ID’s ‘On the Case With Paula Zahn,’ features veteran journalist Paula Zahn as she steps out of the studio and into the field to get to the bottom of some truly baffling true-crime cases. In the hopes of explaining the criminal investigations, she gets the opinions of those closest to the matter, sometimes even including the convicted perpetrator. So, of course, its episode ‘Crime and Justice,’ chronicling the 1976 disappearance and murder of 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell, is no different. Now, since it transpired so long ago, we bet that you’re curious to know all the details of the case, right? Well, we’ve got you covered.
How Did Michelle Mitchell Die?
Back in 1976, Michelle Mitchell, 19, was a nursing student at the University of Nevada, Reno. On February 24, she was driving her Volkswagen Beetle past the campus to take a container of orange juice to her diabetic father at the Sterling Village Bowling Lanes, at Valley Road and Denslowe Drive. But her car broke down as she was passing the agriculture college, at the intersection of Ninth Street and Evans Avenue. According to a few witness statements, someone helped her push her car into the parking lot across from the building. Then, Michelle made her last call to her mother from a phone booth, asking for a ride. However, when the latter arrived, her daughter was nowhere to be found.
Michelle’s parents, Barbara and Edwin, along with the police and a sniffing dog, searched the whole campus and the surrounding areas for the teenager, but to no avail. It was only later that evening, when the residents of a property on East Ninth Street, an elderly couple, returned home and opened their garage that Michelle’s body was discovered. Her hands were bound, her throat had been slashed, and she was left to die in the dark garage. The pool of blood around her was proof enough that she was alive and struggling for a while. A cigarette butt near Michelle’s body and a shoe print in the dirt floor – men’s size 9 or 9.5 – were two of the most crucial pieces of evidence.
Who Killed Michelle Mitchell?
In the weeks that followed Michelle’s murder, the police received tips from several witnesses about a man running away from the scene of the crime near the time it was assumed to have occurred. One of them even specified that when they were driving through the area, they almost hit the man as he ran right in front of their car. According to their accounts, he appeared to have blood splattered on him and was hiding one of his hands at his side, potentially under his jacket. From every angle at that point, it seemed as if the police were looking at a male suspect. But eventually, with no concrete leads, the case went cold.
It was in March of 1979, three years after the fact, that the investigations picked up again. A woman who was admitted into the Louisiana State University Medical Center, a mental institution, for her schizophrenia,
told her counselor about Michelle’s killing, suggesting that she was responsible. When the police looked into her, Cathy Woods, they found that she was, in fact, residing in Reno in February of 1976. Subsequently, they interrogated her and eventually charged her with Michelle’s murder. Although there was no physical evidence that tied Cathy to the case, her alleged confession was key in her 1980 conviction.
According to court records, Cathy’s confession, which she neither signed nor initialed when written up, stated that she offered to help Michelle fix her car and took her into the garage where her body was found under the pretense of getting tools. She then propositioned her sexually, and when rebuffed, slit her throat in anger. In 1985, Cathy, who maintained her innocence, was retried. But the result was the same, and she got re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2013, though, Cathy’s fellow inmates helped her by requesting a DNA test on the cigarette butt that was found at the scene of the crime.
In the fall of 2013, the DNA tests failed to link Cathy to the murder, proving her innocence. Instead, a male DNA profile was identified and sent to the FBI’s national database, which matched it to a man named Rodney Halbower in July of 2014. Rodney, a convicted violent offender, killer, and the prime suspect in the Gypsy Hill serial killings is expected to be extradited to Nevada soon, where he will stand trial for the murder of Michelle Mitchell. If convicted, which it is assumed that he will considering his past and the DNA evidence against him, he will face a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Read More: Where Is Cathy Woods Now?