LAKE WORTH, Fla. — Florida cold case investigators announced Friday that they have solved the brutal 36-year-old rape and murder of an elderly woman with dementia who was abducted after wandering away from home.
Richard Curtis Lange Sr., 61, of Boynton Beach, was arrested Thursday and charged with first-degree murder, sexual assault with a weapon and kidnapping/false imprisonment, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. He was being held without bond Friday in the Palm Beach County Jail.
Lange was 25 years old when Mildred Lee Matheny, 78, of Lake Worth, died May 8, 1985, as a result of blunt force trauma she suffered in the April 27 assault. She left behind a son, Gary Matheny, and her grandchildren.
Gary Matheny told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he was “joyful that they finally have the culprit.”
“It was a terrible death for my mother,” Matheny, now 88, said Friday from his Arkansas home.
Mildred Matheny, a retired nurse and widow, had moved from Arkansas to live with her sister in Florida, authorities said.
“She rarely left home by herself because she would be confused and get lost,” according to a police video on the case.
In past instances in which Matheny got lost, she was found wandering near a laundromat a 10th of a mile from home. That was not the case this time, however, and her sister reported her missing around 4:30 p.m., about an hour after she left the house.
Neighbors told officers with the Lake Worth Police Department, which was later folded into the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, that they’d spotted Matheny walking in the area between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. She wore an orange blouse over pink pajamas.
Authorities said witnesses reported a possible sighting of Matheny nearly two miles away, outside a Burger King. She was in the company of a young man with long, blond hair and a missing front tooth.
The man drove a brown two-door 1967 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with white interior, the witnesses said.
“Mildred entered the vehicle and the man told people passing by that he was her neighbor and he was going to give her a ride home,” according to the police video.
Matheny never went home again.
More than five hours later, a passerby traveling on Old Indiantown Road in Jupiter, 30 miles north of Lake Worth, found Matheny lying in the dirt road, naked and bleeding profusely from injuries to her face and head.
The blouse and pajamas she’d been wearing when she vanished were found strewn around her motionless body, along with her bloodstained dentures.
Lake Worth police Lt. Marty Kerner told the Palm Beach Post at the time that investigators were taking the violent assault personally.
“It’s pretty bad when a grandmother goes outside her house for a walk and winds up knocked out on some dirt road outside of Jupiter,” Kerner told the newspaper.
Matheny died 11 days later at Martin Memorial Hospital in Stuart. Her cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia stemming from her injuries, which included a skull fracture and internal bleeding.
The case remained unsolved until recently, when the Sheriff’s Office’s Cold Case Homicide Unit conducted a review of the case, according to authorities. Last month, the department’s forensic scientist entered the DNA profile obtained from the victim’s 1985 rape kit into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.
The system found a match with a DNA sample from Lange, who was required to provide the genetic material following a 2006 conviction on a gun charge. Cold case detectives obtained a warrant for a fresh sample of Lange’s DNA.
That sample was taken from Lange on Thursday at his home in Boynton Beach.
“Lange denied knowing (Matheny) or any involvement in the murder of the victim,” police officials said.
The DNA swab taken of his cheek was turned in to the Sheriff’s Office’s crime lab the same day, however, and lab technicians were able to confirm the DNA match between Lange’s genetic profile and the semen preserved in the vaginal swabs taken in 1985, long before DNA technology was regularly used to solve crimes.
“No case is too old to be resolved,” authorities said.