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Free meal offer leads to arrest in 1987 killing of Pinellas woman, 82

Tampa Bay Times 2/1/2023 Chris Tisch, Natalie Weber, Tampa Bay Times

A man’s inability to turn down a free meal has contributed to his arrest in connection with the slaying of an 82-year-old Pinellas County woman that had gone unsolved for 36 years.

Michael Lapniewski, 55, was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on Tuesday afternoon on a charge of first-degree murder in connection with the 1987 slaying of Opal Weil, a widow who was choked and beaten in her Lealman home.

DNA was a key factor in cracking the case, according to an arrest affidavit written by Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office detectives. But how they got the DNA involved a clever ruse in which they advertised a free meal at a restaurant — an offer to which Lapniewski responded.

After he finished his meal and left, detectives seized the spoon and fork Lapniewski had used and submitted them for DNA testing. They were a match to hairs that had been found on Weil’s pink nightgown, her electric blanket and her bed after her killing, according to the affidavit.

However, a major question remains: Could Lapniewski face charges in two similar attacks, including one in which an 84-year-old Seminole woman, Eleanor Swift, was suffocated with a couch cushion in her home just days after Weil?

Pinellas detectives have previously said that they believe the cases are related. Both women lived alone, and the killer gained entry to their homes by prying or cutting open a back door or window. Investigators found straight brown hair left behind at each scene. And the killer stole wedding rings from both victims.

Bob Corry, one of Swift’s grandsons, said he’ll leave it up to law enforcement to determine whether Lapniewski is a suspect in his grandmother’s killing. Still, the 68-year-old said, he and his relatives are happy to see an arrest in Weil’s killing.

“We’ve kind of held on to the same hope together,” he said.

Investigators also suspected a third case, in which a 75-year-old woman was attacked in her Pinellas Park home, could be related. The attacker in that case tried to suffocate the woman with a couch cushion, but she escaped to a neighbor’s house. The attacker got away with her wedding ring and other jewelry.

A spokesperson for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office declined an interview request Thursday, citing an ongoing investigation.

Weil lived alone on the 4700 block of 56th Avenue North, but was frequently checked on by family members who lived nearby. A family member found her dead on her bedroom floor on the morning of Feb. 9, 1987. Her phone line had been cut.

Detectives placed the hairs that were found at the scene into evidence and sent them to the FBI for testing. As DNA testing progressed over the years, the hairs were determined to belong to a male. The DNA was entered into a national database, but no matches were found.

In 2020, the Sheriff’s Office sought additional DNA testing, which later included a genealogy investigation through Parabon Nanolabs that matched up to three brothers. The first brother had DNA that was already in the national database, so he was eliminated. The second brother was dead.

The third brother was Michael Lapniewski, who detectives learned had lived less than a half-mile from Weil in 1987. He had since moved to Mississippi, the affidavit states.

Coordinating with police departments in Mississippi, Pinellas detectives followed Lapniewski into a gas station on the morning of July 16. They watched as Lapniewski used a red straw to mix a cup of coffee, then sucked on the straw before throwing it into the trash. After Lapniewski left the station, detectives seized the straw and placed it into evidence.

Lapniewski did the same thing three hours later, and once again detectives seized the straw. Both straws were submitted for DNA testing.

But detectives had another trick up their sleeve.

Ray Murphy, an investigator with the Waveland Police Department in Mississippi, owned a restaurant there and knew Lapniewski, who was a frequent customer. Investigators hatched a plan to advertise a promotion in which loyal customers could receive a free meal if they appeared at the restaurant on a certain day and time.

They placed a flyer on Lapniewski’s vehicle advertising the promotion, and Lapniewski showed up for breakfast — ordering something like eggs, bacon, hash browns and biscuits, Murphy said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.

Both the DNA from the spoon and the fork they seized after he left the restaurant and the coffee straws taken from the gas station were a match to Lapniewski, according to the arrest affidavit written by detectives.

Murphy said Lapniewski actually had done work on his son’s house, recently replacing a handrail. They knew Lapniewski because Waveland is a small community with a population of only about 7,000 people. Lapniewski had had some run-ins with the law, Murphy said, so the investigation didn’t come as a shock.

“I wasn’t surprised, to say the least,” Murphy said.

Lapniewski was arrested in Mississippi on Jan. 26 and was extradited to Pinellas County this week. He is being held without bail.

Traci Crawford was 22 years old and living with her parents in St. Petersburg when Weil, her great-aunt, was killed. After Weil’s death, Crawford lost a sense of safety. When her dad left the house to get the mail, she would lock the door behind him. To this day, she still sleeps with Mace beside her bed.

She said she was relieved when she got the news that Lapniewski had been arrested.

“He needs to confess to what he’s done,” Crawford, now 58, said. “He needs to stand up and be accountable.”

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