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Teen's slaying solved after 30 Years thanks to donation, DNA science

<p>Stephanie Isaacson was killed on her way to El Dorado High School in 1989. Her slaying was just solved thanks to a sliver of DNA evidence&nbsp;— and a philanthropist's generosity.</p>
Metropolitan Police Department

Stephanie Isaacson was killed on her way to El Dorado High School in 1989. Her slaying was just solved thanks to a sliver of DNA evidence — and a philanthropist's generosity.

Editor's note: This segment originally aired Aug. 9, 2021

On June 1, 1989, 14-year-old Stephanie Isaacson started her walk to Eldorado High School. She didn’t make it. That evening her body was found close to the path that she took to school.  


For 32 years homicide detectives tried to figure out who sexually assaulted and killed her, but clues were few. Investigators had a tiny amount of the perpetrator's DNA to work with, and it has been tested without success over the years.

Las Vegas police homicide Lt. Ray Spencer, who announced the break in the case, said he recalled the attention the slaying got 32 years ago when there were fewer than 1 million people in the Las Vegas Valley.

“Even in middle school, I was kind of a news junkie. I constantly watched the news, and still remembered it.,” he told State of Nevda. “So when we solved it, it instantly came back.”

The new investigation started after Las Vegas philanthropist Justin Woo learned of the work Othram labs of suburban Houston was doing solving crimes using DNA. Woo made a donation late last year, asking that it be used to hire Othram to investigate a cold case.

"I just had one kind of condition for them," Woo said. "I asked if we could get a local case, something that was in either the Las Vegas or Southern Nevada area," not specifically Stephanie Isaacson's slaying.

Michael Vogen, director of case management for Othram, said the company is unique in North America because it “was built to work exclusively with law enforcement to generate ID of perpetrators of crime, victims of crime, or just unknown, folks.”

Vogen said the success in processing such a small sample in this case foreshadows advancements in other genetic investigations.

“DNA analysis and the ability to access data from evidence that’s in really poor shape is going to continue to improve,” he said, “and eventually, it's going to drive repeat crime to extinction.”

Philanthropist Woo said that outside of knowing an investigation was ongoing, he was kept out of the loop.

"We had no information about what the case was, about who it was about, any of the details," he said. "I didn't know anything about it until Las Vegas Metro did the first press release the other day."

Las Vegas police opted for the Isaacson case and worked with the lab to re-examine the evidence. With state-of-the-art technology, Othram was able to identify a suspect: Darren Marchand. The Las Vegas man, who committed suicide in 1995, had never been considered a suspect in the Isaacson case.

Marchand had been arrested in connection to the murder of Nanette Vanderburg in 1986, but the case was dismissed because of a lack of evidence. Evidence from that case did offer a sample of Marchand's DNA, and it matched what had been found in the Isaacson investigation.

"I know Stephanie's mother had said that it's not really justice, and I can understand that," Woo said, "but you know, I'm hoping that the family gets a little bit of closure finding out who did this."

Ray Spencer, Lieutenant, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department; Michael Vogen, Director of Case Canagement, Othram; Justin Woo, Founder, Vegas Helps

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Kristen Kidman is the senior producer at KNPR’s State of Nevada and is proud to be from Las Vegas.