Less than a year after two women were strangled and bludgeoned more than two decades ago, Suffolk police identified one of their own as a possible suspect, a former homicide detective testified Wednesday in Riverhead.
In 2014, Suffolk police arrested Manorville carpenter John Bittrolff and charged him with second-degree murder after his DNA was linked to the badly beaten and similarly posed bodies of Rita Tangredi, 31, and Colleen McNamee, 20.
Tangredi of East Patchogue was killed on Nov. 2, 1993, and the body of McNamee of Holbrook was found Jan. 30, 1994. Both women worked as prostitutes.
Back then, one of the many men police investigated was Sgt. Michael Murphy, retired Det. John McLeer testified in state Supreme Court.
Murphy was a uniformed sergeant in the Fifth Precinct in Patchogue, McLeer said during cross-examination by defense attorney William Keahon of Hauppauge.
Detectives then were aware that a sergeant in the precinct was forcing prostitutes to give him oral sex, McLeer said. One of them identified Murphy by name in October 1994 and said he had demanded “sex for nothing” seven or eight times next to the Patchogue Motor Inn over a two-year period, McLeer said.
Until Wednesday, jurors knew Murphy had been a suspect but hadn’t learned why. Prosecutors have refused to say why police investigated him and in 1998 secretly searched his police car for evidence in the killings.
Murphy, whose father was chief of detectives then, was ruled out as a suspect and has since been promoted to lieutenant. The police department Wednesday declined to discuss the case, or make Murphy available for comment. Previous efforts to reach Murphy have also been unsuccessful.
McLeer acknowledged to Keahon that detectives kept a “cast of characters” that swelled to more than 100 men, and that they collected DNA from 56 of them.
The case lay dormant from 2006 to 2012, McLeer said — a period in which evidence collected from both crime scenes, Murphy’s car and another police officer suspect was destroyed. Then came the DNA link to Bittrolff and his arrest.
“John Bittrolff didn’t give you a problem all day long [after the arrest], right?” Keahon asked.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” McLeer said.
McLeer also said Bittrolff declined offers of food, saying he was too nervous and upset to eat.
At the end of that day, McLeer said Bittrolff asked him how they focused on him and got his DNA. McLeer said when Bittrolff’s brother got arrested on an unrelated charge, scientists determined his DNA was such a close match to the DNA found in both victims that it probably was left by a relative.
“I [expletive] knew it,” Bittrolff replied, according to McLeer.
Keahon suggested that was in response to realizing his brother inadvertently led police to him.