A suspected murderer faces execution over a 1983 sex killing whose victim was found on fire by police after DNA proved a serial killer falsely confessed to the crime.
Thomas Darnell, 75, was taken into custody at his home in Kansas last week and was extradited on Thursday to Montgomery County, Texas, where he was charged with capital murder for the 1983 killing of Laura Marie Purchase.
Darnell’s arrest comes less than two years after investigators sent DNA evidence from the crime scene for analysis, which they say matched with Darnell.
Henry Lee Lucas, a self-proclaimed serial killer, confessed to killing Purchase just months after her death and was convicted of the murder three years later, but DNA testing ruled him out as a suspect in 2008.
Thomas Darnell, 75 (left), has been charged with capital murder for the March 1983 slaying of Laura Purchase (right), whose burning body was found in Texas
According to a statement from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, at around 3am on March 17, 1983, a deputy was on patrol in the 4000 block of IH-45 near League Line Road when he noticed a fire burning in a wooded area.
The deputy approached the site and discovered a woman’s lifeless, naked body that had been set alight.
An autopsy later determined that the then-unidentified victim had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. The post-mortem examination also detected traces of a man’s DNA on the corpse.
It was not until more than three years later that the FBI ran the victim’s fingerprints through its database and positively identified her as Laura Purchase, a missing woman from Houston.
Police said Purchase was last known to have been seen alive in Houston on March 5, 1983, living with a man named ‘Howard’ or ‘Howie,’ who played in a band called Malibu, reported ABC13.
Darnell, who lives in Kansas, was arrested thanks to DNA and genealogy testing
Just months after Purchase was found dead, and long before she was identified, Lucas confessed to killing her, and was convicted of the murder in 1986.
In all, Lucas was convicted of murdering 11 people between 1960 and 1983, and was sentenced to death for the killing of Debra Jackson, although his sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1998. He died of a heart failure in 2001, after confessing to some 600 murders.
An investigation by the Texas Attorney General later concluded that Lucas was a pathological liar who had falsely confessed to crimes he did not commit.
He is still confirmed to have killed at least three – making him a serial killer – with eight other possible victims disputed by investigators.
In 2007, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Squad resubmitted the unknown male’s DNA found on Purchase’s body in 1983. Despite Lucas’ confession and conviction, both he and his co-defendant were eliminated as suspects in that case.
Just months after Purchase’s death, self-proclaimed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas (left and right) confessed to her murder and was convicted of the crime in 1986. He died in prison in 2011
In 2008, more than seven years after Lucas’ death, DNA testing ruled him out as suspect in Purchase’s case
In October 2019, investigators sent the DNA evidence for genealogy testing, which produced a lead that pointed to Darnell as a murder suspect.
On March 17, exactly 38 years after Purchase’s killing, detectives executed a DNA warrant and collected a sample from Darnell.
On April 30, Darnell’s DNA sample was positively matched to the unknown male’s DNA profile collected from Purchase, resulting in his arrest.
Darnell is being held in the Montgomery County jail without a bond.