Fingernail scrapings lead police to suspect in 1988 murder of elderly California woman

GALT, Calif. — Advances in DNA technology and 34-year-old scrapings from under an elderly California woman’s fingernails have led authorities to her suspected killer: a homeless sex offender who died in 2011.

Galt Police Chief Brian Kalinowski announced Tuesday that DNA testing has identified Terry Leroy Bramble as the source of skin and blood under the fingernails of Lucille Hultgren, 79, of Galt. Bramble, who was 32 years old at the time of the 1988 murder, was a “longtime resident and transient” in the city until he died of natural causes in October 2011.

Bramble, who was living under a bridge when he died, had not come up in the investigation of Hultgren’s murder.

“He was not on our radar as a potential suspect,” Kalinowski said.

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Hultgren’s surviving son, Henry Hultgren, issued a statement Tuesday, which Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert read to reporters during a news conference. Hultgren said he is glad the case has finally been solved.

“I wish the man was still alive to face the consequences,” Hultgren said in the statement. “I wish my older brother was still alive to hear the news.”

Frank Hultgren Jr. died in 2008. Their father and Lucille Hultgren’s husband, Frank Hultgren Sr., died of Alzheimer’s disease in October 1987, just seven months before his wife was slain.

Lucille Hultgren’s murder was the city of Galt’s sole cold case homicide.

Henry Hultgren, who is now 78 years old, thanked everyone who worked on his mother’s case.

“It’s one less cross I’ve got to bear, and that’s a big one,” Hultgren told KCRA in Sacramento. “Always has been.”

A modest life torn apart

Galt police officers were summoned to Hultgren’s Poplar Street home on May 23, 1988, after two friends from Galt United Methodist Church went to check on the devout grandmother after she failed to show up for Sunday services the day before.

“She lived a modest life by all accounts,” Schubert said. “Her church and her faith were important to her.”

The friends went into the house through a sliding glass door they found partially open, according to police. Once inside, they found Hultgren dead in her bedroom.

Responding officers noted visible injuries on Hultgren’s chest and it appeared she had been sexually assaulted. Nothing was missing from the small, one-bedroom home, leading investigators to rule out robbery as a motive.

An autopsy showed that Hultgren had died of two stab wounds to the chest.

The crime shocked Hultgren’s neighbors, who began locking their doors and windows at night and installed additional security measures to keep their families safe.

Kathie Carr, who lived less than a block from Hultgren, told the Lodi News-Sentinel she had been unable to sleep in the days after the brutal murder.

“You don’t expect it here in Galt,” Carr said in 1988. “Why in the world would they pick on someone like that?”

Neighbors described the slain woman as a “typical grandma type” who spent hours in her garden. Hultgren and her husband had moved to Galt in 1968, according to police and news accounts.

She had been living alone with her cats since November 1985, when her husband went into a nursing home.

On Tuesday, former neighbor Shawn Jacobs recalled both Lucille and Frank Hultgren as kind and loving people who often treated the neighborhood children like their own grandchilden.

“We were always welcomed in their house for cookies and lemonade during the summertime, and I never heard a cross word come from her,” Jacobs told KCRA. “She was just very super sweet.”

Watch Tuesday’s news conference about the Lucille Hultgren homicide below.

Jacobs remembered the crime scene she encountered upon returning home from high school the spring day that Hultgren was found.

“Oh yeah, they were lined up, and there was the van and the tape,” she said.

It was initially difficult to determine exactly when Hultgren died. Detectives first thought she had been dead as long as a week, due to the amount of decomposition, but friends told them they’d last seen or spoken to Hultgren on Friday, three days before her body was found, the paper reported at the time.

According to the Galt Herald, that Friday had been Hultgren’s 79th birthday.

The coroner determined that she had likely died the following day, on Saturday.

“It was very warm, so that could have speeded up the decomposition,” a Galt police spokesperson said. “We’ll never know the time of death exactly.”

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The small police force had multiple investigators working to solve the case.

“During the investigation, numerous witnesses were located and interviewed, including neighbors, family and church members, and a company who had recently installed a tool shed on the property,” authorities said.

Detectives also had help from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office’s crime scene investigators, who collected a large amount of evidence from the scene. Fingerprints were collected by agents with the California Department of Justice.

Despite the evidence and the work put in by investigators, the case soon went cold.

It remained that way until January of this year, when the county crime lab took another look at the DNA evidence that had sat in storage for more than three decades.

“The fingernail scrapings became the key to solving this case,” Schubert said Tuesday.

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When the DNA profile obtained from the genetic material was entered into the database, detectives got a “hit.” The profile matched that of Bramble.

“His DNA had been on file due to a 1992 sexual assault conviction, which occurred in San Joaquin County,” Galt police officials said. “Bramble was also a registered sex offender due to this conviction.”

With the suspect in Hultgren’s murder also in his grave, detectives have no way of knowing the motive for the crime, or how Bramble may have encountered her before her death.

Now close to the same age as his mother when she was slain, Henry Hultgren remembered his mother Tuesday as his “champion.” The Stockton resident said he last saw his mother alive on Mother’s Day, which was on May 8 the year she died.

“I was the baby of the family, and I miss her to this very day,” Hultgren told KCRA.

Galt police officials said they are satisfied to have closed the case, despite the lack of accountability for Lucille Hultgren’s killer.

“Our hearts go out to the Hultgren family, and although we’re unable to bring Lucille back, we hope by identifying the suspect responsible for her death it can provide some closure for her family,” authorities said.

Henry Hultgren pondered the more than three decades he has awaited that closure.

“Thirty-four years, my God. I didn’t think it was ever gonna happen; I’ll be honest with you,” Hultgren said. “It relieves (me), knowing. And now it’s solved.”