Convicted child rapist eyed in 1978 murder

March 21, 2014 at 11:09 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

(Left) Convicted child rapist Daniel Parks Sr. (Right) Stephanie Hebert after her kindergarten graduation in 1978. Hebert was kidnapped on her way to a neighbor’s home and her skeletal remains were found six months later in Taft.
(Left) Convicted child rapist Daniel Parks Sr. (Right) Stephanie Hebert after her kindergarten graduation in 1978. Hebert was kidnapped on her way to a neighbor’s home and her skeletal remains were found six months later in Taft.
Nearly 36 years after the skeletal remains of 5-year-old Stephanie Hebert were discovered tied to a tree near the Mississippi River in Taft, a new suspect has emerged in her abduction and murder.

On July 13, 1978, Hebert disappeared from her home in the Live Oak Floral Acres Subdivision in Waggaman.

At the time of her disappearance Hebert was headed to a neighbor’s house three doors away, but she never arrived. In the ensuing chaos, more than 100 deputies and volunteers searched nearby woods and a helicopter flew overhead.

However, no signs of Hebert were found until six months later when a hunter in the Taft area of St. Charles Parish found her remains tied to a tree.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO) took the lead in the investigation, while receiving help from the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office (SCPSO) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The prime suspect in the murder at the time was Roger Alexander, a teen living in the Waggaman area at the time of Hebert’s disappearance. Alexander passed a polygraph test and was brought in front of a grand jury in 1980 in St. Charles Parish. The grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to prosecute him for the murder.

Then the case went cold.

“The next time I heard about Stephanie Hebert was when her mother came to see me on April 25, 2006,” retired Maj. Sam Zinna, who served as chief of detectives for the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office from 2001 until his retirement in 2012, said. “I pulled all of the documents from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office as well as our Sheriff’s Office. She was just wanting to see if something could be done with the case.”

Zinna had been a deputy with the JPSO when Hebert initially disappeared. He would later be transferred to the homicide unit before leaving to join SCPSO in 1982.

Although he had been part of the JPSO when the crime occurred, Zinna had not been involved in investigating the crime himself until the case was reopened at Joyce Hebert’s request. Zinna warned Hebert’s mother that solving a murder decades after it had been committed would be a difficult task.

“In speaking with Ms. Hebert I told her unless there was really something new, it would be difficult without new information linking a suspect to the case,” he said.  

Zinna said with cold cases a little bit of newly acquired evidence has to go a long way towards a conviction.

“These cases are so complicated. It starts with a fiber and turns into a thread and the thread makes the quilt of the case,” he said. “It is very time consuming, but you have to develop the case.”

Using investigative procedures developed in the decades since the murder, Zinna was able to retrieve DNA evidence from an item found at the crime scene.

“She was tied to the tree with the rope. After all of those years we found the rope in the Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court’s Office and transferred it to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office crime lab to see if we could get any DNA off the rope,” he said. “There was success to a limited degree.”

After pulling a partial DNA sample from the rope thought to belong to the murderer, Zinna and a representative from the JPSO tracked down Alexander, who was living in Pennsylvania at the time.

“We traveled to Pennsylvania and did all of the legal work to get the DNA swab. There was no match to (Alexander),” he said.

With Alexander testing negative for the DNA found at the crime scene, the case once again went cold. New suspect’s wife was Hebert’s babysitter

However, in 2012 a new suspect emerged. Daniel Parks Sr., who assisted in the search for Hebert and whose wife also occasionally served as Hebert’s babysitter, was charged with the rape of a neighborhood child that occurred around the same time as Hebert’s disappearance.

The victim, who was 7 years old at the time of the sexual abuse, said she did not tell anyone that Parks had raped her until she was 40 years old.

The victim was childhood friends with Hebert.

During the course of the investigation, the victim said she confronted Parks about the rape in 1991, more than a decade after it occurred in the late 70s. She says Parks told her to watch out because she may end up like Hebert.

After being brought in for questioning, Parks confessed to the rape and to making the comment about Hebert, but later tried to recant his confession saying that he was denied food during the interrogation. Because he had diabetes, Parks believes that he may have incorrectly implicated himself in the crime.

Largely based on his confession and statements by the rape victim, Parks was found guilty of aggravated rape and sentenced on Jan. 9 to life in prison, a sentence he is currently appealing.

Based on Parks’ conviction and the statement he made concerning Hebert, JPSO now considers him a suspect in the disappearance and murder of Stephanie Hebert.   

“Daniel Parks just went to trial on the incident with the other little girl. With that and the statement he made to her (about Hebert), he was looked at initially and will continue to be looked at until we can prove who is responsible for the death of Stephanie Hebert,” Col. John Fortunato, JPSO spokesman, said.

However, Fortunato said Parks is only one of several suspects JPSO is still looking at.

“As it stands at this time we can’t say for certain if we have any one particular person we are focusing on,” he said.

Fortunato would not respond to requests for comment on whether Parks’ DNA has been tested against the DNA found on the rope used to tie Hebert to the tree.

Michael Williams, 41, became friends with Hebert when he lived in her Waggaman neighborhood and attended Live Oak Manor Elementary School.

Although Williams’ family moved away from the area shortly after Hebert’s body was discovered, he said he has never forgotten about what happened to his friend.

“It was pretty traumatic for me. I pretty much bottled it up for years,” he said. “Right around that spring my mom contemplated the move once they found her body. She didn’t want to talk to me about it because I was too young to handle that.”

Despite having moved from the area and the state nearly 30 years ago, Williams was haunted by Hebert’s unsolved murder.  “Over the years I’ve never forgotten her,” he said. “I might go a few months when I wasn’t thinking about it, but every time you see a pedophile or rape or a murder of somebody innocent it just struck a bell. Who could do something so bad? I couldn’t grasp that logic.”

A few years ago when he was going through some of his mother’s photos, Williams came across a picture of he and Hebert holding hands after their kindergarten graduation. He began looking into the case again.

“When I typed it in I saw it ping and I said, ‘holy crap, there are still people interested in this.’ I never thought that would happen,” he said.

He said it is unsettling to know that after all of these years the identity of the killer has never been pinned down.

“I just hope it is 100 percent solved one day. I’d like some peace for Stephanie and her mom,” he said. “I’m just glad people are still thinking about it.”

View other articles written Kyle Barnett

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