Courier Staff Writer
Nearly 40 years after Mary Jayne Jones was murdered in a farmhouse in rural Wapello County, an arrest has been made.
Wapello County Sheriff Mark Miller and DCI special agent Michael Motsinger spoke about the arrest at a press conference Tuesday night at the law center.
Law enforcement arrested Robert Eugene Pilcher, 66, of Des Moines, in connection with the 1974 homicide of Jones, 17, of Ottumwa.
Pilcher was arrested by Wapello County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents Tuesday at the A-1 Motel in Des Moines.
On April 9, 1974, Jones’ body was discovered in a farmhouse 7 miles west of Ottumwa on U.S. Highway 34 and one-half mile south. Jones had been shot once in the head and once in the heart and was sexually assaulted.
A thorough crime scene investigation was conducted by the DCI Crime Laboratory and law enforcement immediately after her body was discovered. A week after her murder, nearly 300 people had been interviewed in reference to the case, but no arrests were ever made, according to a previous Courier article.
As a result of the investigation, several items of evidentiary value were collected and stored at the Wapello County Sheriff’s Office. A full investigative report was compiled and a record of that investigative file was kept in the records division of DCI.
The residence in which the victim was located was owned by Pilcher’s cousin, who was out of town at the time of Jones’ death. Pilcher had access to his cousin’s vehicle and access to the farmhouse during the time period in which the death occurred. Pilcher, who was 27 at the time, was interviewed during the 1974 investigation.
Under a federally funded grant, DCI operated a Cold Case Unit from 2009-11. This unit was designed specifically to re-examine unsolved crimes and determine if further investigation and scientific analysis could lead to an arrest. Members of the Cold Case Unit resubmitted items collected from the crime scene and from Jones’ body to the DCI Crime Laboratory for additional DNA testing using analysis technology not available at the time of the homicide.
“I hope what we have here is a situation where technology has caught up,” Miller said. “We’re very hopeful, we appreciate what we have in this investigation and hope that we can move forward with this evidence. We’re appreciative of technology as it has advanced.”
A DNA profile was developed from the resubmitted evidence and entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). This database searches DNA profiles from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence and missing persons. As a result of this search, the DNA profile developed from the evidence found at the crime scene was matched with the known DNA profile of Pilcher, a convicted felon.
“Part of being convicted of a felony is we do a collection of DNA and enter it into the ‘all felons database,’ CODIS,” Motsinger said. “We developed a profile from old evidence from 1974 and were able to get that match.”
Miller said law enforcement at the time did a conscientious and thorough investigation, but they simply did not have the technology that is available today.
“It’s 38 years ago, but this is a big day for all of us, at the crime lab, the DCI, the Wapello County Sheriff’s Office and for the family and friends of Mary Jayne Jones,” Miller said.
Jones, originally from Fort Smith, Ark., had lived in Ottumwa less than a year and was employed at Henry’s Drive-In, according to a previous Courier article. Henry’s Drive-In stood where Taco John’s stands today on Church Street.
Tina Higdon, of Eldon, was friends with Jones and worked with her at the drive-in. Jones was her sister-in-law’s sister.
“I’m just glad it’s finally over,” Higdon said.
Friends referred to Jones as “Jayne,” Higdon said, who was also 17 when Jones was murdered.
Pilcher is currently being held in Wapello County Jail on $1 million bond, pending an initial appearance. The investigation is ongoing by members of the Wapello County Sheriff’s Office and DCI agents.
“Pilcher has not agreed to talk with investigators at this time,” Miller said.