Thanking advances in medical science, Williamson County authorities believe they now can prove who killed 27-year-old Jessika Kalaher, who was found strangled in her car near a Cedar Park Wal-Mart in 2009.
A Williamson County grand jury indicted Crispin James Harmel, 33, last week on charges of aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery and capital murder in connection with Kalaher’s death.
Harmel is currently in prison serving a 10-year-sentence for tampering with evidence and credit card abuse in the Kalaher case. Harmel told authorities in 2009 that he knew Kalaher but did not kill her.
According to an arrest warrant, Harmel told investigators that he threw away one of Kalaher’s debit cards and altered his truck after he heard police were looking for him.
But prosecutors four years ago could not tie Harmel to Kalaher’s death.
“I think what baffled them was that she lived for awhile after he attempted to kill her,” Williamson County District Attorney Jana Duty said.
Two or three witnesses saw Kalaher looking “confused and lethargic” inside of her car after Harmel had beaten her and strangled her with a ligature, Duty said.
Kalaher’s relatives, alarmed that she hadn’t shown up at her job at an HEB in Leander, later found her body inside the car, Duty said. There was no DNA left at the scene, Duty said.
Kalaher’s case was reopened a few months ago after Mark Brunner, the first assistant district attorney, was asked to write a letter protesting the possibility of parole for Harmel, Duty said. An article inside the file mentioned a medical phenomenon called “delayed death due to strangulation,” which seemed to prove how Kalaher had died, Duty said.
The article, written by Dr. Dean Hawley, a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, said people could be strangled and then suffocate hours later from the effects of the strangulation, Duty said. In 2009, she said, the phenomenon “was not a well known, well understood area of science.”
Hawley wrote a report about the Kalaher case but declined to comment for this story Monday.
A prosecutor who helped investigate the case in 2009, Lindsey Roberts, declined to comment Monday. John Bradley, who was the Williamson County district attorney in 2009, said Monday that “Texas ethical rules for lawyers prohibit comment on pending cases.”
Harmel continues to deny killing Kalaher, who was planning to become an elementary school teacher, Duty said. Police questioned the Round Rock man in 2009 after videotape from the Wal-Mart showed him following Kalaher around the store where she was buying dog food and then following her to her car in the early morning hours of Sept. 7, 2009, Duty said.
Harmel told authorities at the time that the night she died, he had taken Kalaher to an ATM where she gave him her PIN and he withdrew money, Duty said. Harmel also told investigators that he and Kalaher had consensual sex in a park before he drove her car back to a strip center near the Wal-Mart, Duty said.
It is the second cold case that authorities have filed charges in since Duty began as district attorney in January. Police arrested Rex Allen Nisbett, 51, in Houston in March in connection with the 1991 death of his estranged wife, Vicki Nisbett.