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'Cold Justice' Helps Make a Breakthrough in Investigation of Michigan Mom’s Execution-Style Murder
Danyese LaClair was shot to death in 2000. Who killed her, and why? DNA testing may provide the answer.
Was a young mother’s murder in Michigan a random act of violence or a targeted slaying tied to an affair?
On “Cold Justice,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen, former prosecutor Kelly Siegler and investigator Steve Spingola worked a decades-old case with Sgt. Dave Powell and Lt. Kevin Kissel of the Burton Police Department.
In the spring of 2000, Danyese LaClair, 32, was abducted from a post office parking lot and found dead in a field a half a mile away. The slaying has become “Burton PD’s number one unsolved case,” said Siegler.
On April 23, Danyese left work at a local hospital at 11:38 p.m. Then, around midnight, her red Chevy Cavalier was spotted at the post office across the street from the police station.
The car was still running, the driver’s door was open, and the window was down. Danyese’s purse was gone.
It was initially regarded as a missing persons case. Around 2 a.m., her husband, Dan LaClair, was told that her car had been abandoned.
But clothes were located near a building in the morning and Danyese’s body was eventually found in the field. She was wearing just her underwear and a trench coat.
She had been shot at close range in the head one time. A .9mm slug was found nearby. There were no signs of sexual trauma and the rape kit was inconclusive.
Danyese’s purse was never recovered. Her credit cards were flagged but never used.
Questions loomed. Who would risk abducting a woman across the street from a police station?
“What happens at the post office?” mused Spingola. “Why would she not fight, run, scream?”
A main suspect early on was Dan LaClair, who claimed he’d been home with his two young children the night Danyese was killed.
“It was only later that the investigators discovered a potential motive for Dan,” said Siegler. “Danyese was having an affair with another man.”
The couple’s children have steadfastly maintained their father’s innocence.
Ralph Vanucci, an X-ray technician who worked with Danyese, was another suspect. In April 2000, Vanucci was under a lot of stress, according to investigators. He was dealing with the drowning death of his son as well as a second divorce. Evidence showed that he knew about Danyese cheating. He also made a pass at her and was rebuffed. Had that triggered the murder?
Danyese and Dan’s children declined to speak with investigators, but Danyese’s mother, Dianne Parrish, agreed to talk.
“It’s hard to think back and it bring up a lot of questions,” she said. “I want to know what happened to her.”
Investigators began their quest for answers by interviewing witnesses for possible leads.
Interviews with Danyese’s close circle and co-workers provided insights into her state of mind at the time of her murder. One friend said Danyese admitted to the affair and said her marriage was “tumultuous.”
When asked if Vanucci could be capable of the crime, a witness told them, “I really couldn’t say.”
Like Dan, Vanucci has said that he was home with his child the night of the murder.
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Investigators interviewed Vanucci. He admitted he and Danyese both flirted with each other at work, and he owned up to trying to kiss her and being rejected.
“I was thoroughly embarrassed,” he said.
Investigators viewed Vanucci as forthcoming and honest.
The team reached out again to Dan LaClair, who agreed to come in for an interview. Investigators were surprised at his willingness after being a suspect for more than 20 years.
“I’d like to help,” he told them, adding that he didn’t care about other people’s opinions.
Asked about an incident in which he kicked and broke part of Danyese’s headstone, he said it was “a bad moment.”
“Dan still seems genuinely upset and hurt by Danyese’s affair,” said Spingola. “However, he is not ashamed or afraid to talk about it.”
Forensic pathologist Dr. Kathryn Pinneri reviewed the medical examiner’s findings. There were no signs of a physical struggle, based on the victim’s unbroken fingernails. Did she know her attacker? Was it an authority figure?
It also appeared that Danyese undressed herself and put her clothes back on herself. Fibers found in the victim indicated to Pinneri that there had been a “sexual interaction.”
Investigators also reviewed the scenes where Danyese’s car and body were found to try to get a clearer picture of what happened the night of her murder.
Burn marks and the damage to Danyese’s scalp showed that she was shot at close range.
“Most of Danyese’s clothes were left in a pile next to a mysterious gold ring,” said Siegler. “The ring was tested and contained DNA belonging to an unknown contributor.”
DNA on the ring didn’t match Dan, Vanucci, or the man with whom Danyese was having the affair. However, evidence on the ring has been contaminated and is no longer viable.
Investigators got a break, though, when Danny Hellwig, of Intermountain Forensics, reported that Danyese’s clothing, which had been sent over, had ample DNA for testing. Results could help lead to the killer.
The DNA test generated a usable Y-STR DNA profile. “A Y-STR profile is shared individual to individual on the male side,” said Hellwig.
Putting the Y-STR break in the case in context, Siegler said, “It’s not viable for comparison to CODIS or with genealogy databases.”
But if anybody comes forward with information in the future about a viable suspect, investigators can test with near certainty against evidence on Danyese’s clothing.
With Dan LaClair and Ralph Vanucci cleared as suspects, the search for an unknown killer goes on. Burton PD said they intended to put out bulletins to find out if other agencies had open sexual assault cases.
Hearing that Dan wasn’t a suspect made Parrish feel a bit “easier. It’s been hard with all the uncertainty.”
Siegler appealed to viewers with any tips on the case to contact the Burton Police Department.
To learn more about the case, watch “Cold Justice,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.