DNA unlocks 1990 Orange killing
New suspect charged in murder
April 29 - 30, 2009
By Oliver Mackson
also by Tom Leek
HUGUENOT, NY — The DNA sample James J. Babcock surrendered earlier this year linked him to the unsolved 1990 homicide of 53-year-old Elaine Ackerman, whose body was found exactly 19 years ago Monday, according to state police and public court records.
Babcock, 43, of Old Mountain Road in the Town of Greenville, was charged early Tuesday with second-degree murder. State police said they'd had an eye on him since late March, when their laboratory matched Babcock's DNA with material found at the crime scene April 27, 1990. That was the day Ackerman's body was discovered in her mobile home in Huguenot Estates East, off Route 209 in Huguenot.
The case will go to an Orange County grand jury Friday, said Chief Trial Assistant District Attorney John Geidel.
Under state law, Babcock had to give up a DNA sample when he pleaded guilty Jan. 29 of this year to felony driving while intoxicated.
On Monday, state police charged him with third-degree aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle on Hardscrabble Road in Greenville. He was then returned to state police regional headquarters in the Town of Wallkill and interviewed for several hours before being charged with intentionally murdering Ackerman.
"We knew who we were looking for, and because of the potential nature of the crime, we had surveillance on him," state police Capt. Wayne Olson said Tuesday, after Babcock had been arraigned in Deerpark Town Court and jailed without bail. "It wasn't a one-day thing, I can tell you that."
He said that when the crime occurred, Babcock lived within yards of Ackerman's home. He was interviewed by investigators in the early stages of the case.
Another neighbor, 17-year-old Kevin Keller, was initially charged with Ackerman's murder. But an Orange County Court judge released the youth in October 1991, ruling that police did not have enough evidence to hold him. Keller had signed a confession after many hours of interrogation and later claimed the confession had been coerced. The judge, Pano Z. Patsalos, ruled that the confession couldn't be used in court.
The case has remained open since. His mother, Deborah Keller, said she's glad the truth may finally come out.
"I've spent 19 years trying to get away from the hate and suspicion," she said. "This is just closing the door a final time."
At Deerpark Town Court on Tuesday afternoon, lawyer Craig Brown entered a not-guilty plea on Babcock's behalf. Brown asked the public not to jump to conclusions about Babcock — and pointed out authorities charged someone else with the crime 19 years ago.
"Obviously, at that point, the district attorney's office and the state police thought they had the right person, and the grand jury found legally sufficient evidence and reasonable cause to justify an indictment," Brown said. "I expect that that will be an issue in the prosecution of this case."
Innocent suspect: Don't rush to judgment
Kevin Keller may have been convicted 19 years ago in the court of public opinion but that judgment was premature.
Another man was arrested Tuesday, charged in the same killing Keller was accused of in 1990.
An Orange County grand jury is due to meet Friday to consider murder charges against James J. Babcock, 43. He's accused of killing Elaine Ackerman, 53, on April 27, 1990, in her Huguenot Estates East home. Someone had sex with her, stabbed her and nearly decapitated her.
Keller, who several years ago moved to another state, said he feels "almost relieved" at the news of Babcock's arrest.
"Till they actually get a conviction, it'll never be over for me," said Keller, now 37.
He spent 18 months in Orange County Jail after his arrest because his family couldn't raise his $100,000 bail.
He was freed when a judge ruled he had been coerced by state troopers into signing a confession after a dozen hours of interrogation.
"If 19 years ago I had sat there and kept my mouth shut, I could have gone home a free man," Keller said. "A lot of things would be different in my life."
Before the confession was tossed, DNA science proved — in two separate rounds of tests — that the semen found at the crime scene was not Keller's. But at the time, the use of DNA in criminal cases was new; prosecutors argued against its admission into evidence.
A DNA match is what now links Babcock to the crime.
Babcock's arrest does significantly lift a cloud that's hung over Keller's head. He wants those who thought him a killer for the last 19 years to think twice before judging people.
"I feel bad for his kids, his family, what they must be going through," Keller said. —"You shouldn't judge people by what you hear or what you read or what you think."
||Truth in Justice