‘The Tattoo Man’: cold case rapist who eluded authorities for six decades

The killer, who had eluded authorities for more than six decades, was identified and died in prison without ever having been charged

A California judge on Friday formally declared the man who raped and murdered a 9-year-old girl in 1959 to be the cold case assailant who had eluded authorities for more than six decades.

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The announcement brought closure to dozens of relatives and police who had sought the killer known in police circles as the “girl in the blue”, so called because of his choice of blue shirt. But it was not likely to cause a rush to judgment in the investigation into the killing, conducted at a time when hostility between the police and civil rights groups made it difficult to establish solid evidence.

“He will now die in prison forever,” said Keith Wright, the district attorney who represented the family in the civil lawsuit against police for their failure to solve the case.

The death penalty was not available in the statute in 1959, and prosecutors acknowledged that it was unlikely they could bring it back.

In recent years, they decided to use DNA to identify the killer. Forensic testing linked DNA from the rape and murder of the girl to Ronald Hoagland, 74, who was identified as the perpetrator and convicted in 2015. A San Diego sheriff’s detective, Randy Jaquez, traced DNA samples from the girl’s rape kit back to Hoagland and from Hoagland’s son, Ben, who he said was brutally beaten and raped in 2000.

Hoagland was convicted of the murder last year and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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Ben Hoagland, who is 87 and declined to speak with reporters Friday after the announcement, helped prosecute his father.

The girl, named only as “Mary Doe”, was kidnapped from her home in Carson, California, south of Los Angeles, on 23 February 1959. Her body was found the next day dumped in a canal about 100 miles away in San Diego County. She had been strangled and her intestines and other parts had been eaten by rodents. She had a bruise on her neck indicating she had been strangled. Her school bag and bathing suit were also missing.

No witnesses saw a man matching the description of the rapist and killer. On 8 April 1959, several months after the murder, newspaper articles incorrectly identified the man as Thomas J Conwell, a suspected rapist and murderer. Conwell died in prison before he could be charged in the crime.

The lack of information about the crime has hampered the investigation, according to the San Diego police. Detectives gave up hunting for a suspect when the murder investigation fell in the lap of a top New York police detective who had been assigned to San Diego police to assist in the search for a killer of 14-year-old Maria Ridulph, whose body was found in Riverside County, California, in July 1949.

Days after the murder of the 9-year-old, detectives received an anonymous call telling them that an unidentified killer nicknamed “The Tattoo Man” had assaulted several women on a street near the girl’s home. That was debunked, however, when police could not find any witnesses.

In 2010, the county supervisors moved to reopen the cold case, allowing for DNA testing. Wright said the department had finished its investigation in 2017 and submitted its findings to the district attorney’s office.

“That case is closed and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mr Hoagland is guilty of this crime,” Wright said.

Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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