A Woodlands forensic lab’s work in helping identify the man responsible for a 1974 cold case murder has inspired a milestone episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” as detectives investigate whether the perpetrator is a North Texas serial killer.
Glen Samuel McCurley, 78, of Fort Worth, pleaded guilty on the third day of his capital murder trial on Aug. 24. He received a life sentence in the case where he stood accused of abducting, raping and strangling to death 17-year-old Fort Worth resident Carla Walker.
Othram Inc., located on New Trails Drive in The Woodlands, narrowed McCurley down as a suspect using a DNA sample previously extracted from the victim’s bra, helping lead to his arrest by the Fort Worth Police Department.
When no genetic match from a criminal case is found on CODIS, the FBI’s DNA database, Othram uses DNA from the crime scene or from evidence to build a genetic profile. This may pinpoint to individuals whose genetic information is logged into genealogical databases like those used by ancestry sites. The process facilitates the identification of criminal suspects or missing people in cold cases.
“There’s a lot of people who need to hear about this method. I think the more they hear about it, the more that people will understand there’s technology available today” that can solve cold cases, said Othram founder and CEO David Mittelman, who in the episode’s closing credits is listed as a technical adviser. “You have to reach people in whatever medium they use,” including a TV show.
On social media, the “Law & Order: SVU” showrunner and the series’ main star, Mariska Hargitay, both acknowledged Othram’s work as the NBC series’ 500th episode aired Thursday night.
“Thanks to David Mittelman and @OthramTech not just for advising us on this episode but for their game-changing technology that means no case is truly cold,” read a post by series’ executive producer Warren Leight on Twitter as the episode aired.
Hargitay added Othram’s Twitter handle in her tweet, writing forensic genealogy “helps investigators solve violent crimes and it brings justice for survivors.”
Attack in the dark
By “pruning the family tree until you have nothing left and you’re faced with only a few handful of folks that might be involved,” as Mittelman said in an October 2020 interview, researchers at Othram’s lab in summer 2020 pinned down the sample in the Walker case to three brothers.
One of them, Glen McCurley, happened to have been a person of interest early on in the investigation when police found he had purchased a .22 Ruger pistol, which matched a magazine cartridge found at the crime scene. The firearm, which McCurley claimed had been stolen, was used to pistol-whip Walker’s boyfriend during an attack on the couple.
McCurley randomly came across the two on the early morning of Feb. 17, 1974 at a bowling alley parking lot following a high school Valentine’s Day dance.
After the 4-foot-11, 95-pound Walker was taken against her will by the nearly 6-foot-4, 275-pound McCurley, her lifeless body was found three days later stuffed in an enclosed cement culvert.
“I can see that night as if it’s happening right now in front of me,” said Jim Walker, Carla’s younger brother, in a phone interview from the home where he and his sister lived when she was murdered when he was 12.
Jim Walker recalls his sister looking beautiful and happy that chilly Saturday night as she waited for her boyfriend to pick her up. The couple left for the dance with her wearing a blue gauze dress.
The TV networks went off the air at midnight, Jim Walker remembers. When 1:30 a.m. rolled around, their mother voiced concerns about Carla’s whereabouts. About 15 minutes later, Carla’s date’s car raced into the driveway. The boyfriend ran to the front door, crying for help from Carla’s dad as she had just been taken.
“That’s when everything went hypersonic,” Walker, now 60, said.
Wagner reopened the case after reviewing it and finding enough reason to do so following a 2018 phone call from Jim Walker.
Wagner and her partner, Det. Jeff Bennett, toured Othram’s facility before Mittelman entered the investigation. They were introduced to him by former cold case investigator Paul Holes.
After McCurley became a potential suspect, a sample was taken from his trash and matched with the case’s collected DNA. Fort Worth PD took McCurley into custody in September 2020.
The department will continue to pursue the process used by Othram and other genetic forensic companies since “it opens up new avenues for investigative tools in the future,” Wagner said, pointing to the nearly 1,000 cold cases Fort Worth PD has. She said that Othram “helped narrow down that path” in finding McCurley, “which is tremendously helpful.”
‘Ripped from the headlines’
The “Law & Order” franchise is known for frequently advertising its programming as being “ripped from the headlines,” an acknowledgment of how it lifts inspiration from criminal cases covered in the press. The parallels between the Carla Walker case and this most recent episode were obvious to Othram’s employees as they watched it broadcast during a dinner party at the Zanti Cucina Italiana restaurant in Magnolia.
The episode features the return of former SVU Det. Nick Amaro, who now works for a cold case-solving company. Watching from a private dining room, the Othram crew laughed upon hearing the similar sounding fictional business’s name: Forym.
“We test DNA samples that used to be considered too small or too degraded,” Nick explains early on in the episode, a line which received cheers from the Othram audience.
The ex-cop persuades Hargitay’s character, Capt. Olivia Benson, to reopen the 1996 murder case of a 15-year-old girl named Haley West. When her boyfriend is attacked on prom night, Haley is abducted and strangled to death.
At Forym’s lab, Nick and Olivia discuss the limitations of CODIS and how the genetic profile pulled off DNA found in the case’s stored evidence can single out information from genealogical databases and ancestry sites.
Forym finds three male matches, including an acquaintance of Haley’s the police had interviewed during the initial investigation. Eventually arrested, the suspect denies culpability but eventually confesses to Haley’s murder in a courtroom.
“To me it’s very clear that the character (of Nick) was modeled after David,” said John Fondon, Othram’s lab director. “The words out of this guy’s mouth would come straight out of, have come straight out of David’s mouth many times.”
Additionally, Nick is now earning a doctorate in biophysics, and Mittelman has that very degree. The polo shirt Nick is wearing in the lab scene appears to be fashioned after Mittelman’s clothing style as he talked with the show’s production about what he wore at work.
The case against McCurley is not yet complete.
Wagner confirmed there is a possibility McCurley is a serial killer and may have been involved in other Fort Worth-area murders, including the 1973 death of 21-year-old Becky Martin. Like Carla Walker, Martin was petite, was abducted from her car in the month of February and her remains were recovered in a culvert. Fort Worth PD is investigating, Walker said.
Neither of Carla Walker’s parents saw her receive justice. Her mother, Doris Charlene, died at 89 in 2015 and her father, Leighton, suffered a fatal heart attack at 69 on Feb. 16, 1987 — 13 years to the day he last saw her alive.
However, Jim Walker and their other surviving child, Cindy Stone, 67, witnessed the conviction of Carla’s murderer.
“David’s technology — without it we wouldn’t be here. I can’t tell you how thankful the Walker family is for God blessing us with a brilliant mind, a humble mind, but a mind that has honor, wants to do the right stuff,” Jim Walker said about Mittelman.
Written by Jose R. Gonzalez