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April 2, 2020

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Oregon man arrested in 25-year-old Vancouver homicide

Richard Eugene Knapp faces charges in the death of Audrey Hoellein in 1994

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter, and
, Columbian breaking news reporter
Published:
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Det. Dustin Goudschaal, left, and Det. Cpl. Neil Martin speak to the media at Vancouver Police Department headquarters after making an arrest in the murder of Audrey Hoellein on Tuesday afternoon, April 30, 2019. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
Det. Dustin Goudschaal, left, and Det. Cpl. Neil Martin speak to the media at Vancouver Police Department headquarters after making an arrest in the murder of Audrey Hoellein on Tuesday afternoon, April 30, 2019. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned detective work has led to the arrest of a 57-year-old Oregon man in connection with the rape and strangulation death of a a Vancouver woman 25 years ago.

Audrey Hoellein, 26, also known as Audrey Frasier, was found dead in her bed at the Family Tree Apartments on the 8000 block of East Fourth Plain Boulevard on July 17, 1994, according The Columbian archives. An autopsy concluded that she had been raped and strangled to death, according to court documents.

Richard Eugene Knapp, of Fairview, Ore., was linked to the crime based on DNA testing and arrested without incident in Oregon on suspicion of first- and second-degree murder with sexual motivation, according to court records filed Monday in Clark County Superior Court. He was booked into Clark County Jail on Tuesday.

An affidavit lists Kalama, Kelso and Vancouver among Knapp’s last known places of residence. Hoellein was not believed to have known Knapp at the time of the killing, detectives said Tuesday.

“As you know, DNA alone cannot solve any case,” Vancouver Police Assistant Chief Mike Lester said Tuesday at a press conference. “To solve a case requires investigative work, and this case involved amazing work and dedication by our outstanding detectives.”

According to a probable cause affidavit, officers who responded to Hoellein’s apartment the night she was found dead collected a variety of DNA evidence, which was used during the initial investigation to develop several suspects. All of the suspects were eliminated as being the source of the DNA, however.

Investigators then developed a DNA profile of her killer, according to the affidavit. Numerous persons of interests were compared against the profile over the years but no one returned a match. Uploading the profile to a national database also did not return a hit, the affidavit says.

“In 1994, DNA was still a very early science, so the type of scientific analysis that could be performed at that time was limited,” Detective Dustin Goudschaal said at the press conference.

Last year, Vancouver Police came in contact with representatives from Virginia-based Parabon Nanolabs at a conference, Detective Neil Martin said at the press conference. After submitting DNA from the crime scene in June, the company delivered a phenotype and snapshot report, which included a digital composite of the suspect’s appearance both at the time of the killing and now.

In October, the company also provided a genealogy report.

The DNA was compared with a member of Knapp’s family who had pointed police toward him, detectives said. Knapp was known to live in Clark County around the time of Frasier’s death.

Police conducted surveillance of Knapp, who works near Portland International Airport, for several months. At one point, investigators collected DNA from a cigarette butt Knapp had tossed away at work, Goudschaal said. The new evidence was sent to the Washington State Crime Lab, which found that it matched the crime scene DNA.

Police contacted a former resident of the Family Tree Apartments on April 22, who was shown a photo of Knapp and said she may have seen him around the apartment complex, according to the affidavit.

Detectives called Hoellein’s brother, who lives in South Dakota, to announce the breakthrough. At one point, he asked to have his father join the conversation on a third line. The father believed he would die without knowing what happened to his daughter, Goudschaal said.

“I think he was a little panicked at first,” Goudschaal said of the brother. “He was very emotional.”

Hoellein had a young son at the time of her death. Police believe he is around 30 years old now.

The son still lives in the Vancouver area, allowing detectives to deliver the news in person. Goudschaal called it the most rewarding aspect of the investigation.

“They make you feel good, but at the same time, it’s hard,” Goudschaal said. “He was very happy with the resolution, but I think he also didn’t get to know his mom very well in the short time he spent with her.”

“The crime not only took away a sister from her two brothers, it left a mother and father without a daughter, and a young child without a mother,” the Hoellein family said in a statement distributed by the Vancouver Police Department.

“As this case is starting to unfold after almost 25 years, the wound is being re-opened, and our family is experiencing the pain all over again,” the statement continued. “But thanks to detectives Dustin Goudschaal and Neil Martin, our family may finally have the opportunity to find closure to our biggest unknown. We hope that the use of this technology can be used to bring closure to more families across the nation.”

Knapp previously had been convicted of sexual assault in Clark County in 1986. He choked the victim to near unconsciousness in that case, according to the affidavit. As a result of his conviction, he was ordered to provide a biological sample to authorities. He did so, but the sample was never uploaded to any database and was destroyed in 2000, according to the affidavit.

Detectives estimated the cost of the DNA process in Hoellein’s case at $6,800. Vancouver police are “absolutely” looking to use the new form of DNA analysis in other cases, Martin said.

But investigators also cautioned against applying the process to all cases, citing the abundance of physical evidence and availability of former detectives and witnesses leading up to Knapp’s arrest.

“While it’s great for solving cold case, it’s probably only solving a small percentage, unfortunately,” Goudschaal said.

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