Alaska's DNA detectives make an arrest 41 years after teen's murder

Judy Connolly at the Alaska State Troopers press conference on Sept. 3, 2019, announcing they...
Judy Connolly at the Alaska State Troopers press conference on Sept. 3, 2019, announcing they had a suspect in her daughter's murder. (KTUU)
Published: Sep. 3, 2019 at 6:16 PM AKDT
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After more than forty years, Alaska State Troopers have arrested an Oregon man in the cold case mystery of an Anchorage teenager's murder.

Sixteen-year-old Shelley Connolly went missing January 7, 1978. The next day, her body was discovered by hikers down the embankment of a highway pullout south of Anchorage.

Tuesday, Alaska State Troopers announced the arrest of 62-year-old Donald McQuade for Connolly's murder.

The night she disappeared, Connolly had told her mother she was going roller skating. But the teenager had instead gone to Chilkoot Charlie's, a local bar, and was later seen eating at Leroy's Diner.

The discovery of her body the next day, and a subsequent autopsy revealed Connolly had suffered greatly in the hours leading up to her death. She'd been raped, beaten and dragged from a moving car.

"They had thrown her over an embankment and she tried to crawl up because her fingernails were all broken and full of debris," Judy Connolly, Shelley's mother, told KTUU in 2016.

After being tossed from the car, Connolly lay dying for hours in freezing winter temperatures.

"A mother's always supposed to be there to protect her children," Judy Connolly told KTUU, explaining the difficult feelings that linger after a child dies. During that interview in 2016, Connolly said she'd come terms with the fact she might never see her daughter's killer brought to justice.

She was wrong.

Friday, she got the remarkable news: a suspect, a DNA match, and an arrest.

"I really was flabbergasted," Connolly said after a press conference about the arrest Tuesday.

Beginning in Dec. 2018, using a relatively new type of DNA technology -- genetic genealogy analysis -- investigators began the search for relatives of an unknown individual who'd left DNA on Connolly's body.

Until this new approach, traditional DNA testing had ruled out prior suspects. Crime databases yielded no matches.

Within months, the DNA search led investigators to Donald McQuade, who lived in Anchorage at the time of the murder, drove a car similar to the one Connolly was seen getting into, and whose DNA would match DNA found under Shelley's nails, on her jeans, and on her body.

Oregon police took him into custody Friday. He's charged with first and second-degree murder and will be brought to Alaska for trial.

McQuade's brother, Richard McQuade, expressed doubt to fellow NBC affiliate KGW that his brother was capable of committing such a crime.

"I have my own belief which I can't substantiate, but I know my brother," he said. "And if anything, he might've been in the car, not at the time the crime was committed.

"We have never noticed that type of behavior in Donald McQuade," he added.

Meanwhile, Connolly told KTUU the quest for clues and answers "seemed like it was a dead end." McQuade's arrest, "totally unexpected," brought "great relief," she said.

According to investigators, McQuade has denied having anything to do with the murder. An affidavit filed in support of his arrest reveals his only admission came when speaking to a long-time friend during a secretly recorded phone call. During that call, investigators say McQuade confided he made many mistakes while drunk.

"I can't begin to imagine how painful it has been over the years knowing what happened to Shelley, and for her case to remain seemingly unnoticed. While I can announce this outcome today, it does not make up for the years of pain they faced," Alaska State Trooper Col. Barry Wilson said during Tuesday's press conference.

Gresham Police Dept. Detective Kevin Carlson said there's a long way to go in the case, but that getting this far has been a major step.

"[McQuade] still has a lot to go as far as the prosecution end," he said, "but everybody felt very grateful to see the end of a seemingly endless case."

Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said the arrest shows investigators never gave up.

"Even when it felt like her case was sitting silent, the loss of Shelley was felt throughout the halls of this department, and never did the work cease in finding who hurt Shelley," Price said. "What happened to Shelley mattered to this state, it mattered to this department, and it mattered to the men and women who consistently worked on this case and who never gave up hope."

KGW and Channel 2's Beth Verge contributed to this report.
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