people have to do is actually go though those cold cases and see, what was the method of murder, what type of evidence is there, when can it be tested again,” said Fox.
Fox says other agencies, outside of Tampa Bay, may not have the resources to investigate cold case crimes.
“Many cold cases, there are so few resources to investigate them and they’re not even digitized, so you can’t just search for key terms and so you literally have to go through and and manually read them all,” said Fox.
Another pretrial hearing has been set for Lapniewski in June.