Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel


Man convicted in 1998 case to be released after DNA links another man to killing
Victim's mother says new suspect is Walter E. Ellis, who is already charged in a string of prostitute killings in Milwaukee

By Ryan Haggerty of the Journal Sentinel

May 21, 2010

A man convicted in the 1998 strangulation of a Milwaukee prostitute is expected to be released from custody Monday after tests of DNA evidence linked another man to the killing, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said.

Mary Johnson, the mother of victim Maryetta Griffin, said authorities told her the DNA sample matches the profile of accused serial killer Walter E. Ellis.

Chisholm said Friday he could not confirm whether the DNA sample matches Ellis' profile. He said the identity of the man whose profile matches the DNA will be made public during a court hearing Monday, when William D. Avery, the man convicted of killing Griffin, is likely to be released.

Ellis, 49, was charged in September with killing seven prostitutes in Milwaukee over a 21-year period after investigators matched DNA found at all seven murder scenes to Ellis.

Authorities say Ellis' DNA also was found on an eighth murdered prostitute and a teenage runaway, but he has not been charged with those killings.

The link between Ellis and Griffin was first reported by WTMJ-TV (Channel 4).

Griffin's murder matches the profile of the seven killings in which Ellis has already been charged. Like Griffin, all seven women were strangled. Some were also stabbed.

The partially clothed body of Griffin, 39, was found Feb. 17, 1998, lying amid garbage in a garage in the 3000 block of N. 7th St.

A murky scene

Avery became a suspect in Griffin's killing later that month after Griffin was linked to Avery's crack house in the 2400 block of N. Palmer St.

When Avery was questioned by police, he acknowledged being with Griffin early Feb. 17 and "grabbing" her, affidavits say. He contended, however, that he forgot everything else about the encounter, according to the affidavits.

As a result of what they learned, police arrested Avery and his drug-business partner.

Prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to charge Avery with killing Griffin. Instead, he was convicted of drug-dealing charges in 1998 and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

In 2004, however, Avery was charged with first-degree reckless homicide in Griffin's killing after inmates with whom Avery was serving time told authorities he had confessed to the murder while in prison. Avery was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Fresh review

Prosecutors took a new look at the case in April, after Avery, 38, wrote a letter to Chisholm asking that a specific DNA sample taken from Griffin's body be sent to the State Crime Laboratory for testing.

The analysis excluded Avery and revealed that the DNA sample matched another person's profile, Chisholm said.

That DNA sample had been tested before, but no matches had been found in the state's databank of DNA submitted by felons, Chisholm said.

Ellis is a convicted felon, so his DNA should have been in the databank. Authorities say that in 2001, however, Ellis got a fellow inmate who was already convicted of a sex crime to submit a DNA sample in Ellis' name. State officials caught the disparity but never remedied the problem.

Chisholm said his office is consulting with national experts to develop a protocol to review homicide cases in which a person has been convicted but further DNA testing may be needed, especially as authorities try to collect the more than 12,000 DNA samples that were found to be missing from the state's databank last year.

"We're going to have to re-examine any cases that fit a general profile and make sure that we re-examine the integrity of all those cases to make sure that we're satisfied that justice has been done," Chisholm said. Griffin's mother said she is happy the case was reopened but said the developments have been stressful.

"It really gave me a headache," she said of learning that the DNA sample matched Ellis, not Avery. "It's like it's starting all over again. I had accepted Avery killing her. I had even forgiven him for killing her."

Griffin's killing is the third in which Ellis was linked to the crime after charges were filed against a different person.

Ellis' DNA was found on the bodies of both Carron D. Kilpatrick, who was killed in 1994, and Jessica Payne, who was killed in 1995.

In the Kilpatrick homicide, Curtis McCoy was acquitted. In the Payne case, Chaunte Ott was convicted but was later freed after Ellis' DNA was found on Payne.

Ellis has not been charged in either Kilpatrick's or Payne's killings.

Ott spent 13 years in prison in connection with Payne's murder. He will be paid $25,000 in compensation by the state, according to a state Claims Board decision released Tuesday.

Ott's federal lawsuit against the city, two former police chiefs and several detectives contends police coerced confessions out of two men who implicated him. Both men later recanted.


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