A beloved single mother’s life was brutally ended in Puyallup, Washington in 2001. The killer? Not only someone she knew, but someone she was actually trying to help.
Dana Laskowski’s loved ones first realized something was amiss on August 31, 2001. After she failed to show up for work and her neighbors were unable to reach her, authorities performed a welfare check at her home and arrived to find the back door partially open. An officer walked through the house and found a tragic display: Dana was lying dead on a living room couch.
Detectives at the scene noticed several strange things: Dana’s body was twisted in an awkward, unnatural angle. There was blood spatter on the carpet. Her neck, elbows, and knees were bruised and there was blood in her mouth — all signs pointing to foul play.
The victim’s family, including her father, award-winning artist Bill Ross, was devastated when they heard the news.
“I was pretty much in shock ... I didn’t want to believe. You can’t imagine that because there was no reason,” he told “An Unexpected Killer," airing Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
An autopsy showed Dana had died from strangulation and her neck had been badly injured, suggesting a crime of passion committed by someone very physically strong.
Armed with this information, authorities got to work investigating the victim’s life, in the hopes of discovering who could have wanted to hurt her.
They learned Dana, a single mother of triplets, thrived as an artist and mother.
“Dana was a very kind, caring person [who] loved her family,” Scott Bramhall, a detective with the Puyallup, Washington Police Department, told producers.
Dana also would frequently let her 17-year-old niece Amanda, who often ran away from home, stay with her in order to keep her out of trouble. Amanda and her friends would visit Dana’s house all the time because she was a trusted adult who was always there to support them amidst any trouble at home.
Investigators first reached out to Dana's ex-husband, Sam, who had the triplets in his care at the time of the murder. Sam denied having anything to do with her death. He also said on the night she was killed, he’d gone to a gas station before returning home to his kids, and they all went camping the following morning. His alibi checked out, and he was eliminated as a suspect.
Police next spoke to Dana’s employers, who hired her as a nanny. They told police Dana was being routinely harassed by a stalker named Patrick and she’d even once said that if anything had happened to her, he was likely the one responsible. Even though she’d told Patrick, who she'd met briefly when he installed cable at her house, that she wasn’t interested, he had been harassing her for more than a month, leaving flowers and letters at her house.
Still, when police brought Patrick in for questioning, he denied having anything to do with Dana’s murder and claimed that he’d been at work and then with friends that night.
When Patrick’s alibi checked out, authorities turned their attention to a man named Michael, who lived in Canada and was in a long-distance relationship with Dana. However, that lead quickly fizzled out as well when they found proof he hadn’t even been in the country when Dana was killed.
Investigators soon focused on Dana’s niece, Amanda, who’d left a troubling message in the guest book following Dana’s funeral. In her note, she apologized to Dana for not being a better niece and said she was now sober.
“There was something about the way that she’d written it that suggested it was a communication to Dana of remorse and to make amends for what had happened. It’s something that was significant enough to follow up on,” Stephen Penner, a prosecutor for Pierce County, told producers.
Suspecting Dana’s niece Amanda knew important information about how Dana died, investigators brought her in for questioning. The teen said she would routinely hang out with a group of troubled kids in the park; when they asked her if anyone she knew would have had the physical strength needed to kill Dana, she pointed to a friend named Blane, who she claimed once attacked her on a couch after she rejected him. She also recalled seeing Blane with scratches on his arms following Dana’s death.
They learned Blane had a violent criminal history including weapons and drug-related charges. But when police were unable to extradite Blane from a different state, they reached out to someone in prison who knew their suspect, and that person made a shocking claim: It wasn’t Blane who’d killed Dana, but Emily Lauenborg, Amanda’s best friend.
Two other people in Amanda’s friend group soon echoed these allegations: It was Emily, who was known to be freakishly strong for her size, who’d killed Dana and everyone knew it.
Investigators called Emily in for questioning and she angrily denied having killed Dana. However, she was also unable to provide investigators with an alibi for the night of the murder.
When police searched Emily’s home, they found a diary with an incriminating list of things that Emily wanted to do before she died — and one item on that list was to kill someone and get away with it. They then found a journal entry referencing Emily getting into a fight with Amanda and stating she could “strangle [her] … just like her aunt.”
Disturbingly enough, they also found a black shirt that had belonged to Dana and realized Emily had stolen it and actually worn it to Dana’s funeral.
In March of the following year, Emily was finally arrested and charged with murder. But authorities still only had circumstantial evidence. They needed more to secure a conviction, so they went to Amanda and pressed her for answers.
Finally, the teen broke down and told the truth: On the night of Dana’s death, she and Emily had been high on drugs when they went to Dana’s house. Emily was rude and Dana asked them to leave, which was when things took a turn: When Dana lightly touched Emily to lead her to the door, Emily flew into a violent rage and attacked Dana, putting her into a wrestling chokehold and strangling her with a scarf. Amanda turned around because she didn’t want to watch, she claimed.
“She heard a crack. And she heard a gurgle. And she heard Dana gasping for her life, and then she didn’t hear anything. And that was because Dana was dead,” Penner said.
The two girls took Dana’s money and then left the house, Amanda claimed. As for motive, authorities speculated that Emily was jealous of Dana because of the influence she had on Amanda and wanted her out of her best friend’s life.
It was the crucial information authorities needed. Still, prosecutors doubted they could prove Emily’s guilt to a jury, due to her inconspicuous physical size, and instead let her plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. She was found guilty and sentenced to six and a half years in prison.
Meanwhile, Amanda escaped charges in exchange for her testimony.
While Dana’s family was relieved that some type of justice was reached, they were disappointed at how little time Emily served after killing Dana. Following Emily’s release from prison, she changed her name, got married, and became a mother.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Dana’s father said of Emily’s sentencing.
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