RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (WPIX) — Irene Wilkowitz drove hours from Rhode Island to Riverhead, New York, on Wednesday to attend a press conference about her sister’s 1980 murder case. And for the first time, she saw the killer’s face.
“I didn’t want to see him,” Irene Wilkowitz said tearfully, looking at a poster showing a photo of the late Herbert Rice, accused now of strangling 20-year-old Eve Wilkowitz 42 years ago. “The last face Eve saw while she was still alive. Now I’m seeing him, so it’s very upsetting for me.”
Herbert Rice was 29 years old then, and staying at a house in Bay Shore, New York. The house was four or five homes away from where Eve Wilkowitz’s body was discovered on March 25, 1980.
Rice died in 1991 of cancer, 11 years after the murder.
District Attorney Raymond Tierney and Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison, together with members of the county’s Homicide Squad and agents from the FBI, made the formal announcement Wednesday that Rice was the killer. Their partnership successfully cracked the first “cold case” in Suffolk County history by utilizing genetic genealogy.
Genetic genealogy involves the use of public websites that hold DNA to search for ancestors or close relatives. Law enforcement has been using the sites more and more to track criminals, most famously in the Golden State Killer case in California, where an ex-police officer was tied to dozens of rapes and murders in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1980, Suffolk County detectives recovered evidence from Eve Wilkowitz that revealed she had been raped before she was murdered. But the science at the time was not sophisticated, and no killer was identified, so the evidence kit remained in storage.
Eve Wilkowitz, who was working at MacMillian Publishing in Manhattan at the time, had taken the last train home to Bay Shore on Friday, March 22, 1980.
Twenty years later, as DNA science started progressing, homicide detectives wanted to retrieve genetic samples from the evidence kit. Forensic experts were able to develop a genetic profile of the unknown killer.
It would be nearly another 20 years before Suffolk County detectives approached the FBI about searching genetic genealogy websites, hoping there would be some kind of match with the unnamed killer’s DNA from the Eve Wilkowitz crime scene.
Last fall, investigators found that DNA from the Wilkowitz murder was linked to a distant relative of the killer, who had submitted a sample to a genealogy website. Their investigation led them to the son of Herbert Rice, who cooperated with detectives and was swabbed for genetic material. There was a strong link to the DNA from the Wilkowitz evidence kit.
On March 10, 2022, Suffolk County police exhumed the skeletal remains of Herbert Rice, who was 40 years old when he died in 1991.
More than 30 years later, the Suffolk County crime lab retrieved a DNA sample from Rice’s remains on March 23, 2022. It was a solid match with the genetic material in the Eve Wilkowitz evidence kit.
Irene Wilkowitz thanked the Rice family members who helped solve the case.
“His family didn’t know anything about it, so I feel very badly for them,” Irene Wilkowitz said at the press conference.
District Attorney Tierney showed an aerial shot of the neighborhood surrounding the Bay Shore Long Island Railroad station, where Eve Wilkowitz had gotten off a train shortly before she was murdered. Tierney said Herbert Rice often hung around the station, drinking.
“Unfortunately, we believe it was a crime of opportunity,” he said.
The county’s police commissioner, Rodney Harrison, thanked his predecessor, Geraldine Hart, for recruiting the FBI to join the investigation. And he thanked homicide detectives and their leader, Lt. Kevin Beyrer, for never giving up on the case.
Eve Wilkowitz’s sister cried as she recalled the trauma she’s lived with for more than four decades.
“I’ve lived these past 42 years afraid all the time,” Irene Wilkowitz said. “I always thought someone else was right around the corner coming after me, too.”
Irene Wilkowitz said her sister never got a chance to fulfill her dreams or become a mother. Irene Wilkowitz herself is a mother of two, and her oldest child, Evan, is named for his aunt.
“I want you to know that Eve and all other murder victims are not just stories,” Irene Wilkowitz said at the press conference. “She was a real person. She loved to go horseback riding. She had lots of friends.”