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The murder that might never be solved:

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Detroit, MI

Evidence destroyed in unsolved '72 slaying

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Merry Wilson, 50, of Detroit holds a photo of her sister Laura Wilson, 16, who was raped and murdered in 1972. / August photo by KIMBERLY P. MITCHELL/Detroit Free

It was Nov. 10, 1972. Laura Wilson, a shy teenager from the Herman Gardens housing project on Detroit's west side, walked to a nearby convenience store to buy a carton of Oleo and two bottles of Pepsi for her mother.

She had pleaded to go alone.

Nine days later, her body was found in some bushes just blocks away from home. She'd been raped and beaten. Her head was smashed in with a brick.

Nearly four decades later, her family still has no answers.

Short of a confession, it's likely they'll never know who killed the 16-year-old because all of the evidence was destroyed or lost.

Her bloodstained clothing was ordered destroyed in 1977; the Pepsi bottle followed in 1978. A brick and a chunk of concrete marked with blood and hair strands were destroyed in 1984. The fingernail scrapings and rape evidence -- swabs taken during the autopsy -- are nowhere to be found.

Her story illustrates what legal experts say is a pervasive problem nationwide -- the mishandling of criminal evidence largely because of a lack of uniform standards for retaining evidence.

Law enforcement doesn't track how often evidence gets lost or destroyed, but experts concede it's not uncommon.

"It happens," said Joe Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence, who helps oversee 18,000 police departments nationwide. "I track all the headlines. Missing guns, money and narcotics. If it's your son or daughter, it's a huge deal."

A confession is family's only hope in solving a 1972 murder after evidence was destroyed

Merry Wilson was just 11 years old when her sister was murdered in Detroit in 1972 -- one of more than 600 homicide victims in the city that year.

It was 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 10, 1972, when 16-year-old Laura Wilson left her home in the projects to walk to a nearby convenience store. She was wearing her flared, blue-and-brown-striped Wrangler jeans, a tan coat with fur trim, purple turtleneck and white sneakers with her name written in the soles.

She had 63 cents in food stamps with her.

She never returned.

Her case is among more than 19,000 unsolved homicides in the city, dating to 1917. In the past decade, the city's homicide clearance rate has averaged from 35% to 45%, but climbed to 54% in 2010.

Short of a confession, the Wilsons will likely never find Laura's killer because the evidence was ordered destroyed and some remains missing.

Experts say that's a common problem, especially among big city departments handling large volumes of evidence. They say no national standards exist, leaving it up to police departments to decide how to store key items that could make the difference in solving a case.

A needle in a haystack

Legal experts say no laws exist that mandate evidence in unsolved murders be preserved indefinitely. A federal law requires biological evidence be preserved in a murder case where there's been a conviction, should the defendant wish to pursue an appeal. And 33 states, including Michigan, have similar laws.

But when it comes to preserving evidence in unsolved cases, that's up to police departments.

"Standards are hit and miss from department to department," said University of Michigan law professor Dave Moran, who runs an innocence clinic. "We're often looking for old evidence, and it's very hard to find."

Detroit police officials would not talk about their evidence retention policies. Officials directed the Free Press to file a Freedom of Information Act request, which is pending.

Over the last decade, crime lab scandals involving lost, destroyed or tainted evidence have surfaced in cities nationwide, including Houston, Denver, Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans and New York.

The scandals can prove costly.

In New York City, for example, a Bronx man last year won an $18.5-million jury award after a rape kit in his case finally surfaced in a warehouse -- 10 years after he asked for it. The man had served two decades in prison, but DNA evidence analyzed from the rape kit exonerated him.

Joe Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence, who has helped train Detroit police on evidence-handling methods, said it's not unusual for large police departments to be cluttered and unorganized, making finding items extremely difficult.

"Think of Costco. They're that size," he said of evidence rooms. "And if you're looking for something that's the size of an iPhone or the tag came off or it's underneath something ... the stuff could be there."

Evidence but no solid leads

Nine days after she disappeared, Laura's partially nude body was found in some bushes at 8426 Mettetal St. on the city's far west side. She had been raped, and her head was smashed with a brick, almost beyond recognition. Her body was found by a group of boys playing football.

"It didn't look real," recalled Lowell Murdoch, who was 15 when he, his brother and a friend found Laura's body. "It was shocking. At first we were scared. Luckily, we knew the guy who lived next door, and he got help."

Police collected evidence: a brick and a chunk of concrete that had blood stains and hair strands on it; a prayer book that was found near Laura's body, also stained with blood, and her clothing. They also recovered the items she got at the store -- margarine, a bottle of pop and the receipt.

They had numerous tips, including several reports that Laura got into a red car. And police had suspects.

According to a 183-page police file on Laura's case, which the Free Press obtained from the family, one man was arrested following a traffic stop, but was released when his alibi was confirmed.

Laura's boyfriend also came under suspicion, but police never questioned him. According to police records, the boyfriend, who drove a maroon car, was arrested on the morning that Laura went missing for driving without a license. He was jailed overnight.

"This would kind of negate him as the assailant," police wrote in their report. "However, our interest was in the maroon car (could have let a friend use it while he was incarcerated)."

Police ultimately went to the boyfriend's apartment. They found it had been vacated. They interviewed his family members and ruled him out.

The case went cold.

For years, Merry Wilson and Linda Patterson, the eldest of the Wilson sisters, called police to check on their sister's case. Each time, they got the same response: no new leads.

Since Laura's death, at least two of the officers who investigated the case have died. So have her parents.

One of the detectives told the Free Press he couldn't recall the case, but that's not so for retired Police Officer Ronald Atkinson, who nearly 40 years later still remembers the details. "It startled me," Atkinson, now 68, recalled. "I'm kind of a softie, and it may have shook me up a little bit discovering that it was a young person."

Atkinskon, who was among the first on the scene, said he never knew that the evidence was destroyed.

"I'm sorry the chain of evidence is broken, and my condolences probably have little meaning for the family," he said, unable to offer an explanation. "It's a shame that this happened."

He added: "I don't think this would happen nowadays."

Still searching for answers

Merry Wilson has tried for years to put her sister's death behind her.

But every time she learns of a cold case getting solved or hears about crime lab scandals and evidence getting lost, she gets fired up again and asks questions.

"I get consumed in it," she said of her sister's death. "It doesn't let me go."

In 2006, she started asking about the evidence after waking up from a dream in the middle of the night. She had seen Laura, just staring at her and saying nothing.

"It just froze me," she said. "I thought, 'I gotta do something.' "

Wilson learned in 2006 that much of the evidence was destroyed in the late 1970s. On Oct. 22, 2008, Wilson received a letter from Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano's office stating: "After a complete search of all files, it has been determined that no slides or tissue samples exist. I offer my most sincere condolences for your loss."

Detroit police would not discuss Wilson's case and would say only that they are reviewing the matter.

Patterson, who had to identify her sister's body when she was 22, is baffled and outraged.

"I always assumed that if it's an open murder case, you cannot destroy the evidence," said Patterson, who now lives in Tennessee.

The Wilson family is pleading for a more thorough investigation. They don't blame the Police Department for past mistakes, but they say they deserve a more thorough review of the case -- and an apology.

"I want them to explain why this stuff was destroyed. Somebody has to answer for that," said Merry Wilson, who still lives in the city.

"Somewhere along the line this shouldn't have to happen to anyone else."

Patterson said she won't stop looking for her sister's killer.

"I loved her so much that I want people to know that she was loved and cared about," Patterson said. "I'll never give up because there is always somebody out there who knows something."

2011-10-31_murder that might never be solved_02
Merry Wilson, 50, of Detroit holds a photo of her sister Laura Wilson, who was raped and murdered in 1972. Laura was 16 years old. The case has never been solved, and Wilson learned in 2006 that much of the evidence in the case was ordered destroyed by police in the late 1970s. August photos by KIMBERLY P. MITCHELL/Detroit Free

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Wilson sits at home looking over documents about her sister's murder that she has collected from Detroit Police through the Freedom of Information Act. The Police Department would not discuss Wilson's case. photos by KIMBERLY P. MITCHELL/Detroit Free

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