For 52 years, investigators have been trying to determine who raped and killed a young woman, leaving her body in a large farm field in Huntington Beach. But thanks to investigative genetic genealogy, authorities were finally able to unravel the decades-long mystery, officials announced Thursday.
The woman’s body was discovered by three boys who were playing in the area of Newland Avenue and Yorktown Street on March 14, 1968, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
She had been beaten and raped, her neck slashed.
But who she was — and who killed her — would remain unsolved for more than half a century, ultimately becoming the county’s oldest Jane Doe cold case murder.
Even after “extensive follow-up and an exhaustive number of interviews,” police were unable to identify the victim or her killer, prosecutors said in a news release.
Finally, after five decades, the tireless efforts of investigators paid off: they identified the victim as 26-year-old Anita Louise Piteau of Augusta, Maine, and the suspected killer as Johnny Chrisco.
“I am extremely grateful and proud of the extraordinary efforts of the active and retired members of the Huntington Beach Police Department and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in their tireless pursuit of justice for Anita and her family. The fact they never stopped working this case for more than five decades is a tremendous testament to the two departments and our law enforcement profession,” Huntington Beach Police Chief Rob Handy said in the release.
Police had followed up on leads for decades, well after the case went cold.
In 2001, they examined the victim’s sexual assault kit and her clothing to process it for DNA, which led them to a male DNA profile — though it wasn’t enough to determine a suspect yet.
Nine years later, a partial DNA profile was obtained through a cigarette butt that had been recovered from the crime scene, according to the DA’s office. That profile turned out to be consistent with the one obtained from the sexual assault kit, but it didn’t lead to the identity of a suspect, either.
In 2011, investigators used blood from the victim’s blouse to produce a partial DNA profile, which they entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) missing person database. Her fingerprints were also entered into the CAL-ID system, as well as the FBI national fingerprint database, the release stated.
That same year, investigators began submitting the case repeatedly to the California Department of Justice for a familial search in CODIS.
Then, in 2016, Huntington Beach police released graphic photos of the victim’s body, hoping someone would recognize her.
But a major breakthrough in the case didn’t come until authorities turned to investigative genetic genealogy in 2019 as they sought to obtain the suspect’s possible family tree, according to the release.
Through that effort, officials were able to identify Chrisco as the suspect. He died in 2015 of cancer and is buried in Washington state.
Chrisco, the release noted, had been in the Army for three years but was discharged after failing a psychological examination “that diagnosed him with having positive aggressive reaction which was defined as having a pattern of being quick to anger, easy to feel unjustly treated, chronically resentful, immature and impulsive.”
With the suspect identified, detectives and prosecutors again renewed efforts earlier this year to determine the victims identity, working with forensic scientists and renowned genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick on a possible family tree.
Finally, the woman who had been buried in an unmarked grave at a Newport Beach cemetery for 52 years was identified as Piteau through DNA matches with her relatives.
“After more than five decades, advances in investigative genetic genealogy did what old-fashioned police work could not: give Jane Doe a name and identify her killer,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in the release.
One of seven children, Piteua was found to have two living sisters and a brother, as well as many extended relatives who had been searching for her since she vanished in 1968.
Piteau’s remains were taken back to her family in Maine by investigators, who attended her memorial service last weekend.
“The death of Johnny Chrisco prevented the full imposition of justice for Anita’s murder, and that is a wound that will never heal,” Spitzer said. “But it was the dogged pursuit of justice that ensured that it was not if, but when, we would finally be able to tell Anita’s loved ones who killed her.”
It’s still unclear whether or how Piteau and Chrisco knew each other, authorities said. A motive was not released.
The investigation is still ongoing and anyone who recognizes the victim or suspect is urged to call the Huntington Beach Police Tip Line at 714-375-5066.