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Dogged detective work, DNA crack 5-year-old Anchorage killing

Posted: Tuesday, October 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- They found her body on a Sunday morning five years ago, wearing a purple tank top and silver necklace, dumped at the edge of Ship Creek where it runs through the warehouse district near Yakutat Street.

They identified her from her tattoos and her jail record: Doris Ann Hainta, 34, a longtime street hooker carrying a double load of drug and alcohol addiction. Everybody called her Sunny, but someone strangled her.

Homicide investigators worked the slim leads they had as hard as they could. A witness saw a blue van backing to the edge of the creek and a man dumping something there. Police took plaster casts of tire tracks and crawled around on their hands and knees taking paint scrapings from a post and hoping to pick a bit of evidence from the muddy ground.

They spent weeks talking to prostitutes and their customers, checking alibis and stopping blue vans.

After a while, the investigation lagged. She was probably killed by someone who bought her services, police figured, someone with no other connection to her, the toughest kind of homicide to solve.

But Anchorage police had an ace up their sleeve. Hainta had been raped or had consensual sex shortly before she died, so if the police ever identified a suspect, they had a DNA sample.

Last month, technicians at the state crime lab matched the DNA to a man in North Carolina. And on Monday the Anchorage district attorney charged Eugene Poirier, 33, with first-degree murder. An arrest warrant with bail set at $1 million will be faxed south and served on Poirier at the Nash Correctional Facility, where he is doing 22 years for a murder he committed after leaving Alaska.

Assistant District Attorney Adrienne Bachman said Alaska will seek to extradite Poirier and will try him for Hainta's death. Charging documents filed Monday say he has confessed to strangling her in the back of a blue van he used in his carpet business.

If Poirier is convicted here, he will be returned to North Carolina to serve out his sentence there then returned to do his Alaska time, Bachman said.

In Oklahoma, where Hainta was born, her sister Emma Hainta was surprised to hear that anyone in Anchorage still cared about solving her sister's slaying and was pleased someone's been charged in Sunny's death.

The family often tried to talk Sunny into coming home. She became a prostitute in her teens and seemed unable to get out of the life, Emma Hainta said. She came to Alaska in the mid-1980s to start a new life. But it didn't work.

''She had no confidence,'' Hainta said. ''She didn't have the drive to do anything different.''

The family, which includes an ex-police chief, didn't approve of her life but they loved and accepted her, Hainta said.

''I always thought it would be AIDS that would get her. I was prepared for that. I knew one day she would be knocking at my door.''

The Hainta case, old and cold, was solved because police officers stationed at opposite sides of the continent made an extra effort and because in March the Alaska State Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory began using DNA technology capable of making positive identifications.

The first break was a 1998 computer message from Det. Sgt. Julie Gibson of the Iredell County sheriff's office, a blind query to police departments in cities where Poirier had lived before he showed up in North Carolina in 1997. A 16-year-old girl, Christy Rambo, a neighbor of Poirier and his wife, had been strangled in August of that year, her body dumped by the side of a country road about five miles from the trailer park where she and Poirier both lived. She'd been doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Poirier was one of several suspects. Could Anchorage police check him out? Gibson asked.

Poirier's name had not surfaced in the Hainta investigation, but when Sgt. Mike Grimes, then head of homicide, looked at him, bells rang. He owned a blue van. His uncle had a business close to where Hainta's body was found.

If Anchorage had no suspects in Hainta's death, Iredell County had too many in the Rambo case: her boyfriend, another man she told friend had made threats, and a man she said had raped her and was set to testify against the following week. Poirier and his wife were casual friends with Rambo, and he had been seen talking to her in his driveway before she disappeared. But he wasn't at the top of the list until he started acting ''pretty odd,'' Gibson said. ''He pushed himself into the investigation. We had to almost push him away from us. He just stayed in our face ... so we paid him a little more attention.''

Then Poirier turned up on a convenience store security video buying gasoline about an hour after Rambo disappeared, less than an hour before someone spotted her still-burning body.

He eventually admitted the killing but refused to give any details, Gibson said. He was charged with first-degree murder, a death penalty case. But questions were raised about the admissibility of the confession, and last October the district attorney accepted a plea to second-degree murder. Because he had no prior record, Poirier got the minimum mandatory sentence, 22 years without parole.

While Poirier was still awaiting trial, Anchorage police detective Larry Arend, who was originally in charge of the Hainta case, asked Iredell sheriffs if they could send a sample of Poirier's blood north. They could.

At the time, Alaska's crime lab was certified only for six-point DNA matches. They got a six-point match on Poirier, Bachman said. But legal identification in criminal cases requires 13 points of match. It cost from $1,000 to $2,000 to have the test done in a private lab. Anchorage police don't have the money to do them all, said Anchorage detective Scott Jessen, who took over the case when Arend retired.

Poirier was in prison, not a danger to other women and the test could wait, police reasoned.

By March, the crime lab staff was trained and the DNA operation accredited. And it had a one-year backlog of cases involving violent crimes. Each test takes six weeks, said lab director George Taft. Jessen pushed. In September, the Hainta results were certified: Poirier was a match.

With what looked like a solid case, Chief Duane Udland sent Jessen to North Carolina.

''Gene, howya doing?'' Jessen said to Poirier. ''I'm from Anchorage.''

In an office at the prison, Poirier denied knowing Hainta or even where Yakutat Street was. Jessen laid the DNA report on a table in front of him. ''This line is semen from Doris,'' he said. ''This is your blood. They match.''

It took awhile, but eventually Poirier said he killed Hainta. He picked her up on Fourth Avenue, near the old Hub Bar, according to the account of his confession in the charging document. After having sex, Hainta ''spazzed out'' on him, he told Jessen. She wanted more money and tried to hit him with a tack hammer. He took the hammer away from her, wrapped an electric cord around her neck and strangled her.

Jessen isn't finished. Poirier spent a lot of time driving around the country. With two murders known, he wonders, what are the chances of more unsolved cases out there?

Both victims were strangled, both were Native American -- Hainta was Kiowa. That's the kind of detail the FBI puts in a computer. Jessen has asked them to check their files.



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