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She waited 42 years to learn who killed her sister. The answer didn’t ease her pain.

"I never thought I'd hear those words," said Irene Wilkowitz, who had urged detectives to continue investigating her sister Eve's murder.

In the kitchen of her Rhode Island apartment, Irene Wilkowitz braced for what the detectives had come to tell her.

The last time police had arrived at her door, she was 17 and they told her they’d found her sister’s body. Eve, 20, had been kidnapped, raped and strangled after taking a late-night train home from Manhattan, where she worked as a secretary at a publishing house, on March 22, 1980. Her body was left in a yard near her apartment in Bay Shore, New York, on Long Island’s South Shore.

That was 42 years ago. Wilkowitz had since gone to college, worked, married, raised two children, divorced and moved away from Long Island, always in fear that the killer would one day come for her. Wondering if they’d ever catch him. 

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Irene Wilkowitz's sister, Eve, was murdered more than 40 years ago in New York.Kayana Szymczak for NBC News

She became Eve’s last advocate, emailing detectives for updates every few weeks and urging them to try an investigative technique involving DNA that has recently helped crack hundreds of cold cases around the country. The detectives told her they were trying.

Now, waiting for their news, she tried not to expect too much. She couldn’t bear more disappointment. She took a deep breath.

“We identified the person responsible for the death of your sister, Eve,” Suffolk County Police Detective Jeffrey Bottari said.

Wilkowitz’s legs began shaking. She hugged her son, Evan, 25, named in Eve’s memory. “I started crying because I never thought I’d hear those words,” Wilkowitz recalled. 

Irene Wilkowitz holds a photograph of her late sister, Eve Wilkowitz.
Irene Wilkowitz holds a photograph of her late sister, Eve. Kayana Szymczak for NBC News

His name was Herbert Rice. He died of cancer in 1991, with two sons who had no idea what he’d done, Bottari said. In the sweeping and exhaustive investigation of the murder, in which police canvassed dozens of streets and interviewed hundreds of people, Rice had never attracted suspicion. He had a short record of arrests for nonviolent offenses, which did not require him to provide a DNA sample that would have been put in criminal databases. A query for relatives in the criminal database, known as a familial DNA search, failed as well.

It was the new technology, known as genetic genealogy, that finally gave police the answer.

“Without DNA, this wouldn’t have ever been solved,” Suffolk County District Attorney Raymond Tierney said.

But for Wilkowitz, knowing who killed her sister won’t repair four decades of terror, anxiety and loss.

“For 42 years, this was all I wanted — I just wanted it to be over,” Wilkowitz said this week. “My goal was to be a mom, and beyond that I didn’t allow myself to dream any other dream because I was afraid someone would come along and murder me. So I can’t process that it’s solved now, and that I’m still here.”

Eve was Wilkowitz’s only sibling. Their mother died of cancer before Eve’s death, and their father died in 2010, leaving Irene as the last family member who could speak on Eve’s behalf. On anniversaries of her death, she did interviews with local media, a way to keep Long Island from forgetting. 

"She wasn’t famous. She wasn’t a celebrity. She was my sister, and she matters,” Wilkowitz said.  

A DNA match

In 2018, Wilkowitz’s son told her about a new investigative technique authorities in California had used to identify the serial rapist and murderer known as the Golden State Killer. Police had entered crime-scene DNA into consumer DNA databases, including GEDmatch, FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage, and traced the family tree back to a former police officer. 

The case was the first use of genetic genealogy to solve a violent crime. It led to a surge of interest in the method and spawned a mini-industry of private labs working with genetic genealogists to re-examine decades-old crimes. But the tactic also raised concerns among privacy advocates who feared government misuse of people’s personal data, and some states were hesitant to allow its use. 

In January 2019, Wilkowitz contacted the most famous of the genetic genealogists, CeCe Moore, and asked for her help. Moore told Wilkowitz that she couldn’t get involved because New York didn’t yet allow the technique. The state Department of Health required private labs to obtain a permit to do such work, a rigorous process that can take months or years, and had not granted permission to any lab. (The Department of Health has since granted permits to two companies to perform genetic genealogy for police in New York.)

Wilkowitz pleaded with Suffolk County Police Lt. Kevin Beyrer, a homicide investigator who oversaw Eve’s case, to find a way. He, too, was frustrated that he could not try genetic genealogy. But in December 2019, Suffolk County authorities came up with a workaround: They asked the New York Department of Health to let them send DNA from semen found on Eve’s body to the FBI. The FBI had helped with the original 1980 investigation and was not restricted by New York laws. 

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Lt. Kevin Beyrer sought to use genetic genealogy to find Eve Wilkowitz's killer.Jeenah Moon for NBC News

The state and the FBI agreed, and in July 2021, an FBI agent specializing in genetic genealogy told Suffolk County detectives she’d found a distant relative of the unknown suspect, along with a last name: Rice. Working on that information, detectives landed on Herbert Rice, who was long dead. Unable to get a DNA sample to confirm their theory, they tracked down one of his sons. After failing to collect a DNA sample from him covertly, Bottari, the detective, knocked on the son’s door and told him what they were trying to do.

The son said he hadn’t been close to his father and allowed the detective to swab his cheek, Bottari said. The DNA sample verified in late August that the son’s father was the killer. 

Bottari told the son and his mother, who filled in more of the story.

At the time of the murder, the son’s mother said, she had kicked Rice out of their house, according to detectives. Rice had moved in with his mother, who lived about four houses from the yard where Eve Wilkowitz’s body was discovered on March 25, 1980, detectives said. In the case file, detectives saw that Rice’s mother had been questioned by police who canvassed the neighborhood. She told them she hadn’t noticed anything, Bottari said.

Rice’s son had done nothing wrong, but he told detectives he still wished he could apologize to Wilkowitz’s family, police said. 

Rice’s son could not immediately be reached for comment. The son’s mother declined to comment. 

Unanswered questions

On Dec. 6, Bottari and a sergeant from the homicide unit visited Irene Wilkowitz in Rhode Island to tell her what they’d found. 

Wilkowitz, who works as a nanny, shares an apartment with her son, because she remains afraid to live alone. Knowing the chances of a breakthrough were slim, she thought that the detectives were probably coming to say they’d hit a final dead end. She introduced them to Evan and made small talk while Bottari used FaceTime to patch in the FBI agent who’d done the genealogical investigation. 

“These are the most exciting kinds of visits we can do, to give a family some sort of answer,” Bottari said. “Especially for her. We had decades of detectives who worked on this.”

Wilkowitz cried in her son’s arms while the detectives gave her Rice’s name and birthdate. They told her how they’d figured it out. It amazed her.

She thanked the detectives, and after about 30 minutes, they left. Wilkowitz leaned against her kitchen island for a while, crying. Still shaking, she called Beyrer and thanked him. 

Photographs of Eve Wilkowitz and her family.
Photographs of Eve Wilkowitz and her family. Kayana Szymczak for NBC News

Wilkowitz said she was open to talking to Rice’s son. Bottari tried connecting them. The son has told detectives he is considering it, Bottari said. 

“I just want to say thank you,” Wilkowitz said, “and how sorry I feel for him and his family to know that a family member is responsible for a crime like this and they have to live knowing that. It’s horrible for them as well.” 

Before announcing the case was solved, Suffolk County authorities wanted to make sure they had the right man. So they got a search warrant to exhume Rice’s body. The results came back March 23, nearly 42 years to the day Eve went missing. The samples taken from the remains matched the suspect’s DNA, Bottari said. It was him.

“There is no way we would have gotten to where we are today had it not been for science and genetic genealogy to let us dig deep, find family members and get us to Mr. Rice,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison said.

Beyrer praised Wilkowitz for keeping attention on the search for the killer.

“She deserves the credit and I think she’s the star in this case,” Beyrer said.

The case is now closed. But Wilkowitz still suffers from the trauma of losing her sister, and of going decades not knowing who killed her. She still has questions that will never be answered.

“I can’t ask him anything — why did he do it? Why did he pick on an innocent beautiful woman who was just walking home?” Wilkowitz said. “There are no real answers, no reason why.”

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Irene Wilkowitz's mementos of her sister include clothing tags made by their mother.Kayana Szymczak for NBC News

 She wants to find a way to continue being a voice for her sister — and maybe for the families of other victims whose cases remain cold. To say there is always hope.

Her sister wasn’t just a story told and retold in the media, Wilkowitz said. 

“She was a real person,” Wilkowitz said. “She was outgoing, had lots of friends, loved horses, loved music, liked to read and write and draw. And she liked to be a big sister to me. I want people to know that.”