Prosecutor: 1991 Cold Case Murder Solved

A 1991 Asbury Park murder has been solved after new DNA evidence testing provided a crucial break in the case, Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni announced on Friday.

At 7:37 a.m. on March 27, 1991, the Asbury Park police contacted the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office after a white female was found dead under the ramp of a Fourth Avenue building at the Asbury Park Boardwalk. 

The victim was believed to have been Christa Engel, though at that time there were no next of kin located to confirm Engel’s identity. The medical examiner later concluded that Engel had been severely beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled to death.      

During the early stages of this 1991 case, detectives obtained items of evidence relevant to the murder investigation. DNA profiles from the victim’s body, stockings, slip, and dress were retained and tested.  While a suspect was initially pinpointed and charged, he was later exonerated when it was determined his DNA did not match that of the original subject’s profile.  

In 2001, the Prosecutor’s Office reopened the case after discovering that DNA samples from the victim’s body and clothing could possibly be resubmitted and tested. Based on this discovery, certain evidence from the victim was submitted to the New Jersey State Police lab for analysis. 

The Prosecutor’s Office was later notified that a potential match was obtained from the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) submittal.  CODIS is a national DNA database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) first established in the early 1990s, and used to identify possible suspects of a crime. CODIS identified the DNA contributor as Clarence W. Turnage of Asbury Park, who died in 2014. 

In January 2018, the Prosecutor’s Office created a dedicated Cold Case Unit to focus exclusively on older, unsolved homicide cases. The unit is staffed by an experienced assistant prosecutor and two detectives. The Engel homicide was one of several cases selected for immediate review.  

Thereafter, investigators spent months reviewing case files, various public records, and DNA analysis of the victim, ultimately confirming that Engel was born in West Germany with a given name of Christa Dierolf. It was determined that she changed her name to Christa Engel after marrying Seymour Engel in 1961. The couple married in Passaic, New Jersey and later moved to Asbury Park.       

In 2018, in light of the more recent advances and innovations in DNA testing technology, DNA evidence from the 1991 Engel homicide was resubmitted to Bode Technology, a private forensic laboratory.  To confirm the earlier CODIS hit, the Prosecutor’s Office was given consent to exhume Turnage’s corpse to obtain a DNA sample so a direct comparison to Engel’s could be performed.

In February 2019, Bode’s forensic testing confirmed that Clarence W. Turnage was, in fact, the contributor of DNA profiles obtained from the victim’s dress, stockings and body. These three profiles were not tested in 1991 when the case was originally under investigation.   

At the time of the homicide, Mr. Turnage lived approximately 300 yards from the location where the Engel’s body was found and one block from the Carlton Hotel where Engel was living at the time.  

In August 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office requested that the original suspect’s DNA be compared to DNA from the victim’s slip and the dress. Requests were not made for the stocking or swabs to be tested since the FBI had excluded the original suspect as a contributor from these items in 1991.  Subsequent lab testing by Bode confirmed the exclusion of the original suspect as the major contributor on the dress and slip.  

In January, there was an unsuccessful attempt to reaffirm the identity of the victim as Christa Engel, since investigators have been unable to identify any next of kin. It is hoped that with the release of this information and the conclusion of this investigation, a family member of Engel’s comes forward. 

Anyone with any information pertaining to this case can contact Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office Detective John Leibfried at 732-431-7160. 

At this time the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office is closing the case as solved with no prosecution since the accused is deceased.  

Since his appointment, Prosecutor Gramiccioni and his staff have made the review and reinvestigation of cold homicide cases a priority.  Cold cases that have been solved or charged as a result include:

  • In re Mary Agnes Klinsky – 1965 Murder of 18-year old Mary Agnes Klinsky by the notorious serial killer Robert Zarinsky (deceased) in Holmdel – announced February 2016;
  • State v. Ebenezer Byrd, Gregory Jean-Baptiste, Jerry Spraulding and James Fair – defendants were charged in 2015 with murder and conspiracy for the grisly 2009 homicide of Red Bank teacher Jonelle Melton in Neptune City.  All were convicted by jury trial in 2019.   
  • State v. Kishia Jones – defendant charged in 2018 with the 1992 shooting homicide of 12-year old Quiana Dees in Asbury Park.  The case remains pending in juvenile court.  Byrd, Jean-Baptiste and Spraulding were later sentenced to life imprisonment; Fair was sentenced to 82 years imprisonment.   
  • State v. Richard Busby – defendant found guilty by a jury of felony murder in 2018 for 2011 home invasion death of Michael Conway in Freehold.  Busby was sentenced to 60 years imprisonment in 2019. 
  • State v. Dominique Moore – defendant pleaded guilty in 2019 to the 2013 shooting death of 23-year-old Daniel Graves in Asbury Park.  Moore was later sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment.   
  • Defendants were charged for the 1994 murder of Ana Mejia 1995 murder of Nicholas Connors in January 2020.  

— Edited press release from the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office