Mildred Matheny hardly left the house where she lived with her sister. The 78-year-old had dementia and needed help picking out her clothes.
She was found naked on a dirt road, beaten bloody, her pink pajamas and dentures strewn nearby. She died in a hospital.
For more than 35 years, her killing in coastal South Florida went unpunished. Her son said he gave up hope, even when authorities said they were working the cold case. Then on Friday, police said DNA from the victim’s sexual assault kit had matched with a 61-year-old man in Boynton Beach, Fla.
Richard Curtis Lange is now charged with kidnapping, rape and murder, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office announced. He was 25 at the time of the alleged crimes.
“Thirty-five years. Thirty-five years he’s out there,” said the victim’s son Gary Matheny, 88, now retired in Monticello, Ark.
In an interview Saturday, he said he was grateful for detectives’ perseverance but also mourned the decades without answers.
“Law enforcement don’t know the damage he may have caused in his communities,” he said of Lange.
Lange pleaded not guilty Friday and is being held without bond, court records show. His lawyer said Lange “vehemently denies” the allegations against him.
“We look forward to aggressively challenging the forensic evidence attributed to Mr. Lange,” attorney Scott Skier said in a statement. “Nothing in Mr. Lange’s past indicates a propensity for such abhorrent behavior.”
This week’s breakthrough stemmed from a male DNA profile recovered from the victim’s vaginal swabs, the sheriff’s office said. In March, a forensic scientist entered that profile into a national DNA database called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), drawing on “the recent emergence of DNA processing technology” at their crime lab’s disposal, the agency said.
Investigators got a warrant to take a direct DNA sample from Lange at his home Thursday, the sheriff’s office said in a statement, and that sample quickly confirmed their match.
“Lange denied knowing or having any involvement in the murder of the victim,” the agency said.
It was one of many old investigations to leap forward with new genetic analysis — though police departments have sometimes struggled to ensure that evidence in long-buried, dead-end cases gets the benefit of modern technology.
The deadliest serial killer in U.S. history, Samuel Little, was locked away for life after decades of murders thanks to DNA hits. Police say they found the infamous “Golden State Killer” and many others through a relatively new technique called “genetic genealogy,” which compares crime scene DNA against potential relatives of the suspect in online databases more commonly used for family tree research.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to questions Saturday about their work on Matheny’s killing and other cold cases.
Lange has been arrested multiple times over the years, according to county and Florida records, charged with offenses including aggravated assault. Most recently in Palm Beach County, in 2012, he was convicted of carrying a concealed firearm; possessing marijuana with intent to sell; and being a felon in possession of ammunition.
Skier, his attorney, said that given “Mr. Lange’s age, health and scant criminal history, we will argue that he should be released to home detention” ahead of a trial.
Gary Matheny hopes to attend.
“It is a terrible crime, and you cannot extract out of him what he put my mother through,” he said. “I mean, the law don’t allow that.”
His mother was a “wonderful little lady,” he said — articulate, talented and thrifty. He laughed, remembering the eighth-grade shirts she made him out of sacks that had held hog feed.
“She could cut 'em up and make me a shirt as good as any shirt you could ever buy,” he said.
Mildred Matheny was born in Arkansas not far from where her son lives now. Her mother raised her and five other children alone after her father died of a heart attack, Gary Matheny said — “back in the day when there’s no Red Cross and no Medicare, no Medicaid, no nothing.”
Mildred worked for more than 40 years as a psychiatric nurse at a mental institution in Little Rock, according to her son. She cared for her brother when his mental state began to deteriorate, then faced struggles of her own in her 70s, he said. So she went to live with her sister in Lake Worth, Fla.
Gary Matheny remembers rushing down to Florida after his mother was attacked. When he went to see her in the hospital, he said, she was “black and blue” — beaten in the head with a blunt object, according to authorities. She died within days.
Her son said he cannot wrap his head around the idea that a 25-year-old would assault a 78-year-old woman. The crime still confounds him.
But now, at least, he has a name.
“That book is closed,” he marveled Saturday. “It’s really closed.”