Victim’s persistence helped lead to identifying suspect in sexual abuse cold case

March 29, 2023 | 12:11 am

Updated March 28, 2023 | 10:13 pm

In December 1994, a 19-year-old female reported being kidnapped near Brescia University before being assaulted in Owensboro and taken to Indiana, where the assault continued. Unable to develop a suspect at the time, the case went cold. But the victim remained adamant over the years, checking in on the case routinely. Police recently reopened the case again, and this time a DNA match pointed to a suspect — a convicted sex offender — who was arrested in North Carolina.

According to a December 6, 1994, article in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, the victim told the Owensboro Police Department she was abducted by a stranger early on December 5 as she was getting in her car. She reported that the man forced her to drive to Spencer County before raping her, according to the article.

According to the article, OPD Sgt. Connie Chapman said that “the woman was leaving a friend’s house in the 600 block of Allen Street about 12:30 a.m. and was getting in her car when a man she identified as 35 to 40 years old forced his way in and told her he had a weapon,” later adding that “the man then drove the car back to Owensboro and left it and the woman on Triplett Street … the woman returned to the home in the 600 block of Allen Street, and police were called at 3:56 a.m.”

On March 28, 2023, OPD Lt. Chris Green confirmed some of the basic details of the incident.

“At the time they collected evidence, they conducted interviews, but they weren’t able to produce a suspect in the case,” said Green, who is the Commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. “The case was ultimately inactivated until new leads came up.”

Green said that toward the end of September 2022, he spoke to the victim.

“She called for a routine follow up as she’d done many times, asking for the status of her case,” Green said. 

He said detectives pulled the case back out, and this time there was a new lead to follow.

OPD’s Criminal Investigations Division contacted the Indiana State Police Laboratory, where the case evidence was actually held. The lab advised they still had DNA evidence on file that was processed and entered in 1994.

However, that was prior to the development of the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) — a tool that enables federal, state, and local forensic laboratories to exchange and compare DNA profiles electronically.

Green said ISP also reopened their investigation, and requested some items be retested using the CODIS system.

“The results of that retest came back to the identification of Robert Shelton as a potential suspect,” Green said.

Shelton was identified as now being 59 years old and living in Hickory, North Carolina. Green said Shelton was a resident of Owensboro at the time of the incident.

OPD Det. Cody Cliff said that at the end of February/start of March, he and an ISP detective went to North Carolina to conduct an interview with Shelton. 

“Along with the assistance of multiple agencies, we were able to collect some evidence that ultimately was able to result in the identification later on that Mr. Shelton was involved in this crime,” Cliff said.

A release from OPD said detectives received a DNA match confirming Shelton’s identification on March 22.

The release states that on March 24, the Brookford Police Department in North Carolina served an OPD warrant on Shelton on the charges of kidnapping and first-degree sexual abuse. 

Shelton also faces charges of rape from the Indiana State Police in connection to the case, according to OPD.

Green said he could not say if the victim and Shelton knew each other, but said “at no point has he been identified (as a suspect) in this case at all up until (the CODIS hit).”

When asked if this development would have happened without the victim checking in, Green said, “Potentially no. That’s her being adamant about her investigation.”

Green further said that they would not have gotten a match if DNA had not been collected at the time and if Shelton hadn’t been convicted for other crimes.

Court records show Shelton was convicted of sex offenses for an unrelated incident in 1996. According to those record, Shelton was five counts of second-degree rape, three counts of second-degree sodomy, and two counts of first-degree sexual abuse. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. According to the North Carolina sex offender registry, Shelton was 32 and the victim was 13.

Shelton is currently being held in the Catawba County jail in North Carolina. Green said he will be extradited at some point.

March 29, 2023 | 12:11 am

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