A man arrested last year in connection with the 1978 slaying of an 80-year-old Renton-area woman entered an Alford plea Monday to a charge of second-degree manslaughter, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

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Instead of standing trial for first-degree murder, a 51-year-old laborer will probably spend less than a year in prison for the 1978 slaying of an elderly widow, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, under an Alford plea he entered Monday to a charge of second-degree manslaughter.

“Some would question if that is a worthy sentence, but the alternative in this case was to never have solved this woman’s death,” said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff to Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “Now we know what happened to her. He stands convicted under the eyes of the law for her death.”

Though Ronald Wayne MacDonald didn’t admit guilt by entering his Alford plea, the plea is an acknowledgment that he would likely be convicted at trial of strangling 80-year-old Arlene Roberts in her tiny trailer in Bryn Mawr.

Defense attorney Jesse Dubow, of the Northwest Defenders Association, said MacDonald has maintained his innocence all along but took the plea deal to avoid the risk of a 20-year prison sentence if convicted at trial of first-degree murder.

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“It was a difficult decision for him, given that we felt confident at trial that we would prevail,” Dubow said of his client. “But the risks were so high, he decided to take the offer.”

The process of selecting a jury began last week, but Goodhew admitted the prosecution faced an uphill battle to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt: Both the original fingerprint examiner, who found MacDonald’s prints at the slaying scene, and the medical examiner who performed an autopsy have died. Their deaths meant it would have been difficult for the prosecution to introduce evidence to lay a foundation for its case — and to connect the physical evidence to the scene, Goodhew explained.

Another obstacle was a pretrial decision by King County Superior Court Judge Harry McCarthy to allow the defense to present evidence of another suspect. Goodhew said the prosecution anticipated the defense would suggest Roberts’ killer was rapist and serial killer Gary W. Puckett, who “committed similar homicides in and around the area at the time” of Roberts’ death.

Puckett fatally shot himself in September 1997 as police in North Dakota closed in on him as a suspect believed responsible for slashing a woman’s throat at a rest stop, according to news accounts in The Seattle Times. There was no forensic evidence at the scene of Roberts’ slaying to indicate Puckett was involved, according to Goodhew.

Dubow said the defense never considered Puckett as a potential suspect. But he said MacDonald was eliminated as the source of DNA found under Roberts’ nails and on one of the ligatures used to bind her. He said the state tried to argue that the DNA had been contaminated, but he doesn’t believe that was the case.

“We believe the person who did it, it’s his DNA,” Dubow said of an unidentified male source of DNA found at the crime scene. Additionally, he said, the defense “has serious doubts about the validity of the so-called science of fingerprints” used by the state to place MacDonald at the murder scene.

Goodhew said the prosecution believes the unknown DNA was that of someone who investigated Roberts’ death. “Investigators didn’t wear gloves at the time,” since technology to extract DNA profiles didn’t exist, he said.

On Oct. 27, 1978, Roberts was found half-naked on the bed of her trailer, her arms and legs bound with nylon stockings, her mouth gagged and her face covered with a pillow. For 34 years, King County sheriff’s detectives had no clue who used a hair net to strangle the widow and ransacked the yellow-and-white trailer just west of Renton Municipal Airport. The victim had moved in two days earlier.

Then last year, advances in fingerprint technology led detectives to MacDonald, an ex-convict who was working as a delivery driver and warehouse manager for an automotive-services company in Reno, Nev. His prints matched fingerprints left on a traveler’s check, a bank statement and a bank receipt inside Roberts’ trailer, according to charging papers. MacDonald was arrested in September after police staked out his workplace.

At the time of Roberts’ death, MacDonald was a few days shy of his 18th birthday and was living with family friends about seven blocks from Roberts’ residence in the Lakeshore Manor Mobile Home Park, at 11448 Rainier Ave. S., charging papers say.

Roberts has no living relatives.

Because Roberts was killed in 1978, MacDonald will be sentenced under the system in place at the time, which predates changes that created determinate prison sentences. He faces a range of zero to five years in prison, but the prosecution and defense will jointly recommend he be sentenced to 16 months.

With credit for time served and potential time off for good behavior, MacDonald “will serve at most probably about a year,” Goodhew said. He could have faced as much as a 30-year sentence had he been convicted of first-degree murder.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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