DNA link ignites Howe case
The Derrick, 3/16/02 By LISA THOMPSON

Special thanks to The Derrick for permitting this story to be posted


Photo by Jerry Sowden - State police and state forensic investigators sift through debris Friday in the yard at Oil City resident Eldred "Ted" Walker's home at 43 Laurel Ave.

Lying broken in a cold creek, 11-year-old Shauna Howe had no one she could tell.

The Oil City Girl Scout died, taking with her the secrets of who snatched her from a familiar street corner within sight of her home. Who held her for at least 21/2 days as her family and police searched the neighborhoods and forests while an anxious community waited and watched. Who was responsible for her deadly fall from a rusting railroad bridge high above a rock-strewn creek.

In the face of her silence, police in more than nine years of investigation pulled out every traditional investigative stop. They interviewed the lone witness to her abduction, weighed evidence from the scene of her death, followed leads and developed possible suspects, some of them promising, as opportunities surfaced.

But even as they tracked down information here and across the country, investigators knew that Howe's body carried a clue, a genetic identification card that, if matched, could help lead them to the person or persons responsible for her death.

That match has apparently been found, The Derrick has learned.

Sources say a DNA sample taken from an Oil City man serving a state sentence for attempting to kidnap a woman in Oil City in 1995 matches a sample of DNA found on Howe's body.

James O'Brien, 30, formerly of Paul Revere Road, gave police the sample willingly in recent months, sources and his mother, Linda O'Brien, say. After years of failed tests performed on hosts of other possible suspects, the FBI lab in Washington this time reported a match.

The news appears to represent a major break in the case and provoked a visible spike in investigative activity.

For weeks, investigators from stations throughout Troop E have been seen coming and going from the squat, windswept barracks on Route 322. The telltale presence of federal sport utility vehicles in the parking lot indicated frequent visits from the FBI, including the reported visit of an FBI profiler. In addition, reports from the community indicate that police have retrieved employment records from area businesses in recent weeks.

In the most public recent event, state police pored over a hillside home on Laurel Avenue in a low-key search that began late Thursday and continued into Friday morning. The home's owner, Eldred "Ted" Walker, without mentioning any names, says he has opened his home to a number of people. He thinks he may have taken in some "really bad" people once, who may have done, as he says, "a disgusting thing."

As the activity reveals, a DNA match alone does not solve the case. And so far, the murder remains under investigation. James O'Brien has not been charged with any crime.

O'Brien's mother, Linda O'Brien of Oil City, confirmed Friday that her son gave police a DNA sample. She says that in a meeting held at the state police barracks on March 1, police told her that the sample matches DNA found on Howe's body. But she flatly rejects that claim. Linda O'Brien believes the DNA they tested her son's against may have come from trash at Coulter's Hole, a popular swimming spot near the site where Howe's body was discovered.

She says her son was transported March 1 from state prison in Mercer to the FBI headquarters in Pittsburgh for an interview with state police and FBI agents. But, she said, he has refused to speak with police and maintains his innocence. She believes authorities denied her son's request for an attorney.

"Jimmy did not do it. I don't believe it. He used to go camping out there all the time. If they got DNA, they got it off a bottle or (other trash). They didn't get it off Shauna Howe's body," she said.

"My son did not have anything to do with it. It can be proven," she said, noting that she could not go into detail about the proof at this time.

"He was engaged when this happened. What in God's name would he go after a child for? Going after a child is crazy. I hope they find the person who did this and skin them alive. I don't believe in it," she said.

O'Brien said that her son has taken courses while in state prison to improve himself. He plans on opening a barbershop when he is paroled.

James O'Brien is being held on a 41/2-to-20-year sentence after a Venango County jury convicted him in February 1996, of attempting to abduct a woman he had met in an Oil City tavern. The victim said O'Brien followed her home on July 30, 1995, then lured her to the back of his car where he tried to force her into his trunk. She said he forced her to the ground then tried to bash her head against the cement. He fled after a car passed the scene. At trial, O'Brien admitted he fought with the woman after she slapped him. He denied that he tried to abduct her.

Linda O'Brien said Friday that her son was wrongly convicted in that case. She says he would have been paroled sooner, but that he refuses to enroll in sex offender programming because he was not convicted of a sexual offense.

Mrs. O'Brien said she does not know Eldred Walker, whose home was searched Thursday and Friday in connection with the case. She does not know of any connection her son had with him.

O'Brien feels she has been subjected to a whisper campaign of sorts as news of the DNA match spread through the area. But she says people who know the family have remained supportive.

"I feel everything will turn out good. In my heart, I know he didn't do it," she said.

Howe, the daughter of Robert Howe and Lucy Brown, was abducted Oct. 27, 1992, at the corner of West First and Reed streets in Oil City as she walked home from a Girl Scouts Halloween party.

A witness, Dan Paden of Oil City, saw a man approach her. Then he heard a scream and both were gone.

A massive search ensued, but two and a half days later, a family acquaintance found her shattered body lying on a rock in East Sandy Creek. The spot was in the same vicinity where an uncle had found a piece of her clothing the day before.

A $15,000 reward awaits those who provide information leading to the arrest of her killer.

Whether an arrest is near remains unknown.

State police are saying nothing about the new developments, citing concerns about the ongoing investigation.

Trooper David Wargo, public information officer, on Friday repeated what has become the organization's mantra of apparent understatement.

"As far as Shauna Howe goes, we follow up all new leads that come in our direction. We've aggressively investigated that case and will continue to do so. Hopefully, it will be brought to a conclusion. As to who we're talking to, that's information that could compromise a case, it could put that case in jeopardy eventually. We just can't do that," he said.