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Darien police turning to DNA advancements to solve cold case

Published 10:33 am, Monday, December 16, 2013

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  • Darien Police search the grounds of the abandoned home where the body of Greg Sjolander was left. He was discovered on Monday, Dec. 4, 1978. To the left, police prepare to place Sjolander's body into the car. Photo: Contributed Photo, Contributed / Darien News Contributed
    Darien Police search the grounds of the abandoned home where the body of Greg Sjolander was left. He was discovered on Monday, Dec. 4, 1978. To the left, police prepare to place Sjolander's body into the car. Photo: Contributed Photo, Contributed

 

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Darien's Other Cold Cases
Officer Kenneth Bateman was shot and killed on May 31, 1981, while responding to a burglary at the Duchess Prior Restaurant near the Norwalk border. His killer fired a shot that pierced Bateman's neck, severing his carotid artery, voice box and wind pipe. He lost a significant amount of blood and was declared dead 90 minutes later. Bateman's death remains the only unsolved death of a Connecticut police officer. Darien police have one primary suspect but have never been able to provide the evidence to prove it.
The body of 22-year-old Omar Restrepo was found in the trunk of a car while an officer was on patrol on July 22, 1985. The car had been in the parking lot for two 90-degree days before police investigated. They found that Restrepo died from two gunshot wounds to the back of his head. Police believe he had been killed outside of Darien and "dumped" in the Darien Post Office parking lot because of its location to I-95.
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It was a foggy Monday morning with a light rain falling when Greg Arthur Sjolander's body was found just after 9 a.m. behind an abandoned building on Dec. 4, 1978.

That morning, a man was looking at the green abandoned home off Ledge Road ­­­­-- a dirt road then ­--­ where BMW of Darien is now, as a potential purchase. When he rounded the home to look at the backyard, he came upon Sjolander's body just outside the rear door that was covered by a thick wall of overgrowth. Thinking the body was just a sleeping vagrant, who was wearing a navy blue pea coat, blue jeans and sneakers, the man called police, according to a 1978 Stamford Advocate article.

Once police arrived on scene, it was quickly determined that the 150-pound, clean-shaven person had been murdered by someone wielding a .38-caliber pistol who delivered one shot just below Sjolander's left eye and another to his neck.

At a meeting of town department heads later that evening, then Chief of Police John Jordan said it appeared the body had been "dumped" at the house, according to the front-page Darien News article on Dec. 7. Police determined the body could have been on the property for as long as 24 hours or as short as two hours.

Sjolander, who was 36 at the time of his death, was shot at close range -- execution style.

It's been 35 years since Sjolander's murder, which is one of Darien's three unsolved cases, joining those of Officer Kenneth Bateman, who was killed while responding to a burglary, and Omar Restrepo, a 22-year-old Colombian who was living in Stamford at the time and who was found dead in the trunk of a car in the Darien Post Office parking lot on July 22, 1985.

Darien police sent Sjolander's fingerprints to the FBI for identification. A fingerprint file from years prior was able to accurately ID Sjolander.

It wasn't until the Saturday after Sjolander's murder that his stepfather and brother-in-law were able to confirm his identity at the chief medical examiner's office in Farmington, according to the Darien News. They left that evening and did not arrange for a funeral.

Paul Lalonde, Sjolander's cousin's son, who wrote the article "Finding Cousin Greg" for the Ontario Genealogical Society's November 2012 issue, learned that Sjolander was buried in Darien's Spring Grove Cemetery on Jan. 24, 1979.

Police knew little about Sjolander in the first few days after his body was discovered.

His mother, Maria Coates, who lived in Ontario, Canada, hadn't heard from or seen her son in 15 years prior to his visit during Christmas in 1977, according to a 1978 article in the Stamford Advocate.

During his Christmas visit, Coates said her son seemed "tense and unhappy," but spoke of a woman named Terry, whom he vaguely mentioned marrying.

The last time Coates heard from him was in March 1978, when he called home.

She told police he left home at 16 and started working as a sailor on a Great Lakes freighter. The FBI told the Darien police that he was listed as a merchant sailor in 1960 during an immigration process, but his citizenship never panned out.

Coates knew Sjolander had served nine years in a Montreal prison, but for what crimes, she was unsure.

"I never asked him and he never told me," Coates said, according to the Advocate. "But he had a criminal record longer than your arm."

At 20, Sjolander was sentenced to prison for setting fire to a home, according to Lalonde. He also had been sentenced to prison a second time for major drug charges.

Early troubles

Lalonde wrote that Sjolander always had been one for trouble, and "became a Catholic school legend by brandishing a hunting knife and threatening a nun with it." His behavior continued into his teenage years, when he would break into summer cottages, steal goods from the homes and sell them.

Detective Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, who is working on the case, said Sjolander had two sisters and a half-sister, who were interviewed for the first time when he took over the case two years ago. Sjolander's half-sister told Johnson that in summer 1978, he called her to say he had gotten into a fight with someone in Montreal and stabbed him, which is why he left the country and fled to "the island of New York." Johnson was unable to confirm Sjolander's statement about the stabbing.

Johnson identified a credible witness who saw Sjolander at an apartment on Ursula Place in Stamford on two occasions -- Labor Day 1978 and Nov. 5, 1978.

"That was the first indication that he was in the area," Johnson said. At the time of Sjolander's death, police said, he may have used the alias "Paul Swanson."

The apartment location is significant to police because it ties Sjolander to Darien native Ronald Poole, who was found murdered in a rock quarry in Duchess County, N.Y., earlier that year. In the weeks leading up to his death, Poole also was seen at the Ursula Place apartment. Police are aware who lived there, but aren't able to comment on specifics.

Between 9:30 and 10 a.m. the day Sjolander's body was discovered, three men were having breakfast at the counter at the Howard Johnson's on the corner of Post and Ledge roads, where Whole Foods is now. A waitress overheard the men talking about a murder, Johnson said.

Two of the men were described as white, neatly dressed like workmen, and one of them was said to be tall, thin and wearing glasses. The third one was described as a black man in his late 20s or early 30s with dark skin and wearing a leather hat.

Forensic advancements

Thirty-five years after the murder, new DNA advancements could provide a possible conclusion to the cold case, which hasn't been worked on since the early 1980s, according to Johnson, who came across it in April 2012 when he moved into his office. The case was briefly reopened in the early '80s, but the shooting death of Bateman redirected the department's investigative resources.

It was in 2012 that Lt. Ron Bussell suggested that Johnson delve deeper into the Sjolander case.

Evidence from the Sjolander homicide was processed by the FBI forensic lab in early 1979, long before the advent of DNA testing, according to police. Some of this evidence is being sent to the FBI Lab in Quantico, Va., for re-analysis. Evidence is also being sent to the Connecticut State Forensic Lab for DNA testing.

Advancements in DNA analysis, along with computer technology and the Combined DNA Index System, have created a "powerful crime-fighting tool" for law enforcement, according to a special report about using DNA to solve cold cases issued by the National Institute of Justice in 2002. Using the CODIS, a DNA sample can be compared to thousands of biological profiles of convicted offenders, missing persons, unidentified remains and relatives of missing persons.

"When properly documented, collected and stored, biological evidence can be analyzed to produce a reliable DNA profile years, even decades, after it is collected," according to the report. Because of the forensic advancements, laws are being created, amended or repealed to take advantage of the ability to "identify and convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent."

According to the NIJ, because of the recidivistic nature of crimes, "a likelihood exists that the individual who committed the crime being investigated was convicted of a similar crime and already has his or her DNA profile in a DNA database that can be searched by CODIS."

However, given that Sjolander's death was 35 years ago, the possibility exists that his killer is dead. A number of people in the Sjolander case file have died, but there are several others who are still alive, Johnson said.

The CODIS is not perfect, though. While jurisdictions are completing their DNA databases, they're experiencing a backlog from too many DNA samples.

While Johnson waits for the DNA to be processed, he spends a few hours a week on the case conducting interviews and attempting to uncover more evidence that can lead to a closed case.

"I've put a considerable amount of effort into it," Johnson said. "I try and do something on it every week or two if I can."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews