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Florida police solve 35-year-old murder cold case with advances in DNA technology

The suspect was sentenced to life in prison for a separate murder in 1999 and died in 2015

August 15, 2021

After 28-year-old Denise Marie Stafford was murdered in 1985 in Sarasota, Florida, the case went cold for decades despite investigators' best efforts at finding her killer.

Now, thanks to advancements in DNA technology, the Sarasota Police Department announced Wednesday that they linked Joseph Magaletti, a convicted killer who died in prison in 2015, to the crime through DNA that was found on Stafford's pants.

"Everyone matters, or no one matters," Jeff Birdwell, who is assigned to the Sarasota Police Department's Criminal Investigations Division, said at a press conference Wednesday, citing author Michael Connelly. "Truly, that's the motto for us, is that regardless of how old these cases are, or regardless if the person who did it is alive, incarcerated, or dead, the answers are in the books, and if we put forth the effort and apply today's science, we've got a chance to make a difference."

Birdwell took another look at the case in March 2020, sending multiple pieces of evidence to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other agencies for testing.

Last month, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told Birdwell that DNA taken from the pants Stafford was wearing were a match for Magaletti, who was a person of interest in the investigation decades ago but was never named a suspect.

"This is years of work by not only myself but sworn detectives and fellow civilians at the Sarasota Police Department who have a passion to close these cases," Birdwell said Wednesday. "Thanks to science and advancements in DNA testing and technology, all cold cases have a chance. We're not giving up on any case and this case being solved, 35 years later, is a testament to that."

Birdwell was convicted of murder in another case in 1999 and Birdwell said that he is currently investigating his potential connection to another cold case in the area.

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Dorla Knipper, Stafford's mother, thanked the Sarasota Police Department Wednesday for bringing her and her family some closure.

"He's not going to harm anyone else," Knipper said at Wednesday's press conference. "From the beginning, I didn't want to see any other mother go through what our family has. The police department has done [a] fabulous job."

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