Murder of 2 women in Las Vegas solved with DNA
Kim Bryant, 16, was near Western High School on January 26, 1979, before being kidnapped, raped and killed by a stranger.
The murder of the promising Western sophomore sparked a river of grief that has continued to flow over 40 years later.
âIt doesn’t go away,â said Bryant’s father Edward Elliott of Missouri. “A 16 year old girl – this SOB took her life and everything she had for her.”
Four years after Bryant’s kidnapping, an almost identical crime was committed against 22-year-old Clark High School graduate Diana Hanson. The student was at her home in Las Vegas for the Christmas vacation when she was abducted on December 30, 1983, while jogging. She too was raped and killed, her body later found on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
âIt was harder for my parents to lose a child,â said Hanson’s brother Kevin Hanson of Florida, adding, âTime doesn’t heal. It just makes you put it in the back of your head. So for a very long time I was really angry and hated the guy.
Months, years and decades would pass without any arrest. However, the long wait for answers for both families finally arrived within a week from the end of November. Las Vegas Police say they used advances in DNA technology from a Texas-based lab, donations from a philanthropist, and sleuth work to link Las Vegas resident Johnny Blake Peterson to deceased long ago, to the two murders.
âI always knew they would eventually find out who it was,â said Hanson. “I really appreciate that the police department never abandoned her, and I don’t think they abandoned any of the victims like my sister.”
There were few leads the police could work with in the Bryant and Hanson cases. There were no forward traffic cameras at major intersections, no DNA testing was available. Instead, there were testimonials, blood groups, a fluid drive, a fingerprint search, a prison snitch, hopefully, and, in Hanson’s case, also tire tracks with which to work.
Bryant was last seen with a friend at a Dairy Queen near Western on Decatur Boulevard on the morning of his disappearance. Her father described her as a beautiful, caring and loving child with a bright future ahead of her. That day, Bryant had planned to be driven by her boyfriend, but when he showed up, she was gone. Her tote bag containing her things was found on the street, immediately alerting her parents that something was wrong.
What followed was a frustrating delay in getting the word out, as some questioned whether she could have run away. His body was found in the desert on February 20.
Retired Las Vegas Police Detective John Silbaugh began work on the case a few months after the discovery when he joined the Homicide Detective Team for the second time in his career. He said he and others have worked on the case for years. It was obvious the person who killed Bryant was a predator in cold blood, but police had little clue.
âWe have had witness statements on different vehicles, one of them was a Jeep or a four-wheel drive SUV of some type,â he said. “A couple of guys in it, seen talking to him.” That was it. No descriptionâ¦ all we had was maybe and could be.
At one point, detectives traveled to Michigan to interview a man who allegedly witnessed the crime to learn that the story was fictional.
Based on how the crime was committed, police believed Bryant’s killer was likely responsible for other similar crimes and that he would likely kill again if not caught.
âWhen you have a kidnapped, murdered, woman or girl put in a desert, that’s an MO,â Silbaugh said. “From the first he does to the last he does, that never changes.”
Elliott said that at one point police told the family that an executed felon in Texas was the likely killer, but the family never believed him. Over the years, the torment of not knowing has been a colossal burden on everyone.
His late wife, Sharrie Elliott, wrote to the Las Vegas Review-Journal months after her daughter’s disappearance: âI can’t buy her birthday presents, I can’t have a cake made for her, he doesn’t. there will be no party with his smiley face.
“I know it sounds silly, but on Kim’s birthday I would give anything if I could say, ‘Rest now, baby, they caught the ones that got you so hurt and took you away from us, âshe wrote.
Diana Hanson’s father was a pilot stationed at Nellis Air Force Base at the time of her kidnapping.
About three months before his death, said Kevin Hanson, his sister made a surprise visit to college to see him in Mississippi when he, like his father, obtained his pilot wings at an Air Force base. .
âShe wanted to be a model for a while,â he said. âShe modeled when she was 15, and when she ended up at North Texas State University, she was pursuing a degree in design, interior design. She was very creative. She would make Christmas presents more than she would buy them.
Diana Hanson was a regular jogger, and Kevin Hanson gave her sister a Walkman with headphones so she could listen to music while running. Her brother said when she was home in Las Vegas she would always go jogging with a friend to be safe. On the day of her disappearance, however, she left alone.
Within 24 hours of her disappearance and the call from the police, her father was asked to identify his daughter in the morgue. She had been stabbed over a dozen times.
The devastation would never go away for the Hanson family.
âFor my mom, every time she saw a movie or something where a mom helps her daughter get ready for a wedding or something, she was upset,â Hanson said. âWe grew up Catholic, and she was actually praying for the guy’s soul. It took him years. She was angry with God for a while, then she prayed for the killer’s soul.
As in the Bryant case, there was little to work on. Police set up roadblocks to search for witnesses in the days following the murder. They found a single set of tire tracks at the crime scene that promised to someday solve the case. Silbaugh was no longer in the homicide business when Diana Hanson was killed, but police suspected there was a good chance the Hanson and Bryant cases were linked.
âWe thought it could have been transitory. That’s kind of what I thought, âsaid Kevin Hanson.
The Hanson and Elliott families remained convinced that one day the killer would be identified no matter how long it took, and both families remained in contact with police.
Metropolitan Police Department Lt. Ray Spencer said the big break came this year when detectives gathered DNA evidence collected from Bryant’s body and sent it to a pioneering private lab in Texas called Othram Inc. The lab had helped Las Vegas police solve another unsolved case. homicide using advances in DNA technology to identify a Las Vegas killer using just 0.12 nanograms of DNA. The test was made possible with money donated by Las Vegas philanthropist and entrepreneur Justin Woo.
âWe decided we wanted to build a lab that would be sort of the forensic lab of the future,â said Kristen Mittelman, director of business development at Othram. “A lab that would be able to unlock DNA clues from forensic evidence in a way that has never been done before.”
The lab has developed proprietary methods to perform DNA sequencing on extremely small evidence samples to create what Mittelman calls âhigh performance profilesâ of a suspected killer.
This is what the lab did with the old samples recovered from the crime scene in Bryant’s case. It then uses publicly available genealogical databases, as well as its own database, to trace the killer’s family tree, potentially allowing the police to identify the person by DNA comparison.
âItâs the most rewarding thing Iâve ever done,â Mittelman said. “I don’t think anyone should have to wait 42 years to find out what happened to their loved one.”
On November 29, Bryant’s killer was identified as Peterson, who was 19 at the time of the crime. He died in the Las Vegas Valley in 1993 and was never on anyone’s radar as a suspect in Bryant’s case, although he was at one point a rape suspect in the valley. Spencer said police are still trying to figure out the exact circumstances of Peterson’s death.
Kevin Hanson said when Bryant’s case was resolved, a detective received testimony from someone who knew Peterson who said that by the time his sister went missing, Peterson had a brand new Walkman helmet in his chest. This prompted police to make a direct DNA match between Peterson’s DNA profile and the DNA from Diana Hanson’s case. It was another match, confirming that Peterson had killed both.
Police and family members said they did not know of any connection between Peterson and the young women. Peterson had been a student at Western, but police have no indication he knew Bryant. Spencer said police are now checking five more cold-case sexual assault homicides of women in the valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s to see if Peterson is responsible.
“Saddened,” said Kevin Hanson. âFor (my mom), I think it was a good conclusion that we knew who it is. I think she was actually relieved that he passed away.
Elliott said Peterson should be grateful to be dead, adding that if Peterson was alive today “there would be a warrant for my arrest.”
âIf he was alive and I’m 80 years old, he dearly wishes he had never been born,â Elliott said.
Elliott and Hanson expressed their gratitude to all who named their families after the one responsible for all the misery. Elliott, stifling the emotion, had a simple message for Woo’s gift that made the DNA match possible.
âJust tell him, Elliott’s, we really appreciate him,â he said.