In March of 1983, the naked body of a woman was discovered burning in the woods near interstate 45 just outside the city of Conroe in South East Texas. The woman's burning remains were spotted by a Montgomery County Sheriff's Officer while on patrol along interstate 45 at around 3am. The officer spotted smoke coming from the woods and made his way to the scene of the crime on League Line Rd, where he made the grisly discovery. The victim’s remains were actively burning as he approached the scene.
It was later determined that the woman had been brutally beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled before being set on fire, and although male DNA was recovered from her body, investigators were unable to link a perpetrator to the crime. The fire had been started with an accelerant and the cap from a SAE 15W-40 oil container was found on the victim’s stomach. A ball point pen branded with the logo for 76 truck stop, a large truck stop chain, was found near the victim’s body. The discovery site was known as a layby for truckers travelling down the I-45. Over the years the City of Conroe has seen multiple murders and bodies dumped in areas along the highway, several of which remain unsolved.
In October of 1984, infamous serial killer Henry Lee Lucas pleaded guilty to raping and murdering the woman. Lucas received a life sentence for the murder, but recent tests on the DNA evidence recovered from the scene did not link Lucas to the case and it is believed that he falsely confessed. The DNA was also ruled out as a match for his partner in crime, Ottis Elwood Toole.
Henry Lee Lucas was a serial killer active between the years of 1960 - 1983 in Michigan and Texas. He falsely confessed to multiple murders. It is believed he was a compulsive liar, motivated by the perks he would receive while being interviewed by investigators. He was able to substantiate his false confessions with the information he obtained from police files, of which he could leaf through in order to jog his memory. The information contained in the files gave him access to details only the killer would know and assisted him in making his false confessions seem legitimate.
Henry Lee Lucas claimed to have killed hundreds of women but was officially convicted with the murder of eleven, eight of which are disputed. Lucas passed away in 2001 in prison at the age of 64. His cause of death was listed as congestive heart failure and he now lays in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Texas.
The Conroe burning victim remained unidentified for three years, until the FBI obtained the woman’s fingerprints from the Harris County medical examiner’s office and ran them through the CODIS database. Initially, they turned up nothing, but the body was later identified as that of missing Michigan woman, 26-year-old Laura Marie Purchase. Marie Purchase was last seen alive on March 5, just several days before she was found dead, in 1983 in Houston, Texas. At the time she was living with her boyfriend who was a musician playing in a band named Malibu. He was thought to be called either Howard or Howie and the pair were said to be living in a motel somewhere along the North Freeway in Texas. Police were interested to talk to the man as he was the last known person to see Laura alive and had neglected to report her missing despite the pair living together. Multiple women had been found dead around truck stop 76 and the surrounding area over the years, however many of the deaths remained unsolved.
In 2007, the male DNA found on the victim was tested again but did not present a perpetrator.
Then, in 2019, the DNA was submitted to genealogy testing and investigators soon found their attention on a suspect- a 75-year-old Kansas man, Thomas Elvin Darnell. Laura Purchase’s killer had evaded justice for almost four decades, but with the help of genetic genealogy, investigators now had their man.
Darnell would have been in his late thirties at the time of the murder. He was arrested on the 38th anniversary of his victim’s murder.
Police traveled to Kansas to retrieve a DNA sample and compared it against the DNA found on the victim’s body- it was a match. The suspect was arrested on a murder warrant in connection with the rape and murder of Laura Purchase.
Darnell has been extradited to Montgomery County where he is currently being held without bond. A mugshot of the suspect circulated by media outlets shows an elderly Caucasian male with a nest of white hair and an unshaven face. It is unclear if he has committed any other crimes since the murder of Marie Purchase. Darnell is described as a white male, 75-years-old, 6 ft tall weighing 187lbs. Police arrested him at his home on 3308 N 57th Street, Kansas City at approximately 1:19pm.