A discarded coffee cup in an airport trashcan has helped lead to an arrest in an infamous cold case in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. David Sinopoli, now 68 years old, was arrested Sunday morning and charged with the murder of Lindy Sue Biechler who was stabbed to death in her apartment in 1975.
The story is the latest example of DNA testing and genealogy websites busting open crime cases that had previously been left unsolved due to a lack of evidence.
"This case was solved with the use of DNA and specifically DNA genealogy and quite honestly without that, I don't know that we would have ever solved it," Heather Adams, Lancaster County District Attorney, said at a news conference earlier this week.
On December 5, 1975, 19-year-old Biechler was found dead in her apartment by her aunt and uncle with 19 stab wounds and a knife sticking out of her neck. Evidence was taken from the scene that contained genetic traces of the killer, but it would be over a decade until DNA evidence was reliable enough to be used in criminal cases.
In 1997, police sent the underwear worn by Biechler at the time of the murder to a specialized lab. Not only did it return the genetic profile of an unidentified male, but it also found traces of semen. At this time, however, the DNA didn’t match with anyone on the genetic database.
“The reality is that David Sinopoli was not on our radar. None of the tips over the years suggested him as a possible suspect,” Adams added.
Years passed with no answer, but in 2019, the genetic evidence was sent to Parabon NanoLabs, which managed to reveal characteristics of the suspect including skin tone, eye color, and hair color. Crucially, it also showed that the DNA’s owner likely had ancestry linked to Gasperina, a town in the Calabria region of southern Italy.
Investigators noted that some 2,300 people of Italian ancestry were living in the area at the time of the crime. Using court records, newspaper archives, and other sources, it became apparent that Sinopoli was the most likely suspect. Most intriguing of all, it was discovered that Sinopoli lived in the same building as Biechler during the 1970s.
However, they still needed hard evidence.
While under surveillance, investigators managed to get their hands on a coffee cup Sinopoli had sipped at Philadelphia International Airport before he boarded a flight. DNA was obtained from the cup and, just as they hoped, it matched with the evidence left at the crime scene in 1975.
“Lindy Sue Biechler was 19 when her life was brutally taken away from her 46 years ago in the sanctity of her own home,” Adams said. “This arrest marks the beginning of the criminal process in Lancaster County’s oldest cold case homicide and we hope that it brings some sense of relief to the victim’s loved ones and to community members who for the last 46 years had no answers.”
A significant number of cold cases have been solved using genealogy techniques in recent years, the most infamous of which was the arrest of the “Golden State Killer” in 2018. These kinds of stories raise all kinds of concerns about privacy and ethics, but it’s undeniable the technique provides results.