A Virginia woman searching for her biological mom helped investigators crack a 40-year-old cold case, allowing them to confirm that her mother was the previously unidentified victim of a 1980 murder.
Christine Marie Salley, 41, had always known she’d been adopted, according to the San Bernardino County, Calif., Sheriff’s Office. But she wanted to find her biological parents, and in 2018 she hired a private investigator to help her.
The investigator found adoption paperwork that identified Salley’s biological mother as Pamela Dianne Duffey. He also submitted a sample of Salley’s DNA to GEDmatch, a public database where users can voluntarily upload DNA test results from commercial DNA testing companies to widen their searches for relatives.
In December GEDmatch suggested a parent-child relationship between Salley and a DNA sample uploaded by investigators of a woman whose body was discovered in a shallow desert grave in November 1980 in Ludlow, Calif.
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An archaeologist had found the grave, which contained the bodies of two homicide victims, the female and a male. Autopsies indicated they had died from a combination of gunshot wounds and blunt force trauma. But both were naked, and there was no identification found at the gravesite, frustrating investigators who had no idea who they were.
After learning about Salley’s match, San Bernardino County investigators contacted her. She gave them her biological mother’s name, then provided another DNA sample that was analyzed by the California Department of Justice — and this month, tests confirmed a match and positively ID’d the female victim as Duffy, who was 21 when she died.
As for the other victim, Salley said she’d learned that her mother, before going missing, associated with a man known as “Digger Lane.” She’d learned that Lane had served time in a Virginia prison, and planned to travel across the U.S. with her mother after his release.
Investigators who couldn’t locate a “Digger Lane” nonetheless researched the approximate prison release date of a man named Lane, and came up with William Everette Lane, whose arrest reports gave a home address in Jacksonville, Fla.
Using that address, investigators tracked down several Lane family members, including Lane’s biological mother, who provided DNA that also was sent to the California DOJ for testing. This month that testing also confirmed Lane, 20, as the male victim.
A suspect in the killings, Howard Neal, now 68, had long been on the radar of law enforcement.
According to the sheriff’s office, Neal lived in Ludlow around the time of the murders, but shortly afterward moved with his wife and young daughter to Mississippi, where he murdered his brother, then raped and killed a 13-year-old niece and her 12-year-old friend. Those victims were discovered in February 1981. He was convicted of the crimes and sentenced to death in 1982.
California investigators repeatedly tried to interview Neal in relation to the Ludlow murders, but not until 2017 did they succeed, finally questioning him in a Mississippi prison.
“He could not remember anything about the male victim other than he looked like what he described as a ‘hippie,'” the sheriff’s office said in a news release. “He told investigators he picked the couple up while they were hitchhiking on the freeway. He then brought the two to his residence, where he became involved in an argument with the male.”
“The argument stemmed because of Neal attempting to make physical advances toward the female,” according to the release. “Neal told investigators the argument became so intense; he felt the male would probably kill him if he did not kill him first.”
“Neal then shot and killed the male. After doing so, Neal continued his advances toward the female. Investigators believe Neal sexually assaulted her then killed her. Neal then transported the victims to an isolated desert area south of Highway 66, dug a shallow grave, and disposed of the bodies.”
About eight years after Neal was sentenced for the Mississippi murders, the Mississippi Court of Appeals commuted his death sentence to three life terms, which he is currently serving.
He has not been charged in the Ludlow killings.