DNA evidence found at the scene of Laura Purchase’s brutal murder nearly 40 years ago allegedly links a 75-year-old Kansas City man to her slaying, police say

By KC Baker
May 24, 2021 01:33 PM
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Laura Purchase and Thomas Elvin Darnell
Laura Marie Purchase and Thomas Elvin Darnell
| Credit: Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office

Shortly after Laura Purchase's naked body was found burning in the woods in southeast Texas in 1983, notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas confessed to her slaying — among many others — and was convicted of murdering her three years later.

Now, authorities believe he didn't actually kill her.

On Thursday, nearly four decades after the Houston woman was sexually assaulted and fatally strangled, deputies arrested Thomas Elvin Darnell, 75, of Kansas City, Kan., on a murder warrant in connection to her vicious slaying, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in Texas announced in a release.

Darnell was arrested after police collected DNA evidence allegedly linking him to her killing.

The grisly murder came to light on March 17, 1983, at about 3 a.m., when a Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Deputy saw a fire burning in a wooded area off Interstate 45 in Conroe, Texas, the sheriff's office said in the release. There, the deputy discovered the body of a woman that had been set on fire — and was still burning.

An autopsy showed that the woman had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Though officials were unable to identify the victim, they did find traces of a male's DNA on her battered body.

In 1986, three years after the murder, the FBI ran the victim's fingerprints and was able to positively identify the slain woman as Purchase, who was listed as a missing person from Houston.

The case went cold for more than two decades, until 2007, when investigators with the sheriff's office cold case squad resubmitted the unknown male's DNA for testing.

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Authorities soon found that DNA belonging to Lucas, the prolific serial killer who confessed to 600 murders, did not match the evidence collected from the scene.

In October 2019, investigators submitted the DNA evidence for genealogy testing, which pointed to Darnell as a potential suspect, the sheriff's office said.

On March 17, 2021, exactly 38 years to the day of the murder, Montgomery County Cold Case detectives traveled to Kansas City to collect "a known DNA sample" from Darnell, the sheriff's office said. His DNA was allegedly matched to the unknown DNA collected from the body of Purchase.

A warrant for capital murder was issued in Montgomery County and on May 11, Darnell was arrested at his home. Soon after, he was extradited to Montgomery County.

Darnell is being held in the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Jail without bond as he awaits his next court date. He has not yet entered a plea, and it is unclear whether he has retained an attorney who can speak on his behalf.