DNA technology helps solve 38-year-old cold case

Robert Eugene Pilcher, 66, of Des Moines, is facing a first-degree murder charge in the 1974 death of Mary Jayne Jones.

The family of a Southeast Iowa murder victim has finally begun to get closure after a case gone cold for 38 years is hot again.

17-year-old Mary Jayne Jones, described as "bubbly" and "outgoing" was found dead at a farmhouse outside Blakesburg on April 9, 1974. She suffered two shotgun wounds and was sexually assaulted. No one was arrested for the crime, and the case remained unsolved until Tuesday.

The Wapello County Sheriff's Office announced at a press conference late Tuesday night the arrest of 66-year-old Robert Eugene Pilcher, of Des Moines. Pilcher's cousin owned the farmhouse at which Jones was found and had access to the residence. Pilcher was interviewed during the course of the investigation in 1974, but was never arrested. He is now charged with first-degree murder.

"They did a conscientious and thorough investigation back in 1974, but they just didn't have the technology and the scientific means that we have now," said Wapello County Sheriff Mark Miller. "So this is a big plus, it's been 38 years. 38 years ago, and this is a big day for all of us. The crime lab, the DCI, the Wapello County Sheriff's Office and the family and friends of Mary Jayne Jones."

The arrest stems from a grant the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation wrote in 2009. It allows the Cold Case Unit to reexamine old cases, particularly those involving sexual assault, and take a closer look at evidence that can be reprocessed with new technology.

"We were very fortunate when we contacted the Wapello County Sheriff's Office that they still had all the evidence from '74," said Michael Motsinger, special agent in charge of the DCI's Major Crime Unit. "So part of what our cold case unit did was get with the sheriff's office in our lab, determine what items of evidence that were there would be the good ones to send in, that would have the highest probability and by doing that, we can obviously see the results we have today."

And for Mary Jayne's family and friends, closure is exactly what this arrest brings. Tina Higdon, of Eldon, was the same age as Mary Jayne and worked with her at the old Henry's Drive-In in Ottumwa. When she heard the news, Higdon said she rushed to the law center to see what development had come up after 38 years.

"My sister called me about 7 [p.m.] and I just started screaming, couldn't believe it, started shaking and crying and I got ready and came over here to see what was going on," Higdon said. "I can't believe it and I hope it's over with."

Higdon said Mary Jayne's family, who mostly live out of state, had a feeling Pilcher was the person arrested, but waited for official word from law enforcement to be sure. After all the time that had passed, many of them had started to lose hope they would ever see a conviction.

"I kind of lost hope," Higdon said. "At the beginning, they had some people, but I didn't think they'd ever convict anybody and I hope they convict him. And he gets what he deserves."

Pilcher is being held at the Wapello County jail, on a $1 million cash only bond. Sheriff Miller said that Pilcher is not talking with investigators and has not offered a motive for the crime.