In May 1997, 8-year-old Kirsten Hatfield disappeared from her bedroom one night, sparking a national search by local police and the FBI. But the case quickly went cold and she was never found.
On Monday, Oklahoma police made a decisive break in the long-dormant case, arresting a man who lives two doors down and was initially identified as a suspect in the case, but is now linked by DNA evidence to the girl’s disappearance.
Police arrested Joseph Palma, a neighbor who had previously told investigators he was at home that night, charging him with first-degree murder and kidnapping after a DNA test linked him to items found in the girl’s bedroom on the night of her disappearance.
Police said that they feared she had been killed just after she was abducted, but family members welcomed Mr. Palma’s arrest as providing some relief in a case that had gone cold more than 18 years ago.
“Oh my goodness,” the victim's mother, Shannon Hazen, told The Oklahoman after first learning of the arrest from the paper on Monday. “Yes! Yes! Yes!,” she said, then began sobbing.
Palma was identified as a suspect in the case after examining blood found on the windowsill of the girl’s bedroom and on her clothing, which was found in the house’s backyard. In June, he agreed to give a DNA sample after investigators began re-examining the case, but maintained that he had been at home during the night of May 13, 1997.
The blood on the windowsill was identified as his after DNA testing, with police saying the match was one in 293 sextillion, The Oklahoman reported.
“It is likely that Palma has been motivated to stay in the same home to conceal evidence of the crime and/or the location of Kirsten's body,” wrote Midwest City Police Detective Darrell Miller in a request for an arrest warrant.
Palma’s story also differed slightly from the account he gave in 1997 to two different investigators, Reuters reports, noting that there is no indication that police searched his home during the original investigation.
Investigators began searching Palma’s home on Monday and will continue searching on Tuesday, local police said. A longtime groundskeeper, Palma reportedly works for the Lake Thunderbird State Park, The Oklahoman reported, saying that it was unclear if he had an attorney.
“This is a huge case.... It's one of those cases you want to solve before you retire," Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes, who has been police chief for 16 years, told The Oklahoman.
This report contains material from Reuters.