Concetta “Penney” Serra: Part 2

On July 16, 1973, an unknown assailant chased down 21-year old Penney Serra in a New Haven, Connecticut parking garage, claiming her life with a single stab wound to the chest. It was a brazen attack in broad daylight and the crime put the city on edge. But investigators had abundant evidence to work with – bloodstains and fingerprints covered Penney’s car and the garage itself – surely the crime would be solved and the perpetrator apprehended quickly.

Unfortunately, that was not reality. Penney’s case went cold, but not without enormous speculation and rumor while investigators waited for a break in the case.

Finally, advancements in forensic science and DNA analysis would reveal a new primary suspect in the case of Penney Serra in the mid-1990s. He’d be the fourth suspect publicly named by investigators. Did they really have a handle on the case? Would they be successful securing a conviction at trial?

In Part 2 of Penney Serra’s story, you’ll hear about the new team of investigators assigned to her case and their efforts to understand the events of that July day in 1973 in a new way, plus, the two new suspects they identified and the unsuccessful attempts to arrest one of them before moving on to another.

1987 Reinvigorated Investigation

1987 was a rough year for the case of Penney Serra. After a years-long legal battle in Superior Court and then the Supreme Court of Connecticut to bring former suspect Anthony Golino to trial, a Hail Mary blood typing test cleared him of all charges the night before proceedings were scheduled to begin and sent the investigation back to square one. It was undoubtedly disheartening – and perhaps embarrassing – for detectives, but the enormous setback weighed heaviest on John Serra, Penney Serra’s grieving father.

The setback didn’t beat John Serra down though – he was steadfast in support of his daughter. He renewed his own work to keep attention on Penney’s case. The advertisements in the local paper began again, as did his frequent check-ins with police. In September of 1987, John Serra penned a letter to the Chief State’s Attorney John J. Kelly imploring his team to take over the investigation of Penney’s murder from New Haven PD.

Let it be a lesson – never underestimate the power of a well-written letter. The State’s Attorney’s Office did take over the case, alongside the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory. This move changed the course of the investigation, bringing new eyes, fresh perspective, and unique strategy to a case that desperately needed it.

A joint review of the case by the two agencies in the late 1980s, more than 15 years and one arrest later, raised some important questions that previous investigators hadn’t noticed, or at least, hadn’t tried to answer. And so it was decided that reconstructing the crime scene and reenacting the crime would help current investigators better understand what happened that July day in 1973.

It took 13 months of planning – analyzing witness statements, reviewing evidence, and writing scripts – before a team of more than a dozen law enforcement officers were ready to reenact what the evidence said happened in that New Haven parking garage 16 years earlier.

Lynne Tuohy, a reporter for the Hartford Courant, attended the reenactment on a warm September afternoon. Tuohy wrote that the point of the reenactment was to solidify timestamps for the events of July 16, 1979 between 12:43 p.m. when a ticket was printed at a self-service kiosk at the George Street entrance of the garage and 12:51 p.m. when the same ticket, wet with blood, was handed over to an attendant in the Frontage Road exit booth.

John Serra was there looking on as investigators ran through the series of events once, twice, dozens of times. There was a mock chase from a dummy car to the stairwell, a fake stabbing of a criminalist playing the role of Penney Serra falling to the ground at the bottom of the steps, red spray paint dripped precisely to mark an exact trail of blood, and car tires squealing as the car mimicked pulling out of the garage onto Frontage Road, though the original exit no longer existed.

Dr. Henry C. Lee was director of the Connecticut state police forensic crime lab by this point, and he was there for the reenactment, making notes after each runthrough of the script, carefully clicking a stopwatch to mark every important event over the course of the attack.

For several months after, investigators pored over what they learned from the reenactment, but it was just the beginning of the renewed investigation. Detectives interviewed over 250 people, some for the first time. They leveraged new methods of forensic analysis that weren’t available to the investigation in 1973. Anthony Golino even participated in the new investigation. Lynne Tuohy reported for the Hartford Courant that he voluntarily gave blood samples for DNA testing, and the analysis further cleared him as a suspect.

In March of 1990, Chief State’s Attorney John J. Kelly announced in a two page statement that advancements in fingerprinting techniques and blood analysis were revealing new information in the investigation. Though Kelly kept those details confidential at the time to prevent a perfectly tailored false confession, Lee summarized the known facts of the case in his book, Cracking More Cases.

First, detectives definitively concluded that the Temple Street Garage was the primary crime scene and the attack likely started on the 7th floor and continued up to the 10th floor staircase. Based on the blood evidence, the assailant was likely injured on their left hand.

As was already known to the investigation, Penney died by a single stab wound with a knife-like object. All of the evidence led investigators to conclude that the murder was likely one of two scenarios: she knew her attacker and their meeting in the garage that day was planned, or Penney and her killer were total strangers. Lee wrote that it was possible the killing was, “an act of totally random chance, perhaps the action of a psychotic.”

The investigation had also found that bloodstain patterns on the tenth-floor stairwell indicated Penney reached at least the third step of the staircase and when she fell, her wound contacted the step, leaving blood transfer in a smear pattern. She then fell downward toward the landing into a fetal-like position.

On the point of motive, neither rape or robbery seemed to fit based on the crime scene patterns established. However, further testing on Penney’s clothing did find traces of sperm on her underwear and slip. It was assumed that this was unrelated to the crime, though it was impossible to determine when it was left on her undergarments. The investigation never established through DNA testing whose semen it was.

Each piece of evidence still held in the case was re-analyzed to understand its importance and connection to the case. In part one of this story, I told you that the garage attendant who called 9-1-1 after finding Penney’s body that afternoon had found a brown wig laying on the garage floor and it was collected as evidence. However, the renewed investigation established that the wig was not considered forensic evidence after analysis, despite finding two hairs that were not part of the wig intertwined with its strands. The wig had been handled by people at the scene before it was collected and therefore was likely contaminated.

Later, Penney’s sister Rosemary would explain that the wig, called a partial fall, was worn by her sister that day and was part of the reason why she wanted to drive the Buick. If she drove the other family car, a convertible Mustang, her hair would’ve gotten windblown.

The most crucial pieces of evidence reanalyzed in the case were the latent fingerprints. Computer imaging and digital fingerprint analysis was cutting edge forensic technology in 1990. It made comparing prints found on the car and items inside the car to fingerprint cards in a database a much more efficient process thanks to an automated system. According to Henry Lee, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), was used by a number of jurisdictions across the country as well as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the RCMP) and the FBI at the time. And so, the print from the tissue box and others found at the scene were digitized and added to AFIS.

No hits. Not at first. But if any popped up, the participating agencies promised to inform investigators working on the Serra case. It was a waiting game. More waiting in a case that had already lingered unresolved for nearly two decades.

Lingering Doubts & Theories

In September of 1989, the same month of the reenactment, John Serra posted a large sign in front of his auto garage on Forbes Avenue in New Haven. It read: Use Caution in Temple Street Garage. His ads with Penney’s photo kept running in local newspapers.

Joseph Brady of the New Haven Register spoke with John in the midst of the renewed investigation. He told the reporter, “This is not an obsession with me. It’s that… I’m determined. I know some people are going around saying I’m obsessed. I don’t like that wording. I’m still working; I’m still functioning. Anybody who’s got a daughter or any other family member murdered… I’m just doing the same thing you would do or anyone else would do if something like this happened.”

Anthony Golino was given the chance to weigh in on all the efforts to identify a new suspect in the case after he was cleared of the charges. He told the New Haven Register, “They will never, ever solve this case… They are leading this guy John Serra on because there will never be another arrest in this case.”

Meanwhile, the New Haven community continued to talk. Their chatter was spurred on by a segment airing on the CBS program 60 Minutes about Penney Serrra’s case. The producers of that segment angled the spotlight of the piece on Penney’s former fiance, Philip DeLieto, once again.

Phil professed his innocence on the program, and challenged New Haven police to arrest him. He later told the New Haven Register, “I stick by my original statements – if they had a charge on me, they would have made it. I don’t have anything in writing, but my understanding is (state investigators) cleared me the first week of the investigation and that was it…I believe this was mishandled from the beginning and the killer walked.”

How much longer would the killer walk? In the summer of 1994, it seemed like the wait for justice was almost over. Almost.

Arrest Warrant Application

Just days after the 21 year anniversary of Penney Serra’s murder in 1994, a Connecticut state prosecutor submitted a 40-page application for an arrest warrant to a judge. According to reporting by Josh Kovner for the New Haven Register, the warrant outlined DNA and other evidence linking a new suspect to Penney’s killing.

The suspect named in the affidavit, who I’ll refer to as Suspect C, had once been a patient at the dental office where Penney worked and he co-owned a restaurant next door to that dental office. The man’s name was also printed on a few bills found on the dashboard of the Buick Penney drove that day.

Suspect C was identified as being of Albanian descent. You’ll remember that the ticket agent had said the man with the bloodied parking ticket spoke with a foreign accent. And he more closely matched the witness’s description of the man seen chasing a woman in the garage that day – tall, thin, long dark hair.

The warrant application outlined several witness statements regarding the man’s alleged previous attacks on women. No charges were ever filed against him for these attacks, but the women reported their experience with the suspect to police. One of the alleged attacks was just a month before Penney’s murder.

The New Haven Register learned that Suspect C had once been arrested, charged, and convicted of arson in 1977 after he set a four-alarm fire that destroyed the restaurant he owned with his brother. He served 3 years of a three to seven year sentence, receiving parole in 1984. He moved to Texas, where Connecticut investigators caught up with him in 1994.

Police told him that he was a suspect sometime in 1992, and from the beginning the man was cooperative with the investigation. He answered investigators’ questions and gave samples of his blood, but via his attorney, the man consistently denied any involvement in Penney Serra’s killing. He didn’t even remember Penney, though he did remember going to the dentist’s office where she worked.

The blood samples the man gave were found to match blood evidence found at the scene of Penney’s murder. According to the affidavit, the particular makeup of both the suspect’s blood and the blood found on the evidence occurs only in 2 percent of the U.S. white male population. Investigators also noted a scar on the suspect’s left hand. It was consistent with what they believed Penney’s killer would’ve received in the attack.

Over the course of two years, investigators built the case against Suspect C and were confident enough in their findings to apply for that arrest warrant in 1994. But it apparently wasn’t enough for the State’s Attorney and the Chief State’s Attorney who passed off the application without signing it to a Superior Court judge who was the only authority who could override the rejections and sign it himself. But Judge John J. Ronan rejected the application. The warrant was not issued and the suspect was not arrested.

But investigators weren’t finished with Suspect C yet.

Another Arrest Warrant Application

In 1995, a second application for an arrest warrant for the same man authorities tried to arrest a year prior was submitted to a judge for signature.

The new application referenced much of the same evidence against the suspect as before, but listed a few additional facts for the judge to consider. The New Haven Register obtained the application and writer Alaine Griffin reported on its contents.

The application detailed an interview with a friend of Penney Serra who said Penney confided in them that she slapped a guy who tried to touch her while she was at a lounge in downtown New Haven. The same man somehow tracked Penney down, the friend said, and tried to approach her near the elevator in the Temple Street parking garage.

In a second interview with the same friend four years later, they told police that Penney complained about a man she referred to as “The Greek”, a name police assumed referred to the suspect who was actually Albanian. “The Greek” worked at the restaurant co-owned by the suspect located next door to the dental office. Again, Penney told the friend she slapped this man for annoying her.

In 1993, detectives spoke with the friend again, and obtained a signed statement that said Penney complained about “The Greek” again and said he was a patient at the dental office, and that he had physical contact with her, possibly touching her breasts when they were both in the elevator at the Temple Street garage.

Though this signed statement and the previous interviews with Penney’s close friend further bolstered the State’s case against Suspect C, the second application for an arrest warrant in 1995 was also rejected. Apparently there just wasn’t enough to make an arrest, and in that case, certainly not enough to take it to trial and seek a conviction.

All the while these arrest warrant applications were working their way through the State’s Attorney’s office and falling short of a signature, the investigation was still ongoing. Though authorities felt the dental patient-restaurant owner-convicted arsonist was their guy – their second guy – for the murder of Penney Serra, a hit on fingerprints a few years later pointed them to yet another suspect.

1997 Fingerprint Match

In 1994, the same year as the first arrest warrant application for Suspect C, a man named Edward R. Grant was arrested in Waterbury, Connecticut for allegedly beating his fiancé. The woman was hospitalized as a result, however, the charges against Edward Grant were later dropped. Not before he was fingerprinted though.

Edward Grant’s prints were added to the state Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or AFIS. It took three years, but in 1997, there was a hit on those prints. They matched the partial bloody print on the tissue box found on the backseat floor of the car Penney Serra was driving on the day of her murder.

The fingerprint match in and of itself was not enough to secure an arrest warrant for this now third suspect in Penney’s death. As was proven by earlier attempts to arrest the dental patient, the prosecution needed an exceptionally convincing case before they’d get their warrant application signed. And so the team of investigators began to stack up the evidence, starting with informing Edward Grant of the fingerprint match and asking him a few questions about his whereabouts on July 16, 1973.

After he was Mirandarized, authorities interviewed Edward Grant. He said he didn’t know Penney Serra but according to Dr. Henry Lee’s book, Grant also couldn’t say where he was on the day she was murdered. Police told him there was a quick and easy way to put this whole thing to bed – volunteer a blood sample. Edward Grant hadn’t yet lawyered up, but he knew enough to refuse to give a sample.

That didn’t matter to investigators really. They could get Grant’s blood with the help of a warrant which was soon approved. Edward Grant’s blood samples, along with his fingerprints, were sent to an advanced lab in Colorado for DNA testing and careful comparison to the prints found at the murder scene.

A DNA testing technique known as STR, which stands for Short Tandem Repeat, was brand new at the time and only required small amounts of DNA. The STR technique found that Edward Grant’s blood matched the blood found on a single pink tissue in Penney Serra’s car with a 300 million to 1 chance it was his. Translation: Science said Edward Grant’s blood was definitely at the scene of Penney Serra’s murder.

Before the news of the fingerprint and DNA match was made public, before the arrest warrant was even issued, there was one man that investigators had to update on the case progress – Penney’s father, John Serra.

John was brought up to speed on what was happening with his daughter’s case. He knew investigators were closing in on a third suspect and that this time, new forensic technology made them more confident than ever that they had the right person for the crime. But on November 5, 1998, John Serra passed away without ever seeing the person responsible for his daughter’s murder face justice.

Seven months after John passed away, authorities finally had enough additional evidence to close in on Edward Grant. The warrant was issued and on June 24, 1999, detectives arrested Edward R. Grant for the 1973 murder of Penney Serra. Coincidentally, it would’ve been John Serra’s birthday. The arrest was a posthumous gift to the man who fought until his death to find out who killed his daughter.

Edward Grant did not resist arrest. He was calm and unreadable as he hugged his girlfriend, asked for a glass of water, and then handed off his wallet and followed officers into the waiting cruiser. As he sat in the back of the police car, Edward Grant leaned over to the officer beside him and remarked that a recent arrest of a serial killer in Texas was made quote, “from a single thumbprint, too.” End quote.

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