Convicted killer Michael Blair was granted relief in the abduction and murder case of 7-year-old Ashley Estell. Now the unanswered question lurks: who is the real killer?
Newly discovered DNA evidence unlinked Blair from the 1993 crime, although he is serving three consecutive life sentences for crimes he pled guilty to in 2004. The relief removed Blair from Death Row to general population in an East Texas prison.
“All the work we have done on this case since 1998 has paid off,” said Phillip Wischkaemper, a Lubbock defense attorney who worked on Blair’s appeal. “Our one goal was to get him off the row.”
Both the Plano Police Department and the Collin County district attorney’s office are diving into the 15-year-old case.
“The case has been reopened for investigation,” said Gregory R. Rushin, Plano’s chief of police. “The DA is taking the lead and we are assisting.”
The Estell case was turned over to the Collin County Cold Case team, but according to the county the case is active.
“The DA is still investigating the case and, because it is ongoing, the DA staff won’t offer further comment,” said Tim Wyatt, Collin County district attorney spokesman.
In the state’s stipulation filed in the district court after the new evidence was discovered, the Cold Case team indentified an alternate fourth suspect, who was not noted anywhere in the trial or the Plano PD file, according to the document.
Although the district attorney's office found evidence linking him to the crime, a conviction will never happen; the suspect has been dead for more than a decade.
Among other circumstantial evidence, the document reveals that the fourth suspect bought a funeral plot as close as possible to Estell’s grave, joined Estell’s church, leased apartments very close to the Estell residence and the school Ashley attended prior to her death, was detained at some point by police at a soccer field watching kids, practiced autoerotic asphyxiation, as Estell was strangled.
He also recorded America’s Most Wanted episodes regarding Estell, and appears to have possessed raw news footage about the early stages of the case.
But the evidence did not lead the Cold Case team to DNA evidence positively linking him to the crime.
The fourth suspect was excluded by DNA testing as a contributor to the hair and fingernail evidence.
Although, the stipulation states he was not excluded as a contributor to the male DNA found on Ashley’s right shoe, which was proven not consistent with her father or brother.
The district attorney's office was also unable to discover specific evidence putting the fourth suspect in the area of Dallas or Plano at the time of the offense.
The district attorney's office would not comment whether they have excluded any other suspects from the crime.
In a June press statement, John R. Roach, Collin County district attorney, confirmed just one person of interest was discovered during the Cold Case team’s 2006 investigation.
“This person not only exhibited suspicious activity after the murder, much as Mr. Blair did, but this person cannot be scientifically excluded as a contributor to a piece of DNA evidence in the case,” Roach said. “Unfortunately, despite strenuous efforts, the team has been unable to eliminate or conclusively connect this person to the offenses.”
Roach said the team has expended more than 5,000 hours, interviewed more than 50 witnesses and spent more than $47,000 on this investigation.
Although the new DNA evidence was revealed, Roach said Blair has not been exonerated.
“I believe the evidence as it now stands meets the criteria for relief under the law,” Roach said.
This high-profile crime prompted state legislatures to pass tougher sexual-predator measures called “Ashley’s Laws” requiring longer prison terms and public registration for sex offenders.
Sen. Florence Shapiro, who authored the package of bills passed by legislation, said the relief will not affect the integrity of Ashley’s Laws.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with Ashley’s Laws,” Shapiro said. “She was victimized and the system in place was a broken system. The 12 bills strengthen the way we adjudicate and punish sexual predators and implemented notifications and databases.”
Shapiro, who was a former Plano mayor and city council member, said she remembers the impact this crime had on the city.
“It was a devastating time in the history of Plano, Texas,” Shapiro said. “It was a very sad time and a very hurtful time in a community with families and children. It could have happened to any child. It was a terrible awakening to a community that has been raised on the belief it was a family-oriented community. How could this happen to us? For years afterward parents would take their kids to parks, bring their lawn chairs and act like security guards.”
James Muns, former Plano mayor who served his term during the time of the crime and conviction, said he remembers the relief the citizens felt at the time of Blair’s conviction.
“In any case when you have child abuse or a child murder like that people become very, very upset,” Muns said. “Since it happened right here in our city it hit more home with our citizens. They were most pleased when there was a conviction.”
Now that the district attorney granted Blair relief, Muns said he does not blame the investigators for making a mistake.
“We live in a time in which, fortunately, we do not want someone convicted of a crime they did not commit. In his case he’ll never get out of prison and we can all rest well knowing criminals like that won’t. When he was convicted, he was convicted with the evidence they introduced at the time,” Muns said. “There is no reason to apologize for that. I’d just like to know who did it, whether he is still out there or gone to prison.”
Shapiro said she too believes the relief does not show a flaw in the investigation.
“DNA was not evident in ’93 or ’94,” she said. “Although Blair got relief, I’m not convinced he did not do it. All of us want to know who would take the life of an innocent child. If it’s not Michael Blair, I hope we can find clues and bring someone to justice.”
Wischkaemper said he believes law enforcement was under tremendous pressure to solve this high-profile case quickly.
“It was a high-profile case, when anyone disappears and dies in any community you want them brought to justice sooner than later,” Wischkaemper said. “This case was especially egregious because it was a family outing at a soccer game and it involved a 7-year-old girl. It’s typical any department that has a crime like this feels pressure to get a conviction, which gets in the way to get it done the right way.”
Wischkaemper said he believes it is impossible to tell if this case will ever be solved.
“The best evidence of any suspect is the guy that is dead,” Wischkaemper said. “He has the best current ties. If he’s the one, there will never be a conviction. But, Collin County is still investigating the case. They are testing more evidence and following leads.”
Contact Stephanie Flemmons at firstname.lastname@example.org