More than 40 years after a petite, spunky 16-year-old girl from Anchorage was found dead off the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm, an Oregon man has been charged in the murder of Shelley Connolly.
Alaska State Troopers announced Tuesday that local police arrested 62-year-old Gresham resident Donald F. McQuade on Friday, after using new advances in DNA testing and genetic genealogy to identify him as the suspect.
The case is the second this year to be cracked by investigators using the relatively new field of genetic genealogy, which uses DNA to create maps of potential relatives of an unknown suspect, narrowing the investigative path.
In February, Alaska State Troopers made an arrest in the 25-year-old murder of Sophie Sergie, a University of Alaska Fairbanks student killed in her dormitory.
Connolly’s mother, Judy, said she’d learned of McQuade’s arrest Friday.
“I’m in disbelief,” she said.
At a news conference in Anchorage on Tuesday, troopers said they had interviewed potential suspects over the years, but McQuade wasn’t one of them.
“This guy was never on the radar,” troopers Investigator Randy McPherron said.
Connolly, whose family described her as an aspiring cosmetologist who liked parties, was last seen leaving Chilkoot Charlie’s with a group of men on Jan. 7, 1978, after midnight. A bouncer at the bar said the teenager was a regular on the raucous, Pipeline-era Anchorage bar scene. She was known as “Snow.”
Connolly’s body was discovered by a group of people who’d stopped to take pictures of Turnagain Arm on a Saturday morning. She was 15 feet down a steep embankment above the Alaska Railroad tracks just past McHugh Creek.
Her sleeveless blouse was up around her neck and her jeans were zipped up and closed, according to a sworn affidavit filed as part of the case. Drag marks indicated Connolly was pulled to the edge of a roadside pullout near Mile 109 of the Seward Highway and thrown down the embankment.
The coroner found evidence of sexual intercourse as well as multiple abrasions, lacerations and contusions including a lacerated liver “caused by blunt force impact to her abdomen."
Police investigated but made no arrests. That year, seven other women were murdered in Anchorage.
Connolly’s death remained in the public eye for 40 years, largely due to the dogged efforts of her mother.
Judy Connolly, a tax preparer who is now 77, contacted newspapers and television programs in Alaska and beyond, volunteering to sit for interviews and to recount the awful details of her daughter’s death.
She wanted to ensure that the world didn’t forget about her daughter’s death, and that authorities continued to feel pressure to solve the crime.
“We’ve had TV programs, articles, everything,” Connolly said.
Police have at times explored leads in the case, even flying out of state in the 1990s to interview suspects -- McQuade not among them.
As the decades piled up, Connolly saw the chances for solving her daughter’s killing dissolving.
By 2015, the investigator in charge of the case at the time said that DNA evidence from the body existed. But beyond that, all leads had been exhausted.
“It means pretty much that we have no more hope,” Connolly told the Daily News at the time.
Enter genetic genealogy, the emerging form of forensic investigation responsible for cracking high-profile cold cases.
‘The top genetic match’
In May of 2018, the Alaska State Troopers’ sole cold case investigator Randy McPherron read an article about “a new type of forensic DNA analysis called Genetic Genealogy,” according to an affidavit filed with arrest warrant included in the murder charges against McQuade.
McPherron called the company mentioned in the article and asked if they could help. Evidence from Shelley Connolly’s case was submitted in December 2018, according to the affidavit.
By June, the company had found a potential match: Using a public database called GEDmatch, the company had found a woman in Florida who shared enough genetic material with McQuade to be a first cousin once removed or a second cousin.
An investigating genealogist built a family tree, finding other family members that traced back to a common ancestor born in Ireland in 1858. From there, a complicated genealogical trail led the investigators to a link to Alaska, a woman from King Cove who was the mother of three McQuade brothers who had enough genetic material in common with samples taken from Connolly’s body to be suspects.
“They all sit in the right position (first cousins once removed) in the family tree of the top genetic match to be the suspect,” according to the affidavit.
Investigators then had to narrow down who was in Alaska at the time of the murder.
The youngest brother was Donald McQuade, who had moved from Seattle to Anchorage with his mother in 1971. A high school dropout, McQuade worked as a laborer and spent a few short stints in jail for theft, burglary and carrying a concealed firearm, according to the affadavit.
In 1978, he was on probation and living with family friends in Anchorage, probation records showed, according to the affidavit. Just a few weeks after Connolly’s murder he told a probation officer he wanted to move out of town, to Kenai.
Investigation moves to Oregon
In June, investigators in Anchorage called police in Gresham, Oregon, a blue-collar suburb of Portland where McQuade had been living for years with his brother, Richard — also on the list of potential suspects at the time, the court documents said.
The Gresham Police Department officers agreed to surveil the McQuades and pick up discarded DNA samples. They did so easily, according to the affidavit: An hour into the surveillance operation McQuade smoked a cigarette and threw the butt into the street.
The police scooped it up, along with another he discarded outside a strip mall deli, and on Aug. 5 tested them. The DNA on McQuade’s cigarettes matched with genetic material taken in scrapings from Shelley Connolly’s fingernails and blue jeans in 1978, according to the affidavit.
McPherron, the Alaska cold case investigator, called McQuade on Aug. 28, apparently asking him directly about Connolly’s death.
He denied knowing about her death or knowing her at all, according to the affidavit. Investigators got a warrant and asked the Anchorage man that McQuade had lived with around the time of the murder to call McQuade.
During that conversation, McQuade said he “made many mistakes when he was drunk,” but didn’t admit to killing Connolly, according to the affidavit.
Police in Oregon arrested McQuade on Aug. 30 at 2:20 p.m. in Gresham on murder charges. He is scheduled for an initial court appearance in Oregon on Wednesday. The process to extradite him to Alaska is likely to take weeks or months, officials said.
Officials said Tuesday that the identities of the other men Connolly was seen leaving the bar with on the night of her death are still being investigated. McQuade is not a suspect in any other unsolved Alaska cases, McPherron said.
Judy Connolly got the news Friday afternoon, when a co-worker at the tax preparation business where she works told her an Alaska State Trooper was there to see her.
“I was flabbergasted,” said Connolly on Tuesday.
All these years, she had a name. Connolly said she’d never heard of McQuade. She’d heard of genetic genealogy and harbored hopes that it could help solve her daughter’s case — just weeks before the arrest she’d even been thinking about sending information on the case to a genealogist specializing in the technique.
She was still absorbing the news on Tuesday. After living with the uncertainty for more than 40 years, it was just beginning to sink in.
How old would her daughter be today? She had to think for a second.
Shelley Connolly, the teenager she saw walk out the door that night in January 1978, would be 57 years old today.