Forensic Files 1.6
"Southside Strangler"

February 2, 2020 by Avery Faeth

Southside Strangler

Air date: 10/31/1996
Chronology: season 1, episode 6

Victim: Debbie Dudley Davis || Dr. Susan Hellams || Diane Cho ||Susan Tucker

Date of death: 09/18-19/1987 || 10/02-03/1987 || 11/22/1987 || 11/27/1987

Cause of death: Ligature strangulation || Ligature strangulation || Ligature strangulation || Ligature strangulation

Location: Richmond, Virginia, USA || Richmond, Virginia, USA || Richmond, Virginia, USA || Arlington, Virginia, USA

Perpetrator: Timothy Wilson Spencer

The crime: While she slept, Debbie Dudley Davis was bound, raped, and strangled to death over several hours in her Richmond, Virginia apartment. Her body was found after police investigating an abandoned vehicle belonging to her tried to contact her. Her death was still under investigation when Dr. Susan Hellams was found by her husband, bound, raped, and strangled to death in their home in the late hours of the evening. With both murders still unsolved, Diane Cho was bound, raped, and strangled to death in the apartment she shared with her family, who discovered the body the next day. Just after Thanksgiving, a hundred miles away in Arlington, Susan Tucker was bound, raped, and strangled to death in her home while her husband was away on business. Similarities were found in her murder, the previous three in Richmond, and the murder of Carolyn Hamm in Arlington almost four years earlier. She had been found bound, raped, and strangled in the garage of her home after failing to report to work. Her murder was thought to be connected to an escalating series of rapes that had plagued the area, although eventually David Vasquez, a neighbor, had been coerced into confessing. With new advances in DNA testing as well as an inability to produce an accomplice or connect him to the later crimes, he was exonerated of the murder and released. The gap between the murders led police to believe the murderer may have served time for another offense, leading to the investigation of Timothy Wilson Spencer, who Detective Joe Horgas had encountered previously. Spencer had been living in Arlington at the time of Hamm's murder and was connected in suspicion to the previous rapes, and shortly after was convicted and jailed for burglary. He was out on probation at a halfway house when the Davis, Hellams, Cho, and Tucker murders were committed, though records show he was signed out on the dates of each murder. Under surveillance, he was seen to frequent a shopping mall that tied all three Richmond victims together. He was arrested under circumstantial evidence, and a blood sample was found to match the semen samples from each murder. The semen sample from Carolyn Hamm's murder was too degraded by the time of Spencer's conviction to be retested, although it is generally accepted that he was responsible for her death and the unsolved rapes in the area. Glass samples found on his clothing were found to match broken glass from the point of entry at the Tucker crime scene.

Techniques: Restriction fragment length polymorphism, semen DNA analysis, hair analysis, profiling, glass refraction analysis

Professionals: Michael Baird, PhD (geneticist), Deanne Dabbs (forensic scientist), R. Steven Mardigian (special agent, FBI), Joe Horgas (homicide detective), Michael Hill (detective), Helen Fahey (Virginia attorney general), Peter Thomas (narrator)