Anchorage teen’s accused killer on trial 45 years after her murder

three men pose for a photo together
Donald McQuade, center, poses for a photo with Public Defender Agency attorneys Benjamin Dresner, left, and Kyle Barber at the Nesbett Courthouse in Anchorage on Nov. 29, 2023. McQuade, of Gresham, Oregon, is standing trial for the murder of 16-year-old Shelley Connolly in 1978, who was found dead along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

More than 45 years after the discovery of Anchorage resident Shelley Connolly’s body, her accused killer is now on trial.

Back on the morning of Jan. 7, 1978, two women found the 16-year-old Connolly dead near a pullout along the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood. Investigators found signs of sexual assault, strangulation and internal bleeding from blunt force trauma.

Investigators exhausted their leads and the case went cold. Then, in 2019, they used genetic genealogy techniques to connect DNA evidence from the body to the 67-year-old man now charged with Connolly’s murder: Donald McQuade of Oregon.

After another four years, including a coronavirus pandemic in between that delayed many trials, jurors heard opening statements in the case Wednesday.

“Obviously, Shelley can’t come here today to tell you what happened to her on Jan. 7, 1978,” Assistant Attorney General Paige Smothers told the jury. “But the evidence from her body tells us how she died. Her body shows us the wounds that were inflicted on her. Her body tells us how long she lived after she received those wounds. Her body tells us who inflicted them and how.”

The prosecution is the result of a break in 2019, when Alaska State Troopers said investigators had found McQuade through genetic genealogy, a technique that matches DNA found at a crime scene with databases of genetic information maintained by private companies. Troopers said the cold case investigation of Connolly’s death turned up matches for three brothers, including McQuade, who was the only one living in Alaska at the time of the murder. Later, according to the troopers, the investigators got a direct match between DNA found on Connolly’s body and McQuade.

Kyle Barber, an attorney with the Public Defender Agency, is representing McQuade. Barber told the jury that McQuade was never a suspect, up until 2019, and pointed to two other men police never ruled out. Both have since died.

Barber also raised doubts about the integrity of the chain of custody for evidence that’s more than 40 years old, and about the limits of DNA.

“The state’s case against Donald McQuade relies almost entirely on DNA evidence. Right? For them, science is everything, little else matters,” Barber said. “DNA does not answer all questions. In fact, it only answers very specific questions and in this case, it doesn’t answer the most important questions: Who was with Shelley Connolly when she actually died, and/or was raped and killed?” 

Barber said it might indicate his client had sex with Connolly before she died. But, he said, investigators also found DNA evidence for potentially two other people on the body.

The trial is expected to continue for four to six weeks.

A Department of Law spokesperson says this is only the second time a case involving genetic genealogy has ever gone to trial in Alaska.

Troopers also used the same technique to solve the 1993 cold case murder of Sophie Sergie in Fairbanks, leading to the conviction of Steven Downs in 2022, nearly 30 years after Sergie’s death.

a portrait of a man outside

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him atjhsieh@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremyhere.

Previous articleOn Alaska having 5 new Native corporations, Wilderness Society reverses opposition
Next articleAlaska News Nightly: Wednesday, November 29, 2023