Covered in Hulu’s ‘Cold Case Files DNA Speaks: Death Downstream’), the murder case of Shawna Yandell seemed impossible to solve given the apparent lack of evidence available to the police at the time. However, thanks to the persistence of the people involved in the investigation and technological advancements since then, the man behind the crime was finally apprehended. For those curious to learn more about this particular case and the perpetrator’s identity, here is everything we know about the same!
How Did Shawna Yandell Die?
Originally from Rogers, Arkansas, Shawna Yandell had moved to Yakima, Washington, in search of work. Described as a blonde with a bubbly presence by her loved ones, she was in a relationship with Travis Sinden in 1993. On June 12, 1993, the couple had gone to the Sportsman’s Park by the Yakima River, where Travis apparently drank enough to pass out. He was woken up by Shawna, who wanted to go home.
Around midnight, Shawna and Travis tried to return home to the Wilkey family, who were related to the latter. Yet, the park ranger allegedly refused to give them a ride, and the Wilkeys expressed unwillingness to pick the two up due to the late hour. Hence, the two seemingly returned to the bar, where Travis apparently went back into the restroom and again fell asleep. Yet, upon waking up, Shawna was nowhere to be found. Worried for her, he tried to find her before eventually reporting her missing.
Not long after, a group of boy scouts canoeing in the Yakima River found Shawna’s body about two and one-half miles upstream from where she and Travis were last together. Upon discovery, the 21-year-old was nude except for a bra and had a visible wound to her scalp. The autopsy determined the cause of the death to be a blow to Shawna’s head, though her body also bore signs of strangulation. Additionally, traces of sperm were found on various parts of her body.
Who Killed Shawna Yandell?
For almost a decade and a half, the man behind Shawna Yandell’s death remained undiscovered due to a lack of traceable evidence. However, in 2008, the sperm found on the victim’s body were analyzed for DNA, and the results were uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database. On May 20, 2009, a match was found within the database, and the foreign DNA on Shawna’s body was linked to Clayton Stafford, who already had a shady legal history, having gotten in trouble in places like Oregon, Idaho, and California.
Based on the uncovered evidence, the authorities arrested Stafford and charged him with one count of homicide on May 26, 2009. Later on, the charges were amended to include first-degree murder and first-degree rape. Stafford initially refused any knowledge about the case and claimed he did not know Shawna or Travis.
Nevertheless, a woman named Theresa LaFray testified during the trial that the suspect had apparently shown up on her door one night in the summer of 1993 while covered in blood. According to her, Stafford told her he had been in a fight with a group of Mexicans and needed to get the blood out of his clothes. Furthermore, LaFray admitted that she was not fond of the defendant.
Where is Clayton Stafford Now?
While a trial court dismissed the charge of first-degree rape levied against Clayton Stafford, he was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Shawna Yandell. In addition, the jury answered “yes” to the special verdict form that discussed the possibility that the murder was likely committed during the crime of first or second-degree rape. Stafford was sentenced to life without parole on May 6, 2010, for his actions.
The sentence was welcomed by Shawna’s family members, with her grandmother openly stating that Stafford should have gotten the death penalty, “For 16 years, my family had to deal with the facts of what happened to my sister. Now we have a face to go with it. It’s so much more satisfying than I ever thought it would be,” the victim’s sister Shannon Yandell Jones told KNDO. That said, Stafford remained firm that he was not responsible for Shawna’s murder, claiming that the actual perpetrator was still free.
Stafford’s legal team immediately filed an appeal against the conviction following his sentencing. A claim was made that the admission of DNA testimony violated the defendant’s “confrontation rights.” Nonetheless, the appeal was rejected by the Court of Appeals, who upheld the original verdict. As of writing, Stafford is serving his sentence at Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC) in Airway Heights, Washington.