Advances in DNA science helped detectives identify a suspect in Kirsten Hatfield's 1997 abduction

By Chris Harris
October 14, 2015 01:30 PM
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Nearly two decades after an 8-year-old girl disappeared from her Oklahoma home, police have arrested one of her neighbors on suspicion of first-degree murder and kidnapping.

A Midwest City, Oklahoma, police official tells PEOPLE that advances in DNA science helped detectives identify a suspect in Kirsten Hatfield’s 1997 abduction: 56-year-old Anthony Joseph Palma.

Chief of Police Brandon Clabes says that Palma was arrested Monday at his home, which is located just two doors down the road from the Hatfield home.

“We have worked this case for 18 years, and our officers have been emotionally invested in this case for 18 years . We never laid it down,” Clabes says to PEOPLE. “Through attrition and retirement, the case kept getting reassigned to different investigators.”

In June 2014, the case was once again reassigned to a new detective with a fresh perspective, says Clabes. His officers met with forensic teams and pored over all of the evidence in the case file. A decision was made to resubmit blood evidence for additional testing.

“Blood had been collected from Kirsten’s window sill and there was also blood on her panties, which were found in the backyard,” Clabes explains. “In the meantime, our investigators revisited every male that came up in the initial investigation. One of them was Anthony Palma, who denied knowing the family or ever being in the house.”

Like all of the other men detectives spoke with, Palma did provide investigators with a cheek swab, Clabes says.

Three months ago, the blood work came back with a definitive match, says Clabes. The results allegedly showed that “no other human being on the planet could match that exact DNA profile.”

Anthony Joseph Palma
Midwest City Police Department/AP

Once police had the new DNA evidence in hand, Clabes says surveillance teams were immediately assigned to Palma’s home. Police also started monitoring his phone calls and were in the process of applying for a wiretap before his arrest.

Without getting into specifics, Clabes says circumstances “accelerated the case this weekend,” and officers moved in on Monday to take Palma into custody.

Palma is being held without bond in the Oklahoma County Jail; he does not have an attorney at this stage and has not yet entered a plea to the charges against him. The chief says that detectives are using special equipment to scour the earth surrounding Palma’s home.

“We are still looking for Kirsten, at this point,” Clabes says.

He adds that officers have not ruled out the possibility that others may have been involved with the girl’s disappearance.

“This arrest provides some solace for our officers, but we want to find her,” Clabes says to PEOPLE, noting Palma maintains his innocence. “I am glad we made an arrest but our hope now is we will be able to find Kirsten’s body. Hopefully, he will change his mind and give us some more information so we can bring closure to her family.”

Since Kirsten’s disappearance, detectives have come and gone. Some have retired; others have died, Clabes explains.

“This arrest is a credit to all of the officers who have worked this case over all these years,” the chief says. “And we’re still not done.”

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