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Authorities Use DNA To Name Suspect In California Woman's 1999 Cold Case Murder

Meekiah Wadley was bound and smothered to death in her home more than 23 years ago. It took DNA testing, and the persistence of her family, for authorities to identify her friend, Jerry Henderson, as the man likely responsible for her death.

By Jax Miller
1999 murder victim Meekiah Wadley

The family of a 1999 murder victim used a live press conference in California to pressure police to publicly identify her killer.

Officials with the Richmond Police Department held a press conference on Thursday to announce that DNA had conclusively connected a man to the murder of 28-year-old Meekiah Wadley, as published by CBS San Francisco. But once there, acting Richmond Police Chief Louie Tirona withheld the suspect’s name, only revealing that he died 11 days after the murder.

Just minutes into the live press conference, Wadley’s niece, Devinee Peterson, raised her hand to get Tirona’s attention.

“Why is it OK that he’s a secret?” Peterson asked. “We know what he did. Why the family can’t know? They look at him as a hero. He’s not a hero. He’s a murderer.”

Tirona responded by asking, “Why give someone fame and notoriety for a murder?”

Attendees at the press conference came to the family’s defense, demanding that authorities give Wadley’s family the closure they sought — which they eventually did.

As officials were seen conversing in the background, Tirona announced that Wadley's killer was 35-year-old Jerry Lee Henderson.

According to the since-released statement from police, officers responded to reports of screaming at a Carlson Boulevard residence on Jan. 9, 1999, at around 7:30 a.m. A neighbor had gone to investigate and knocked on the door but retreated when the screaming continued.

Police said they made entry into the home minutes after arriving, and found Meekiah Wadley dead on her bedroom floor, still warm to the touch. Her hands were bound with shoelaces, and a buck knife was discovered under her body.

It was later determined that she died due to asphyxia by smothering.

Meekiah’s sister, Quila Wadley, was at the press conference and later spoke to Oxygen.com about her sister.

She explained that she'd hoped to iron out some details about the case with law enforcement before the press release, which she said she'd thought was going to name Henderson.

“But when we got to the news conference, they didn’t do none of that,” Quila Wadley explained. “The story changed. It was just humiliating. It was hurtful.”

1999 murder victim Meekiah Wadley

Meekiah Wadley's family says that the details officials provided about her murder were not entirely correct.

“She actually made it to the hospital, and they was working on her,” Quila Wadley told Oxygen.com. “I witnessed them working on her at the hospital.”

She also explained that, while some labeled the murder as domestic violence, Meekiah Wadley and Henderson were just friends who went to the same college and were never in a romantic relationship.

“She was a friendly, outgoing person; always smiling,” Quila Wadley said of her sister, who was a new mother at the time of her passing. “[She] had the same friends since elementary school, same group of friends. Just a real sweet person.”

She added that Meekiah Wadley’s child grew up to have two children of her own.

The case went cold shortly after authorities ruled out as a possible suspect the man with whom Meekiah Wadley had been the evening before her murder, according to the release. A DNA profile, created from a bloodstain found at the crime scene and evidence on her hands, was sent to the state Department of Justice in 2002, but provided no results.

In 2020, a new DNA profile was created by the Contra Costa County Crime Lab using physical evidence from underneath the victim’s fingernails and her ligatures, the release continued.

“She fought back,” Quila Wadley told Oxygen.com. “That’s why they were able to get the DNA.”

In October 2020, that DNA was sent to the California Department of Justice’s DNA Data Bank Program and tested with genetic genealogy. In 2021, it was matched to a potential relative of Jerry Lee Henderson.

Further testing confirmed the potential relative’s DNA linked Henderson to the crime scene.

According to the police, Henderson died on Jan. 20, 1999 — 11 days after the murder — of a suspected drug overdose.

“It is my sincere hope that this resolution brings the family of Meekiah Wadley a measure of peace,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in the statement. “Nothing can ever bring back a loved one, but we’re committed to doing all we can to help bring the truth to light in the fight for justice.”

“I just want people to know there is hope,” Quila Wadley told Oxygen.com. "Don’t give up. I don’t care how long it takes."

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