BOISE, Idaho – DNA evidence has linked Wesley Allen Tuttle, a murderer serving time in Utah, to the death of a 14-year-old Idaho girl — 25 years after detectives dismissed him as a potential suspect, Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney said Monday.
On Nov. 11, 1982, one day after Lisa Chambers vanished while walking to school, investigators received a tip from a woman who said she had seen Tuttle's truck parked along a road near where Chambers had been trying to help an injured puppy.
The spot, by the Western Idaho Fairgrounds, was a few miles from the cornfield where Chambers was found that Thanksgiving, sexually assaulted and strangled with her shoelace. Though the girl's route to school passed Tuttle's neighborhood and Tuttle had recently been released from prison, detectives dismissed the tip as implausible because Tuttle had no connection to her family and because he had been seen so far from where her body was discovered, Raney said.
It isn't known whether detectives interviewed him at the time.
"The location wasn't right. He had no ties to the family. They went on to look at other leads," Raney told reporters at a news conference. "We didn't have the resources that we have in 2007."
Less than a year later, Tuttle, then working as a long-haul trucker, came upon 21-year-old Sydney Anne Merrick standing beside her overheated car along a Utah highway. He gave her a tow, then stabbed her to death and left her body in her car, according to a Salt Lake City Tribune account of the crime.
Tuttle, 55, is serving up to life in prison for Merrick's killing; he is next eligible for parole in 2009. His saliva, entered into an FBI database, matched evidence collected from Chambers' underwear, investigators said.
It will be about two months before results of a separate, more accurate DNA blood test have been analyzed, Raney said.
The tip would no longer be valid in a court, because the woman who reported it suffers from dementia, Raney said.
That's one reason Raney called Monday's press conference: Though it's been 25 years since Chambers died — the rural area where she once lived is now a busy shopping mall — he's hoping somebody who may have spotted her or Tuttle that morning will step forward and help detectives build their case.
Tuttle provided little information when detectives recently interviewed him in prison in Draper, Utah, Raney said.
Authorities who helped investigate Chambers' slaying in 1982 said it struck a chord in the community, prompting many tips.
Mike Johnson, the Ada County coroner at the time and now a deputy coroner, kept his notes from the case in the attic of his home. He also kept on article on Chambers' murder published in "True Detective," a defunct crime magazine.
"I remember going out into that cornfield," Johnson told The Associated Press. "As the coroner, I always worked holidays. It was dark when we got there. (The local newspaper) took a picture of us walking out" with the body.
Chambers' mother, who lives near Boise, was thrilled to learn of the preliminary DNA link, authorities said. The AP could not immediately reach her for comment.
Raney said he plans to pursue Tuttle's possible connection to other unsolved slayings in the region in 1982 and 1983. Before that, Tuttle served several years in prison in Montana and Idaho prisons on convictions including burglary. He was released from an Idaho prison on March 24, 1982, according to Idaho Department of Correction records.
While in prison he has escaped twice, once in Idaho in May 1976 for about a month and again in 1985 for about five months following his murder conviction in Utah. He was recaptured in Nevada.