Charges are to be filed tomorrow in the 1990 slaying of a 38-year-old Seattle woman, and the man who once spent about six months in jail accused in her murder couldn't be happier...
Charges are to be filed tomorrow in the 1990 slaying of a 38-year-old Seattle woman, and the man who once spent about six months in jail accused in her murder couldn’t be happier.
The then-rookie prosecutor who endured the wrath of police after dismissing all charges in his first murder case isn’t feeling too bad, either.
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Betty Elaine Minnis, 38, was a lively mother of two with a big smile and a job at a local grocery store when she was sexually assaulted and stabbed 25 times on Oct. 19, 1990, in the living room of her Rainier Valley home.
Rape and murder charges against then-30-year-old Joseph Charles Wheeler of Seattle were filed about a month after the murder, then dismissed about six months later, but some people still harbored suspicions, a member of his family said.
Late last year, Seattle police detectives and King County prosecutors who make up the Cold Case Squad called to tell Wheeler they believed they could clear his name and pin the crime on another man. Wheeler raced to come in.
“They wanted to confirm his DNA sample and he did not hesitate,” said King County Deputy Prosecutor Tim Bradshaw, who’s on the elite team credited with solving more than a dozen unsolved crimes, including the 1993 rape and murder of rising music star Mia Zapata.
Bradshaw said DNA evidence submitted to the state crime lab linked the crime to Trenino Rollins, 43, of Seattle, who is serving a decades-long sentence for the 1991 mutilation murder of 19-year-old Tyrell Dorrian Johnson of Seattle.
Rollins will be charged tomorrow in King County Superior Court with first-degree murder in Minnis’ death, Bradshaw said.
“DNA, first and foremost, is a tool of the innocent,” wrote Bradshaw in a court document. “And evidently, Rollins was content not only to remain silent for 14 years about killing Ms. Minnis, but also content to allow an innocent man to be wrongly accused.”
On the night of the attack, Minnis’ 12-year-old daughter, awakened by screaming, raced downstairs to find her mother dying and a man fleeing.
The girl and her grandfather (Minnis’ father) believed the murder was committed by one of the Wheeler brothers, acquaintances who were thought by the Minnis family to be generally up to no good, according to a former Cold Case prosecutor, Steve Fogg.
Initially, he said, the girl picked Joey Wheeler’s brother out of a photo lineup, but when he turned out to have an airtight alibi, she went back and fingered Joey Wheeler.
Wheeler, then a Seattle Central Community College student, was arrested and charged with the murder.
“There was nothing there”
Deputy Prosecutor James Konat — who had recently arrived at the prosecutor’s office from a pubic-defender agency — dismissed the case.
“I didn’t want to dismiss the first murder case I got over the objections of the detectives, but I started looking at it and there was nothing there,” Konat said. “The cops were furious and suspicious. They said I was … a coward.”
The detectives were so mad, they refused to classify the case as unsolved, said Fogg, who now works at Corr Cronin law firm in Seattle.
“In the last police report, one of them wrote something like, ‘There is no doubt that Wheeler committed this crime,’ ” said Fogg. “And ‘This is a closed case not a cold case.’ ”
The Minnis family was likewise outraged, he said, considering it another example of how the system failed to take seriously crimes committed against minorities.
The case went stagnant, wrote Bradshaw in court documents, but the evolution of DNA science did not.
“A witness for the truth”
In September 2003, the state crime lab reported a match with Rollins, and a new sample of DNA from Wheeler positively excluded him as the source of the genetic material collected from bodily fluids at the scene of the crime.
“This is what they mean, I think, when they say DNA is a witness for the truth,” Bradshaw said. “It can both vindicate and convict.”
Minnis’ family, who had at one point asked that the case be closed to protect the victim’s children from further trauma, didn’t quite know what to make of the development.
“I don’t know that it’s closure,” said her brother, who did not want to be named.
“It’s been a long time, and we’ve gone on. But she was my sister and I loved her dearly. She was good people. She had two beautiful kids. And she is still missed.”
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org