WMBF News Investigation: DNA Solves Rape Cold Cases

By Matthew Nordin - bio | email

MYRTLE BEACH, SC  (WMBF) -  As the sun rose over the Atlantic one morning in 2004, a woman we'll call "Emma" wanted to enjoy the peaceful scene alone on the beach.

The tourist in her twenties didn't know it, but someone was watching her.

Prosecutors say he had raped another woman years before, though he is not currently charged with that crime.

"He always wore black," said assistant solicitor Candice Lively, who handles Horry County sex crimes cases. "(He) went up to them and would make a comment, 'You shouldn't be on the beach alone.' Or, 'What are you doing here?'"

After getting some sort of answer from the women, Lively says the man would slink off out of sight, all the while watching them like an animal tracking his prey.

Thinking it was safe to leave, the women would try to walk off the beach.

"He would come up from behind them and attack them, put his hand over their mouth, drag them to an area where they would not be seen," said Lively.

Authorities were able to collect DNA evidence.

But the case went cold.

As former FBI supervisory special agent Jim Furry points out, stranger rapes are not as common and they're often harder to solve.

"Much, much more difficult," Furry said, "because… the victim has never come into contact with the perpetrator. And so therefore if it's somebody just passing by it makes it much more difficult for law enforcement to develop a case against that person."

Several years passed after the 2004 attack on "Emma."

And then, out of the blue, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division notified the 15th Circuit Solicitors Office in Horry County they might have a DNA match.

The suspect was Gregory Pencille.

He had pleaded guilty in 2005 to holding a 7-year-old girl against her will inside a Myrtle Beach hotel restroom.

"All of a sudden, someone from behind --- which she referred to as the "bad man" --- puller her into a stall and then attempted to sexually assault her," recalled Lively of a case another prosecutor handled. "And she was finally able to scream out, 'Daddy, daddy!' And that's when her father came running into the restroom and they struggled. He was caught very shortly thereafter."

Because of that felony, Pencille was forced to give a DNA sample, which SLED put through a database.

"Amazingly enough, two cold cases popped-up as having a hit for his particular profile," said Lively.

WMBF News has learned authorities believe it was Pencille who sexually assaulted "Emma" because he licked her chest. After the rape, they were able to lift his DNA from saliva still on her body. They kept the rape kit on file in case it could ever be used as evidence.

Inside Horry County Police's forensics lab, supervisor Peter Cestare says victims often have no idea just how much evidence may be on their body.

"First reaction is you want to clean yourself from that other person," said Cestare. "You want to get that stuff off of you. That is detrimental to the investigation sometimes. We need that physical evidence."

He says you never know what DNA may be left under your fingernails or on the outfit you're wearing.

Cestare recommends victims "stay in the same clothing that you're in or keep those clothing…in a paper bag. Paper allows things to air dry and breathe."

Cestare also recommends calling police before heading to the hospital after a rape because investigators want to be able to preserve the crime scene.

Back at the courthouse, assistant solicitor Candice Lively called the victims to let them know authorities had solved their cases.

"The victims were floored," she said. "The one from 2001 was, she was ecstatic, a little shocked, cried --- never thought he'd be caught."

And "Emma?"

Lively says she was nervous. She'd put a lot of that behind her, after all. But hearing the details about Pencille, she was willing to help prosecutors because she didn't want it to happen to another woman.

In August, Pencille pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct in the first degree in "Emma's" case. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop the 2001 case against him.

A judge gave him 30 years in prison, of which he'll have to serve at least 85%. However, WMBF News has learned Pencille's attorney, Scott Bellamy, has filed a notice of appeal. He would not comment when asked on what grounds.

But the fact that he pleaded guilty provided relief for victims in both cases, Lively said.

"I have a feeling there's more out there," she said. "But you know, my biggest thing is that we did what we could on these cases and these victims can now move on. And they're happy about it."

The assertion there may be more victims out there is "purely speculation," according to Pencille's defense attorney.

What may be most remarkable about this case is, whether they realized it or not all those years ago, the victims helped solve the crimes.

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