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New DNA evidence could help solve the murder of a TSU student nearly 30 years later

An ambitious TSU law student was mysteriously murdered then buried on Houston's outskirts. New findings in this 1993 cold case could help catch the killer.

HOUSTON — Beneath a canopy of trees lies one of Houston’s most historic campuses, Texas Southern University. It's where Helen Dawn Williams, 25, had big dreams.

"She wanted to be a lawyer," her father Isaac Henderson said.

She was in her third year at Thurgood Marshall School of Law and she was following in her father's footsteps. Henderson has been practicing law for 62 years and said it was always his hope to pass the practice on to his daughter.

Williams was an accomplished student and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, but her dreams were cut short.

“One day I got a call from the police, which told me that they found her body. She had been killed and buried and the pastor of our church and I went out to the coroner's office, and it was horrible," Henderson said.

Williams’ body was discovered far away from campus. She was found in Montgomery County, buried in a shallow grave off the highway.

But the mystery started a month earlier when she went missing.

“I remember as a rookie detective hearing about Helen Dawn Williams' murder back in 1993,” said Detective Darcus Shorten, with Houston Police Department's Cold Case Unit.

It’s a case she always wanted to help solve.

“To have her life end in such a tragic way and the conversation stops, we don’t see billboards, we don’t see anything about her case," Shorten said.

If you look back at the evidence, you see why the case went cold.

Oct. 15, 1993, is the day she went missing. Dawn, as her family called her, lived on Calumet Street, a few blocks away from campus, with her husband Rafael Williams.

He spoke to KHOU11 in 1993 after his wife went missing.

"I hope there is no foul play, but I do know she wouldn't go and do something like this," Williams said at the time.

Police believed she was killed at their apartment. Her throat was slashed, but the apartment was cleaned up with bleach before detectives arrived. Her red Volkswagen, investigators believe, was used to move her body.

“When she came to my office that day, she was a little upset,” said Virgie Mouton, the retired Assistant Dean for Student Development at TSU.

Credit: KHOU

Dawn worked in her office, and they had a conversation the day she disappeared.

“She confided in me and told me that she and her husband were not getting along. She also brought a greeting card because she had given him a greeting card and he tore it into pieces. She was very upset and she let me keep it. She just said, 'Please keep it.' So, that was disheartening," Mouton said.

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She would later turn the torn greeting card into police. Students began launching searches, passing out flyers and looking for their missing classmate.

“I guess, for a long time, I just kept waiting ... they're going to resolve it,” said James Douglas, Distinguished Professor of Law at Thurgood Marshall Law. “She was cheerful, she was wonderful, she was a hard worker, she was involved."

Douglas remembers his last conversation with Dawn when she told him she wanted to be in the courtroom. She was involved in the student group that would later be named the Helen Dawn Williams Mock Trial Competition.

Her death, Douglas said, had a lasting impact on the law school.

“It was extremely shocking, and the fact that the case was never seen, even though everybody thought they know who did it, I think was even more hurtful," he said.

Police said Rafael Williams was looked at as a suspect.

“He’s still a suspect, unfortunately. Her husband has passed away from an illness, but at this point now, we still have to move forward," Shorten said.

Moving forward, with a new twist, recent DNA testing found a match with an offender who is already in prison. It's a new avenue for cold case detectives to explore in the mystery that’s puzzled a campus for decades.

“That doesn’t mean that person, or persons, are the suspects. What it does, is it just gives you more information to move forward. That individual may have known something. That individual may have participated, or have been at that location, prior to her death," Shorten said.

That matching DNA comes from a person who, ironically, was also incarcerated at the time of the murder. However, investigators still want to know how his DNA got on the evidence. It's an important timeline that could help identify the killer.

While detectives work that lead, Dawn's father is busy packing up his office. He's finally retiring after a distinguished law career.

“The chance to see her develop her life, go through life, and perhaps have some pictures of grandkids up here can never be duplicated, and was ended when she died," Henderson said.

Those pictures are a reminder to him of the one case he never got to see finished -- his daughter’s.

If you have any information on the Helen Dawn Williams case or any other cold cases, call the HPD Cold Case Unit at 713-308-3618 or Crime Stoppers of Houston at 713-222-TIPS

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