DNA Testing Helps Solve 1982 Murder of Md. Student


Montgomery County Detective Joe Mudano was searching an evidence supply room late last year when, on a top shelf, tucked out of plain view, he found a box that apparently had gone missing years ago.

Inside were tiny pieces of evidence from a 26-year-old unsolved slaying.

Using DNA extracted from a cotton swab stored in that box, investigators say they have solved the 1982 slaying of Wendy Stark, 20, who was shot four times on a porch near Kensington while trying to escape into a house from a man who had kidnapped and sexually assaulted her.

Investigators linked the genetic fingerprint through a nationwide database to Gerald A. Abernathy, who died of lung cancer last year at age 66 in a North Carolina prison. He had been serving a life sentence for an unrelated kidnapping and murder since 1994.

Police say Abernathy had escaped from a jail in Virginia five months before he killed Stark.

"I'm glad he's dead," Stark's mother, Marjory Stark, 72, said yesterday from her home in Damascus.

She said she would not have wanted to sit through a trial to hear "any terrible details of what happened to her."

April 10, 1982, the day after Wendy was shot, was certainly terrible enough. At the time, Marjory Stark lived in Manassas. Her daughter Wendy, who had played lacrosse and tennis and was a cheerleader at Rockville High School, was enrolled at the University of Maryland.

Marjory Stark and other family members were supposed to meet Wendy for lunch that day. When Wendy didn't show up, family members grew worried, couldn't find her and eventually started calling hospitals.

"What does she look like?" a woman at Suburban Hospital asked.

"She is tall and blond and has perfect teeth and she wears a Jules Jurgensen watch," Stark remembered answering.

The woman on the line was silent. Another person picked up the phone and told Stark that she had better come to the hospital, that a shooting victim might be her daughter. It was, and Wendy Stark died the next day.

By then, Montgomery detectives were well into the case. What they knew for sure was that at 9:02 p.m. April 9, Wendy had tried to enter a door at a house to escape her assailant. One of the home's owners, Bill Penkowsky, was inside alone at the time, in the basement. Police say he heard a woman's cry, followed by four gunshots. He went upstairs, where he saw a man on his porch pick up a small black and white dog and flee.

Penkowsky, who worked as a Russian translator, passed away three years ago, his widow, Peyton Penkowsky, said yesterday. She said the gruesome event on his porch left him less willing to venture outside. "I think that that incident changed my husband's life," said Peyton Penkowsky, 80.

Abernathy also came up earlier in the case, when a tipster told police about him. But Abernathy always denied involvement, and detectives had no evidence to link him. So the investigation languished, eventually assigned to the county's cold-case squad.

Late last year, Mudano, one of that squad's investigators, who was working on a different case, searched a locked storage room in Rockville used by Montgomery police to store old evidence dating to the 1970s, said Ed Golian, another cold-case investigator. That's when he came across the box, about the size of one that would contain a DVD player.

Inside was the cotton swab, used in 1982 to take a sample from Wendy Stark, along with hair and fiber samples, Golian said.

Mudano consulted with his department's DNA lab, which has been beefed up with new equipment. An analyst there was able to get a match, although the sample was degraded and minute, even by DNA standards.

Abernathy spent his life in and out of prisons, dating to at least 1959, Golian said. In 1973, he abducted two women at knifepoint outside a restaurant in Washington, forcing them to drive away in one of their cars. When he left the car momentarily at a gas station in Montgomery, they sped off. He jumped on the hood in an unsuccessful attempt to stop them, Golian said.

In late 1981, he was one of nine inmates who broke out of the Prince William County jail. They ran out an open door, which led to the dismissal of two jail guards, Golian said. He went to Montgomery.

Investigators said they think he crossed paths with Stark at the Hillandale Shopping Center about 4 p.m. April 9, when she stopped at a Zayre store on the way to her waitress job in Rockville.

Golian said the timing of the box discovery in the evidence room might have worked out for the best. About 12 years ago, he said, detectives looked for the box but could not find it. Had they done so, they might have submitted it for DNA testing, which was not as sophisticated then and might not have produced the match. And it would have destroyed the DNA for any future use.

"It probably worked out that he found it last year and not 12 years ago," Golian said.

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