It was a case that looked like it might never be solved.
But 28 years after a homeless man discovered the body of 16-year-old murder victim Deanna Lee Criswell in the town of Marana, the cold case is no longer cold.
When police initially recovered Criswell’s body, her face was so badly decomposed that identifying her was impossible. She had no identification on her, and no missing person’s report had been filed on her behalf.
From the beginning, police were at a standstill not only in identifying the victim, but also in determining a suspect since there were no witnesses to the shooting that took her life.
Criswell was buried as a Jane Doe, and for more than two decades the case remained stagnant.
But in March 2009, Marana Police Department (MPD) Crime Scene Supervisor Tom Mooney reopened the investigation after he saw photos of the crime scene.
“That got me interested,” said Mooney, a 13-year veteran of MPD and 33-year law enforcement veteran.
After reviewing case evidence, Mooney requested to have Criswell’s body exhumed so he could get a sample of her DNA to check for cross-matches in the CODIS database. He also wanted to examine her dental work and have a facial reconstruction mold created.
The decision paid off, albeit sometime later. Upon initial testing, the CODIS database yielded no match to Criswell’s DNA. The FBI created a facial reconstruction, but that too didn’t get the immediate attention Mooney and others involved in the case had hoped for.
The case seemed to be slipping away again.
“I had boxed everything up, put everything away,” said Mooney. “Mentally it felt like it was as far as it could go.”
But then, about six weeks ago, Mooney got a phone call from a woman inquiring about the facial reconstruction, giving Mooney new momentum.
The caller, who had seen the reconstruction on a social media site, said her niece had been missing for years.
She gave Mooney the contact information for Criswell’s divorced mother and father, each who said they were willing to provide a DNA sample to compare to Criswell’s for a cross-match.
“I was pleasantly surprised when I got that phone call from the aunt, but I couldn’t feel good until I knew for sure,” said Mooney.
Mooney was riding his motorcycle last week when he got the message on his phone from the crime lab that Criswell’s DNA cross-matched the samples provided by her mother and father. That served as closure for Mooney.
“It was a difficult case,” said Mooney. “There always seemed to be a hurdle to get over. This was really a team effort from a variety of departments, officers, and agencies.”
One of the hurdles investigators had to leap was in identifying the killer, which police managed to do long before identifying the victim.
Thanks to DNA left behind on the victim, the killer was identified in 2011 as William Knight who, like Criswell, was a native of Spokane, Wash. Knight had died in 2005 in prison from liver disease while serving a life sentence for a string of crimes.
“He had escalated from property crimes in Washington to violent crimes including armed robberies in the Tucson and Phoenix areas,” said MPD Crime Analyst Janice Moser, who tracked Knight’s crime sprees.
Officers involved in the case believe Knight and Criswell knew each other, and there are theories that Knight bought Criswell’s bus ticket to Tucson.
Criswell was reburied with a charm that Mooney bought her. He bought an identical one for the family as well.
“I didn’t want to just tell them, ‘Yes, your daughter is dead,’” Mooney said. “I wanted them to have something more than that.”
Mooney reminds the public that law enforcement will take DNA samples from family members of missing persons.