Almost 36 years ago, 14-year-old Wendy Jerome left her New York home to deliver a birthday card to her best friend and never returned home again.
Just hours later, on Thanksgiving night Nov. 22, 1984, Jerome’s body was found next to a dumpster near the back of a school by a pedestrian walking through the neighborhood.
“She was partially covered up and there were obvious signs of trauma,” Capt. Frank Umbrino of the Rochester Police Department said during a press conference streamed by WROC. “That night was the beginning of an exhaustive investigation.”
With no witnesses to the crime, the horrific rape and murder case soon went cold, but on Friday, after nearly four decades, the Rochester Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit, alongside Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley, announced the arrest of 56-year-old Timothy Williams.
“Marlene, you never gave up hope that law enforcement would advocate for Wendy until an arrest was made,” Doorley told Wendy’s emotional mother, Marlene Jerome, during the press conference. “You have remained steadfast in ensuring that this community did not forget Wendy. I assure you, as we stand here today, we have never, ever forgotten your daughter.”
Williams was identified as a possible suspect in the case after police received permission from the state to conduct a familial DNA search using evidence left behind at the crime scene.
Investigators had used semen found during the autopsy to complete a DNA profile, which they initially loaded into the Combined DNA Index System used to help identify criminal suspects in 2000, according to The New York Times. But the sample did not yield any matches.
Investigators continued to work the case, finally getting the break they needed after the state gave investigators permission to do a familial DNA search.
They received the results back in July, which allowed them to identify a small pool of possible suspects in the case.
Using additional DNA testing and investigation, authorities eventually identified Williams, who was living in Melbourne, Florida, as the suspected killer in the case.
He was arrested at his home without incident and is now awaiting extradition back to New York.
The arrest brought an emotional conclusion to a case that has continued to haunt investigators for years.
“The case went cold but it certainly never got forgotten,” Umbrino said at the press conference. “Even as investigators who worked the case over the last almost four decades retired, others took up the fight. They were determined to some day be able to provide to Wendy’s home and her family some answers about what happened to their beautiful daughter.”
Umbrino broke down in tears Friday as he turned to Marlene and said, “Marlene, I am sorry it took so long, but we finally did it,” before giving the grieving mother a long hug.
Julie Hahn, who now serves as the chief of the Major Felony Bureau in the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, said the case was so influential in her own life that it inspired her career as a prosecutor.
She had been just 11 years old living in Rochester when her mother told her about Jerome’s death.
“I remember my mother telling me about a young girl who had been killed one day and I decided that I wanted to be an attorney that gave a voice to victims of crime,” she said. “Wendy’s story helped to shape me into the prosecutor that I am today. It’s the reason I’ve been so committed for the last 21 years to being a prosecutor in this community.”
Hahn became involved in the case herself in 2011 and said she was now “honored and proud” to have the opportunity to prosecute the case in court.
“Marlene and her family deserve justice,” she said. “This community deserves justice.”
An autopsy determined that Jerome died from massive blunt force trauma and multiple lacerations to her body.
“Honestly, the extent of her injuries are too horrendous to talk about here,” Umbrino said. “What is safe to say is that Wendy did put up a fight.”
Investigators said Williams — who was just 20 years old at the time of the slaying — had lived in the same neighborhood as Jerome; however, they had not know each other and he had not been considered a suspect at the time.
He moved to Florida shortly after the murder.
After waiting nearly 40 years for justice, Jerome’s mom, Marlene, was emotional Friday as she thanked all the investigators who had worked tirelessly over the years to try to bring her daughter’s killer to justice.
“I never thought I would see this day and now it’s here,” she said through tears. “I just wish my husband had been alive to see this. He passed away in 2011 and I know he’s up there with her, smiling, saying, It’s over. It’s finally over.’”
Williams is expected to be arraigned on charges of second-degree murder. Prosecutors were unable to charge him for the rape because the statute of limitations in the case had already expired.
“Our investigation is still moving forward,” Umbrino said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
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