Three days after a young woman from Whitehouse was found with her throat slit, buried in a Swanton Township ditch, investigators searched a mobile home and van belonging to a man who lived nearby — Andrew Gustafson.
At the time, authorities said they lacked the evidence needed to charge him with the murder of Janean Brown, 19, but on Thursday — nearly 30 years after her brutal slaying — Mr. Gustafson, now 56, was arrested at his home in Birch Run, Mich., and charged with two counts of aggravated murder and one count of murder.
“The bottom line was we didn’t have the capabilities of DNA back then,” Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said.
Ms. Brown, who was working as a nurse’s aide at the Whitehouse Country Manor nursing home, went missing in the early morning hours of Nov. 18, 1983. Some 36 hours later, her body was found in a shallow grave in a drainage ditch near 12404 Archbold-Whitehouse Rd.
Investigators said she had been stripped of her clothing, whipped with a belt buckle, and nearly decapitated by the stab wounds to her throat. While more than 100 people were interviewed during the following weeks, months, and years, no arrests ever were made — until now.
An indictment unsealed Thursday charges Mr. Gustafson with the three felonies. If convicted, he faces 20 years to life in prison.
“Thankfully, due to advances in science, we are able to solve cases that have not been able to be concluded in the past,” said Rob Miller, chief of the special units division of the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office.
Pamela Purney, Ms. Brown’s best friend, returned to Whitehouse after briefly moving away and said Thursday that she has waited 30 years for Mr. Gustafson’s arrest.
“I am still in a state of shock. I can’t believe it. I’m waiting to wake up. But seeing it all over the news, it’s true. And I’m just waiting for the next step,” said Mrs. Purney, the former Pam Rader.
Like so many cold cases that have been solved after decades of dormancy on police shelves, DNA played a key role in obtaining an indictment of a long-time suspect in the case, officials said.
In May, 2011, the Lucas County Cold Case Unit reopened the investigation into Ms. Brown’s death, eventually getting enough evidence to present the case to a Lucas County grand jury. The cold-case team included help from the prosecutor’s office, the sheriff’s office, the coroner’s office, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and Whitehouse police.
Picked up by Michigan State Police on Thursday, Mr. Gustafson is being held in the Saginaw County Jail in Saginaw pending extradition to Ohio. He had moved to Birch Run only last year after his residence, at 12510 Archbold-Whitehouse, was foreclosed upon.
Although declining to go into details about the allegations, Mr. Miller described Mr. Gustafson as “an acquaintance” of Ms. Brown.
“There may have been a sexual motivation” in the “brutal, brutal” slaying, he said.
Investigators said Ms. Brown, a 1982 Penta County Vocational School graduate, was last seen getting into a beige van on Archbold-Whitehouse. She had been at a local bar with friends earlier that evening, and later went looking for a former boyfriend she had seen talking to another woman in the bar’s parking lot.
Although she never found him, she did run into a resident of the nursing home where she worked. Out for an early morning jog, the man agreed to walk her home. As they approached the nursing home — just a block or so from her friend Pam Rader’s house where she’d been living — she saw a beige van and ran to talk with someone she said she knew. That was the last time she was seen alive.
Investigators speculated at the time that more than one person had assaulted her. Her clothing was torn, and it appeared she was tied and whipped with a heavy belt buckle or cord. The late Lt. Kirk Surprise told The Blade in 1990 that it appeared someone had pulled her head back while another slit her throat.
“From the [angle] of the cuts, it looked like there may have been two people, or more, we don’t know,” he said. “It was a heinous crime, one of the worst we’ve investigated in a long time.”
Mr. Miller said Thursday that he does not believe another suspect was involved.
“Based on the evidence, we believe he acted alone,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Gustafson, whose late father Stan Gustafson had been president of the Dana Corp., does not appear to have a criminal history. In Lucas County, his only offenses are driving citations.
Toledo attorney Bobby Kaplan, who represented him at the time of Ms. Brown’s death, said he was surprised to learn of his arrest after so long. He said he recalled that police searched his client’s van in 1983, found no evidence that implicated him, and promptly returned the vehicle.
“I know that for 30 years they did not bring a charge, and I was not aware of any newly discovered evidence, and that’s why I was surprised,” Mr. Kaplan said.
Sheriff Tharp, who at the time was a Toledo Police detective, said he lived in the Anthony Wayne school district then and recalled the case was disturbing to those who lived in the normally quiet area of western Lucas County.
“The people that I knew, my immediate neighbors, were stunned. That’s what their feelings were,” he recalled. “I don’t think they were afraid. I think they were stunned.”
Rich and Cindy Teet had lived diagonally across the street from the Gustafsons for nearly 30 years and said they remember when Ms. Brown was killed “just across the road.” Ms. Brown’s body was found on their first wedding anniversary.
“We had just gone out to eat and we had an old neighbor who stayed up until three in the morning to tell us [they found a body across the road].”
Mrs. Teet, who was a high school classmate of Ms. Brown, said the murder had been a local sensation when it happened and while she and her husband had not been personally affected by it, she thought the arrest might bring closure to others in the community.
Mrs. Purney, whose late brother Larry once dated Ms. Brown, said she and her father had long awaited an arrest, and she had been crying “tears of relief” all day.
“A lot of these people still live here that lived here 30 years ago. A lot of people that she went to school with, that I went to school with, still live here. The last thing I said before I buried her 30 years ago was that I wasn’t going to let it go. That I wasn’t going to stop until I was dead. I finally got my reward today. I’ve finally got closure. Now the next step is getting him back here and going to the trial. Because I am not letting this go. Not until the very end.”
Mrs. Purney added that Ms. Brown’s family knows of the arrest, but her elderly grandmother will not be notified. “It’s her family’s decision. She made peace with this long ago,” she said.
Staff writer Danielle Trubow contributed to this report.
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