An “Angel”, the “Killer Clown”, and the “Cleveland Strangler” – Interesting Cases from ISHI

Last time, we explored Interesting Cases that were presented at the 26th International Symposium on Human Identification. This time, we’re going back in time to ISHI 23, which was held in Nashville, TN, and featured seven interesting case presentations. We’re going to recount three of them focusing on serial killers – Sheila Labarre, John Wayne Gacy, and Anthony Sowell.



Written by: Tara Luther, Promega



Sheila Labarre: A Forensic Perspective on an Unusual Case


Our first interesting case was presented by Kimberly Rumrill, and involves a woman who preyed upon developmentally challenged men, after accusing them of pedophilia.

In 1986, Sheila Labarre responded to a personal ad placed by Dr. William Labarre (a chiropractor), and moved to his farm house in Epping, New Hampshire. While the two were never married, she did assume his last name, and they lived together in the farm house until Dr. Labarre passed away in 2000. Upon his death, she inherited the farm, an office in Hampton, two properties in Somersworth, and a home in Portsmouth.

Though Labarre had married for the third time while living with Dr. Labarre, she had many boyfriends. In 2003, she met Michael Deloge. Fitting the profile of Labarre’s typical victim, Deloge was developmentally challenged and had been living at the Cross Roads House, a transitional homeless shelter, in Portsmouth. The two began dating, and Deloge moved to the farm. His mother never heard from him again after her birthday in July of 2004.

In 2006, Ken Countie had the misfortune of meeting Labarre on a phone chat line. Similar to Deloge, Countie suffered from a form of autism that left him with the mental capacity of a 12 year-old. They had their first date on Valentine’s Day in 2006. Their trip to the local Walmart on March 17th was the last time Countie was seen alive in public. Video recordings showed Labarre pushing him around the store in a wheelchair while piling yellow diesel fuel containers (similar to those found near a burn pile found on her property) on his lap. Countie was reported missing by his mother on March 24, 2006.

Knowing that Labarre was involved with Countie, police performed a “well being” check at her property, where they discovered what appeared to be a human bone with tissue on it. The following day, police were issued their first exterior search warrant.

More search warrants followed, and police found remnants of blood throughout the house (some of which matched to Countie), clothes belonging to Deloge, and older burn pits containing blood.

After fleeing the state, Labarre was arrested on April 2 in Massachusetts. She had an obsession with pedophiles, and justified the murders by claiming to be an angel who had come back to life to rid the world of pedophiles. She had tortured Deloge and Countie into admitting they were pedophiles and had then punished them for their “crimes”. In 2008, Labarre was deemed to be “sane” by a jury and was sentenced to life in prison.


The Identification of the Victims of John Wayne Gacy 


Dixie Peters, Technical Leader of the Missing Persons Unit at the University of North Texas Health Science Center followed with how they identified a victim of the infamous John Wayne Gacy.

John Wayne Gacy’s reign of terror lasted from 1972 – 1978, during which time he murdered 33 young men. Of the victims, 25 were able to be identified through personal artifacts, dental records, or through Gacy’s own admissions.

In 2011, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office decided to reopen the case, and had exhumed mandibles and maxilla from the eight unidentified victims, and sent these bones to UNTHSC. When the eight cases were processed, UNTHSC was able to get full mitochondrial DNA profiles from all of them, and partial STR profiles from six of them.

Once the genetic results were gathered, the Sheriff’s Office asked family members to come forward to provide comparison samples. One month later, a mitochondrial association was made to one of the victims from a woman who had lost her brother, who was identified as William George Bundy.

Bundy was 19 when he went missing in October of 1976. His family had always suspected he had fallen prey to Gacy, and had tried to find dental records for him in 1978-79, but the records had been destroyed. Had Bundy not been identified through DNA more than 35 years later, he might still be a nameless victim.


The Cleveland Strangler Case 


Later that afternoon, Nasir Butt of the Cuyahoga County Regional Forensic Science Laboratory took the stage to share how the Cleveland Strangler was identified.

In September of 2009, a woman reported to the Cleveland Police that a man named Anthony Sowell had invited her to his home for a drink. After a few drinks, he became angry, hit her, choked her, and sexually assaulted her as she passed out.

The next month, police arrived at his home with a warrant to arrest him for the alleged assault. Sowell wasn’t there, but the police did find two unidentified bodies in a third floor room beginning to skeletonize. In the days that followed, eight more bodies were located on the premises as well as a human skull.

Investigators faced a number of challenges in identifying the bodies as they were badly decomposed and no visual identification was possible. Anthropological examination and autopsy revealed that all eleven victims were females of African American descent.

Local residents were asked to provide a DNA sample if an African American woman was missing in their families. DNA analysis was performed on the victims using a portion of bone and teeth and then compared to those collected from the relatives who had come forward. All eleven victims were able to be identified by December of 2009 through matches to relatives or CODIS, with two of them being identified within the first two weeks of discovering the first body.

These are just a few examples of how powerful DNA analysis can be. Stay tuned future parts of this series with more examples of how DNA-typing is used to identify criminals.