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June 26, 2014 at 9:55 AM

Man linked by DNA to 1980 Bellevue slaying pleads guilty

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Michael Halgren, in orange jail scrubs, confers with his attorney this morning in King County Superior Court. (Photo by Jennifer Sullivan / The Seattle Times)

A man who was recently linked by DNA to the slaying of a 19-year-old Bellevue woman in 1980 pleaded guilty to second-degree murder this morning in King County Superior Court.

Michael Halgren, 58, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for strangling Susan Lowe in her apartment with a pair of pantyhose.

Despite a reward, the case went cold until 2012, when scientists from the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory matched DNA found inside Lowe’s bedroom with Halgren, according to court charges.

Halgren was charged with first-degree murder in January 2013. Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kristin Richardson said after this morning’s hearing that the DNA evidence had degraded over time, which is why they agreed to the reduced charge.

“These issues are typical in cold cases,” Richardson explained. “We have no doubt it was him.”

Halgren’s DNA was collected while he was a patient at the Special Commitment Center (SCC) on McNeil Island, where he had been civilly committed in 2002. He had been convicted of first-degree rape, stemming from a 1989 sexual assault on a woman in Bellevue; and of unlawful imprisonment after he abducted a prostitute in Seattle in 1995, according to court records.

According to the murder charges in the Lowe case, doctors at McNeil Island learned over the years that Halgren had peeped through women’s windows when he was a teen, exposed himself to nearly 40 women when he was in his early 20s and raped more than 20 women, mainly prostitutes, after being discharged from the military in 1975.

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Susan Lowe

He also told doctors he raped a relative after graduating from high school and raped three more women in 1974, 1979 and 1980, according to charging paperwork.

When questioned about Lowe, Halgren said he never dated her and did not recognize her photograph, charges said. However, Halgren had lived about three blocks from Lowe’s apartment at the time she was killed, according to Bellevue police.

After this morning’s hearing, Richardson said that Lowe and Halgren were likely strangers, even though they frequented the same eastside bowling alley.

“She was a young 19-year-old woman trying to find her way in the world,” Richardson said. She added that Lowe worked at a furniture store and dreamed of becoming an interior designer.

Though Lowe’s family didn’t attend the plea hearing, Richardson said they’re happy the case is resolved.

Halgren’s sentencing is set for July 18.

Richardson said that after serving his prison term, Halgren will be returned to the SCC to live until it is determined that he will likely not reoffend. She said it is likely he will never be released from state custody.

Diane Dietz, a reporter at The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., was Lowe’s roommate when she was slain and discovered her body. In an email to The Seattle Times, she wrote:

“Susan was a beautiful young woman who was mischievous and funny. She loved people and they loved her. She had a tender heart. She’d tear up at GE commercials — and then laugh at the silliness. She watched the SuperSonics and Lost in Space. She was fascinated by the then-growing bulge on Mount Saint Helen’s flank. She spent a whole night with her roommate getting the melody and harmony to “Today While the Blossoms Still Cling to the Vine” just right.”

Dietz said Halgren “took my faith in the world, my sense that things would turn out O.K. My nerves were permanently frayed.”

In a statement released this morning, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said there”is a special satisfaction when we can solve a murder more than three decades old using modern forensic science.”

“It is due to the dedication of the Bellevue Police Department, the Crime Lab and our Cold Case Project that this man, who thought he had gotten away with murder, will now spend up to the rest of his life in prison,” Satterberg said in the statement.

Comments | More in The Blotter | Topics: Bellevue Police, cold case, DNA

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