Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The DNA exoneration of David Vasquez & the DNA conviction of serial killer Timothy Spencer

Clipping from the Jan 5, 1989 of the The Free Lance-Star.

On Tuesday, January 24, 1984 and Wednesday, January 25, attorney Carolyn Jean Hamm, 32, did not go to work. Her secretary called Hamm’s friend, Darla Henry, telling Henry of Hamm’s unexplained absences.

Henry went to Hamm’s Arlington, Virginia home. The front door was ajar. Henry hailed Larry Ranser, asking him to accompany her. Ranser agreed.

Ranser found Hamm in the basement–dead, hands tied with a Venetian blind cord.

It was determined that Hamm had been raped and hanged sometime after 10 p.m. on Monday, January 23, 1984.

On January 29, 1984, Larry Ranser’s sister, Muriel Ranser, called police. She said she had seen a man she recognized, David Vasquez, in Hamm’s neighborhood at 8 on the night of the murder.

The next day, Michael Ansari called police and reported he had seen Vasquez in the neighborhood on January 24 after Hamm’s body was discovered. Ansari stated, “The whole neighborhood was interested in what happened – except Dave.”

Vasquez, 38, was mentally retarded. He had worked as a janitor in Arlington, but in 1984 he resided in Manassas with his mother and worked at a McDonald’s.

Arlington County Detectives Robert H. Carrig and Charles Shelton picked him up for questioning on February 4. The detectives tape-recorded their interrogation. Vasquez said he had not been in Arlington when Hamm was murdered.

Using the freedom to fib that police legally have, they falsely told Vasquez his fingerprints had been found in Hamm’s residence. Vasquez conceded, “Maybe I might have gone there for a visit.” They asked him how he traveled from Manassas to Arlington and Vasquez said, “I want to know. Because my Mom was working and she can’t drive. And I don’t drive.”

Further questioning elicited Vasquez’s statement that he had had sexual intercourse with Hamm. A detective asked with what he tied her hands.

“Ropes,” Vasquez replied.

Shelton said, “No, not the ropes.”

“My belt,” Vasquez offered.

Shelton prodded, “Think about what you used now.”

“A coat hanger?” Vasquez guessed.

“No, it wasn’t a coat hanger,” Shelton said. “Remember cutting the venetian cord?”

“It was a thin rope,” Vasquez said.

“Yeah,” Shelton said before asking Vasquez how he killed.

“I grabbed the knife and just stabbed her,” Vasquez replied.

“You hung her,” Shelton suggested.

“I hung her,” Vasquez agreed.

On February 6, detectives again questioned Vasquez. He insisted he had not been to Arlington recently. It was almost an hour into the interrogation when Carrig left the room, taking the tape recorder with him.

Shelton later reported Vasquez suddenly lowered his head, saying, “I have horrible dreams.”

Shelton brought the tape recorder back. He asked Vasquez to describe the dreams. Vasquez answered, “Girl was in my dream. It’s a horrible dream, too horrible. I got myself in hell by breaking glass. The dryer was hooked up, cut my hand in glass. I need help, then I went up stairs, she kept coming out. She startled me. I startled her. We both kinda screamed a little bit. She told me what was I doing. I said I came over to see you. She wanted to make love. She said yes and no and then said okay and we went upstairs to her bedroom. Kissed a little and then took each other’s clothes off . . . she told me would I tie her hands. She said there’s a knife in the kitchen, cut string off the blinds, just tie me. Then I asked her . . . if it’s too tight. She said no . . . Walk downstairs . . . took her pictures, she’s nice. She said tie me some more . . . I brought . . . some big rope and . . . she told me the other way. I says, ‘What way is that?’ She says, ‘By hanging.’ I says no, don’t have to hang, no, no, no, no. She said yes and called me a chicken. So I did it.”

Vasquez was charged with murder, rape, and burglary. Shelton and Carrig questioned him a third time the next day. He again described the dream.

Jonah Horwitz and Rob Warden write, “The seemingly nonsensical dream statement thus became one of two pillars of the prosecution case, the second being the eyewitnesses who placed in Arlington before and after the crime.”

From left: Hellams, Davis, Cho.

There were reasons to suspect the eyewitnesses. Larry Ranser had twice been questioned as a suspect before his sister Muriel called police saying she had seen Vasquez in the neighborhood around the time of the murder. Ansari said he saw Vasquez in the area soon after the murders but defense lawyers could point out that it would seem unlikely that no one else would have seen him.

There were holes in the prosecution’s case: how Vasquez had traveled to Arlington was never resolved; Vasquez was not the source of semen recovered from Hamm because his blood type was wrong; shoe impressions found outside the window through which the assailant entered matched none of Vasquez’s shoes.

Commonwealth Attorney Henry Hudson asserted Vasquez had a partner.

Defense attorneys feared a trial since Vasquez faced a possible death sentence. Vasquez’s attorneys asked Hudson for a deal. Vasquez took his attorneys’ advice to enter an Alford plea on February 3, 1985. The Alford plea amounts to a guilty plea in accepting punishment while allowing the defendant to claim innocence. He was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment.

Vasquez had served almost three years when a rape-murder similar to Hamm’s was committed in her neighborhood. On December 1, 1987, Susan Ann Tucker, 44, was strangled with white thin nylon cord similar to that which had bound Hamm’s hands.

Detective Carrig was assigned to that case with Detective Joe Horgas. With defense attorney McCue present, Horgas interviewed Vasquez. Horgas told Vasquez he could be released soon if he identified his crime partner. Vasquez said he was innocent.

Horgas began thinking Vasquez might be innocent. Horgas soon found that three similar crimes had been committed in Virginia prior to Tucker. Three women had been raped, bound, and strangled with a cord similar to those used on Hamm and Tucker. Those women were Debbie Davis, 35, found murdered on September 19; Susan Hellams, 32, found murdered on October 2; and Diane Cho, 15, found murdered on November 2. Ten women in Arlington and Alexandria had survived rapes between June 1983 and January 1984 committed by a black man who wore a mask and carried a knife and nylon cord.

Colin Pitchfork

The new technology of DNA testing had led British police to arrest Colin Pitchfork in 1987 for two rape-murders. Horgas hoped DNA could help in these crimes as semen was found in all five murders and some of the rapes. Horgas contacted Lifecodes, a New York laboratory engaged in DNA testing. They explained that if semen contained enough DNA to test, it could link a suspect to crimes – if they had the suspect’s DNA.

No similar crimes had been committed between late January 1984 and September 1987 so Horgas believed the perpetrator was incarcerated during then. Researching crime records, Horgas found that one Timothy Spencer had been jailed during that time. Spencer supplied blood samples.

DNA from semen in those cases was Spencer’s.

Spencer was convicted on July 16, 1988 of murdering Tucker – the first American DNA-linked conviction. He was later convicted of murdering Davis, Hellams, and Cho and sentenced to death.

There was not enough DNA in the semen from Hamm to test. Horwitz and Warden write, ”As a result, despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that Spencer had killed her, the innocent man in prison for Hamm’s murder had no judicial remedy under Virginia law. Vasquez could only apply for a pardon, which Governor Gerald L. Baliles granted on January 4, 1989. Vasquez was freed the same day.” The Innocence Project observes, “The prosecution joined with defense attorneys to secure a pardon for Vasquez.” He had served five years during which he had been psychologically and physically abused. The Virginia General Assembly passed special compensatory legislation in 1990 that awarded Vasquez $117,000 for the time he spent imprisoned.

Spencer was executed in Virginia’s electric chair on April 17, 1994.




Sources on following page. 

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