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Cold case solved: Police identify deceased suspect in 1981 murder of Laura Kempton in Portsmouth, N.H.

Advances in DNA technology enabled investigators to identify the suspect’s parents in a third-party genealogy database

Laura Kempton was a student at Portsmouth Beauty School in Portsmouth, N.H., when she was found slain in her apartment in 1981. After more than 40 years, her murder was solved, authorities announced on Thursday.New Hampshire Attorney General's Office

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Four decades after 23-year-old Laura Kempton was found slain in her Chapel Street apartment, state and local authorities said Thursday that investigators have solved the cold case.

Advances in DNA analysis enabled investigators to use genetic genealogy to identify Ronney James Lee as the man who killed Kempton, officials said during a press conference. Lee, who was 21 at the time of Kempton’s murder, died in 2005 at age 45, so no charges will be filed in the case.

“It is my hope that this conclusion and announcement will be the long-awaited first step in providing what closure the criminal justice system can provide for Laura Kempton’s family and community,” New Hampshire Attorney General John M. Formella said.

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Kempton’s body was found on the morning of Sept. 28, 1981, by a Portsmouth police officer who was attempting to serve a court summons to her for parking meter violations, according to a report released by Formella’s office. The officer noticed that a panel was missing from Kempton’s door, and he spotted her body bound by cords and lying on the floor inside the apartment.

Investigators noted signs that a struggle had occurred in the living room area of her apartment, and they took a glass wine bottle they suspected had been used as a weapon, according to the report. An autopsy showed that Kempton died of massive head trauma after being struck with a blunt object, and there was evidence that she had been sexually assaulted.

Kempton was a student at the Portsmouth Beauty School at the time of her murder. About a year later, on Oct. 19, 1982, a second student from the school, 20-year-old Tammy Little, was found slain in her Maplewood Avenue apartment. An autopsy showed that Little, too, had died from massive head injuries. Her case will remain listed among 100 unsolved homicides assigned to New Hampshire’s cold case unit.

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“That case remains under investigation,” Formella said, adding that investigators hope Thursday’s announcement about Kempton’s case leads to more tips about the circumstances of Little’s death.

Homicide investigators announced Thursday that Ronney James Lee, shown here in a 1983 booking photo, is the man who killed 23-year-old Laura Kempton in 1981. New Hampshire Attorney General's Office

Investigators spent several days combing through evidence in Kempton’s apartment in 1981, and they collected numerous DNA samples, according to the report. After several advances in DNA testing over the years, Portsmouth police worked with a genetic genealogy analysis firm and ultimately linked Lee to samples taken from the scene. Using a public third-party genealogy database, investigators identified Lee’s biological parents in 2022 and determined that Lee was their only son.

Lee, who served in the US Army, had worked for a security firm in Portsmouth at the time of Kempton’s murder, according to the report. He had multiple run-ins with police in the early 1980s, when he was linked to five burglaries. Then, in 1987, he was convicted of burglary and sexual assault after a home invasion in Keene. He went to prison until 1990.

Lee underwent an autopsy after his death in 2005 from acute cocaine intoxication. In 2022, the Office of the Medical Examiner gave detectives a blood card from Lee’s autopsy, according to the report. Further DNA analysis concluded in June 2023 that Lee’s DNA could match samples found on Kempton’s body and on a cigarette butt and bedding nearby.

Formella described Thursday’s announcement as recognition of a “bittersweet” development. On the one hand, Kempton’s family may derive a sense of long-delayed closure about her death, thanks to persistent detective work. On the other, revisiting painful memories can reopen old wounds, he said.

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“New Hampshire is a small state, and it’s filled with tight-knit communities,” he added. “We’re fortunate that homicides are not common here, but when they do happen, they reverberate across the state, and when homicides go unsolved and cases go cold, that only exacerbates the trauma and the pain that victims’ families feel.”

Kempton’s family released a statement thanking the investigators who worked on this case, and they requested privacy.

The report released by Formella’s office noted that those who knew Kempton consistently described her as “an outgoing free spirit with a big personality and a love for new wave fashion.”

New Hampshire Attorney General John M. Formella speaks during a press conference about the conclusion of a cold case investigation into the murder of 23-year-old Laura Kempton.Steven Porter/Globe Staff

Steven Porter can be reached at steven.porter@globe.com. Follow him @reporterporter.