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A tip and a fingerprint help solve 1994 Rensselaer County cold case homicide

Authorities in Rensselaer County say they have cracked a 28-year-old murder case.

On August 19, 1994, Wilomeana Filkins was found dead in her Coventry Lane apartment by relatives who went to check on her. The 81-year old, known as "Violet," was a robbery victim who investigators say had died two days earlier after being struck on the head.

The investigation spanning nearly three decades saw officers check out more than 2,000 leads, conducting multiple interviews of neighbors and suspects including a then 18-year-old Columbia High graduate who lived in the same apartment complex.

Originally from Minnesota, Jeremiah Guyette was never a person of interest and moved to Red Hook shortly after the murder. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Florida. After he was discharged Guyette eventually settled in Rosendale, where investigators interviewed him October 1st, 2019, telling Guyette they needed to talk about something that had happened 25 years ago.

East Greenbush Detective Sgt. Michael Guadagnino: "Guyette became defensive, visibly upset, and stated he would not speak to us without an attorney," said Guadagnino. "On that day, investigators continued conducting extensive interviews of family members, co-workers and friends of Jeremiah. The next morning at approximately 7:30, which would have been October 2, 2019. New York State Police Kingston, who covered the area of Rosendale where Jeremiah lived were called to Jeremiah's residents for report of gunshots. Investigation revealed that Jeremiah was found deceased in his garage from an apparent gunshot wound to the head. On October 4th, an autopsy was conducted and the cause of death was suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wound. At this point, postmortem fingerprints and DNA were obtained from Jeremiah and submitted to the New York State Police for further comparison to the original evidence in the case. Over the course of the next few months, multiple leads which stemmed from previous interviews that day were followed up on by investigators.”

Guadagnino says the major break came in April 2019 with a tip from an ex-girlfriend. “The acquaintance shared that approximately in 2009, August of 2009, Jeremiah had started crying at their home and made statements such as ‘that poor old woman. I robbed her. I hit her and I just left her there. This can't be true. I'm sure she's fine,’” Guadagnino said.

As forensic technology advanced, investigators were able to put all the pieces of the cold case together, confirming a thumbprint found on a coffee table in Filkins' living room matched Guyette’s. A family member who lives out-of-state came forward, saying she had received a text message from Guyette the day police questioned him.

"She first received a text message that he wanted to speak to her about an incident, and then a follow up call which was corroborated with Jeremiah's phone records, that the family member who lived out of state was planning a trip to New York," said Guadagnino. "And when speaking with her, Jeremiah said he might not be around when she arrived here on the trip. He further stated that he was younger, and a long time ago, he had planned to steal a car and rob a bank to get money for college. He then stated someone had died, but he didn't want to talk any more over the phone. He further stated to the family member that he didn't want to go to prison and was in a panic. At this time the family member helped to make arrangements to meet with an attorney on October 2nd, 2019. That was corroborated through the attorney. And then on October 2nd, 2019, Jeremiah took his own life.”

Guadagnino says the case was solved through collaboration by police agencies over the decades. Rensselaer County District Attorney Mary Pat Donnelly says the case carries an important lesson.

"There have been so many advances in law enforcement techniques and technology," said Donnelly. "And all of those were used expertly, by the East Greenbush police and the state police to bring this case to close and to tie up all those loose ends. But I just want to draw attention to what brought us here today. And that was an individual coming forward with information. And that old fashioned way of solving unsolved cases is very, very important, probably now more than ever, and I just want to make a statement on behalf of Rensselaer County and the East Greenbush community, that we need to work with our law enforcement. We need to cooperate, we need to share, so that we can keep each other safe. The fact that a tragedy of this magnitude happened in this town which I promise all of you is a safe place to live is evidence that can happen anywhere. And we all have to be on alert, and when we do know something we have to come forward to law enforcement and share what we know."

Filkins’ niece Carol was one of the relatives who found Violet's body.

“All the remaining family is extremely impressed with the persistence of law enforcement and the work and coordination done on behalf of my Aunt's case. And the fact that we've gotten this far and gotten to not only identify the person, but then were able to have the hard and fast evidence to support the case. And it's just remarkable that so much work was done over so much time," Carol said."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.