In July 2007, an 80-year-old grandmother was tending flowers in her front yard when a passing car slowed down and backed up, making her uneasy.
She moved inside, then answered a knock at her locked screen door. A man outside offered to clean her carpets, which she politely declined. When he offered her a card with her number, she opened the door to accept it — a moment’s mistake.
Before he left that day, the attacker raped his elderly victim, barricaded her in the bedroom and told her he was going to take a shower, promising to kill anyone who arrived. When the grandmother managed to slip free of the cords that bound her and push her way out, her attacker was gone, but he had taken the $5 bills she was tucking into family birthday cards.
Only 50 miles northeast of Raleigh, Warren County had never seen such a crime, longtime Sheriff Johnny Williams explains. With a population of just 19,000, the county had no similar cases and no likely suspects. The victim could not identify her attacker’s car, and investigators on the scene found no fingerprints. The only physical evidence from the scene was DNA the 80-year-old provided in a rape kit at WakeMed.
As Williams explains it, his office had one choice: “Sit and wait for a DNA match,” he said.
It took 12 years.
Last month, a jury in Warrenton convicted Michael Steven Elder, 54, of rape, kidnapping and a string of other felonies, sending him to prison for 27 to 33 years.
The victim, whom the N&O is not identifying, died in 2015, never knowing that anyone had been apprehended for the crime. But at the end of Elder’s trial, her daughter stood and told the court the family did not celebrate the sentence.
“She felt sorry for him,” said Capt. John Branche with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. “She didn’t hate him. She had no hate in her heart.”
This attitude, prosecutors said, sprang from the victim herself.
“We were not seeking a conviction,” said her daughter, Linda Carter. “We were seeking what momma would have us to seek and that was to find the person who was guilty and bring him off the streets so he could never hurt somebody else again, the way that he did her and the way that he did her family. And her life did change that day. She was determined not to let it make her a prisoner in her own house and in her own mind, so she fought it all the time. But her life changed. She was not the same.”
A vow to solve the case
Even in the early days of the investigation, every officer involved decided they wanted it solved before the end of their careers, Lt. Ben Jackson said. Warren County had only five rapes in 2017, and just two in each of the previous years.
Deputies did not believe their perpetrator was local. Jackson called him “confident,” enough that he knew that his victim was living alone and could spend time in the house without being detected.
He put the grandmother in the closet after the rape, and when she complained that she couldn’t breathe, he moved her to a bedroom, tied her with cords and placed a bed in front of the door.
Investigators don’t know if he actually took a shower or just told his victim a story so she would stay put. But he left the water running.
“You couldn’t really tell,” Jackson said. “There was no wet towel.”
Then nothing happened for nearly a decade, beyond the victim’s death. Finally, in 2016, deputies got notice of a CODIS hit, which means DNA from the crime scene was linked to an offender in the national DNA database.
In this case, the hit came from a man arrested in New York: Michael Steven Elder, whom deputies learned was then living in Winston-Salem. Jackson got a search warrant for a new DNA swab from Elder, whom he said was doing door-to-door landscaping work.
Deputies knew that he traveled and did a lot of door-to-door work. Jackson said when he interviewed Elder, he said he would drive around looking for people in their yards who might need help. It sounded familiar to him.
Closing the case
Elder was charged in 2017. His attorney Theresa Pressley could not be reached.
With so much riding on DNA evidence, prosecutors worried their case might lose jurors in its complexity. This was complicated by new results from the crime lab that came in just days before the trial was to begin, forcing a delay.
Assistant District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey said new results showed the DNA samples went from a 1 in 204,000 chance to a 1 in 63 billion chance that they came from unrelated people.
Jurors deliberated for roughly two hours before the verdict, which Elder appeared to take peacefully despite his stated innocence.
“I want the family to know I would never, ever even think to do something like this,” he told the courtroom. “You all seem like a very beautiful family, and I know your mother raised you all well. And I don’t seen a bad bone in none of y’all’s bodies. Hopefully, we, in a different time -- we can find out the truth.”
To the surprise of many, Pelfrey said, the victim’s family did not celebrate
“He’ll be 88 when he gets out,” she said. “I think it’s very cathartic.”
The house still stands on U.S. 401, though deputies said the family no longer lives there. But Warren County investigators have closed their most chilling cold case, bringing the end they promised.