UPDATE: On April 20, 2023, New York State Police arrested a 42-year-old man for second-degree murder in connection with Megan McDonald’s homicide.
“There's this Maya Angelou quote that says, ‘I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’,” Karen Whalen told Dateline. “And I feel that sums my sister up to a T. Like, if you met her -- just the way that she just made you feel comfortable -- you just felt like you knew her forever.”
Karen’s little sister, Megan McDonald, was murdered on March 15, 2003, in Wallkill, New York.
She was only 20 years old.
Almost as much time has passed as Megan was alive, and her family is still looking for answers. New York State Police are, too, and they have just released details on a new lead in Megan’s case in the hope that answers -- and justice – will finally be found.
“She Would Have Done Something Right for the World”
Karen and Megan McDonald grew up in Middletown, New York. “We moved to Middletown when Megan was like 7 months old,” Karen told Dateline. “And so that’s really the only home that she ever knew.”
The sisters enjoyed spending time with each other. “She was always fun,” Karen said. “My sister was always, always there. Like, whether we were going to little league games or we were, I don't know, going to the movies or playing games or playing something outside. Like, we were always together.” The sisters also had two younger half-brothers on their father’s side.
Megan was extremely compassionate, according to Karen. “The cats that we had were stray animals that she had found,” Karen said. “She was one of those, like, you didn't know what was gonna happen.”
When Karen was in college, she met James Whalen, the man who would become her husband. James told Dateline he remembers going to meet Karen’s family, and more specifically, 16-year-old Megan for the first time. “It was intimidating to me,” James said, “but -- and this is where Karen talks about Megan's compassion -- she could easily have intimidated me if she wanted to. And she didn't. She made me, you know, she made me feel like part of the family.”
When it was time for Megan to go to college, she didn’t go too far. She chose to attend SUNY Orange right in Middletown. Karen told Dateline she didn’t know what Megan wanted to do with her life after college, but she has given some thought to it in the years since. “We really do think it would be something with, like, young children,” Karen said. “Something where her compassion really would have come through. She would have done something right for the world.”
That was just Megan: warm, loving, friendly. “She had the warmth around her that you just felt so comfortable and you just felt so excited to be near her,” Karen said.
The Birthday Party
Dateline spoke with New York State Police investigators Brad Natalizio and Michael Corletta about Megan’s case. “We both grew up in this area and this has been, you know, a big local case for years,” Detective Natalizio said. “We definitely heard about it growing up.”
The detectives told Dateline that at the beginning of March, 2003, Megan signed a lease for a new apartment near Middletown in the town of Wallkill, New York. “This was a -- an interesting time in her life where she was just looking to, you know, we feel she was just looking to start her life as -- as a young adult,” Det. Natalizio told Dateline.
Then came March 13.
“At around 10:00 a.m., she started her shift at the American Cafe, where she worked as a waitress, and she worked there until about 3:00 p.m.,” Det. Natalizio began.
After work was over, Megan went to a nearby bank and withdrew some money.
“The next known time plot that we have -- we know that she was in the area of Greenway Terrace in the town of Wallkill,” Det. Natalizio said. The detectives told Dateline the investigation revealed Megan had a short conversation outside with two individuals she knew who were throwing a birthday party there. “Those two individuals advised her to come in -- come inside of the party,” Det. Natalizio said. “At which point she declined.”
Partygoers later told authorities the two individuals returned to the party and told them Megan was going to hang out with a different set of friends in Middletown.
“That party is very -- is very significant in this case,” Det. Natalizio stressed. “So she then goes to her friend's house located in the city of Middletown from about 7:30 p.m. until about midnight.”
The detectives told Dateline this was one of Megan’s best friends. “They hung out, they watched the show ‘Friends,’” Det. Natalizio said. “At which point, Megan told her friend that she was going to be leaving and told her that she was going to be going straight home because she had to wake up early for work the following morning.”
That’s the last time Megan’s best friend said she saw Megan.
Detective Natalizio told Dateline that for some reason, instead of going straight home, Megan went back to where that birthday party was being held in the Greenway Terrace area in Wallkill. “It was observed by two other friends who were exiting that party, who -- who saw Megan and saw her driving her vehicle,” Det. Natalizio said. “They had a short conversation with Megan and -- at which point Megan insinuated that she was going to be meeting up with somebody.”
Those two friends then watched Megan pull away and drive down Cindy Lane. “That was pretty much the last time that anyone saw her saw her alive – approximately 12:30 a.m.,” Det. Natalizio said.
Detectives told Dateline that on Friday, March 14, Megan’s family and friends became worried. “They didn’t hear from her. She didn’t show up for her shift, which was supposed to start at noon,” Detective Natalizio said. “They started calling her cell phone and leaving voicemails asking -- asking where she was.”
Karen and James Whalen lived two hours away from the Wallkill area where Megan was last seen. “My mom couldn't get ahold of her,” Karen said. “And so we then started to worry.”
James added that as the day went on, the level of concern grew. “You go from, at first, being sort of annoyed or angry to, like, where are you?”
They didn’t have to wait much longer to find out.
The next day, “individuals that owned property in the area of 229 Bowser Road in the town of Wallkill -- they observed a body,” Det. Natalizio told Dateline. “They just knew it looked like a young -- a young female and they immediately called the state police in Middletown.”
The New York State Police responded to the scene and identified the body as Megan through her driver's license.
“The area off of Bowser road, it was – it's a very, it's a narrow dirt path that leads back to just, like, a small dirt cul-de-sac in the middle of a field. It's a very desolate area,” Det. Natalizio explained. “We are confident that whoever -- whoever she went there with, she would have had to -- she would have had to know that individual and she would have also had to trust that individual because I would be scared of driving there by myself at nighttime.”
Investigators believe Megan was killed at that location.
While the news was devastating to Megan’s family, “We do feel very fortunate in the fact that they were able to find her,” Karen told Dateline. “They did find her body very quickly. We did have that -- a sense of closure that we were able to have, you know, a service for her and a funeral for her and say goodbye to her, in that fashion.” Not every family in their position gets that. “I mean, we definitely don't have closure with everything else, but we do feel fortunate, because we know there are so many other families that don't have at least that piece that we were able to have.”
While at the crime scene, the state police had conducted an inquiry to see if Megan owned any vehicles. They learned that she owned a 1991 Mercury Sable. Authorities put the information about Megan’s car out to local police and the media.
A few days later, someone at the Kensington Manor apartment complex in Wallkill contacted the state police and informed them that Megan’s car was parked at the complex. “We know that vehicle is there the early morning or approximately 8:00 a.m. on March 14th, so it was there for a few days,” Det. Natalizio told Dateline. “It was parked as if some individuals left it -- they left in a hurry.”
19 Years and Counting
In the past year, Det. Natalizio and Det. Corletta say they have dedicated time to reinterviewing people related to the case. They now have a new lead and are hoping for the public’s help.
“We conducted a re-canvas of Kensington Manor. We re-interviewed an individual who was interviewed early on and provided some interesting information,” Det. Natalizio told Dateline.
“She advised that approximately 12:30 on the night of the homicide, she observed Megan -- Megan's vehicle, which was a very distinct vehicle. It was a 1991 Mercury Sable – color white with a black stripe down the side,” the detective told Dateline. “But what caught her attention was a vehicle that was behind her car which had an extremely loud sound system in the car. And she said that the sound system was so loud that that's why she looked out the window.”
Detectives think this new detail about the car is extremely important to the case.
“She observed a dark-colored hatchback-style vehicle, which she described as either a Honda Civic hatchback or just a hatchback style vehicle right behind Megan's car,” Det. Natalizio continued. “The condo complex kind of has a big kind of a loop. Shortly thereafter the cars came back around. So it appears that they did a full loop in the parking lot and she observed that same vehicle behind Megan's vehicle with the radio system very, very loud.”
The New York State police are asking anybody who knew an individual who was operating a dark car similar to a Honda Civic hatchback with an extremely loud sound system in 2003, to come forward and provide information.
“From there, we kind of have a timeline of a window when – when the homicide occurred,” Det. Natalizio said. “And that would be from around 12:30 a.m. until approximately 8:00 the next morning.”
The window closes at 8:00 a.m. on March 14, because “around 8:00 a.m., another individual living in that complex observed Megan's parked vehicle,” Det. Natalizio said, referencing Kensington Manor. “And he took note of it -- took mental note of the vehicle that he saw it that morning.”
Detectives believe that the person who had been following Megan in the hatchback-style car, ultimately got into Megan’s backseat and they then drove to the desolate location down Bowser Road where Megan was killed.
“We believe that there was two individuals who then drove her vehicle back to the Kensington Manor apartment complex,” Det. Natalizio told Dateline. Authorities also believe at least one of the individuals then got into the dark Honda Civic-looking hatchback with the loud sound system that had been parked at the complex and drove away.
Once Megan’s car was found, it was processed for evidence. “The crime scene reveals that she was ultimately killed with a blunt object while seated in the driver's seat of her vehicle,” Det. Natalizio told Dateline.
“The investigators early on did a tremendous, tremendous job safeguarding a lot of those items and ultimately sending them for DNA analysis… There's over 700 items of evidence in the case,” Det. Natalizio said. “Every item in the case -- every item we can think of -- has been looked at,” Det. Corletta added. The detectives also noted that the private lab Cybergenetics is being used to re-examine DNA.
As the science, DNA testing and technology all improve, the detectives are hopeful more leads will be developed. They are also determined to get the kind of leads that don’t come from science. “We're really looking for the human element,” said Det. Natalizio. “You know, for individuals to come forward and help piece some of the pieces of the puzzle -- the -- the last few pieces together.” One of those new puzzle pieces is the dark hatchback-style car, possibly a Honda Civic, with the loud sound system.
The detectives told Dateline that authorities do have two suspects in the case.
“One suspect who had a clear motive. We believe this is intimate partner violence,” Det. Natalizio said. Authorities are grateful for the assistance they’ve gotten from various agencies over the years. “The FBI has been a monumental part of this investigation,” Det. Natalizio said, including the Behavioral Analysis Unit. “They provided us a tremendous amount of information which corroborates a lot of our thinking, as well. And, you know, we believe that that particular night that this was a crime of passion. It was overkill, intimate partner violence -- individual had a motive, there was an extreme level of rage.”
Ultimately, Det. Natalizio said, “we believe it was what the BAU would describe as a narcissistic injury to suspect which caused the suspect to go into a rage.”
That theory didn’t surprise Megan’s sister, Karen, who told Dateline Megan was not shy about her opinions and was definitely not a wallflower. “Whoever did this to her, you know, we just -- we assume, like, she just said something,” Karen said. “And -- and this person beat up this little tiny 5’2”, 100 lb.-nothing little girl.”
James agreed with his wife. “I think we can take pride in that. Whatever happened that night, Megan was standing up for herself,” James said. “And that's in direct contrast to the cowardly actions of whoever did that.”
Authorities say the second suspect in the case is dead. “And we believe he was there just based on the circumstances,” Det. Natalizio told Dateline. The detectives would not reveal the name of either suspect to Dateline, but stressed that Megan’s former boyfriend, who had been considered a person of interest early in the investigation, has been eliminated as a suspect.
It’s Never Too Late to Do the Right Thing
Megan’s family believes someone from the 2003 Wallkill community has the key to her case and is pleading for them to come forward with information.
“There's not a doubt in our mind that if Megan knew something about -- if she had had information about a case like this -- she would have done the right thing and she would have come forward,” Megan’s sister Karen told Dateline. “That says a lot about her, that I can say that with confidence that if she had known something, she would have -- she would have been, you know brave.”
Karen’s husband agreed. “Courage isn't always just, you know, jumping out of an airplane or something like that,” James said. “It's doing the right thing when the right thing is not the easy thing to do -- and she would have.”
Karen and James hope that by continuing to tell Megan’s story, someone will be inspired to be brave. “People out there, they know what the right thing to do is,” James said. “They have not done it yet.”
Karen and James Whalen are hopeful that the new leads being developed will finally bring answers. And justice for Megan that will stick.
“There's a process that needs to be followed,” James said. “So, you know, we -- we are very comfortable with the police doing what they need to do to follow that process to have an airtight case,” James said.
“We are, you know, are grateful, and I can't tell you what the state police have done for us over the last 19 years,” Karen added. “And how they've worked this case.”
Karen and Megan’s father worked for the NYPD for 20 years, including as a homicide detective. “Seeing what my dad would put into cases and how it affected him personally and the care that he brought to cases,” Karen told Dateline, “I feel for the police officers that have carried this for years for my sister. And I know that it's -- it's more, you know, it's -- it's personal to them at this point.”
Karen told Dateline their father died of a heart attack just over a year before Megan was killed. He was only 47 years old. “We made sure as a family to get together the following Christmas,” Karen said. “I'm so grateful that we did that because that was one of the last times we saw her,” Karen said.
Karen said that she can’t believe it’s been 19 years since her sister was killed. “It's life changing and devastating and something that, you know, you don't only think about it daily, but you think about it constantly,” Karen said. “You think about how she's not here, not only on the special times but on everyday occurrences, all the things that she's missed.”
Karen told Dateline it’s those little moments that stick with her. “One of the things, honestly, like, my sister never got to see the ‘Friends’ finale,” Karen said. “You're sitting there watching the ‘Friends’ finale and you're like, ‘My sister would have loved this.’”
This week, a new electronic billboard featuring Megan was installed. James told Dateline that there are 7 billboards total -- along State Route 17 in Orange and Sullivan Counties, as well as on Interstate 84 in Orange County. Lamar Advertising has provided billboards of Megan free of charge for years.
A reward for information leading to the arrest of a suspect has also recently been offered. Detective Natalizio confirmed that the NYPD Detective Union is now offering $10,000, which the FBI is matching, bringing the total to $20,000.
If you have information about Megan’s case, you can contact the investigators at 845-344-5300. You can also submit a tip at 845-344-5370 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.