Police pursue suspects near and far;

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE (Massachusetts), NEWS; Pg. A1
BYLINE: Scott J. Croteau, TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

Worcester, MA

Alabama body may hold DNA key to 3 cold cases

City detectives were in Alabama yesterday, working to exhume a body from a cemetery outside Tuskegee in an attempt to match a dead man's DNA to an unsolved Worcester slaying and two rapes from the 1990s.

Police will check for a match between DNA recovered in those three crimes and that of James Early Johnson, whose body lies in Ashdale Cemetery just outside Tuskegee, in Macon County, Ala.

According to the Worcester district attorney's office, DNA recovered in the Dec. 11, 1992, slaying of Denise A. Comeau matched DNA from two rapes committed in the 1990s in Worcester. "The DNA match implies that the man who committed the rapes also killed Ms. Comeau," the district attorney said in a news release.

Mr. Johnson was identified as a suspect in one of the rapes, but was never arrested. The rapes occurred in 1993 and 1995 in the city.
Working with District Attorney E. Paul Jones of the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Alabama, Worcester Detectives Daniel F. Sullivan and William T. Donovan headed to Alabama yesterday morning to exhume Mr. Johnson's body.

Worcester police have three investigators dedicated to unsolved cases and continue to pursue leads in many cases, Police Chief Gary J. Gemme said.

"We're going to pursue every lead to bring the perpetrators to justice," he said. Finding suspects in unsolved cases brings closure to victims, their families and the communities, the chief added.

Mr. Jones said he will meet with the Worcester detectives today and a pathologist will meet them at the gravesite. Tissue from the body will either be removed there, or will be taken to a nearby funeral home, Mr. Jones said.

Authorities plan to extract DNA from Mr. Johnson's body and compare it to the DNA recovered in the murder of Ms. Comeau and in the rapes.

Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said his investigators do not have a DNA profile for Mr. Johnson. The tissue will be brought back here and processed by the state police crime laboratory. A time frame for when that happens is unclear. Mr. Early said the crime laboratory is stretched thin during these tough economic times.

"We would not have exhumed the body on a good-faith basis if we did not believe James Earl Johnson was involved in these crimes," Mr. Early said.

Mr. Johnson was listed as a suspect in the 1993 rape, but for some reason the case was never prosecuted. Mr. Early, who was not the district attorney then, does not know why.

His office has contacted the victims' family members and made them aware of the exhumation and the "potential for a resolution to give them some closure."

"I want to thank District Attorney E. Paul Jones for his help in making the exhumation possible," Mr. Early said. "His efforts will provide the Massachusetts investigators with the evidence that we hope can close several horrible cases and bring a measure of closure to the victims' families."

Chief Gemme also said solving old cases needs cooperation from many agencies, which is the reason these cases are pursued further.

According to the news release, Mr. Johnson lived in Worcester for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s. He died in 2008 at the age of 61. Both rape victims are also now dead.

In 2007, when some of the DNA analysis took place, the statute of limitations for one of the rapes was about to expire, the release said.

"To keep the case alive, the district attorney's office presented evidence of the rape to the Worcester County grand jury," the district attorney's office said. "That presentation led to an indictment of a John Doe who was linked to the DNA."

Mr. Jones said he has had no contact with anyone in Alabama about Mr. Johnson. He was unaware of any criminal activity by Mr. Johnson since he took over as district attorney in 2005.

"He has never been on our radar screen, to our knowledge," Mr. Jones said.

On Dec. 11, 1992, Worcester firefighters responding at 12:50 a.m. to a fire at 141 Austin St. found the body of a woman inside the boarded-up house. Ms. Comeau's body was so badly burned that she could not be immediately identified. Authorities learned she had been strangled.

Mr. Jones said authorities in Massachusetts contacted him about two months ago about the DNA match in the case. He said investigators told him they had other evidence as well, but wanted the DNA in their investigation.

He commended authorities here for reviewing cold cases because departments can "pretty much ignore cases once they get five or six years old."

Staying vigilant on unsolved cases can also work as a crime deterrent, Mr. Jones said.

Some criminals may feel they can commit a crime and when time passes they are safe, but if criminals know they are never getting off the radar screen, they might think twice about breaking the law, Mr. Jones said.

NOTE: 1992 INCIDENT

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