Unlocking the truth: DNA leads to suspect in '76 slaying of Columbine student

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By Adrienne Anderson

DNA is unlocking the doors to ice-cold cases once believed unsolvable.

Samples from convicted felons led police to a suspect in the 1976 slaying of Columbine High student Holly Marie Andrews in Clear Creek County. Suspects also were identified in a string of violent rapes from 2004 and 2005 in Denver, Aurora and Arapahoe County.

Investigators with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Department arrested a suspect Feb. 1 in connection with the 1976 slaying of Andrews, who was 16 years old.

Andrews was found dead by two hikers on Dec. 27, 1976, near Bakerville. She was raped and had been stabbed six times in the back and slashed across the chest.

Ricky Lee Harnish, 52, was arrested early Feb. 1 and is in custody in Clear Creek County without bail. He is being charged with first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping.

Judge Rachel Vasquez put a gag order on the case, forcing Clear Creek Sheriff Don Krueger to remain silent about details of the arrest and the case.

Andrews’ father and two of her brothers have been notified of the arrest.

"They are just ecstatic," said CBI Agent Mark Wilson. "They are very happy."

Genetic fingerprint

Long gone are the days when criminals could wear gloves to avoid detection at a crime scene. DNA technology has advanced to the level where a single hair or even skin cell can leave a genetic fingerprint that law enforcement officers can use to match with suspects. The technology has been used to exonerate innocent people and help solve long inactive cases.

In 2007, a new law began requiring that all convicted felons submit a DNA sample, which is then sent to Colorado's DNA database. The database also contains genetic fingerprints left behind at unsolved crime scenes across Colorado. The system is continually searching for a match. And it's been busy.

In the last month, that database has yielded 25 matches for open investigations of murder, rape, car theft and burglary.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey spoke with a smile when announcing the arrest of a suspect in a series of rapes that haunted Denver in 2004 and 2005. His smile quickly vanished when he discussed legislation he will be pushing that would allow officers to take a DNA sample when booking someone on a felony arrest.

"There could have been numerous victims that would not have suffered at the hands of this suspect," Morrissey said.

The suspect, Michael Keith Lollis, had been arrested earlier in 2004 on a felony charge.

A gruesome murder left unsolved

It was just three days after Christmas in 1976 when two cross-country skiers found Andrews’ naked body. Andrews had recently completed a treatment program, and the family said she was putting her life back together. She left her mother's house in Littleton to see a friend and never returned.

Her brother, Dave Andrews, told the Rocky Mountain News he has been haunted by the unanswered questions. "I love my sister; justice is going to be served," he said.

In 1976, Clear Creek Sheriff Gene Kiefer said in a Clear Creek Courant article, "We're gonna crack this one."

Little did he know that, 31 years later, DNA would reveal the only reliable suspect the police have had in this murder investigation.

"Without the work of first responders and investigators, we would not be able to do our work," said Robert Cantwell, CBI director.

Krueger said he has two full-time investigators trained to process crime scenes, and the CBI also helps process high-profile crime scenes. State statutes dictate how long departments must keep evidence, and in murder cases sometimes the evidence is kept indefinitely.

"All of them are trained on what they should do and shouldn't do," Krueger said.

Any time forensic evidence is taken from a crime scene, the information is passed on to the CBI to be put in the database, which has been kept since 1994. It now includes more than 71,000 profiles of convicted felons.

"This is a day we have been looking forward to since 1994," Morrissey said.

And all of the investigators at the Feb. 1 news conference expressed hope that it would be the first of many news conferences announcing arrests in unsolved cases.

In Clear Creek County, there are six other cold cases. One includes the high-profile disappearance of Beth Miller.

"Beth Miller is still ongoing," Krueger said. "We are always looking at new leads."

The other cases involve another unsolved murder, two unidentified skulls and two missing persons.

Asked if he believed more cases could be solved, Krueger said: "I hope so. That's what this is all about. It feels good. I'd love to say more."