DNA evidence has helped put Robert Pilcher behind bars for the murder Mary Jayne Jones, who was found dead in Blakesburg farmhouse. Pilcher, 68, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in September 2014 and could get out as early as 2019.
In the spring of 1974, Mary Jayne Jones, 17, was raped, beaten, and shot at close range in the face and heart with a high-powered rifle. On April 9, 1974, her body was found, naked on a bed, in an isolated farmhouse near Blakesburg, Iowa.
From the start, police had strong suspicions about who had snuffed out her life, but they failed to put together a strong enough case for an arrest.
After about a year, the crime-scene evidence, including a blood-soaked blanket, was packed up and sent into storage. It was still there almost a decade later, when a young geneticist in Leicester, England, had a “eureka moment” — the discovery that led to DNA fingerprinting. Three years later, this new crime-busting technology would, for the first time, help catch and convict a killer.
Years ticked by, and the evidence in the Jones case remained tucked away. Meanwhile, the science of DNA fingerprinting gradually became an essential tool for crime fighters.
In 1998, 24 years after Jones died, the FBI began CODIS — the Combined DNA Index System — a national database of the genetic profiles of known felons. Eleven years after that, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation obtained federal funding and established a cold case unit, dedicated to using new technologies to investigate crimes that had gone unsolved for decades. In that one state alone, there are hundreds. A website, Iowa Cold Cases, lists about 425 unsolved homicides since 1900. The unit chose to reexamine the case of Mary Jayne Jones.
She had not been in the state long at the time of her murder. Originally from Fayetteville, N.C., Jones had moved to Ottumwa sometime in the summer of 1973 to help her sister, Pat Williams, who was pregnant. Williams moved back to North Carolina after the birth of the baby in November, but Jones decided to stay. She had friends, an apartment, a new roommate, and a job as a waitress at Henry’s Drive-In.
At 5-foot-2 with auburn hair, the young woman, whom friends described as bubbly, attracted attention from her male customers. One of her admirers, Robert Gene Pilcher, 27, an exterminator from Ottumwa, was a regular at Henry’s and was known for making unwanted and lewd advances to many of the waitresses. He kept nagging Jones for a date. No one remembers her ever taking him up on it.
At the time, Jones had a boyfriend. “He bought me a beautiful ring for Valentine’s Day. Not an engagement ring, but it’s got a diamond in it,” she wrote in a letter to friends in North Carolina. The boyfriend wasn’t interested marriage, but, Jones said, “if he loves me enough, he’ll marry me eventually.”
The last anyone recalls seeing the girl was at an Ottumwa bank on the afternoon of April 9. Her corpse was found the next morning in a farmhouse that belonged to Max Marlin.
Pilcher was Marlin’s cousin — and it was well-known that Pilcher often brought women to the farmhouse. Four days before Jones was found dead, Pilcher had picked up a barmaid, Roma Charlyn Waterhouse, at the Tom Tom Tap in Ottumwa. He took her to the farmhouse, handcuffed her, and forced her to perform oral sex. While trying to build the murder case against Pilcher, investigators arrested him and charged him with sodomy. A jury found him guilty, but the conviction was later overturned.
Although the dead girl was found in Pilcher’s favorite party spot, no reliable evidence turned up to connect him to the murder. One detective, Wayne Shelton, was so certain of Pilcher’s guilt that he continued to follow leads after his retirement and up until his death in 2007. Jones’ sister, Judith Cabanillas, who was 13 when her older sibling died, also continued to press for answers. But as years passed, hope faded.
Then in 2010, the cold case unit plugged a DNA sample retrieved from the blanket into the national felons DNA database and got a hit — a match to Pilcher.
The life he had led after the spring of 1974 had insured that there would be plenty of his DNA in the database. His was a life filled with petty crimes, his face a familiar one on websites with names like Lookwhogotbusted.com. Police picked him up at the A-1 Motel in Des Moines on Nov. 13, 2012.
The huge length of time between the murder and the arrest presented overwhelming challenges. Memories became unreliable; people who might know something died. One witness for the prosecution, a former flame of Pilcher’s, told the jury that he had once boasted about having “offed someone” years ago in Ottumwa. Unfortunately, even the prosecutor had to admit that the woman’s credibility was compromised by years of crack cocaine use.
It was not all that surprising that the jury could not agree and Pilcher’s day in court ended in a mistrial.
But a second trial, in September 2014, ended abruptly when Pilcher pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to a decade in prison. With time served and good behavior, Pilcher, now 68, could be out as early as 2019.
The cold case unit’s DNA investigations also helped solve a 30-year-old triple murder that was traced to a man who had been executed in 1987 for kidnapping and killing a child.
Despite these successes, when federal funds ran out in 2011, Iowa’s cold case unit was put on ice.
Source: New York Daily News