Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
John Ottaviano, the Manchester golf course supintendent, stands next to a memorial photo of Sarah Hunter at the Manchester Country Club on Monday. Ottaviano said he was supposed to play in a tournament with Hunter the day after she disappeared, but she never showed up and people were getting concerned. Now there is an annual tournament in Hunter's honor at the course.
MANCHESTER — More than 25 years after a local golf pro’s body was found in the woods in Pawlet, authorities say they plan to charge David Allan Morrison, who is serving time in California, with first-degree murder.
Advances in investigation technology gave authorities the evidence to charge Morrison with killing Sarah Hunter, according to Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage. Hair found in a car Morrison once owned, which police impounded in 1988, is believed with greater than 99 percent probability to belong to Hunter.
Hunter was 36 and living in Manchester when she went missing Sept. 19, 1986. Her body was found Nov. 27 that year.
Marthage said some aspects of the investigation had been going on since 1986.
“But (the breakthrough) really was the last three or four years when we started looking at whether there could be some further testing that has now changed and has given us an ability we didn’t have 25 years ago,” she said.
Morrison, 52, was also living in Manchester when Hunter disappeared.
An affidavit in the case said she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Her body was found in the woods next to a cornfield.
In the affidavit, Detective Sgt. Helaine Gaiotti, of the Vermont State Police, said police determined in 1986 that Hunter had left her boyfriend’s home Sept. 18 and stopped at a gas station on the way home. Hunter’s car, which had Florida license plates, was found in the parking lot of the gas station around 2 a.m. the next day.
Morrison was working that night at a second gas station that police said was “just a few hundred feet” from where Hunter’s car was found.
Gaiotti said Morrison had a pattern, which she said included an incident in Arlington in 1981, of forcing a woman into a vehicle and sexually assaulting her through threats or violence. It was not clear from the affidavit whether the Arlington incident was ever prosecuted. Records kept in the Bennington criminal courthouse do not date back to 1981.
Police interviewed Morrison on Oct. 9, 1986, and Jan. 30, 1987. Both times, he denied knowing or ever meeting Hunter, according to the affidavit.
In January 1988, Morrison left Vermont. By August that year he had been arrested and charged with kidnapping, sexually assaulting and trying to murder a woman from Chula Vista, Calif. After pleading guilty, Morrison was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison in California, where he remains.
The investigation of Morrison continued in Vermont in 1988. A car he had been using in September 1986 and left behind in Vermont yielded some evidence but not enough to charge him.
According to Gaiotti, the next big step in the case came from an interview Dec. 15, 2009, by Detective David Bavencoff with the National City Police Department in California. Bavencoff contacted the Vermont State Police to say he was going to talk to Morrison about an unsolved murder, which was similar to Hunter’s, and he wanted some background on Hunter in case Morrison talked about her.
Gaiotti said she listened to the recording of the interview later and believed Morrison knew something about the slaying although he continued to deny killing Hunter. According to Gaiotti, Morrison told Bavencoff that speaking to him about Hunter could “put the last nail in (his) coffin.”
Plans were made for Gaiotti to go to California to interview Morrison, but Marthage asked that any evidence gathered be tested using modern methods. In March 2010, samples of hair taken from Morrison’s car were sent to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va.
The hairs were found to be a “mitochondrial match” with Hunter’s sister. Mitochondrial DNA profiles from maternally related siblings are the same, the affidavit said.
Marthage said she expects Morrison to be extradited from California to Vermont within 90 days. If he is convicted in Vermont, he would first be sent back to California to serve out that sentence before returning to Vermont to serve time, Marthage said.
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