Eight Years, Three States

Date Published 05.31.11
In the last story, a DNA match between unsolved homicides in Colorado confirmed what investigators there had long suspected.  The cases shared many similarities, and occurred just days apart.

But sometimes a cold case investigator submits old evidence for retesting and is hit with unexpected results.  What seemed like a contained, local murder can pivot into something more complex --- an irrefutable match links two very different crimes that share only one thing:  the perpetrator.

Greenville, South Carolina

Detective Tim Conroy wasn't working in the Greenville Police Department on April 6, 1990, the day Genevieve Zitricki's body was found, but he inherited her case, and twenty-one years later he is trying to solve it.

"The thought was, this is someone in the neighborhood who did this," Conroy says.

Maybe even someone in Genevieve's own apartment complex.

Pry marks on the sliding glass door off the patio showed that the killer used a tool to enter #227 at the Hidden Lakes Apartments, where Genevieve, 28 and recently divorced, lived alone.

Disarray in the bedroom indicated the struggle began there.  Genevieve's body was found in the bathtub.  She'd been beaten and strangled.


An obvious suspect didn't emerge.  Genevieve was a computer programmer, a young professional living in a complex with other young professionals; she was active in the community, and well liked.  Still, it seemed like it might be personal.

Genevieve Zitricki


America's Most Wanted reports that the killer left a threatening message on Genevieve's mirror.  Experts concluded he was wearing latex gloves during the crime.

A couple of weeks after the murder a jogger running outside the complex found a pair of rubber gloves that investigators believe belonged to the killer.

With the gloves was a photograph of a smiling young woman curled up on a couch, wearing just a t-shirt and underwear.

The woman's identity remained unknown until nearly twenty years later, when AMW ran a segment on the case and investigators released the photo and asked for tips.


Tips came in quickly with the woman's name.  The woman in question confirmed the photograph was of her, but she had no idea how it had gotten there.  Information she provided underscored the theory that the suspect was someone nearby at the time, who may have had ties to the complex.

The woman's husband, who was eliminated as a suspect through DNA, had lived at Genevieve's apartment complex before they got married.  At the time of the murder the couple lived just a block away.

Was she the intended target?  Who had access to the picture?  Maintenance men and contractors were investigated.  Detective Conroy says their focus remains on the apartment complex.  They've compiled a list of residents at the time, and talked with them about their memories of visitors and building workers; names are methodically ruled out through DNA.


What investigators now know, what surprised them, and ultimately might help them, is that while Genevieve Zitricki's killer might have been a familiar face in Greenville at the time, he reappeared eight years later in another state, with a different M.O. altogether but behaving no less violently.

Portageville, Missouri

Portageville is a small rural community in southeastern Missouri, known for its farms and its state-champion high school boys basketball team.

It's not a place usually associated with violent crime.  What happened on March 28, 1998 felt like an attack from the outside --- a stranger pulling off the highway, scanning for the closest victims, causing devastation, and then disappearing.

Tony Scherer returned from working in the fields just after 7 p.m. that night.  Scherer lived with his wife, Sherri, 37, and two children, Steve, and Megan, 12, an athletic sixth-grader who also thrived in her studies.


Scherer discovered the bodies of his wife and daughter in the living room.  They'd been shot repeatedly with a small-caliber gun; Megan was sexually assaulted.  Investigators determined the killer only had a 30-minute window to attack.

Several hours later, some 40 miles away in Dyersburg, Tennessee, a stranger approached a woman in her mobile home, saying he was looking for his friend "Jeremy Taylor," and needed directions.  When she demurred, the man insisted, repeating calmly that they needed to "take it inside."

She resisted, they struggled, and the man pulled a gun.  The woman was able to slam the door shut.  The attacker fired a shot through the door, striking the woman in the shoulder.  He took off in a dark-colored conversion van.

The Scherer murders were later conclusively linked to the Dyersburg attack through ballistics.

The surviving victims was able to provide a description of the stranger.  He was a white male, between 30 to 50 years old, with a small build, straight, medium length graying hair and graying mustache.  He wore glasses.



Suspect

It was noted that the Portageville and Dyersburg crime scenes were both off major highways.  Both homes had items left in the front yard that indicated children lived there.  The killer felt elusive, a transient threat escaping into anonymity along the highway.  The case went cold.

In 2006, it got hot again.  In Greenville, South Carolina, Detective Conroy had thought it couldn't hurt to resubmit evidence for DNA testing in the Genevieve Zitricki cold case.

The results showed a match between the Zitricki, Scherer and Dyersburg crimes.  It was the same man.


Looking for answers

With three specific locations to work with, geographic mapping seemed like the best hope to solve the case.  Analysts zeroed in on a spot between Portageville and Dyersburg, and tracked down the names of people who lived within a 75 mile radius of there in 1998.  They culled from that list the names of those with ties to South Carolina.  Conroy says the result was five promising leads, but DNA ultimately cleared all five.

Truckers seem like an obvious area of interest, but Conroy, while not wanting to rule it out, makes the point that a trucker is unlikely to be driving a conversion van.


They looked at short-term contract workers who had reason to be in the area, for instance because of a storm, phone or cable employees doing repairs, that kind of thing.  Nothing panned out.

The two crimes in 1998 occurring so close together in time, as opposed to the more planned and methodical Zitricki murder, is a possible clue.

"Did he see someone driving by and it stopped him?" Conroy says of the Portageville crime scene.  "What triggered him to continue?  He had unfinished business."


I'm not that familiar with conversion vans, so I did some Googling on them.  Out of curiosity I entered several different search terms, like "suspect conversion van," into Google.  Two results are interesting.

The first is a report of a rape in 1999 in Minneapolis.  A 19-year-old woman was forced into a dark brown conversion van, where she was raped and beaten to within an inch of her life.  She was able to escape, and described her attacker as a white male with ear length, dark strawberry blonde hair, a mustache, slight build, 30 to 40 years old.


He wore a dark brown uniform with an oval name patch, and may have been a delivery or utility worker.

The second result is even more promising.

I came across a story about a prison escapee from Florida who was stealing conversion vans in the spring of 1998.  He would steal luxury vans advertised in newspapers and dealerships, strip them of their expensive parts, and then sell the parts at truck stops.


He would drive the stolen, stripped van to the next sale site, and leave the van as security while he took off in the new one.

The crime spree began in December 1997, and ended in May 1998.  Records show he stole a van on March 26, and again on April 1, so on the date of the Scherer murders he was presumably driving around in his conversion van between truck stop visits.

While most of the vans appear to have been stolen from Florida, he was eventually caught in Texas, so he was traveling out of state.


His record shows frequent convictions for theft, and he spent time in jail throughout the '80s and '90s, but he wasn't in jail in April 1990, when Genevieve Zitricki was murdered.

But he was in jail frequently, which could explain the eight year lag between Zitricki and Scherer/Dyersburg.

In the news report about the van thefts a police officer is quoted as saying the man has a background in sales, and so felt confident when pulling off scams with sellers.  That salesman confidence might explain how the killer was able to get into the Scherer house, and the calm way he talked with the Dyersburg victim, even while threatening her. 


By far the most important detail is that I was able to track down his picture through Florida inmate records. 

He looks exactly like the composite sketch of the suspect. 

But composites aren't perfect.  And the rape and murder of a child is a long way from grand theft auto.  The man in question is out of prison, appears to be married, and lives in Tampa.  He doesn't seem to have been in trouble in several years.

Still, today I forwarded the information about him to Detective Conroy.

*********

New Madrid Co. Sheriff's Department 573.748.2516
Greenville Police Department's Investigative Services 864.350.1711

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