COLD CASE: Persistent detectives, unusual use of DNA solve Ontario rape

ONTARIO – Under a gray October sky, Oregon State Police Detective Damian Acosta drove south toward Klamath Falls and a rendezvous with justice.

Some six hours and 360 miles away lay the embers of a cold case that suddenly burned hot.

Acosta couldn’t help but be excited as he drove. He felt he and his colleagues were about to provide relief for an elderly Ontario woman and her family.

The veteran detective knew much had to go right to finally catch the suspect in the 2012 rape. He worried Michael G. Souter, then 36, would evade police one more time.

Police had turned to a DNA technique not widely used in the country to make the case that Souter was their man. Born in Mississippi and with a record of petty crimes, Souter had disappeared from Ontario just as police closed in.

In the long hours across the Oregon outback, Acosta tumbled the case in his mind, thinking of the elderly victim, of more than three years of work to keep alive hopes for this day.

Acosta, a religious man, thought to himself: the good Lord put me here now for a reason.

Still, it would take luck, a ruse and a confrontation at gunpoint before the drive proved justified.

A cup of water

The doorbell rang as 78-year-old Wilma Clason rested on her couch on a cold Friday afternoon just days before Christmas 2012. A retired nurse, Clason lived alone in the Ontario condominium and was tired. She was in no mood for company.

She pulled her robe tight around her as she stepped to the door to answer the bell. It was a stranger – Souter.

Souter told her he heard the person tasked to do yard work at her complex was going to quit and that he did such work. Clason said he needed to talk to her landlord.

“Do you want the number?” she asked.

Souter said he did.

“Well, just a minute. I’ll get you the phone number,” Clason replied.

She headed for her kitchen and reached for a green sticky note with the number. She realized Souter had followed her.

“What a pretty gown,” Souter said. “What’s under it?”

He tried to lift the gown.

“Can I have a peek?” Souter asked.

“I want you to leave,” Clason said as she moved toward to the front door.

Souter grabbed her from behind and she screamed. Souter clamped his hand over her mouth.

Clason bit hard into one of Souter’s fingers. He pulled his hand away and then shoved her down the hall toward her bedroom. Souter threw her on the bed.

Clason thought of going for her purse, just out of reach between the bed and a window. Inside was a Taser her son had given to her for protection.

She needed to distract Souter long enough to grab for it. She asked once, and then again and again, for a drink of water. Souter finally agreed.

As he headed for her bathroom, Clason scooted toward the edge of the bed but Souter saw.

“Don’t you move!” he ordered.

Twice more, he went for the water and twice more Clason moved towards the purse and the protection inside. Souter returned with a Styrofoam cup of water and stood between the window and the bed.

Then he squatted near her.

“See what a nice guy I am?” he said.

Clason talked to buy time. She asked Souter if he had a wife. He told her no. She asked where he lived. He said Caldwell. She asked Souter what he wanted.

“We’re gonna have sex, OK? And then I will leave. Just be careful, be quiet now and I will leave,” Souter told her.

Then he raped her.

When he stuffed a pillow over Clason’s face, she struggled free. Souter then went for her throat. Now on the floor, she kept fighting. She grabbed his right hand and tried to scream. Souter put his hand over her mouth and pinched her nose shut. She knocked off his baseball cap and he let go of her throat to put it back on. She tried to scratch his face.

“All I know was I was struggling to stay alive and he was trying to kill me,” Clason recalled in a recent interview with the Malheur Enterprise.

Souter clutched her throat again, strangling her with his thumbs.

Clason said at that moment she felt the terror evaporate. She thought of God.

“There was this peace as I realized I probably wasn’t going to live,” said Clason.

She didn’t feel God was there.

“Yet I knew, even though I did not feel his presence, he was with me,” said Clason. “And I decided, I was going to fight as long as I could.”

She looked her attacker in the face and told him God would never let him get away with the crime.

Souter ignored her, strangling her into unconsciousness.

When Clason came to nearly two hours later, her first thought was: “This is the worst dream I have ever had. This is terrible.”

‘A very important case’

Officer Greg Bakken of the Ontario Police Department responded to Clason’s 911 call that afternoon.

“I knew early on this was going to be a very important case just by looking at her face and her injuries,” Bakken said.

She initially gave police a vague description of the attacker and then helped generate a composite sketch. Ontario police distributed the sketch to the media on Dec. 17, three days after Souter fled Clason’s apartment.

Tips poured in, including a crucial one from a local apartment manager. She said the sketch looked like Souter, and that two years earlier she had suspected he tried to force his way into an elderly woman’s apartment in Fruitland. The manager now ran the Ontario complex near where Clason lived. Two hours before the attack, a tenant there reported Souter had come to her window, asking to be let in. He wasn’t.

Souter was one of several persons of interest who made it into Ontario police files. Four months into the investigation, Ontario police asked the Oregon State Police to join the case.

“We didn’t have the personnel to investigate,” said Bakken. His agency logged 12 reported rapes in the city that year.

Detective Damian Acosta and Sgt. Detective Javier Marquez Jr. of the Oregon State Police took the lead on investigating the rape of an elderly woman in Ontario. (Malheur Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

The State Police assigned Detective Sgt. Javier Marquez Jr. and his partner Damian Acosta. At that point, Acosta had been with the agency 13 years. He became a detective 2008. Marquez had been with the State Police 12 years and was promoted to detective in 2009.

They worked out of the agency’s Ontario office, north of town just off Interstate 84.

The two understood after years of police work the need to keep some distance between themselves and a victim. Wilma Clason was different.

“This could have been our grandma,” Marquez said.

Bakken briefed the two detectives and they worked their way through the case file. The information about Souter’s behavior caught their eyes. Marquez turned his attention to learning about him.

He discovered that the Ontario man was no stranger to law enforcement. Along with a prowling charge and a driving offense out of Ada County, he had been involved in domestic abuse in Payette County.

“The prowling was a red flag. That piqued our interest,” said Marquez.

Through 2013, Acosta, Marquez, and Bakken tracked down and eliminated leads. Eventually more than 20 people were questioned.

Police had recovered DNA from the attack, and now the detectives asked 13 potential suspects to give a sample of their own DNA to compare.

All agreed – except one.

The brush off

Michael Souter wasn’t easy to find.

“When I looked him up several addresses came up for him. We were in contact with law enforcement agencies in Payette County and they gave us some back addresses and we followed up, but he was not there,” said Marquez.

In August 2013, they tracked Souter to his girlfriend’s Ontario home. Standing on the front porch, they introduced themselves to Souter, and told him what they were investigating, and explained how he was on their radar.

“We told him there were various tips that were called in by the public, and we were going through the list and you are one of the people on the list,” said Marquez.

Souter, Marquez said, was pleasant.

“We were trying to keep it toned down. That is one of our methods. We don’t want to interrogate people in that format because we want to talk to them later. He answered our questions,” said Marquez.

Souter grew agitated, however, when they told him about the allegation that he had been seen stalking at a complex near where Clason lived.

Maintaining their low-key approach, the detectives asked Souter to volunteer a DNA sample.

He shook his head. No way.

He said he was afraid he was being set up and that he knew nothing about the rape. He said the detectives could come see him again – after they had crossed every other person of interest off their list. They said they would.

Meanwhile, leads evaporated and the investigation stalled.

Marquez kept thinking about the DNA and wondering whether Souter’s would match that recovered the day of the crime.

And then he remembered his training in something called familial DNA. This is a process where DNA from the relative of a suspect is used to see whether there is a possible match with crime scene DNA. The technique is fairly new in police work, and Marquez researched two cases that had been cleared with just such an approach. One was a serial killer case in Kansas in 2005. The other was the Grim Sleeper killer in Los Angeles, where familial DNA helped police lock in on a man who had been murdering women since the 1980s. Maybe the Oregon case could be cleared that way too.

Javier Marquez Jr., a detective sergeant with the Oregon State Police, turned to a seldom-used DNA technique to solve a cold case. (Malheur Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

Marquez knew Souter had a son. An OSP forensic scientist, Heather Feaman, said the child’s DNA could be compared to the Clason evidence to determine whether Souter had been involved.

But there was an obstacle.

The child was living with a great aunt who only had temporary, not full, custody. Malheur County prosecutors didn’t think she had the authority to allow a DNA sample.

The detectives, for the moment, dropped the idea of using the novel DNA technique to solve the case.

“We didn’t even research it very far because of the custody issues,” said Marquez.

They considered trailing Souter, waiting for him to throw away something like gum that would contain his DNA.

“We knew he wasn’t working so it was hard to put the resources into surveiling him day and night,” said Marquez.

By autumn 2013, the case had stalled.

The grip of fear

As the calendar turned to a new year, Acosta and Marquez focused on other major crimes.

They didn’t forget Clason, though.

From time to time they made a phone calls and chased down a new lead. Michael Souter remained their prime person of interest.

Meantime, Clason moved out of her apartment, lived with her son for a while, and then found a new apartment. Her faith sustained her, she said.

But the attack haunted her – and changed her. Before, she had a habit of singing around her home as she worked.

“It made me feel happy,” said Clason.

Souter, though, ended that when he permanently damaged her throat.

“It took three weeks for my throat to stop bleeding,” said Clason.

She disliked going to the doctor because she was afraid of being in the elevator alone.

She took her name out of the phone book.

If the doorbell rang, she panicked.

She left a light on at night.

She had flashbacks. Ghosts from that day danced around her, especially at night.

Once, as she tried to sleep, she was sure a big man was brushing against a stack of boxes in her tiny apartment. She was terrified and called 911. Police arrived and checked her apartment but found no evidence of an intruder.

She worked to shake the memory of Souter. That remained a day-by-day struggle.

A key break

In late summer 2016, nearly four years after the attack, the State Police detectives got a call that pulled the Clason case out of pending status.

The great aunt who earlier had temporary custody of Souter’s son reported she had adopted the boy. She agreed to let the detectives get the DNA sample they long ago hoped for.

On Aug. 30, 2016, Marquez met the 7-year-old child at the OSP office. Marquez carefully swabbed the boy’s mouth for four oral samples that would yield DNA.

He placed the swabs in a special packet, sealing it with evidence tape. He had the samples shipped with orders for tests to the primary State Police laboratory, outside Portland in Clackamas.

About six weeks later, the detectives got the report that would be Souter’s undoing: Portions of the son’s DNA matched that of the crime, meaning that Souter couldn’t be eliminated as a suspect.

Marquez reached out to Feaman, the forensic scientist, to be certain he understood her scientific findings.

She explained that it was more likely than not the biological father of the boy was the source of the DNA from the rape evidence.

That was enough to justify a search warrant that would force Souter himself to provide a DNA sample.

Now, the two detectives had to find their man.

Detectives close in

They went back to the last place they had seen him four years earlier – the girlfriend’s Ontario home.

She answered their knock and said Souter was gone, working at a meat packing plant in Klamath Falls.

Later that day, Marquez answered his phone. It was Souter.

“Hey,” Souter said. “Janice said you came by.”

Marquez asked Souter about getting a DNA sample, but the suspect said he was several hundred miles away in Spokane. He said he expected to be back in Ontario in about a month. Maybe they could link up then.

Marquez and Acosta suspected Souter was really in Klamath Falls, as his girlfriend said, and reached out to the State Police office there for help.

Both detectives were anxious now, after nearly four years, to get to Souter.

“I was excited. If there was any wiggle room or inkling to what his girlfriend was saying, then he could be in Klamath Falls. Each day he was free he gets another opportunity to do horrible things to people,” Acosta said.

State Police detectives in Klamath Falls confirmed Souter was there but no longer working at the meat plant.

“When they confirmed he had been working there, that was a plus – but the fact he wasn’t working there now was downer. So we broadened our scope. We decided to go down there to where he was employed and see if we could dig up some leads,” Acosta said.

As Acosta hit the road for Klamath Falls, Marquez went before a judge who issued a warrant for Souter’s arrest.

They were as close as they had ever been to finding justice for Clason.

The last paycheck

Acosta found that the meat packing plant still owed Souter a paycheck. A company official agreed to call him to come pick up the check.

“I will be right there,” Souter told her.

Acosta and Tom Andreazzi, another state detective with him, had to think fast. They had hoped to get a lead on where to find Souter. Now, he was unwittingly coming to them.

Usually when police arrest someone like Souter, they deploy a large force. But Acosta and Andreazzi were on their own with no time to arrange a large welcoming committee.

“So we make a hasty plan. We didn’t know where he was coming from. We grab our ballistic vests and our equipment and prepare,” said Acosta.

Detective Damain Acosta of the Oregon State Police tracked the chief suspect in a cold case to Klamath Falls (Malheur Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

The two detectives concealed themselves in a stairwell that led into the meat packing plant. They didn’t have to wait long.

Souter got out of his car, walked over, and opened the door into the stairwell.

Acosta, his weapon drawn, announced himself and demanded Souter show his hands.

Souter hesitated. Then slowly showed his hands to Acosta.

“It could have gone south right there but he ends up showing me his hands,” said Acosta.

Souter soon was in handcuffs.

Acosta felt relief, but the work was far from over.

“An arrest doesn’t mean a conviction,” said Acosta.

Under questioning after his arrest, Souter insisted he hadn’t raped Clason. He was moved to the Malheur County Jail in Vale, where Marquez went to see him on Nov. 11, 2016.

By then, he had been charged with attempted murder, rape, and strangulation.

“He was pretty subdued and totally cooperative,” said Marquez. Marquez had a warrant and told Souter he was going to take swabs for DNA purposes.

Ten days later, the detectives learned the test results.

Souter’s DNA matched that preserved from the crime.

The resolution

Souter’s case would be the first prosecution for a new state elder abuse task force established by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. The lead prosecutor was Assistant Attorney General Dan Norris, who had been Malheur County’s district attorney at the time of the crime.

“This case has really bothered me for a long time,” said Norris. “I think that was something everyone who touched that case said.”

Clason watched the prosecution unfold, attending hearings and then the trial. She faced her attacker from the courtroom benches – and then from the witness stand.

“I wanted him to see me there with my family. We were not going to back down,” said Clason.

She took the stand at the trial last July.

By then 83, Clason recounted what had happened to her that December afternoon. She was facing Souter.

“He stared at me and shook his head. I looked right back at him. God gave me some kind of special strength. I wasn’t upset seeing him. The upset part was in the past,” said Clason.

Souter took the stand and gave a surprising justification for why the DNA matched. He and Clason, he said, were in a consensual relationship.

Michael G. Souter (Malheur County Sheriff’s Office)

Jurors didn’t buy the story and convicted Souter of charges that included attempted murder and rape.

He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, a term he is serving at the state prison outside Ontario, eight miles from were the crime occurred. He is appealing.

Clason said her life now is as close to normal as it will ever be. She lives quietly near her son and visits her husband, who lives in a local care center.

She misses her singing. She is no longer as outgoing as she once was.

She said an 18-year-old man who lives above her seems to be a hard worker and is a good person. He always treats her kindly.

In days past, she said, she would have invited him in for a chat.

But she won’t now – or ever.

As for Souter, Clason recalled that moment telling him that God would not let him get away with his crime.

She now hopes God will help him.

Clason said her faith led her to forgive Souter. She didn’t want him to have a hold on her.

“If I did not forgive him, I would drag him through my life and I can’t do that,” said Clason.


How we reported this story

This special project by reporter Pat Caldwell is the result of weeks spent reviewing hundreds of pages of police reports released by Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County Circuit Court documents, multiple interviews with the two State Police detectives, and an extensive interview with the victim. The Malheur Enterprise ordinarily doesn’t identify the victims of sexual assaults, but in this case the victim consented to the use of her name.

Contact Reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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