Police in a Denver suburb announced Tuesday that DNA results showed that a man long suspected in the 1993 abduction and death of a 5-year-old girl had been responsible, but they were ending the investigation because he was dead.
Englewood Police Chief John Collins said investigators identified Nicholas Stofer as the lone suspect in Alie Barrelez's death through DNA testing, which wasn't available in Colorado at the time of her disappearance. Stofer died of natural causes in Phoenix on Oct. 7, 2001.
Investigators said Stofer's DNA matched genetic material found on Alie's underwear and that it also matched a partial DNA profile developed from the waistband of the underwear. Police and family would not provide details.
The announcement was little comfort for the family, who said the 18 years since Alie's disappearance feels like "one long day."
"Wherever he is, I hope that he is being punished for that," said her grandfather, Richard Barrelez. "I hope that he is suffering for what he did, paying for what he did."
Alie disappeared from her apartment complex on May 18, 1993, an abduction that shocked the community and led to a desperate search. Four days later, a police bloodhound dog led investigators to her body outside Denver.
In the nearly two decades that followed, her family has turned their attention and efforts to creating a foundation that provides bloodhound dogs to law enforcement agencies around the country.
"All we can do is guess how it happened and why it happened and you know, what time did different things happen during the whole duration that she was missing for four days," said Barrelez. "We'll never have the answers to those things. All we have is that his DNA was found on Alie, and I wish he was alive. I wish he was alive so that I could confront him."
Stofer had lived in Alie's apartment complex, but moved away on the day investigators found the girl's body. The dog, Yogi, had followed her scent along a highway for 14 miles before it was overcome with exhaustion. Yogi led investigators within yards of the body inside the canvas duffel bag, Collins said.
Police had questioned Stofer early in the investigation after inconsistencies in his story raised suspicions. They extradited him from California, where he had moved after Alie's disappearance, and bloodhounds picked him out of a line up, Collins said.
But police couldn't keep him in custody, even though a key piece of evidence pointed to him: Alie's brother, then 3, told investigators that the "old man" took Alie, and pointed to Stofer's apartment.
"And from that moment, we wanted to put the cuffs on him so bad, and we couldn't because the evidence was just not there," Collins said. Investigators prepared a case against Stofer, but prosecutors declined to file charges.
"They wanted one more piece," said Mary Beth Chandler, who was the case's former lead investigator. She added that investigators did not have blood, fingerprints, fibers or other evidence connecting Stofer to the case, and prosecutors "wanted the direct evidence."
That evidence came after Englewood investigators resubmitted DNA evidence to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation crime lab in February. Lab supervisor Katie Fetherston said modern science was able to develop a DNA profile from small and less pristine samples.
"We had to wait 18 years for forensic science to catch up to the evidence we had on hand," Collins said. "Our case will be closed knowing that Nicholas Stofer was the individual that caused the disappearance and death of Alie Barrelez."
Collins said that with the new evidence, he was confident that a jury would convict Stofer in Alie's death.
Barrelez said that he refuses to call his granddaughter a victim, and instead refers to her as a hero. The family's foundation has since placed 450 bloodhound dogs with police officers since his granddaughter disappeared.