On the 24th of February 1976 a 19 year old nursing student named Michelle Mitchell studying at the University of Nevada broke down in her car at the side of the road on 9th Street and Evans Avenue.
She called her mother for assistance, but several minutes later, Michelle was nowhere to be found. After a couple of hours of searching the body of a young woman was discovered in a nearby garage. Her throat had been slit and her hands were bound behind her back at the wrists. The body was quickly identified as the missing teen.
There wasn’t much to go on in terms of identifying a suspect, however eye witnesses described seeing an individual help the teen push her car off the roadside and recalled later seeing a male flee the scene. There was also an expended cigarette near the body that was carefully bagged up as evidence. Unfortunately the discarded cigarette butt didn’t lead to any arrests in the case as forensic science in the seventies was not as advanced as it is today. The car keys to Michelle’s Volkswagen Beatle had been taken from her person and were never recovered.
The case remained cold for 3 years, until one day the police received a tip from an employee of The State University Medical Centre in Louisiana, who claimed one of their patients had confessed to the crime.
Cathy Woods had been in and out of such facilities since she was a child. She had a long history of mental health issues and had spent long stays in psychiatric wards over the years. She vaguely mentioned to her councillor that she had been involved in the murder of a girl in Reno several years earlier. In the same so-called “confession” she also claimed that she was an agent working for the FBI and that her mother had been trying to poison her. Articles about the case would later reveal that Cathy Woods only made such a statement because she wanted a private room at the hospital but was told that she couldn’t have one since she wasn’t considered a danger to others. In response, she mentioned the murder of a student in Reno, likely in the hope that she could get some privacy out it.
Shortly after the conversation the hospital employee contacted police to relay the information. Cathy Woods was investigated and her mother’s home, the residence Woods was registered as living in at the time of the murder was searched. Although no evidence was recovered, such as the missing car keys, Woods was arrested. She could not provide any information that had not already been realised publicly and it was clear that she was having paranoid and delusional thoughts, however since she was indeed in Reno at the time of Michelle Mitchells murder, she was arrested and went to trial.
An article indexed on the National Registry of Exonerations website details that in court Woods described how she made sexual advances towards the 19 year old nursing student and when rejected, cut the girls throat. Woods and her lawyer would later go on to criticize the police and accuse them of coercing an embellished confession out of a patient who was in a psychotic state of mind.
In the early eighties Cathy Woods was convicted of first degree murder with a weapon and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The case was overturned and later went to trial again a few years later but, again, concluded Woods was responsible and she was sentenced to life.
Although she had issues with literacy, Woods managed to contact the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project and in 2013 a DNA test on the cigarette butt found at the crime scene showed a male DNA profile. The following year using DNA databases the profile was linked to a man named Rodney "The Gypsy Hill Killer" Halbower. Halbower had a criminal past, including a rape in 1975. He was out on a bond at the time of Michelle Mitchell’s murder in 1976 and was ultimately found to be responsible for 70’s slaying, as well as the murders of two other girls, Paula Baxter, 17, and Veronica Cascio, 18, around the same time period. He stabbed Cascio 30 times. The DNA from the Cascio and Baxter murders matched that of the DNA found on the discarded cigarette from the Mitchell crime scene.
Cascio and Baxter were both murdered by Rodney Lynn Halbower in the San Francisco Bay area in 1976. Several young women, all of whom had a similar appearance with long brown middle parted hair, were slain by an unknown killer who came to be known in the media as “The San Mateo slasher.” The several slayings, although first thought to be the work a lone serial killer due to the victim type, Modus operandi and close proximity of the murders by both time and location, turned out to be the work of two completely separate killers with no link to one another. Rodney Halbower and Leon Melvin Seymour, both of whom shared a very similar M.O were eventually identified for their involvement.
Woods would later go on to accuse the officers who worked the case of manipulating her into a confession. Wood’s lawyer would also go on to reveal that Woods was in a psychotic state at the time and that she should never had been interrogated by investigators in the first place.
Halbower was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He would, however, go on to kill again after escaping prison in 1986 and stabbing a woman to death in a parking lot in Oregon.
Cathy Woods, who was at this point in her sixties, was freed on September 11th 2014 and later exonerated. She now holds the record for the longest wrongly incarcerated female in U.S history.
In the summer of 2016 she was awarded a settlement of $3 million for the three and a half decades she was wrongly incarcerated for a crime she did not commit. Woods, now 68 years old, is living in Washington under the care of a legal guardian.
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