Dorothy LeConte had only been in Hempstead once before when she traveled there alone in June 1989, to visit relatives.
Joey Bethea was 17 years old and living in Hempstead, and had no known connection to the 22-year-old who had emigrated from Haiti, Nassau police said Wednesday.
But authorities - using DNA collected from Bethea after a recent arrest - now believe Bethea raped and murdered her, leaving her body near a footbridge over a small creek at the edge of Hempstead High School, where police said he was once a student.
On Tuesday, Nassau detectives arrested Bethea and charged him with second-degree murder and felony murder. They had traveled to the upstate lumberyard where Bethea, now 38 and a father of at least three children, has worked in recent years.
The link between the two was a DNA match between semen found on her body and a cheek swab collected from Bethea last summer, police said Wednesday. After a series of arrests since 1991, state police troopers got the swab days after he was arrested on June 23 on a misdemeanor petty larceny charge when he was accused of stealing a donation jar from a store counter while buying beer.
LeConte, who was living in North Bergen, N.J., had traveled by bus on the afternoon of June 13, 1989, to visit her brother and aunt in Hempstead; she never arrived. The next day, two school custodians found her face down below a campus footbridge just off Peninsula Avenue, a few blocks from her aunt's home.
"Her body was found in the small pool of water that was in the creek," said Det. Lt. John Azzata. "She was partially disrobed and sexually assaulted." Police said then that it appeared she'd been pushed or thrown from the bridge; her clothes were in disarray. The county medical examiner ruled she died from asphyxiation.
Bethea was never questioned in the ensuing investigation, which resulted in no arrests and ended up as a so-called cold case, Nassau police said. In 2002, DNA samples from semen collected from LeConte's body were submitted to a State Police testing lab in Albany, but no match was found.
With the news yesterday that a man had been arrested in his sister's killing based on a DNA match, Jude LeConte, Dorothy's brother said, "I have no idea who this guy is," referring to Bethea.
Wednesday, as Bethea walked in handcuffs from Nassau Police headquarters to an unmarked police car, he denied he killed LeConte. When asked what he'd been doing upstate in recent years, he said, "working." Police said he's been employed at the lumberyard for about three years.
Bethea was represented by a Legal Aid attorney at his arraignment in First District Court in Hempstead, where he pleaded not guilty and was ordered held on $2 million bond or $1 million cash bail. Attempts to reach a family member were unsuccessful.
Since 1989, Bethea has been convicted of crimes four times, including at least twice for offenses that required him to submit a DNA sample for inclusion in a state crime computer database.
Days after his most recent arrest in June in upstate Sidney on larceny charges, Bethea was approached by State Police at his home in Nineveh and submitted to a cheek swab, authorities said. It was analyzed in a lab in Albany in August. Nassau police said they were notified of the match Sept. 16.
Nassau detectives, assisted by State Police, arrested Bethea in Nineveh on Tuesday. Bethea is due back in court on Friday.