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'Needle in a haystack' evidence solves 1988 killing of California woman, authorities say

NBC News logo NBC News 5/18/2022 Tim Stelloh

A California man suspected of raping and killing a 79-year-old woman more than three decades ago was identified Tuesday after authorities examined fingernail scrapings that provided a DNA match.

Galt Police Chief Brian Kalinowski told reporters that advances in DNA technology allowed investigators to identify Terry Leroy Bramble as the man who allegedly sexually assaulted, strangled and stabbed Lucille Hultgren in her Northern California home in May 1988.

“The fingernails were key to solving this case,” Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said.

Lucille Hultgren. (Galt Police Dept. via Facebook) © Galt Police Dept. via Facebook Lucille Hultgren. (Galt Police Dept. via Facebook)

A motive in the killing remained unknown. Bramble, described by authorities as a sex offender and "longtime resident and transient" in the small community of Galt, died in October 2011 of natural causes.

Kalinowski said he was living under a highway bridge at the time.

"He was not on our radar as a potential suspect," Kalinowski said.

Hultgren, who had two sons, moved to the area 25 years earlier from Ohio and "lived a modest a life by all accounts," Schubert said. "Her church and her faith were important to her."

Her husband died the year before her death.

Two of Hultgren’s friends discovered her body in the bedroom of her home when they went to check on her after she missed church, Kalinowski said. The coroner believed her body had been there for between two and five days, he said.

Traditional investigative techniques failed to identify a suspect, as did earlier efforts to solve Galt's single cold case using DNA, said former Galt Police Chief Doug Matthews. The case was reexamined after a former detective who investigated the killing mentioned it to Schubert last year, she said.

Schubert noted that the sample required to analyze DNA has changed considerably over the years, shrinking from the size of a quarter to "less than one billionth of a Sweet and Low package."

Finding the fingernail scrapings ⁠— some of which were identified as belonging to Bramble ⁠— was like discovering a "needle in a haystack," she added.

A statement provided to authorities by Hultgren's one living son and read by Schubert said that he was "glad to know the case was solved. I wish the man was still alive to face the consequences. I wish my older brother was still alive to hear the news."

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