Cold case file: DNA fingers suspect in decades-old Magnolia murder

Suspect John Nicholas Athan, who was a 14-year-old Magnolia resident at the time of the slaying, was arrested last week in Palisades Park, N.J., and is being held on a no-bail fugitive warrant, said King County Prosecutor's office spokesman Dan Donohoe.

The victim, Kristen Sumstad, was found on Nov. 12, 1982, strangled to death and half-naked in a television box behind what is now a Corry's Fine Drycleaning store at 3800 34th Ave. W. The body of the eighth-grade McClure Middle School student was discovered by an employee of what was then Magnolia TV Service, according to a story published in the Nov. 17, 1982 issue of the Magnolia News.

The story quotes police as saying the girl "had apparently been killed elsewhere and her body brought to the location."

The murder came as a shock to residents in Magnolia, where serious crime has always been a rarity, and Seattle's daily newspapers speculated that Sumstad was murdered because she was involved with drugs and older men.

Friends and acquaintances disputed that, according to a News article about Sumstad's funeral. "She [Kristen] definitely wasn't the little tramp they made her out to be," the article quotes Magnolian Barbara Brown as saying.

The same story quotes Seattle police as saying that they had no outstanding leads in the case and that "everybody is a suspect at this point."

However, Athan - who knew Kristen's older sister - was a suspect early on, according to court documents, which note the teenager had been seen on 34th Avenue West pushing a large box on a hand truck the night before the girl's body was found four blocks away.

Athan, who was part of a large, extended family, told police he was using the box to steal firewood from his Magnolia neighbors, and there apparently wasn't enough evidence to arrest the boy. But police did recover and keep semen samples from Sumstad's body, and the samples were submitted 10 years later to the Washington State Crime Lab for DNA testing.

The samples were submitted around the same time that Athan's older brother told police his brother had admitted to a role in the murder and rape, according to court documents.

DNA testing was not very sophisticated in 1992, and the test failed to produce any results. But a test of the same samples in 2002 using advances in DNA technology did produce results, and they were com- pared to state and national DNA data bases.

There was no match, said police spokesman Duane Fish at a press conference announcing Athan's arrest on first-degree murder charges. So cold-case detectives used a ruse to obtain a DNA sample from Athan, who moved to New Jersey in the early 1990s. The ruse involved getting Athan to sign and mail a letter back to Seattle, and a DNA sample was recovered from saliva used to lick the envelope, Fish said. "It [the DNA evidence] was obtained legally," he stressed.

The sample from the envelope was compared this April to the samples taken from Sumstad's body and the two matched, Fish said. Athan, a New Jersey building contractor who is estranged from his wife, was arrested May 20 as he was working on a backhoe at a construction site.

A pudgy, 35-year-old man who looked sheepish in a photo taken at his May 21 court appearance, Athan pleaded not guilty and declined to waive extradition, said Donohoe from the prosecutor's office. Extradition proceedings will probably take a couple of months, he said.

Once Athan reaches Seattle, he will be held on a $2.5 million bond, according to court documents, which note Athan's criminal history includes attempting to elude, failure to appear and a drug bust in 1992.

"The defendant also represents a flight risk as he is not without monetary resources and is believed to have family contacts in Greece," the documents add. Donohoe said Athan will be tried as an adult, even though he was a juvenile at the time the murder was committed.

"We don't foresee any legal bar- rier to trying him as an adult," he added. The standard sentencing range for first-degree murder in Washington state is 21 years and nine months to 28 years and 11 months, Donohoe said.

The sentence is a marked contrast to what Athan would have faced had he been convicted of the crime as a juvenile. The maximum sentence then was staying in jail until he turned 21, Donohoe said.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at

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