Murder mystery solved

DNA leads to Redding woman’s murderer

Brian Harper was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Judith Hasselstrom and is facing 25 years to life in state prison.

Brian Harper was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Judith Hasselstrom and is facing 25 years to life in state prison.

PHOTO Courtesy of redding police department

In the early afternoon of Aug. 7, 1988, officers dispatched by the Redding Police Department were confronted with a horrific scene. Wearing only a bra and underwear, 43-year old Judith Hasselstrom lay strangled to death in the brambles next to a well-used trail in Redding’s popular and busy Caldwell Park, covered by bloody bamboo stalks. Her body was scratched and bruised and her bra was pulled down, exposing her breasts.

While police had evidence in the form of blood and fingerprints on the bamboo stalks, the ensuing investigation was fruitless. With no leads to act upon, the bamboo stalks were preserved and stored, and the case went cold.

That is, until an advanced DNA database allowed investigators to pinpoint her killer.

Nearly two decades after Hasselstrom’s murder, on Nov. 7, 2007, 37-year-old Brian Harper robbed a US Bank in Redding. He ran away, hiding in a Greyhound bus station until police arrived and arrested him. As with anyone being processed for a felony crime in the state of California, a sample of his inner cheek cells was taken in a technique known as a “buccal swab.” The sample was then entered into the Combined DNA Index System, a national database of criminals.

In February 2009, the California Department of Justice informed Redding police investigators that Harper’s sample matched that of the DNA found in the blood on the bamboo stalks used to cover Hasselstrom’s body. The match placed investigators on the verge of solving her murder—the first cold homicide case in the city’s history to be solved with DNA technology.

Harper was never a suspect in the original investigation because he had no recorded relationship with Hasselstrom beforehand, said Chief Peter Hansen of the Redding Police Department. It is uncommon for a homicide to occur between strangers.

“That’s what is most interesting about this case,” Hansen said. “There was no apparent connection between the two at the time. Absent the DNA technology, this case would not have been solved.”

That’s the beauty of the Combined DNA Index System, which was established in 1994. More than 170 crime labs currently participate in the index, providing investigators across the nation with a resource with astounding potential. As of June of this year, the index had produced 120,300 hits.

Last month, Harper was convicted of murder by a Shasta County jury. He faces a prison term of 25 years to life (he is scheduled for sentencing next month).

The Chico Police Department also makes use of DNA samples, although it has yet to solve a cold homicide case using the technology, Sgt. Rob Merrifield said. However, DNA evidence is equally useful when investigating cases of sexual assault.

“We have had cold rape cases solved through DNA technology,” he said, “none of them more than about five years old. It would be fair to say in the last 10 years we have solved six or seven cold sexual assault cases.”

To tie up the Hasselstrom case, Redding police investigators Todd Cogle and Jon Poletski paid a visit to Harper at Corcoran State Prison, where he was serving a two-year sentence for the bank robbery. They presented him with the DNA and fingerprint evidence connecting him with the murder. After an arduous three-hour process, Harper provided them with a bizarre confession.

That night in August of 1988, then 18-year-old Harper left a bar in downtown Redding with a friend named Jack. It was dark and he was drunk. While standing at the corner of an intersection, they met an older woman—Hasselstrom—who Harper said gave him an unidentified pill. They walked together through Caldwell Park and came to a bench behind the Redding Museum. Harper’s original confession and trial testimony differ on what happened next, but police are sure sexual contact occurred.

“We believe it was a forcible rape against her will,” Hansen said. “He confessed to having sex with her, but his confession led us to believe he thought it was consensual.”

What’s certain is that the encounter turned violent. Fueled by alcohol and the supposed mystery drug, Harper said he pinned Hasselstrom to the ground and pressed his forearm to her throat while she screamed and fought. He didn’t let up until Jack told him she was seriously hurt.

When Harper looked up, Jack was nowhere to be seen, and Hasselstrom was dead.

When Cogle and Poletski pressed Harper about the identity of Jack and his role in the murder, it became clear that Jack never existed. Harper admitted to hearing voices in his head since he was young, but never told anyone out of embarrassment. Harper was alone that night as he dragged Hasselstrom’s body into the bushes and covered her with bamboo stalks he cut from the banks of the Sacramento River. How Harper’s blood got on the bamboo remains a mystery.

“We don’t know for sure whether Harper was injured during the struggle, when he was carrying her body, or when he cut the bamboo stalks,” Hansen said.

Redding and Chico police will continue to use the DNA database to investigate cold crimes like Hasselstom’s murder, but Hansen points out that the technology has a potential to result in more than convictions.

“It’s very newsworthy that DNA technology has solved a 22-year-old murder, but it’s equally important that it will be used to free innocent people,” he said.