A new round of interviews with neighbors, coupled with forensic evidence, helped Raleigh police end a three-year manhunt and charge a 35-year-old man with the murder of Stephanie Bennett.
Police arrested Drew Edward Planten of Raleigh on Wednesday, just hours after investigators matched his DNA with a sample of DNA left at the 2002 homicide scene.
"This stands out as one of the best pieces of dogged, dedicated detective work that I've ever seen anywhere," Police Chief Jane Perlov said. "In any jurisdiction."
Investigators found Bennett's body May 21, 2002, in a spare room of her home in the Bridgeport Apartments complex on Lake Lynn Drive.
Police think a man entered Bennett's apartment by removing a screen and climbing through a window as she slept.
Once inside, he bound Bennett's wrists and ankles, gagged her and sexually assaulted her. The man later wrapped a wire or rope around her throat and twisted it from behind until she strangled.
At a news conference Thursday morning, police said that Planten's name surfaced in March as a person they wanted to interview.
"But in the last few months, we have shifted toward looking at him more closely," said Maj. Dennis Lane.
Police obtained a sample of Planten's DNA, and it was analyzed Wednesday.
They declined to say how they got the genetic material.
Planten is a chemistry technician at an N.C. Department of Agriculture fertilizer lab. Lab officials say they assisted police, but police and lab officials declined to elaborate.
Planten's arrest came as a relief to Bennett's parents, who live in Rocky Mount, Va., and had kept in touch with detectives with weekly telephone calls over the past three years.
"I'm happy to have it solved," Mollie Hodges, Bennett's mother, said late Wednesday. "He's going to have to face not only me and my family, but he's going to have to face the good Lord above."
Victim was 23
Bennett had celebrated her 23rd birthday three weeks before she was killed. An employee of a contractor for IBM, she was planning to move to Greenville, S.C., where her boyfriend lived.
In November 2004, the case landed on Detective Ken Copeland's desk. A few weeks later, Detective Jackie Taylor joined the investigation.
The two decided to start over.
"They built the case one piece at a time," Perlov said.
Copeland and Taylor reviewed the file, looking at hundreds of interviews and pages of notes. They returned to the Lake Lynn area and reinterviewed neighbors who had been questioned after Bennett died.
They looked for people who might have seen a peeping Tom who once lurked in the shrubs outside Bennett's window.
Immediately after the slaying, neighbors told investigators about the peeping Tom, a man dressed in black with a hood.
Focus on a peeper
Residents said they had seen him crouched in the bushes with a direct view into Bennett's first-floor window.
Police circulated a sketch of the man around the neighborhood, but no leads panned out.
This time around, police decided to refocus on the peeping Tom lead. Eventually, tips led police to Snipe Creek Lane in the Dominion at Lake Lynn apartments, where Planten had once lived in an apartment less than a mile away from Bennett's.
Hundreds of names surfaced in March, including Planten's, Lane said. Detectives whittled away at the list of potential suspects, eliminating names and searching for people who could talk about the peeping Tom. "They were out there walking, walking, walking. Looking, looking, looking," Perlov said.
In May, police issued the most detailed description yet of a man they wanted to question. He was thin, in his early 20s or 30s, with light brown or blond hair. He often was seen walking a large, dark-colored dog while wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
By midsummer, while other suspects had been eliminated, Planten's name remained.
A few months ago, the detectives showed up at the door of the Buck Jones Road apartment where Planten had moved in 2003, his current neighbors said.
"Detectives don't walk around for nothing," Ebony Stephenson said. "I honestly thought he was trying to help them catch people selling drugs. That's not it, evidently."
Arrest was swift
Hours after the DNA match was made Wednesday, Planten was behind bars, charged with Bennett's murder.
His dog, a Rottweiler named Zane, was taken into custody by officers. On Thursday morning, investigators returned to the apartment to execute search warrants.
"We do believe that Mr. Planten was the peeping Tom that was involved in this case," Lane said. "He very closely resembles that description."
Lane said police would check whether Planten matched suspect descriptions in other unsolved cases.
The mood at police headquarters Thursday was celebratory, with detectives smiling and thanking their patient families. In the packed conference room, Perlov hugged officers and praised those who worked on the case.
"There was no one in this department who wasn't involved in this case," Perlov said.
A few yards away, in the lobby, a small sign hung near the elevator banks.
It read: "WAY TO GO MAJOR CRIMES."
Planten's mugshot sat in the center of the sign. Underneath was the number "10-95"-- police code for "subject in custody."
(News researchers Sarah Radick and Becky Ogburn contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Jennifer Brevorka can be reached at 836-4906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.