Newly-retrieved DNA could give detectives break in 1979 cold case murder

Debra Reiding and her new husband, Robert, in their wedding photo, taken two months before Reiding was found dead in her Austin apartment in 1979. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Debra Reiding and her new husband, Robert, in their wedding photo, taken two months before Reiding was found dead in her Austin apartment in 1979. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Detectives with the Austin Police Department’s homicide cold case unit hope to use DNA evidence to help solve a murder that happened more than 38 years ago.

In a search warrant filed this week, the cold case detective writes that investigators in 1979 identified a man as a “person of interest” in the murder of 18-year-old Debra Reiding. Now, after reopening the case in 2013, detectives are testing that man’s DNA against semen stains found on a robe Reiding was wearing at the time of her death.

KXAN has decided not to identify the man because he has not been named a suspect by Austin police.

Reiding and her husband, Robert, were newlyweds living in a south Austin apartment on Algarita Avenue in January 1979. The couple, originally from Montana, had married a couple months earlier and moved to Austin during the frigid winter up north.

The two were going to work in Austin for a little while and head back to their home state in April, the cold case detective said. That was the plan.

Robert found his wife’s body still in their bed when he came home from work the evening of Jan. 22. Investigators found evidence she’d been sexually assaulted and strangled.

“She was always outgoing,” Rodney Wilt, Reiding’s younger brother, said in a phone interview from Montana Thursday, “very popular.”

“Our lives were shattered,” Wilt said. Wilt has kept up with the still-open murder case for close to four decades. “Like anybody else I wanted to find out who did it.”

More than 38 years later, he might.

Looking through the original case files, Detective Jeff Gabler realized one person of interest was never ruled out as a possible suspect. The file noted the man worked at the same restaurant, the Montana Mining Company, as Reiding and would give her rides home. The day after the murder, Reiding’s co-worker denied knowing the victim and ever being in her apartment, but detectives learned he had been there at least twice, the affidavit for the search warrant says.

“There was evidence to show that the victim may have known her attacker,” Gabler said, such as the fact there didn’t appear to be forced entry into the couple’s apartment.

The detective, who was 10 years old when the murder happened, pored over police reports, lab tests, and other documents from 1979 when he reopened the case in 2013. He came up with the co-worker as a person of interest for the second time in the case’s history.

On April 28, 2013, detectives sent toothpicks the man used to the DPS Crime Lab, where they were determined to be a match to the stains on the victim’s robe. The cold case unit used that information to get a search warrant for the man’s DNA, which was executed this week.

It will probably take weeks to get results, but Gabler calls it a “very promising” development.

“It’s basically wait and see,” he said. It’s a familiar feeling for those following the case, including Wilt. But he’s not bitter; instead, he’s thankful APD has remembered the case for this long.

“To know that they’re working on the case gives us faith that there may still be justice out there,” he said.

“That’s our purpose in the cold case unit is to never forget,” Gabler said. Wilt hopes the cold case unit will find answers so he and their mother, who is now in her 80s, can find justice for Reiding.

“It looks good and promising,” Wilt said, “but, I mean, nothing’s over until it’s over.”

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