She Was Raped, Strangled, Set Alight in a Field. Cops Say They’ve Found Her Killer.

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Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office
Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office

After almost four decades, a 75-year-old Texas man has been arrested for sexually assaulting a woman before strangling her and setting her body on fire in a field—a grisly crime that a notorious self-proclaimed serial killer once insisted was his doing.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office on Friday said that Thomas Elvin Darnell had been charged with capital murder in connection with Laura Marie Purchase’s March 1983 murder. Darnell was arrested on May 11 in his Kansas home and extradited to Texas on Thursday. He is being held in Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Jail with no bond.

Authorities say Purchase had been missing for months before Darnell sexually assaulted her, then fatally strangled her and set her body ablaze in a wooded area near a highway. Purchase’s nude body, which was left “posed” at the scene, was found on March 17, 1983, by a patrolling deputy who responded to reports of a roadside fire in an area where 18-wheelers were known to congregate. She was positively identified in May 1986. Prior to her murder, Purchase was allegedly living in Houston with a man who went by the nickname “Howie” and played in the local band “Malibu.”

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Darnell’s arrest marks the second time authorities thought they had solved Purchase's case. Henry Lee Lucas, also known as The Highway Stalker, originally confessed to the murder before she was even identified. He was convicted of her murder in 1986. Lucas once confessed to committing as many as 600 murders between 1960 and 1983 and was convicted of murdering 11 people and sentenced to death.

Lucas’ sentence was ultimately commuted to life in prison in 1998 before he died of natural causes in 2001. At least 200 of Lucas’ murderous confessions have since been debunked, the sheriff’s department said. His murderous spree—and penchant for false confessions—were detailed in Netflix’s The Confession Killer.

In 2007, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Cold Case Squad deemed one of those false confessions to be Purchase’s murder after re-testing the DNA found at the crime scene. Lucas’ alleged partner-in-crime, Otis Elwood Toole, was also cleared of any wrongdoing.

“In October 2019, Investigators sent the DNA evidence for genealogy testing. An investigative lead generated from that genealogy report showed Thomas Elvin Darnell, a 75-year-old male from Kansas City, Kansas, as a potential suspect. A DNA search warrant for Thomas Darnell was obtained as a result of the investigation,” the sheriff’s office said in a Friday press release.

The discovery sent detectives to Kansas City, Kansas in March to collect a new DNA sample from Darnell. Last month, the sample was determined to be a positive match.

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