Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Belleville News-Democrat on March 23, 2008
Two years ago, 18-year-old Darrell Lane surrendered to police on charges he fatally stabbed three people in a west Belleville hair salon, but police are still investigating to determine whether there was an accomplice.
Police heralded Lane’s arrest as the answer to the crime that went unsolved for more than a year, though the man previously identified as a suspect — Samuel L. Johnson — hasn’t been charged.
Former Belleville Police Chief Terry Delaney raised Johnson’s name in connection with the murders of hairdresser Michael Cooney and two customers, Dorothy Bone, 82, and Doris Fischer, 79, soon after the crime. Physical evidence found in Cooney’s sport utility vehicle didn’t match Johnson, said St. Clair County State’s Attorney Robert Haida, who refused to charge Johnson.
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“There was a theory that there was more than one perpetrator in this crime,” Haida said. “There’s always an interest to try to gather evidence on all participants in the crime.”
Cooney, Bone and Fischer were found stabbed to death in the back room of Cooney’s home-based salon at 7813 W. Main St. in Belleville on March 2, 2005.
Andrew Leifer, Lane’s attorney, said there is about 3,000 pages of police reports and test results in the case, but he recently arranged forensic testing of the DNA and fingerprint evidence that led to Lane’s arrest.
“I don’t want to comment related to Samuel Johnson on the case,” Leifer said.
Johnson is in prison. He originally was sentenced to 11 years for breaking into Cooney’s house in 2003 and for lying to the police about his name when they picked him up on the attempted burglary charge.
Johnson appealed the conviction and the sentence, and in December, the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon reduced the sentence. Johnson now is eligible for parole April 19, 2009.
“Investigators are continuing to work aggressively on this case,” Haida said. “I don’t know of any reason to accelerate the work.”
Delaney, who was Belleville police chief at the time of the murders, first called Johnson “the prime suspect” in the murders, but charges were never filed because Haida noted DNA and a fingerprint in Cooney’s blood found in the Cooney’s stolen Nissan Pathfinder found blocks from Lane’s home in north St. Louis ruled Johnson out.
Anna Hobbs, Johnson’s cousin’s former fiancee, told reporters in the days following the murders that Johnson came into her north St. Louis home with a wad of cash and said, “I messed up.”
She also said he arrived with a black male in his mid-20s, of medium height and build, wearing a dark sweatsuit.
The day before the murders, Hobbs said a knife was stolen from her nightstand. Haida has declined to discuss the evidence, including the murder weapon.
Johnson shared the home with his cousin and Hobbs, who later served time for felony theft, and their home was just over two miles from Darrell Lane’s home. Lane’s home is less than a mile from the car dealership where Johnson bought a 1994 Lincoln Town Car for $1,400 in cash in the days after the murders.
Delaney’s successor, Dave Ruebhausen, activated the Major Case Squad to investigate the case soon after he took over as Belleville police chief. Detectives later charged Lane after they said the fingerprint and DNA matched Lane.
Ruebhausen later said resentment over Lane’s arrest led to his firing.
Current Police Chief Bill Clay could not be reached for comment.
Lane remains in the St. Clair County Jail awaiting his trial, which is set for Oct. 6.
Leifer recently received permission to pay an expert in the field of fingerprint analysis, DNA testing and blood stain patterns to be paid by the county. Genetic Technologies will receive $5,875. Metro Investigations will receive $1,425 for investigating the case.
Leifer is assembling a list of exhibits they want examined, according to a court order.
“We are putting together a defense,” Leifer said. “We want to make sure the state proves their case. We are going to give him a full and fair trial.”