Technology unknown when Tammy Vincent was killed linked the Washington teen to a body in California.
On Sept. 26, 1979, a girl’s body was found on a beach in Marin County, Calif.
The girl had been stabbed 43 times with an ice pick, her body doused with acetone and set on fire. She’d been shot in the head as she tried to escape.
For more than 27 years, no one knew who she was.
But early this year, in an improbable twist to the long-cold case, two teams of investigators working independently in Washington and California were able to piece together the mystery.
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Her name was Tammy Vincent. She was 17 when she was reported missing in Seattle in August 1979.
She had been subpoenaed to appear before an inquiry judge investigating a prostitution ring in the Seattle area, but she never appeared to testify.
Marin County investigators now believe they have finally figured out what happened to her. The detectives say the answers, as well as possible future arrests, are rooted in Seattle’s history of sex shops and in a prostitution ring that made headlines around the time of Vincent’s death.
The break that led to Vincent’s identification came from a rare DNA match that hinged on a single hair from the victim and a saliva swab from a relative.
For Marin County Detective Steve Nash, who has been working on the case for nearly six years, it was a long-sought payoff.
“She was waiting to be found,” he said.
Tammy Vincent was born in 1962 in Tulsa, Okla. Her family soon moved to Okanogan County in Washington, where she grew up as a farm girl with a taste for adventure.
Sandy Vincent, now 43, remembers when older sister Tammy rigged up a speedometer on her Schwinn three-speed and went barreling down a steep hill, chasing ground squirrels. “She told me she was going 50 down that hill,” she recalled.
But her teenage years brought turmoil and fights with her parents, and Tammy Vincent left home at 16, ending up in a foster home in Spokane and then working as a prostitute in Seattle.
In August 1979, King County police raided a South 180th Street apartment they believed was a front for prostitution and found Vincent, then a 17-year-old runaway from the state Department of Social and Health Services.
Vincent was put on a plane to Spokane two days after the raid and returned to DSHS there. But the following day, a caseworker called King County police to report that she had run away.
She was last seen in Seattle on Sept. 10, 1979, at a motel in the 19200 block of Aurora Avenue North, getting into a silver Lincoln Continental owned by one of the suspects in the sex-shop investigations, detectives found out shortly after the sighting.
On Sept. 11, 1979, a King County judge signed a protective order that identified Vincent as a material witness and ordered her held to testify in the prostitution and racketeering case against five men accused of forcing women and girls into prostitution. She never showed up.
One last call
The trials resulted in a mix of verdicts. One sex-shop operator was sentenced in March 1980 to five years in prison for promoting prostitution, and others received sentences of up to eight years in prison.
Vincent’s family knew nothing about the investigations. The last time they saw her was in the summer of 1979 when she showed up at the family home in a car with another person.
“She was different,” said Sandy Vincent. “She said a couple of things and I just walked away. She never even got out of the car.”
Sandy Vincent declined to explain exactly what was said.
She heard from her sister one more time later that summer.
“She called on the phone and said she wanted to come home. … She was very scared. She knew her life was in danger. We never heard from her again.”
The family tried periodically to find her. They suspected she may have been killed by the Green River Killer and began contacting King County’s Green River Task Force.
The task force added Tammy Vincent to its investigation of missing women, begun in the 1980s.
Then in 2003, the family got a call from a King County deputy working with the task force asking if they could provide a DNA sample from a member of the family — something the task force began to do routinely. Sandy Vincent provided a saliva swab.
That swab was forwarded to a national DNA “library” just being developed at the University of North Texas at Fort Worth. The university’s Center for Human Identification stores information and conducts tests to identify human remains for crime laboratories and in noncriminal cases.
Unknown to King County police, detectives in Marin County had reopened the 1979 murder case in 2001, part of taking a fresh look at unsolved crimes.
In reviewing old case files, detectives learned that a clerk at a San Francisco Woolworth’s store had “vividly recalled” a mysterious man in a white leisure suit coming to the store that summer with a girl about 5 feet 6 inches tall, about 125 pounds, with light-brown, Afro-style hair — a match with Vincent’s description.
The man bought acetone, paint and an ice pick, the clerk said.
Detectives also went back through long-stored evidence folders, which had been moved through four evidence rooms over the decades.
A single hair was found intact.
That hair was sent in 2005 to the California Department of Justice and then to the Texas database in December 2006.
In February 2007, the results came back.
The two law-enforcement agencies, independent of each other, had sent samples to the Texas lab hoping for a hit. They got one.
The DNA from the hair matched the DNA sample provided by Tammy’s family four years earlier.
The California Department of Justice said it was the first time the state had matched remains found in California with a DNA sample from another state. That type of match was also “pretty rare” in Washington, said Dr. Gary Shutler, State Patrol DNA technical leader.
Marin County detectives called Vincent’s family in Eastern Washington and said they wanted to meet them at their home.
Sitting in their Moses Lake living room one evening earlier this year, Nash told the family that Tammy had been found.
On Aug. 10, Tammy Vincent’s cremated remains were returned to Washington state. She was buried in a small ceremony that day in Ephrata, that was attended by seven friends and family members. Her mother, Glenda Vincent, 63, sat in a wheelchair, respiratory disease requiring her to use an oxygen tank. Nash and his partner, Jim Hickey, handed the family a small container with Tammy Vincent’s remains. Sobbing broke the sunny afternoon silence as the family embraced one another.
“At least they found her,” Glenda Vincent said.
Now the family says they want one more piece in place.
“We want to see them caught,” Sandy Vincent said. “They’ve been living their lives to the fullest and Tammy never got to live hers.
“We want justice.”
Nash said the investigation will continue. He and his partner have spent months since the identification interviewing possible witnesses and suspects in at least four Western states and in the Seattle area. Now they’re asking for the public’s help.
The answers could be anywhere.
“It’s got a lot of tentacles,” Nash said.
Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes