Killer identified in 1981 cold case using DNA evidence

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BRYAN, Tex. (KBTX) - Monday afternoon, the Brazos County Sheriff's Office announced DNA evidence has pinpointed the likely killer of Virginia Freeman.

An exhumation of his body is planned to confirm his identity.

Sheriff Chris Kirk said James Otto Earhart is believed to have murdered Freeman, a realtor, on December 1, 1981, outside a rural Brazos County residence she had been showing to a prospective client.

Earhart was convicted of murdering nine-year-old Kandy Kirtland on May 12, 1987, and put to death for the crime on August 11, 1999. Earhart is also suspected of killing 51-year-old Ruth Richardson Green in 1986.

Hours after the announcement, Freeman's children issued a statement to KBTX saying, "We are grateful to Sheriff Chris Kirk, Criminal Investigator Kenny Elliott, the Brazos County Sheriff’s Department and all others involved in solving the case of our mother’s murder. We hope that this brings some closure to all who were affected by this crime."

A DNA sample was not taken from Earhart at the time of his death, but Brazos County investigators were able to locate his son, who offered his DNA. That DNA indicated a parent-child match between the two men, evidence the sheriff's office called "clear and convincing."

DNA evidence analyzed by Parabon NanoLabs in the creation of their Snapshot profile of Freeman's killer led to the belief that Earhart was the killer. The Brazos County Sheriff's Office released Parabon's profile to the public in March of 2017. Parabon contacted the sheriff's office on June 20, 2018 with the hypothesis that Earhart was Freeman's killer.

"The solving of this 'cold' case after 37 years of investigating, brings relief and closure for the Freeman family, Virginia's friends, the local real estate industry and our community," said Sheriff Chris Kirk in a statement. "It is an incredible example of the tenacity and perseverance of the investigators involved in this case. Also, we were blessed with opportunities to take advantage of emerging technologies in forensic sciences that [led] to a break-through. We are elated to finally close this case. Our one regret is that we cannot put handcuffs on the killer and prosecute him for the vicious killing of Virginia Freeman."

Sheriff Kirk also credited BCSO investigators Dick Gulledge and Kenny Elliott; Texas Rangers Bob Connell, Frank Malinak and Josh Ray; the DPS Crime Lab and Snapshot/Parabon NanoLabs as being critical to solving the case.