In West Virginia, police exhume body of suspect in 1975 murder of Montreal teenager

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MONTREAL — Police in a Montreal suburb confirmed Monday they have identified a suspect in a murder that has gone unsolved since a 16-year-old girl disappeared after setting out to meet friends nearly 50 years ago.

DNA evidence that surfaced in June led cold-case investigators to suspect Franklin Maywood Romine in the 1975 rape and killing of Sharron Prior. The body of Romine, who died in 1982 at the age of 36, was exhumed from a West Virginia cemetery last week and is undergoing DNA testing.

Sgt. Francis Charette of the Longueuil, Que., police force said investigators have found other clues linking Romine to the crime.

"Mr. Romine was present in Canada, more specifically, in Montreal, in 1975 at the time of the events," Charette said in an interview Monday. "Mr. Romine also lived near the scene of the abduction and had knowledge of the place where the body of Ms. Prior was discovered following the murder."

Romine, who died in Montreal but was buried in his home state, also matched physical descriptions given by witnesses and had a record of serious violent crime, including sexual assault, Charette said.

Prior left her home in Montreal's Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood on the evening of March 29, 1975. She was headed to meet friends at a nearby pizza parlour but never arrived. Three days later, her body was found in a wooded area in Longueuil, on Montreal''s South Shore.

Longueuil police Det. Eric Racicot told a West Virginia court last month — as police sought a court order allowing them to exhume Romine's body — that Prior's pants had been removed and she had been sexually assaulted.

"She died of numerous facial fractures and strangulation, so in other words she was brutally beaten to death," he said in testimony by video conference, which was posted online by West Virginia television station WCHS.

"I think it's an understatement to say that the victim's family was devastated," Racicot added. He noted that Sharron's mother Yvonne is still alive and is now 85. "She spent her whole life trying to find her daughter's killer. That's why we never gave up on it over the years," he said. "Of course, Sharron's mother wants to know once and for all who killed her daughter."

He said DNA was gathered from Prior's clothing and from a shirt used to restrain her. Last June, Racicot said, he checked that DNA against a database containing thousands of profiles identified by their family names. That database led police to the Romine family name.

Racicot said Romine also matched the description of a man who had attempted to kidnap another woman at knifepoint shortly before Prior disappeared. That attempted kidnapping took place along the same street Prior would have taken to the pizzeria.

Romine, whose criminal record began when he was a child, was on the run from the law in West Virginia at the time of Prior's death. On parole since 1973, he was facing new charges of breaking and entering and rape. He fled to Montreal, a city he had visited on at least two earlier occasions, Racicot said.

Around seven months after Prior's murder, Romine was arrested by Montreal police and extradited to the United States. But by 1982, he was back in the city. Racicot said he couldn't find any records connected to Romine's death.

Documents filed by prosecuting attorney Mark A. Sorsaia in West Virginia's Putnam County show that two of Romine's brothers voluntarily gave DNA samples to police. One of them told investigators his brother had tried to rape his wife.

"He probably did it," he responded when investigators shared their suspicions that his brother had killed Prior, according to the court document. Sorsaia wrote that the analysis "strongly indicated" that the DNA found at the crime scene was connected to the Romine family.

"The results showed that it is 140 million times more likely to come from the brother of Noah and Michael Romine than any other random person in the Caucasian population," Sorsaia wrote.

Romine's two sisters and the two brothers opposed their brother's exhumation, saying that according to their religious beliefs it is a sacrilege to disturb a person's body. However, Judge Phillip M. Stowers ruled April 20 that it could go ahead.

Longueuil police travelled to West Virginia for the exhumation. Romine's DNA is now being tested at a Montreal laboratory, and Charette said it will take at least two weeks to obtain the results.

Marc Bellemare, a lawyer for the Prior family, said he was surprised to learn the identity of the new suspect, as Romine was not among the more than 100 people who had been investigated by police since Sharron was killed.

Bellemare said he hadn't spoken to the Prior family about the new suspect. But he said he works with many relatives of people who have disappeared or been murdered and "it's a great comfort to have additional information, and here we have it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press