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Fake Restaurant Promotion Helps Nab Suspect In 36-Year-Old Florida Cold Case Murder

Undercover detectives used gas station coffee spoons and a restaurant promotion to collect DNA evidence against Michael Lapniewski Jr., then arrested him for the 1987 cold case murder of Opal Weil.

By Caitlin Schunn
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Advances in DNA testing and a fake restaurant promotion helped to solve an elderly woman’s cold case murder in Florida.

Michael Lapniewski, Jr., 55, is charged with one count of first-degree murder for the death of 82-year-old Opal Weil. He was arrested in Mississippi on Jan. 26 and extradited back to Pinellas County, Florida.

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Weil’s sister-in-law became concerned after she didn’t answer her phone on Feb. 9, 1987 and called police. Responding officers then found Weil dead in the bedroom of her home in St. Petersburg, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, with “obvious and visible signs of trauma.”

She was wearing no underwear and her nightgown was up around her waist, according to a complaint affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com. She had bruising on her face, blood around her mouth and ligature marks on her neck. A belt was found on the floor near her foot. A knife was also found with the tip broken and missing on the bedroom floor.

A police handout of Michael Lapiewski Jr.

An autopsy at the time determined that blunt trauma and strangulation were the causes of death, according to the affidavit. Several of her drawers appeared to have been searched, as well as her jewelry box. Her family reported three rings were missing — including two wedding rings — and a watch.

Deputies found the phone line to the home had been cut, according to the sheriff's office, and believed the suspect got into the home after removing a single windowpane. Forensic evidence was left at the crime scene, including several hairs, but at the time no DNA matches were found. There were no fingerprints left behind, but there were glove marks.

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In December 2020, the sheriff’s office’s cold case detectives took another look at the case and sent a request the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement to test the hairs again. Detectives then asked Parabon Nanolabs to conduct further genealogical testing on the DNA. Parabon narrowed the suspects down to three brothers, and detectives were able to exclude two, leaving just Lapniewski Jr. as the suspect.

At the time of the murder, he lived just half a mile from Weil’s home.

Undercover detectives from Pinellas County decided to try to get a DNA sample from Lapniewski Jr. in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where he lived, according to the affidavit. Working with officers from the Waveland and Bay St. Louis police departments, a detective in July 2022 watched Lapniewski Jr. open a new soda straw and use it to stir a cup of coffee in a Marathon gas station before sucking the coffee from the end of the straw and throwing it away. It was the only straw in the trash can, and was recovered and tested for DNA evidence.

Detectives also worked with a Bay St. Louis detective who owned a restaurant and knew Lapniewski Jr. personally, according to the affidavit. He agreed to help Pinellas County detectives by offering a free meal promotion to customers, and a flier was put on Lapniewski Jr.’s vehicle, according to the affidavit. On July 17, 2022, Lapniewski Jr. entered the restaurant with the flier and ate a free meal. The detective/restaurant owner then sent the spoon and fork that Lapniewshi used to Pinellas County for testing.

It reportedly matched DNA recovered from the scene.

Detectives questioned Lapniewski Jr. at his home on Jan. 26 and he denied being near Weil’s home at the time of the murder, according to the affidavit, and added that he didn’t recognize photos of the victim. He allegedly told detectives, “I wouldn’t know anyone to tell on because there wasn’t anybody dead when I lived here. When I lived over here nobody died.”

Lapniewski Jr. was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on Jan. 31, and no bond has been set as he awaits trial, according to jail records reviewed by Oxygen.com.