EL DORADO COUNTY (October 1, 2023) – This March, After 44 years, investigators arrested the person who they believe killed Patricia Carnahan at South Lake Tahoe campground. Patricia Carnahan was a woman from Virginia that disappeared in 1979 while on a on a solo road trip around California. She was reported missing in October 1979. Her van was found abandoned in Venice. Her body was found murdered in a campground at Sugar Pine Point State Park in Lake Tahoe but was not identified until 2015. The campground is near Meeks Bay on the Western shore of Lake Tahoe.
In 1979, police in El Dorado County, California, were baffled by the case of an unidentified woman who had been beaten and strangled to death at a Lake Tahoe campground. In 2015, the case was reopened by the El Dorado County cold case homicide unit. The then unidentified body was exhumed and jewelry found on the victim was photographed and made public. Carnahan’s family recognized the jewelry, specifically a deer pendant that Carnahan wore.
It took over a quarter century for the victim to be named. Investigators on the case made public a piece of jewelry she had been wearing at the time of her death, which prompted her daughter to come forward to identify her in 2015 as Patricia Carnahan.
The identity of her killer, though, remained a mystery until 2023.
In 2023, Washington State Police began working through their untested rape kits. A 1994 rape of a homeless woman in Spokane, Washington matched the DNA found at the Carnahan murder. The rape in question had been deemed ‘unprovable’ at the time as Carpenter claimed he’d had consensual sex with the victim. He would have been 19 at the time of Carnahan’s murder.
The kit in question was from 1994, and contained the DNA of Harold Carpenter, who had been accused of, but not charged, with sexual assault in Washington that year. As part of the backlog-clearing initiative, the DNA from that long-ago kit was uploaded to CODIS, the FBI’s DNA database — where it was matched with DNA taken from the 1979 crime scene. In 2018 Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) funded DNA testing. DNA profile matched the DNA profile of an unidentified suspect in a 1979 cold case homicide in Lake Tahoe, California. The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab connected California law enforcement with Spokane Police Dept., who provided the identity of their suspect in the uncharged 1994 rape case. On March 1, 2023, Harold Carpenter was charged in California with murder. Carpenter was arrested in March in Spokane, and it was reported at the time that he was to be extradited to California to stand trial for the murder. In a statement, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson made a public appeal for more states to follow Washington’s lead, saying,
“Cases like this illustrate the need to test every sexual assault kit and get their DNA profiles loaded into the federal database.”
Every untested kit could be a potential break in a cold case.
El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said in a statement.
“Sadly, Ms. Carnahan was buried in a potter’s field under a headstone of an ‘unidentified female.’”
Family members identified the jewelry and provided DNA samples that helped identify Carnahan’s body. The body was released to the family for a proper burial.