Florida Cold Case Cracked with DNA 36 Years Later

Uncovering Florida

Cover photo for illustrative purposes only.Photo byDavid von DiemaronUnsplash

*This article mentions manners of death and details of crime scenes that could be triggering for some readers. Reader discretion is advised.*

A 36-year old cold case in Florida finally came to a close this year with a little helping hand of a free meal promotion — resulting in the arrest of a Mississippi man on the 26th of January. Michael Lapniewski, age 55, was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on January 31, 2023. The charge? One count of first-degree felony murder in connection with the death of 82-year-old widow, Opal Weil.

Weil lived alone in her Lealman estate on the 4700 block of 56th Avenue North. She had family that lived nearby that frequently checked in on her, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Her phone lines were reportedly cut. Pinellas County Sheriffs state that when the victims sister-in-law couldn't reach her, they decided to pay her a visit — where they found the widow had been choked and beaten to death on her bedroom floor the morning of February 9, 1987.

Hairs found on the Pinellas woman's pink nightgown, bed, and electric blanket were collected at the crime scene and sent to the FBI for testing and archiving in a national DNA database.

They were able to determine that the hair belonged to a male suspect; but despite being able to build a DNA profile, they turned up empty-handed. With no matches to be found and little other evidence to go on at the time, the case made its way into the pile of cold-case archives.

It wasn't until 2020 that the Sheriff's Office Cold Case Unit sought out additional DNA testing. Working in partnership with Parabon Nanolabs, they were able to match up the hairs to the DNA of three brothers.

The first brother was already registered in the national database, so he was eliminated as a suspect. The second brother was already dead, leaving only Michael Lapniewski — who was found to have lived only half a mile from Weil the year the murder occurred. The affidavit states he had since relocated to 594 Jeff Davis Ave in Waveland, Mississippi.

Michael Lapniewski Mug Shot.Photo byPinellas County Sheriff's Office

In coordination with Mississippi Police Departments, Pinellas detectives tailed Lapniewski to a local gas station in the early hours of July 16. Officers watched as he stirred his hot cup of coffee using a red straw before taking a sip and throwing it into a nearby trash can. Detectives seized and submitted the straws into evidence for testing.

But they needed more than one way to match the DNA.

An investigator with the Waveland Mississippi Police Department, Ray Murphy, owned a restaurant in the city and knew Lapniewski to be a frequent feaster at the establishment. Together, investigators from both states plotted to advertise a free meal and offer it only to frequent loyal customers. All they had to do was show up at the restaurant on a certain day and time to claim their dish.

Murphy told the Tampa Bay Times that detectives slipped the flyer advertising the promo into the wipers of Lapniewski's vehicle and waited for him to show up for breakfast. It's reported that he ordered items including eggs, bacon, hash browns, and biscuits.

Dan B. Murphy's, owned by Ray Murphy, Waveland PD Investigator, where Lapniewski dined on his free-meal, leading to his arrest.Photo byDan B. Murphy's Restaurant & Bar | Facebook

Once he'd finished his meal and left, the spoon and fork Lapniewski used were taken for testing, turning up as a match to the DNA profile built from the hairs found at the crime scene. The coffee stirrers were also a confirmed match, the affidavit states.

"We are proud of Supervisor Melissa Suddeth, Senior Crime Lab Analyst Vicki Bellino, and Senior Crime Intelligence Analyst Supervisor Debbie Abney for all of their efforts on this case!" the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

The Department of Law Enforcement also commended its partnerships with The Tampa Bay Laboratory Biology/DNA Section, FDLE's Genetic Genealogy Investigations Team, Parabon Nanolabs, and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that the 55 year-old Mississippi man had also recently done work on Lapniewski's house, replacing a small handrail. However, detective Murphy says he wasn't at all surprised that Lapniewski was the culprit. Lapniewski already had a history of run-ins with the law in Waveland's quaint approximately 7,000 person community.

As of publication, Lapniewski's charge has been amended to murder in the second degree, and he is currently being held without bail. Despite several DNA matches, the investigation to strengthen the state's case against him continues.

It's also questioned whether or not Lapniewski could face charges for two similar attacks — one including the murder of an 84-year-old woman, Eleanor Swift, as well as another attack on a 75-year-old woman.

Both Swift and the 75-year-old were suffocated with couch cushions, with the latter surviving to see that the attacker had gotten away with her wedding ring and other valuable jewelry after escaping to safety at a nearby neighbor's home. Investigators suspect these crimes could be connected to the 55-year-old Mississippi man.

While he's yet to be charged for any crimes, the family of Opal Weil finds peace in Lapniewski's arrest.

22 at the time of the murder, Tracy Crawford told the Tampa Bay Times that when her great-aunt Opal was murdered, she lost a sense of safety. She would lock the doors behind her father when he'd leave to get the mail, and to this day, still sleeps with a can of mace at her bedside.

"He needs to confess to what he's done," said Crawford to the Tampa Bay Times, now 58. "He needs to stand up and be accountable."

You can read the entirety of Michael Lapniewski's affidavit of arrest here.

Article by Rachael Volpe

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