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'Cold case' murder hits home in DL

As a fan of the television series "Cold Case," Detroit Lakes' Fran Hoppert is used to seeing decades-old murder cases solved on a weekly basis -- at least on-screen.

In real life, of course, it's a bit more rare. So Hoppert was understandably stunned when her sister telephoned her from Oregon with the news: After nearly three decades, the long-unsolved mystery of who murdered their aunt and uncle had been solved.

The Aug. 23 headline of the Portland, Ore., newspaper The Oregonian told the tale: "Cold Case: Guilty verdict ends 27-year-old murder mystery."

Though Hoppert had not been to Portland to visit her Oregon-based relatives in well over 30 years, she kept in touch with her two sisters, who both lived there.

"I was very surprised (to hear the news)," she said. "I watch 'Cold Case' all the time... it's so ironic when it (a real life 'cold case' resolution) hits so close to home."

The case had gone unsolved for decades. But as the Oregonian reported, the relatives of Casper and Ottila Volk had never completely given up hope -- or stopped pleading for authorities to continue their search for a murderer.

Hoppert vividly recalls hearing the story: One day in the summer of 1980, the Volks were enjoying a quiet evening at home when they were surprised by a knock at the front door. Casper, then 84, went to answer it, while Ottila was in the bathroom.

Hard of hearing, the 74-year-old Mrs. Volk was unaware of the struggle going on in the living room, where her husband was fighting for his life against a knife-wielding predator. It was a battle he would lose -- and a short time later, the same predator would take Ottila's life as well.

The couple's fate would go undiscovered by authorities until the following morning, when their daughter Maggie came to pick them up and take them to work at the upholstery shop that they owned and operated together.

Eventually, as police investigators failed to uncover a suspect in the killings, the case file ended up in a brown-and-white cardboard box at Lake Oswego's storage facility, with the other so-called 'cold cases.' But about three years ago, the story caught the interest of 34-year-old police detective John Harrington, who became intent on learning more about how the lives of these two family-minded, church-going grandparents had ended.

Harrington was hopeful that new DNA testing techniques, used on what he considered to be some well-preserved blood evidence from the murder scene, could uncover the identity of the killer.

And, as the Oregonian reported, he was "haunted by letters from family members --letters that had never stopped arriving at the police department, begging someone to look once again into these murders.

"These were just salt-of-the earth people," Harrington told the Oregonian. "They reminded me of my own family, and I could see how the murders had continued to wear (on the Volks' relatives)."

From 2004 to 2007, he continued to sift through the evidence, which eventually led him to Ryan Lawrence Anthony, a 49-year-old, respected computer department supervisor at Portland Community College's Sylvania campus.

Though Anthony had turned his life around through the years, at the time of the murders, he was a habitual drug user who served as a courier in cocaine deals and was fighting with his ex-wife Diann, who also happened to be the Volks' granddaughter.

He had rage issues, Anthony told police, and had been haunted by nightmares of the Volk murder scene, which he had encountered all those years earlier -- before Maggie had found them.

Harrington had befriended Anthony, who eventually confided that he'd just happened to drop by the Volks' home one day when he came upon the gruesome murder scene. He moved the bodies so other family members wouldn't be shocked. He even drew a map of the bodies and how they'd been moved for Harrington, who seized the map as evidence.

Still, no arrests were made, until March 30 of this year, when a detective came to Anthony's home to collect oral swabs -- i.e., DNA samples -- from him.

The samples matched some dried blood that had been found on a towel at the murder scene and collected as evidence 27 years earlier.

So what was Anthony's motive in committing that long-ago crime? It all came down to money, Hoppert said.

"They (the Volks) didn't believe in banks," she added. "My Uncle Casper carried a lot of money around (in his wallet), and this kid (Anthony) knew it. So when he needed money for drugs, he went and knocked on their door."

Knowing the identity of their caller, Casper Volk let Anthony into his home without suspicion -- a mistake that would cost him his life.

And while Anthony nearly got away with his crime, it was technology, not his own conscience that eventually caught up to him.

Anthony was arrested, and four months later, on Aug. 20, a jury convicted him of the crime.

"I would really love to meet this John Harrington someday and shake his hand," said Hoppert, who has not been back to Portland since attending Maggie McNeeley's 25th wedding anniversary celebration in the late 1960s.

"He (Harrington) was so devoted to this case... he worked after hours, on weekends, during his own time... I'd like to shake his hand and thank him wholeheartedly," she added.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454