Fingerprint match leads to arrest in 1999 kidnap, rape of girl abducted from street

/ CBS/AP

Fingerprint ID's suspect in 1999 child kidnap

Pennsylvania State Police believe they have solved a 20-year-old Somerset County kidnapping case that sparked a four-state manhunt and gained national attention on the crime-fighting television show "America's Most Wanted."

State police arrested 50-year-old Timothy David Nelson, of Cumberland, Maryland, at the Cumberland Police Department Tuesday morning. Police said Nelson was named as a suspect through fingerprint identification following a decades-long investigation. An unidentified DNA profile in the case had previously linked it to two other similar cases in Maryland, police said.

According to police, on the afternoon of Sept. 19, 1999, Nelson grabbed a 10-year-old girl who was walking with two friends along a street in Cairnbrook. Trooper Steve Limani, a Pennsylvania State Police spokesman, said the child's friends reported to police that the man threw her into his car through the driver's side door before driving away. The man displayed a handgun and threatened to shoot the child if she screamed, Limani said, and at one point put the gun down and struck the girl on the face.

Timothy David Nelson CBS Pittsburgh

He pulled the car over in southern Somerset County, north of Pennsylvania's border with Maryland and West Virginia, and sexually assaulted her, Limani said. Investigators believe he was startled by passing cars and he continued driving south towards West Virginia. He again pulled the car over and sexually assaulted the child before driving a short distance away and releasing her. She was found walking along a road by a passerby in Markleysburg, Fayette County, just north of the West Virginia line and more than 50 miles from where she was abducted.

Pennsylvania State Police scoured the area and uncovered what would later become a key piece of evidence in the case, Limani said — a paper bag that the suspect had tossed out of the car following the second assault, which contained bodily fluid and a fingerprint.

The kidnapping prompted a multistate search for the driver of a teal-green Geo Metro, the vehicle used to commit the crime. In the weeks thereafter, Metro drivers were stopped, some as many as 20 or 30 times, by authorities looking for the kidnapper.

The kidnapper, a white man in his 20s or 30s, wore an unusual moss green T-shirt featuring a cartoon alien reading a newspaper in front of a fireplace with human heads mounted on a wall. A $10,000 reward was offered for information leading to his arrest. The crime was also featured on the Oct. 30, 1999, episode of "America's Most Wanted," garnering about two dozen tips.

Trooper Jeff Brock led an extensive investigation involving numerous local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, but no leads were able to be developed.

In 2004, using a DNA profile developed from the body fluid on the brown paper bag, police determined that the same suspect — then unidentified — was linked to two other unsolved kidnappings in 1988 and 1989 in Hagerstown, Maryland. No further leads developed, however, police said.

Then, in late 2018, nearing a career landmark of 20 years with the state police force and determined to close the case, Brock again contacted an FBI agent he had worked with over the years.

"I'd been carrying this around with me for 19 years — I had to try one more thing," Brock said.

The agent used a high-tech computer system to re-run the fingerprint found on the bag against national databases to scan for a match.

"She called me about a week later and said, 'Are you sitting down?'" Brock told reporters Thursday.

A match had come up: Nelson. His fingerprint was now in the system after a recent arrest, Limani said. The automated fingerprint identification system or AFIS hadn't been available to investigators back in 1999, Limani said.

Brock became emotional as he spoke to reporters, saying the arrest wasn't "about him" but that he wanted to help bring closure to the victims.

"I just have a hard time believing they weren't thinking, 'Where did he ever go? Is he still alive? Is he dead? Where does he live?'" Brock said. "'Does he live down the street from me, or does he live thousands of miles away?' You don't know. But by getting to this point, now you do know. And to me that's the most important thing, is bringing this to a closure."

Brock said he notified the Pennsylvania victim in person.

Nelson was in custody in Cumberland, Maryland, for an unrelated case on Tuesday when Pennsylvania State Police served a search warrant for his DNA and arrested him in the 1999 case. Nelson has been charged with 23 counts, including 16 felonies, in Somerset County. The charges include kidnapping, rape, unlawful restraint, aggravated indecent assault and terroristic threats. He is being held without bond and has waived extradition to Pennsylvania, according to online Maryland court documents.

Police believed at the time of the kidnapping that the suspect may also have been responsible for attempted abductions of children in Central City and Richland Township. No other charges have been filed against Nelson in Pennsylvania, according to the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania Web Portal. The Washington County Sheriff's Office in Maryland, which handled the 1988 and 1989 abductions in Hagerstown linked to the Pennsylvania case by DNA, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CBS News regarding whether they expect to charge Nelson in those cases.

Limani said it's not common for a suspect linked to multiple crimes over the course of decades to stop the pattern of criminal behavior unless there's some type of lifestyle change, such as joining the military or getting married. He said investigators found no such gap with Nelson are are concerned there could be more victims. He encouraged law enforcement who may have encountered similar cases or any other possible victims to contact them.

The arrest was welcome news for many Somerset County residents, some of whom feared to leave their children alone outside following the abduction.

Former Somerset County 911 dispatcher Geraldine Budzina took the emergency call from the missing girl's parents in 1999.

"It's one of those calls that sticks with you," she said Wednesday. "It's one of those things where you don't hear nothing for 20 years. You don't think it'll come up."

Budzina said she's "amazed" investigators finally tracked down the suspect.

"I'm really glad that, even though it's been 20 years, he's going to pay for what he did," Budzina said.

First published on January 10, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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