Killing of US high school student solved after 52 years
More than a half-century after Maryland high school student Pamela Conyers was found strangled to death following her disappearance from a local shopping mall, law enforcement officials announced Friday that they finally solved the case.
But the suspect, Forrest Clyde Williams III — whom detectives identified using DNA technology and genetics research — died in 2018 of natural causes.
Officials haven’t linked him to other unsolved crimes, leaving many unanswered questions for residents of the close-knit suburban community outside Baltimore.
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The night of Conyers’ disappearance, the 16-year-old attended a high school pep rally and then drove to the mall. Her parents reported her missing when she never returned from running errands.
Four days later, authorities discovered her body in a wooded area, not far from the family car she had been driving.
There was no evidence to suggest Conyers knew her accused killer, Anne Arundel County police officials said at a news conference on Friday.
They also said they haven’t ruled out the possibility that another suspect was involved, meaning the case is not yet considered closed.
Federal and local officials praised detectives for pursuing a decadeslong search for justice in the case.
“We are pleased to deliver a measure of justice for Pamela Conyers and her loved ones,” FBI agent Tom Sobocinski said.
“Cases may grow cold, investigators may change, but this proves that for law enforcement, victims are never forgotten.”
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Detectives used DNA analysis and a process called investigative genetic genealogy, both of which didn’t exist when Conyers was killed in 1970, Sobocinski said.
When investigators collected evidence from the 1970 crime scene, they had no idea how it might later be used. But cold case detectives recently developed a DNA profile that they compared to information available in publicly accessible genealogical databases, officials said.
That allowed them to identify potential relatives of the suspect, create a family tree and ultimately pinpoint Williams. He declined to specify which relatives led them to Williams or describe the process in detail.
But Sobocinski said the case demonstrates how evolving technology allows law enforcement to solve cold cases, a process that “has given hope where previously there may have been none".
Such genealogic investigations have revolutionised cold case investigations across the country in recent years, though privacy advocates have expressed concern about the implications of law enforcement accessing public genealogy databases.
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Anne Arundel County officials provided little information about Williams, saying only that he had a sparse criminal history and spent most of his life in Virginia. He was 21 when Conyers was killed.
Officials said his family moved to Maryland when Williams was a teenager and he attended an Anne Arundel County high school. He moved back to Virginia sometime later. Police presented an old mugshot of Williams from the early 1970s, saying he was arrested locally on minor counts, including drunk and disorderly conduct.
Online court records didn’t include a reference to that arrest, though they show he received a citation for fishing without a license in 1990.
Calls to phone numbers associated with his relatives weren’t immediately returned Friday.
Williams was survived by two children and many other relatives, according to his obituary.
“If he were still alive, he would have been charged with the murder of Pamela Conyers,” Anne Arundel County Police Chief Amal Awad said during the Friday news conference.
Officials said the Conyers family had requested privacy.
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Michael Golden, a high school classmate of Conyers, said the announcement brought some sense of closure — but also raised more questions. Golden attended the news conference with his high school yearbook in hand, opening it to a photo of Conyers.
“It’s still frustrating because I don’t know anything about this guy,” he said of the suspect. “It’s something all of our classmates … have been grappling with for all these years.”
Golden, who befriended Conyers during band practice, said he vividly remembers when she went missing. He recalled an image of her empty desk in trigonometry class the Monday morning after her disappearance.
“I still mourn her death,” he said. “I got to grow old, and she didn’t. She’s forever 16.”
David Wells, another longtime community member whose wife went to school with Conyers, said he was serving in the Air Force when the case was unfolding. He recalled being stationed in Hawaii and receiving letters from family members about the tragedy back home.
Wells said he was surprised to learn detectives didn’t believe her killing was linked to other cold case homicides involving young women victims around the same time.
While the investigation remains open, officials said detectives don’t believe the Conyers case is connected to the killing of Catherine Ann Cesnik, a Baltimore nun who went missing from a local shopping centre and later was found dead from blunt force trauma. That case was featured in a 2017 Netflix documentary, The Keepers.