DNA Implicates Two Different Suspects Decades After Three Strikingly Similar Murders

Michael Morton skyrocketed into national headlines last year when he was exonerated of his wife's murder after 25 years in prison. A bloody bandana found near the crime scene was a key to Morton's release when DNA testing implicated another man. The Observer included his case in a recent article about prosecutorial misconduct.

But his wife's case is one in a tangled trio of crimes with much in common, if not a murderer.

In early 2008, as Morton's lawyer John Raley compiled information to support his innocence, he called the daughter of Mildred McKinney, who was murdered six years before Christine Morton in similar fashion. McKinney was beaten by a blunt object after a sexual assault; she lived a half-mile from the Mortons, according to Austin news station KXAN.

McKinney's daughter immediately recognized details of Christine's case when Raley mentioned it. She had noticed similarities and saved newspaper articles that detailed the crime.

She marked the clippings "same" next to key details: descriptions of the beating, how both homes had unlocked sliding doors, the presence of unidentified fingerprints, the detail that household items were stacked on the victims (a chair, end table, and vacuum cleaner in McKinney's murder; a laundry basket and suitcase in Christine's), and that murder weapons were missing in both cases.

The murder of a third woman, Debra Masters Baker, a year and a half after Christine and 12 miles away, was also strikingly similar.

After a long battle between Morton's lawyers and the Williamson County district attorney, DNA testing was granted on a bloody bandana found near the Mortons' home. Last year, results linked Mark Alan Norwood, a Bastrop resident with a long criminal record, to the scene. The swath of fabric included both his DNA and Christine Morton's blood. He was arrested on charges of capital murder.

Norwood used to live near Baker and work as a carpet layer. DNA also connected him to her murder.

This week, however, the Texas Tribune broke the news that Williamson County sheriff's investigators arrested Steven Alan Thomas, 53, for the murder of McKinney. It's surprising, given the similarities among the crimes.

Unfair Park reached out to the Williamson County sheriff's department to see if this arrest had any implications for Christine Morton's case, for which Norwood awaits trial.

"These are two separate investigations," Sergeant John Foster says. "I've been doing this for a long time and I know not to step out there on that limb.

"All I can say is at this point, this is an investigation into the Mildred McKinney homicide ... It's an open investigation and where that investigation takes us, it takes us," he says.

From three cases that seemed long-forgotten a decade ago, Williamson County investigators and authorities working in collaboration now have three eerily similar crimes, all more than 20 years old, one exonerated husband and two murder suspects linked to separate scenes by DNA. A story that felt as though it was winding to an end with Morton's exoneration and Norwood's arrest seems it may be the beginning of something even bigger.

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Leslie Minora