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Missoula police take fresh look at 1974 murder of girl
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Missoula police take fresh look at 1974 murder of girl

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Missoula police take fresh look at 1974 murder of girl
The Missoula Police Department has initiated a new review of the case of Siobhan McGuinness, a 5-year-old Northside girl who disappeared in February 1974. She was found stabbed to death and sexually abused two days later in a culvert near Turah.
Photo courtesy of Missoula Police Department

Detectives assigned to rework the aging, typewritten case file of an unsolved child murder have come and gone through the years.

Promising leads have turned down blind alleys, and suspects - even a sex offender who once seemed on the brink of confessing - have been eliminated by DNA evidence.

But the Missoula Police Department has not forgotten about Siobhan McGuinness, a bright and beautiful 5-year-old girl who disappeared from the streets near her Northside home on a February evening in 1974. She was found stabbed to death and sexually abused two days later in a snowy culvert near Turah.

Detective Dean Chrestenson keeps a photograph of the little girl on his desk downtown.

"For me, it has become a little personal," said Chrestenson, who is heading the most recent investigation into McGuinness' unsolved murder. "You try not to let that happen, because it can cloud your judgement, but a case like this makes it difficult. We were both born in 1968. If she was alive today, she would be 40 years old."

Felony homicide investigations are not bound by any statute of limitations in Montana, meaning a case stays open until someone puts it down. The cases often go cold as time passes and memories fade, but statute or no, police creed dictates that a child murderer gets caught.

The McGuinness case is one of only a handful of unsolved murders in Missoula, and occurred in an era that saw other lives taken mysteriously. Several of the victims, including McGuinness, were considered by some to have been murdered by East Missoula serial killer Wayne Nance. But Nance, who was killed in 1986 during an attempt to murder two others, was ruled out by DNA evidence, and the McGuinness case remains a puzzle.

The advent of DNA technology has yielded a whole new realm of investigative possibilities for police. In 2006, a semen sample helped investigators solve the 30-year-old murder of Verna Kvale, a local schoolteacher who was raped and stabbed to death in her Missoula home.

Similar DNA evidence was preserved from the crime scene in the McGuinness case, and investigators have revisited the case several times in an attempt to unearth new evidence and identify new suspects, but they have exhausted every lead.

"We need help to continue working this case," Chrestenson said Tuesday morning at a press conference. "The suspect is out there somewhere. No lead will go unchecked. It'll be open until we solve it."

Chrestenson said the initial investigation was extensive, but no arrests were ever made. In recent years, at the direction of Missoula Police Chief Rusty Wickman, investigators have initiated a new review of the case, gathering DNA cheek swabs from the mouths of suspects whose names are attached to the case, and eliminating others, like the man who found McGuinness' body, to make the unwieldy file more manageable.

"We've got all the evidence, as well as typed and handwritten reports," Chrestenson said. "I've got Post-its with bits of handwritten information. There's a ton of stuff, and it takes a while to go through."

"Some of the people we've eliminated aren't necessarily suspects, but just people who are associated with the case in one way or another," Chrestenson added.

Detectives have submitted those swabs to the state Crime Lab in Missoula, where scientists have compared them to the killer's DNA type, which has also been plugged into a national data bank of registered violent and sexual offenders, but without any positive matches.

Chrestenson said Tuesday that he remains hopeful the public can help by providing tips or even hunches or memories they recall from the time of the murder. He said witnesses reported seeing two distinct vehicles in the area where McGuinness' body was recovered - a 1959 or 1960 Ford Fairlane with Montana plates, and a 1958 or 1960 Cadillac with New York plates. McGuinness went missing Feb. 7, 1974, from from the 500 block of N. 2nd St. W.

People who have had suspicions since the murder should report those, Chrestenson said, because anything could be helpful. Anyone with information should call Chrestenson at 552-6282 or the Crimestoppers hotline at 721-4444.

"She shouldn't have died like that. And now it's time to bring her back home," Chrestenson said.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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