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Family and friends of Laurie Houts say the arrest of a tech executive and long-time suspect in her 1992 cold case murder is bittersweet.
John Kevin Woodward, 58, was arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Saturday after arriving on a flight from Amsterdam, police said.
Woodward is the CEO and President of Readytech, an online training company headquartered in Oakland, California with an office in the Netherlands, where Woodward is based. Dutch authorities also executed search warrants in the connection with the case, the San Jose Mercury News reported.
“I was thrilled and very excited,” Houts’ sister, Cindy, told the Mercury News of Woodward's arrest. “Then you come down off that. Nothing is going to bring your loved person back. They’re gone. Even if it feels good in a way to have justice, it doesn’t cure the problem.”
The body of the 25-year-old computer engineer was discovered in her car near a garbage dump less than two miles from her job at Adobe Systems on September 5, 1992, according to a press release from the Mountain View police department.
Authorities said the inside of the car revealed signs of a struggle, including the victim's footprints on the inside the windshield; the rope used to strangle her was still around her neck. Houts’ unopened pocketbook was also found nearby.
Woodward, who was roommates with Houts' boyfriend at the time of her murder, had no alibi for that night and was immediately a suspect in the case. His fingerprints were found outside of Houts’ car, but investigators were unable to prove at the time that he ever was inside the vehicle.
Shortly after Houts death, her boyfriend called Woodward to discuss her death with police listening in. Woodward did not deny killing Houts, according to a police summary cited by the Mercury News, but did ask what evidence authorities had against him and recommended that he and Houts' boyfriend “meet in a parking lot” to talk more.
Woodward was arrested for the murder, with prosecutors alleging that Woodward acted with open jealousy towards Houts because he was in love with her boyfriend. His defense attorney called the theory homophobic, according to the Mercury News. The men were never romantically involved, the newspaper reported.
He stood trial for Houts’ murder in 1995 and then, after the jury hung on the charges, again in 1996. At the second trial, which also resulted in a hung jury, prosecutors were not allowed to present their theory about Woodward's motive.
After the second hung jury, the trial judge said prosecutors would need to find new evidence to try Woodward again, according to CBS News.
Authorities say advances in DNA technology led to Woodward being arrested again.
“The biggest hurdle from those cases was being able to find new evidence,” Fisher told KGO. “Since then, these advancements have really given the district attorney the ability to file charges here.”
Fisher told KGO that his unit started reviewing Houts’ murder in 2020.
“For this case specifically, they were able to go back to a much earlier sample that was taken in 2005 from the murder weapon — which in this case was a rope — and they were able to use new technology to locate new DNA evidence on that rope, from that sample,” he told the station.
Police said that fibers from sweatpants inside Woodward’s car were virtually indistinguishable from fibers found on the rope around Houts’ neck.
“The DNA technology is a big game changer,” Houts’ friend Marilyn, who requested that her last name not be used, told KGO. “And that’s what we hope will propel the case forward and bring justice for Laurie.”
Woodward will be formally charged once he returns to Santa Clara County.
“I want Ms. Houts family and friends to know that we never gave up on her. Neither time nor distance will stop us from finding out the truth and seeking justice,” Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen told KGO.
Woodward remains in a New York City jail. He waived extradition, but is not expected back in California until the end of the month, a spokesperson with the Mountain View Police Department told Oxygen.com.
Marilyn told the Mercury News that she cannot help but think about all that Houts would have accomplished had she lived. She died just as the technology revolution was about to start in Silicon Valley.
“She was succeeding in a career dominated by men,” she told the paper. “She would have been there with all of them.”
Her sister feels for the people who never got to know Laurie.
“I feel bad for my kids who will never know their aunt,” Cindy told KGO.
To honor Houts’ memory, family and friends created the Houts Memorial Girls Athletic Scholarship at San Jose’s Gunderson High School, at which Houts was a three-sport athlete. The scholarship is for female seniors with an athletic background planning to pursue a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
“Although she was only 5 feet tall, she had a huge heart and her humor and spunk were endearing to all,” the family said in a statement. “The way Laurie lived, and treated people was a stunning example of what was right in the world.”
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