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DNA helps solve 1980 cold case in Yavapai County

Michael E Lee, 1978. (Yavapai County Sheriff's Office Photo)

PHOENIX — A nearly 40-year-old cold case murder has been solved by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, according to a press release on Monday.

Michael E Lee’s body was found on Oct. 21, 1980, on a two-track road off highway 179 near milepost 300 in unincorporated Yavapai County.

Lee, 29 at the time of his death, was visiting from Indiana when he suffered multiple gunshots to the head.

The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office conducted an investigation and collected evidence such as cigarette butts, but the case went unsolved.

In June 2018, a YCSO cold case volunteer sent the cigarette butts to the department of public safety lab for DNA testing.

Two of the cigarette butts resulted in the identification of David Ellsworth Widmer.

Widmer — 31 at the time of the murder — has an extensive criminal background and was not named in the initial investigation.

Following the new suspect DNA evidence had provided, YCSO Detective John McDormett was assigned as the lead investigator in October 2018.

Through an unrelated Phoenix police report, the new investigation connected Widmer to a person of interest from the initial YCSO investigation. Additional DNA findings also tied Widmer to the scene and victim.

Rocky Crabtree, a convicted felon, was also identified and is believed to be an accomplice of Widmer in Lee’s murder.

The investigation stated that Lee knew both Widmer and Crabtree and that the motive appeared to be robbery.

Widmer and Crabtree were both told that Lee had a large amount of money in a bandana on his leg, which was cut off Lee’s leg and found to have Widmer’s DNA on it.

But the suspects failed to search for the victim’s wallet — which was in his pants pocket and held over $1,000 in cash — and instead only managed to steal the marijuana in Lee’s possession.

However, Crabtree and Widmer died in 1990 and 2019, respectively.

“Through the extensive months-long investigation, detectives established Rocky Crabtree and David Widmer were the responsible parties in the death of Michael E Lee,” McDormett said in the release.

“If Crabtree and/or Widmer were still alive, detectives are confident that both men would have been charged. Michael’s family in the Midwest has been notified and they have expressed their appreciation for the resolution to this 40-year old murder case of their loved one.”

Anyone with information on any unsolved homicide, no matter how old, is urged to contact Silent Witness.

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