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Police Crack 20-Year-Old Cold Case Thanks to DNA Evidence

Testing unavailable at the time recently led West Deptford police to a rape suspect they had sought for 20 years.

It was the unsolvable case.

Buried in the evidence room, a cold case sat for nearly two decades before being pulled off the shelf by Detective Cpl. Anna Connelly.

In the file was a 1992 apartment burglary and rape of a woman at the complex, a case that had languished after lab results proved inconclusive and the trail ran cold.

In stepped Detective Cpl. Michael Cramer, who embarked on a seven-month mission to close out the crime using one thing not available 20 years ago: DNA.

The attack happened late in the night on May 18, 1992. A 32-year-old woman awoke around 3 a.m. to find a man standing beside her bed. He then raped her after threatening to stab her with a knife.

West Deptford detectives investigated the crime extensively, laying the ideal groundwork for the 2011 reopening of the file, Cramer said, including storing in local evidence samples of bodily fluids taken at the scene.

“The case would’ve been dead if we didn’t have biological evidence,” Cramer said.

That evidence gave Cramer the chance to send the samples back to the State Police laboratory in Trenton in September 2011. A little more than two months later, there was news.

On December 8, 2011, a report from the lab identified 52-year-old Deptford resident Dewaine Thornton as a possible match.

But state law requires a redundant test, meaning Cramer had to draw up an affidavit, get a search warrant, and track down Thornton to get a swab of cheek cells to match against the initial positive DNA match.

That’s when Thornton disappeared. Family members told Cramer they didn’t know where he was, and the case could’ve hit another dead end.

“He knew the heat was on,” West Deptford Chief Craig Mangano said.

But Cramer followed Thornton’s trail to an aunt’s house in the Ambler section of Whitpain Township, PA—which meant crafting another warrant and getting help from Pennsylvania police.

Along with Whitpain Detective Sgt. William Armstrong, Cramer tracked Thornton down to a home on Railroad Avenue in Ambler and got the DNA swab to send up to Trenton.

On March 19, that second DNA sample proved a match to the original, and there was no question Thornton was the rapist, Cramer said.

Thornton was immediately charged with sexual assault by force or coercion, aggravated assault during the commission of a burglary, and aggravated sexual assault with a weapon. A judge set bail at $150,000.

Thornton was still walking the streets, though, so Cramer got in touch with Deptford police to arrest Thornton at his family’s home on Brookfield Avenue.

But Thornton wasn’t going without a fight.

He bolted out the back door when police arrived, Cramer said, and fled to a neighbor’s home on Carver Drive. Cramer, West Deptford Investigator Richard Henry and Deptford K-9 officer Adam Ziegler caught him at that house, where Cramer said Thornton lashed out at officers, resulting in additional charges for resisting arrest and aggravated assault on police—and an additional $75,000 in bail.

A videotaped interview back at West Deptford police headquarters led to a confession from Thornton, Cramer said, including the fact that Thornton was high on drugs and looking to steal cash to get more drugs at the time of the burglary.

Magano called the conclusion a credit to Cramer’s aggressive police work in taking on something that stymied police when it happened.

“He saw it as an opportunity to solve a case he knew couldn’t be solved back then,” Mangano said.

The victim, who never knew if her attacker was still out on the loose, was kept in the loop during the investigation, Mangano said, and was told of Thornton’s arrest just after it happened.

“Now she gets some closure out of this, as well,” Mangano said.

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