MANCHESTER -- The announcement of a murder charge brought against David Allan Morrison in the 1986 homicide of Sarah Hunter was a significant step toward closure for a former Manchester Police chief, and likely for many others.
"I was happy to hear they were finally able to get a case together ... that individual has been a suspect, but there was never enough evidence to put a case together," said Manfred Wessner, Manchester Police chief from 1973 until 2010. "It really made me feel good. An unsolved homicide is always something that kind of hangs over you."
Following analysis using DNA tests than were unavailable two decades ago, evidence taken from Morrison's vehicle in 1988 led police to believe there is proof Hunter was in Morrison's vehicle. Police believe Morrison, who is now 52 and serving a 20-year-to-life sentence in California for unrelated crimes, abducted, sexually assaulted and strangled Hunter before leaving her body near a cornfield in Pawlet, where it was found more than two months later.
The 25-year investigation began the day Hunter was reported missing; she had not shown up to work at the Manchester County Club where she was a golf pro. Initially, Wessner said, police believed Hunter might have parked her vehicle at a gas station on Route 7A where it was found and left it there for her own reasons.
"Initially, we treated it as a missing person case, but soon we thought something was wrong," Wessner said.
For the two-plus months between Hunter's disappearance and her body being discovered, Manchester and State Police regularly followed leads, doing searches of remote areas with police K9s.
"A lot of people called in and thought they saw something suspicious," Wessner said. Every tip was followed, but none led to substantial evidence.
If the same circumstances were to occur today, Wessner believes the case would be a national story, but even 25 years ago it caught the attention of many news outlets in the Northeast. The publicity triggered a rare phenomenon Wessner had not seen before, in which psychics from out of state contacted the department to offer their insights.
"I remember a lot of actual psychics called us and gave us information of what they thought," Wessner said. "I remember one lady called in and said she thought (Hunter) was near a body of water. Of course that proved not to be true, but it was unusual they would call in like that."
A retired homicide investigator for the Maine State Police who was a friend of the Hunter family also came to Manchester to aid Vermont State Police and the Manchester department. "He wasn't contracted; he was just a friend of the family," Wessner said.
Shortly after the case began it was turned over to the State Police, who Wessner said met with his department on almost a daily basis for updates. Then, police would speak with the media to keep the public informed of the case, in part to relieve fears and rumors that started to become widespread.
It wasn't a tip or searches that led police to Hunter's body; instead a Pawlet farmer discovered it near his field. An autopsy revealed the cause of death was strangulation, and the case was then ruled a homicide.
"When it was ruled a homicide a lot of fears came true," Wessner said. "Obviously, there was a lot of fear in the community. It was like, ‘who among us could do that? ... and can it happen again?"
Rep. Jeff Wilson, D-Manchester, who began his 17 years as town manager in Manchester at the start of 1986, shared a similar recollection of the emotions that swirled through the town. "At first there was fear and apprehension in the community because nobody knew who did it or why," Wilson said. "It was a story that really shocked the community."
That fear subsided as time passed, but so did the hope of ever catching the killer. "Over time it became one of those sort of lasting mysteries ... I guess many people just sort of thought it would never be resolved," Wilson said.
After hearing the news upon his return from vacation on Tuesday, he was among those people.
"After the passage of so much time, after each passing year, the chance of actually charging anybody diminished. I've been thinking about this off and on over the past few years, and I thought the chances were slim to none. It is pretty amazing," Wilson said.
Although Morrison has yet to be extradited from California to Vermont to answer to the murder charge, Monday's announcement may put some of those persisting questions to bed.
"I feel better knowing it's officially solved ... and the case has been, hopefully, closed," Wessner said.
Wessner credited countless hours -- and years -- of dedication from the State Police, State's Attorney Erica Marthage and the Manchester Police Department to help solve what for a long time looked like a murder case that would forever go unsolved.
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi