Katelin Puzakulics, 31, was just two years old when her 23-year-old mother’s body was discovered in 1981 in Akron, Ohio

By Christine Pelisek
March 23, 2020 08:59 AM
Rachael Johnson and her daughter Katelin 
courtesy Katelin Puzakulics

Katelin Puzakulics, 31, was just two years old when her 23-year-old mother’s body was discovered in 1981 in Akron, Ohio’s Chapel Hill neighborhood.

Akron police said Rachael Johnson had been fatally stabbed and set on fire. She also suffered blunt force trauma and had been sexually assaulted.

Who may have killed the mother of one remained a mystery for 29 years. But on March 11, police arrested 57-year-old Daniel Rees.

Police said Rees was arrested after a DNA lab working with the authorities uploaded DNA found during the autopsy to a public geneology website.

“He is a ghost in this investigation,” Akron Police Department detective Jim Pasheilich tells PEOPLE. “He is nowhere mentioned in this investigation.”

The news of the arrest in the cold case shocked Puzakulics — especially when she learned the alleged killer’s identity.

Rees was a neighborhood fixture who lived across the street from Puzakulics when she grew up.

“He literally had the nerve to live across the street from the daughter of the person he killed,” Puzakulics tells PEOPLE.

“I’ve known him forever. That is crazy. My dad and my step mom had cookouts, bonfires. He would just walk on over all the time. He was over at our house drinking beer around the fire like it didn’t faze him.”

Puzakulics says Rees was known in the Goodyear Heights neighborhood where she grew up as “Hippie Man Dan.”

Rachael Johnson and Katelin
courtesy Katelin Puzakulics

“He was the guy walking around with this giant snake on his neck,” she says. “He would have us kids come over and watch him feed it.”

Rees once took her on a motorcycle ride around the block and on a sleigh ride. In 2002, he stopped by to offer condolences after she was in a car accident that killed her best friend.

“He said, ‘I just want you to know that I have a video of you and [your friend] playing hopscotch in the street,’” she remembers.

“He was like, ‘And I would really like you to have that.’ But I never did get that video.”

Daniel Rees
Akron Police Department

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The last time she saw Rees was at her stepbrother’s wedding in 2007. “He came to the wedding, sat with our family and ate,” she says.

Puzakulics says she began investigating her mom’s death in the summer of 2018 after she joined forces with a local web sleuth. During their hunt, they searched a serial killer’s case file, spent hours investigating on the Internet, and participated in a 30 minute podcast to bring attention to the case.

“There was a lot of creepy cab drivers always around too, picking people up from the bars,” she says. “There were truck drivers leaving bodies on the side of the highway and stuff. So we kind of looked at every kind of possible theory.”

Rachael Johnson
courtesy Katelin Puzakulics

Puzakulics says police tried and failed with familial DNA testing to find the killer before they decided to try genetic geneology.

“I’m glad that it’s solved,” she says. “I hope this brings hope to other people and they can find out what happened to their loved ones….The whole thing feels like a Lifetime movie. You get smacked with an ending that doesn’t seem real. It is crazy.”

Rees was booked into the Summit County Jail. His next court date is April 1.

It is unclear if he has entered a plea or retained an attorney.

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