DNA twice clears man for brutal 1991 homicide as prosecutors search for victim's family

Prosecutors hope that the 58-year-old victim's next of kin comes forward.

February 02, 2020, 6:27 PM

Almost 30 years ago, a 33-year-old Asbury Park, New Jersey, man was falsely accused of the 1991 brutal beating, sexual assault and strangulation of a 58-year-old woman. Now, Monmouth County prosecutors are on the hunt to find the victim's family and give them some closure.

On March 27, 1991, police found Christa Engel's body underneath a ramp at the Asbury Park Boardwalk near Fourth Avenue.

Investigators collected Engel's stockings, slip and dress for testing. All that was known about her was that she was a resident of the Carlton Hotel and prosecutors could not find any immediate relatives to contact.

PHOTO: In this photo taken from Google Maps, the boardwalk is shown at 4th Avenue in Asbury Park, N.J.
In this photo taken from Google Maps, the boardwalk is shown at 4th Avenue in Asbury Park, N.J.
Google Maps Street View

A few weeks later, Kevin W. Wallace was arrested for the crime and held on $500,000 bond, The Asbury Park Press reported at the time.

However, once DNA tests were conducted on some of Engel's items, prosecutors with Monmouth County dropped the charges against Wallace.

Engel's case turned cold.

Ten years later, prosecutors reopened the case and submitted evidence for retesting to the state's police lab.

PHOTO: In this June 21, 2017, file photo, the beach and the boardwalk are seen in Asbury Park, N.J.
In this June 21, 2017, file photo, the beach and the boardwalk are seen in Asbury Park, N.J.
Seth Wenig/AP, FILE

The national database -- Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) -- identified Clarence W. Turnage as the contributor of the DNA profile taken from Engel's dress, stockings and body.

Turnage died in 2014.

Nonetheless, in 2018, when Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office created a Cold Case Unit, they listed Engel's case as "one of several cases selected for immediate review," prosecutors said in a press release issued on Friday.

During their reinvestigation, prosecutors discovered that Engel was born in West Germany with the maiden name "Dierolf," prosecutors said. At some point, Engel came to the United States and married Seymour Engel in 1961 in Passaic.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 29, 2018, file photo, Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni speaks during a news conference in Freehold, N.J.
In this Nov. 29, 2018, file photo, Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni speaks during a news conference in Freehold, N.J.
Seth Wenig/AP, FILE

"It is hoped that with the release of this information and the conclusion of this investigation, a family member of Ms. Engel may come forward," said Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni. "Anyone with any information pertaining to this case can contact Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office Detective John Leibfried at 732-431-7160."

Also during their investigation, prosecutors resubmitted evidence from the case -- including another DNA sample from Wallace -- to a private forensic lab last year to confirm CODIS' earlier findings that Turnage was the actual killer and rapist.

After exhuming Turnage's body to get a DNA sample to perform "a direct comparison" it "confirmed the exclusion of the original suspect as the major contributor on the dress and slip," said Gramiccioni.

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