75-year-old man arrested for 1983 murder in Montgomery County

CONROE, Texas (KTRK) -- It's been 38 years since authorities discovered the body of Laura Marie Purchase, burning in a Montgomery County field. Now her alleged killer has been arrested in Kansas City, Kansas.

Thomas Elvin Darnell, 75, has been charged with capital murder. He was arrested at his home in Kansas on May 11 and charged with capital murder. Authorities say DNA collected a month earlier positively matched Darnell to DNA found on Purchase's body nearly four decades ago.

On March 17, 1983, a Montgomery County sheriff's deputy was on patrol when he saw a fire burning in the woods near I-45 on League Line Road in Conroe. The deputy discovered the body of a naked white woman that had been set on fire.

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At the time, detectives said the unidentified victim had been sexually assaulted, strangled and left "posed" at the scene. An autopsy was performed and traces of a man's DNA were found on her body.

Three years later, in May 1986, FBI identified the mystery woman by her fingerprints as Laura Purchase, who had been missing from Houston. Police say Purchase was last known to have been seen in Houston on March 5, 1983, living with a man named "Howard" or "Howie," who played in a band called "Malibu."

The year Purchase was found burning in the field, before she had a name, self-professed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas confessed to the crime and was convicted three years later, the same year she was identified.

In 2007, the cold case squad at the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office resubmitted DNA found on Purchase and authorities discovered the profile of an unidentified man.

That DNA eliminated Lucas, along with his alleged co-defendant, Otis Elwood Toole, in 2008. Lucas had confessed to approximately 600 murders. Nearly 200 of those murders across the United States have been cleared. Lucas died in prison in 2001 after his death sentence was commuted to life.

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In October 2019, the MCSO Cold Case Squad sent the DNA evidence in for genealogy testing, and in April 2020, a genealogy report was completed. Meanwhile, investigators were working their own leads that showed Darnell was a potential suspect.

On March 17, 2021, 38 years later to the day that Purchase's body was found in the field, Montgomery County cold case investigators went to Kansas City and collected a DNA sample from Darnell. Last month, authorities discovered his DNA matched the DNA found on Purchase during the autopsy.

Last week, Darnell was arrested at his Kansas home, and on Thursday, he was extradited to the Montgomery County jail.

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