Cold Case: The 2 Susans In Highland Park

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two susans

Susan Petersen (left) and Susan Rheineck (right) were both found strangled to death in Highland Park in St. Paul two years apart — Peterson in 1983, Rheineck in 1985. Both cases are still unsolved. (credit: CBS)

By Caroline Lowe, WCCO-TV

(WCCO) – Susan Petersen (left) and Susan Rheineck (right) were both found strangled to death in Highland Park in St. Paul two years apart — Peterson in 1983, Rheineck in 1985. Both cases are still unsolved.

It has been more than 25 years since a young woman named Susan was found murdered in St. Paul. On the very same date two years later — May 17, 1985 — another victim also named Susan was killed. Both victims were strangled and sexually assaulted.

For years, police feared a serial killer may have been targeting females named Susan, and staked out the areas where the victims were last seen and later found.

Detectives considered the possibility that the killer died or was in prison for another crime, but in 2009 came a surprising twist: DNA evidence submitted to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension determined two separate killers were to blame for the Susans’ deaths.

The DNA results were entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s national database to see if there is a link to any other cases. But so far, there have been no “hits,” or links to killers currently in prison.

St. Paul cold case investigators are still following up on possible leads in the cases authorities now recognizes as discrete crimes.

If you know anything about either case, contact the St. Paul Police Department’s homicide office at 651-266-5650.

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Surprise Twist in ‘Susans’ Murders

There is a startling development in a suspected serial killer case that has baffled St. Paul police for more than 25 years. Two women with the same name were found murdered in the same neighborhood, on the same day, two years apart.

For years, investigators wondered if a serial killer was connected to both murders or if the brutal deaths were just a bizarre coincidence.

On May 17, 1983, police found 28-year-old Susan Petersen strangled and sexually assaulted in an alley in the upscale Highland Park neighborhood.

The same day, two years later, 16-year-old Susan Rheineck was also sexually attacked, killed and tied to a tree just a few blocks away by the Mississippi River.

Both victims wore similar raincoats and were last seen in the same part of town the day before they vanished.

“We believe that it’s not likely somebody knew them. These women were both women who were what I would call easy victims. They were people that had difficulties in their lives,” said Sgt. Anita Muldoon, who supervises the St. Paul Police Department’s cold case unit.

Several months ago, Muldoon gave evidence from both crime scenes to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab for DNA tests.

“There was a lot of thought that they were killed by the same person,” said Muldoon.

The BCA’s forensic scientists were able to uncover DNA from both of the Susans’ cases. And that led to a surprising conclusion: two different killers were to blame.

“It is a little more alarming that it’s two different people because they were so similar,” said Muldoon.

The DNA results were entered into the FBI’s national database to see if there is a link to any other cases. So far, there have been no hits, which means the killers are not currently in prison.

The “Susans” murders inspired a novel by former WCCO investigative producer Julie Kramer called “Stalking Susan.” It’s about a serial killer targeting women with that name.

St. Paul cold case investigators are still following up on possible leads in the “real” Susans’ murders. If you know anything about either case, call the St. Paul Homicide Office at 651-266-5650.

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Cold Case Unit To Look At 2 Eerily Linked Murders

Two young women, both named Susan, were found murdered in St. Paul on the same date in May, two years apart. The similarities don’t stop there. No one has ever been caught for the crimes which police have long suspected were the work of a serial killer who targeted victims named Susan.

These cases will get a fresh look in June by detectives in the new cold case unit at the St. Paul police homicide office.

Recently retired homicide investigator Rich Munoz has looked into the murders of Susan Petersen and Susan Rheineck in the past. He hopes to focus on the cases again if he comes out of retirement next month for the assignment. (The police union has challenged the assignment of retirees to the cold case unit.)

“The similarities are really striking,” said Munoz, who was a patrol officer in the 1980s when the two Susans disappeared from a poor part of University Avenue. “When you actually see the items of evidence, it really takes you back.”

Susan Petersen was 28. Dressed in a trench coat, she was last seen on May 16, 1983. Early the next morning, she was found strangled and sexually assaulted in an alley in the predominately upscale Highland Park neighborhood.

On that same day, in 1985, the body of Susan Rheineck was found tied to a tree several blocks away. The street-smart 16-year-old was also sexually assaulted and wore a similar coat.

Although some details of their crimes were different, Munoz said, “You almost assume there’s got to be a connection. We actually think these two Susans may have crossed paths.”

After the second murder, police feared a serial killer was targeting women named Susan. For the next several years, on May 16 and 17, detectives staked out University Avenue and the Highland Park neighborhood, prepared for a killer to strike again.

Police didn’t share their suspicions of a serial killer publicly until 1998. That’s when WCCO-TV first profiled the two murders and the original investigator on the case, Jim Frank, took reporter Caroline Lowe to the crime scenes.

Frank was then the Washington County Sheriff. During an interview that year, Frank said he couldn’t forget the young women’s killings, especially during May.

“You’d like to know what you missed,” he said. “How did you miss it? What should you have done better? What can you learn from? And I think you really do look for the families.”

Susan Rheineck’s parents told Lowe in 1998 that they remembered her as a troubled teen who hoped someday to become a nurse.

If the two murders were connected, police wonder now why they apparently stopped. Did the killer die or go to prison? What did the name Susan mean to him? What of the date: May 16? What was his connection to the neighborhoods where the victims were last seen — and found?

Tim Lynch, the St. Paul Senior Commander in charge of the police department’s homicide unit, hopes to some day have answers for the victims’ families. Beside the murders of the two Susans, the new cold case unit will focus on more than 140 cold cases.

“Murders are never closed cases,” said Lynch, who is confident their experience, along with forensic tools like DNA, can crack some cases.

Rich Munoz cleared out his desk in the homicide office when he retired a couple of weeks ago. If things can be worked out with the union, he hopes to jump back in to focus on unsolved cases-with the murders of the two Susans at the top of his list.

“It would be great thing to solve these cases,” Munoz said.

Dave Titus, the president of the police union, called the cold case unit a “spectacular idea,” but he said he wants current cops to be assigned to the cases, not retirees.

If you have any information on who murdered Susan Petersen or Susan Rheineck, call the St. Paul police tip line at 651-266-5956.

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