Boone County investigators solve 1976 cold case using genealogical DNA

Victim's mother dies just weeks before police begin to reexamine case

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In June 1976, Carol Sue Klaber’s body was found in Boone County. 

On March 8, 2023, police announced that they had solved the cold case during a press conference at the Boone County Sheriff’s Office. 

A 1976 Kentucky Post article about the killing. Photo provided | Boone County Sheriff’s Office

Speaking next to an enlarged photo of Klaber, Detective Coy Cox told the crowd of reporters and onlookers Wednesday morning about how police were able to identify the killer using genealogical DNA as then-18-year-old Park Hills resident Thomas Dunaway, who died at age 33 in 1990. 

Thomas W. Dunaway. Photos provided | Boone County Sheriff’s Office

“We have made notification to the next of kin, Klaber’s older brother,” Cox said at the press conference. “To say he got closure in this case is an understatement.”

Klaber was determined to have died as a result of blunt force trauma, according to a Kentucky State Police investigation, with evidence of strangulation and sexual assault.

Klaber, who was 16 and a Dixie Heights High School junior when she was killed, was going to eat supper with friends on that 1976 evening and was not seen again until her body was found in a ditch on Chambers Road in Walton, according to the sheriff’s office. 

Over the years, the main pieces of evidence in the case were a description of the vehicle that Klaber was last seen getting into; physical evidence from the scene where her body was discovered; and comparisons of physical descriptions of a man seen with Klaber that night.

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“For some unknown reason, Klaber got in Dunaway’s car,” Cox said. “We may never know that reason.”

Police distributed a letter at the press conference that Commonwealth’s Attorney Louis D. Kelly and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jason E. Hiltz wrote to Cox and Detective Tim Adams in response to a request for a posthumous indictment against Dunaway. 

“In 2017, investigators submitted evidence in this case to the Kentucky State Police laboratory for examination,” the letter said. 

The Boone County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit was established that year, and Cox and Adams began digging in.

In 2019, according to the letter, analysts extracted DNA of an unknown origin from a hair collected at the scene. Detectives continued to try to match the DNA to suspects over the intervening years. In 2022, Cox worked with the Othram Laboratory in Houston, Texas, where a genealogical match was made to an unknown DNA profile, and Othram recommended detectives contact Dunaway’s family.

“Othram operates at the intersection of molecular biology, population genetics, and bioinformatics,” the company’s website says. “Bridging 20th-century population genetics and 21st century data science, we are the first and only forensic laboratory to vertically integrate a DNA test and human ID solution that can identify victims, find missing persons, and reveal perpetrators of crimes.”

While attempting to track down Dunaway’s family, the letter said, detectives also began looking into circumstantial evidence that might link Dunaway and Klaber. 

“Among other things, detectives discovered that Dunaway matched the suspect’s physical description, lived in the area where Klaber was last seen, drove a car similar to the car Klaber was last seen getting into, had disposed of the vehicle shortly after police found Klaber’s body, and had committed another murder in the area in December 1976,” the letter said.  

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In February, detectives found Dunaway’s daughter, who they tested against the DNA found at the scene. It was a 100% parent/child match. 

Kelly and Hiltz declined to grant a posthumous indictment against Dunaway due to ethical reasons, the letter said. 

“However, I do want to state unequivocally that if Thomas Dunaway were still alive, I believe there now exists sufficient evidence to prove that he murdered Carol Sue Klaber beyond a reasonable doubt,” the letter said. “But for his death, my office would be presenting this case to the grand jury and seeking to fully prosecute him for this crime.” 

Dunaway lived about a half mile from Devou Park, the sheriff’s office said, which is where Klaber would often ride her bike.

A map showing Dunaway’s proximity to Devou Park, where Klaber would often ride her bike. Image provided | Boone County Sheriff’s Office

At the press conference Wednesday at the Boone County Sheriff’s Office, a list of cold case homicides was handed out. Klaber’s case was no longer listed.

A list of cold case homicides handed out at the press conference Wednesday morning. Klaber’s case is no longer listed. Photo by Grace Tierney | LINK nky

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