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DNA testing might be key to solving 1975 murder of Richland woman

The stack of boxes in Detective Scott Runge's office holds decades of tips, reports and evidence in the unsolved murder of Shannon Varley.

Runge sifts through the boxes or pours through his own notes whenever he has down time. Trying to solve the almost 40-year-old cold case is never far from his mind.

The Varley case has loomed over the Benton County Sheriff's Office since the well-known, charismatic Richland woman went missing in August 1975. Her badly decomposed body was found that November in a muddy marsh east of Umatilla.

The case has been passed from detective to detective, each hoping they will be the one to break it open. Now, Runge has made it his mission to try and solve a puzzle that has stumped detectives for years.

"It's always been this one case that has always been in my brain," Runge said as he leaned back in his chair at the sheriff's office. "It's our Moby Dick. Can you actually catch it or not? It's like trying to name a song that's right on the tip of your tongue."

The missing piece to the puzzle could be a new round of DNA tests Runge is planning to have done, he said. He has developed his own theory on who killed Varley. The only problem is that the person of interest is now dead.

Runge recently got confirmation that the Oregon State Police, who were involved in the early investigation, have a hair on file from the person of interest, he said. Runge wants to test that hair with one recovered from Varley's body.

Investigators got a partial DNA profile off the hair that can be matched to suspects, Runge said. He also plans to have Varley's hair inspected for other foreign hairs.

Getting a DNA match back on the hair is going to be difficult, and it could be months before the tests are completed, he said.

"I would like to say my hopes are high to solve (the case)," he said. "But it is not that easy. It's not like it is on TV. You're talking about a case that is now 40 years old."

Varley went missing just weeks after her high school classmate, Diane Merckx, 20, disappeared, presumably from Columbia Park. Merckx's body was found in 1977 in a shallow grave at Sacajawea Park. She was most likely strangled to death.

Runge recently had a ligature -- an item used for strangulation -- found at Merckx's grave site tested and got a partial DNA profile back, he said. A hair was also found on Merckx's body, though it's different than the hair found on Varley.

Detectives haven't found evidence that the cases are connected, but Runge is revisiting the theory that both women were killed by the same suspect or suspects, he said.

"It's hard to think that these are coincidental," he said. "It's hard to say though, because so many people went down to Columbia Park back then. My gut says there is a potential connection."

Went to meet a guy

In summer 1975, Varley was enjoying her youth, hanging out at Columbia Park, swimming with friends and driving her prized Triumph sports car around the Tri-Cities.

Her long, dirty-blonde hair, radiant smile and bubbly personality turned heads wherever she went.

Varley, 20, lived at home with her parents, Jean and Bud, and worked as a secretary for the Atomic Energy Commission. She had graduated from Columbia High in Richland and was the second-youngest of the Varley's five children.

"She always had a smile on her face," said Kathy Moyer, Varley's older sister. "Everybody loved Shannon."

Varley had just returned from a family vacation to Lake Chelan and Canada the day she went missing. She was on her way to see her boyfriend when her Triumph broke down. Varley met up with another sister, Sandi, who gave her a ride to meet her boyfriend for lunch in Pasco.

Varley asked her boyfriend if she could borrow his El Camino with the promise that she would be back at 4 p.m. to pick him up from work. No one in Varley's family or her boyfriend ever saw her again.

Varley went to meet a guy -- also the person of interest in Runge's case -- whom she had been casually seeing, Runge said. They apparently met at a park close to his house in Kennewick.

"She dropped the El Camino off at his place and they go on down to hang out at Two Rivers Park," Runge said. "His story is that they hang out, then go pick up a soda from (the nearby market) and she ends up leaving at 3:30."

When Varley doesn't show up at 4 p.m., her boyfriend calls her family, who begin to put word out that she may be missing, Runge said.

"We knew something was wrong," said Jean Varley, Shannon's mother. "Shannon was a very reliable person."

The person of interest apparently heard that Varley had gone missing and decided to drive around with his wife to look for her, Runge said. The pair went to Columbia Park in Kennewick and found the El Camino that Varley borrowed. The driver's door was open, Varley's flip-flops were outside and a Red Steer soda cup was inside.

The person of interest ran to a nearby golf club and called 911, Runge said. Runge called the man's hysterical tone a "complete overreaction."

"(He) was shrieking and screaming to the point where the dispatcher had to tell him to calm down," Runge said.

Runge questions the timeline the man originally told investigators, he said. He doesn't think it makes sense that Varley would leave at 3:30 p.m., stop at Red Steer and head to Columbia Park, knowing she had to pick her boyfriend up in 30 minutes.

"That means she would have had to drive from (the person of interest's) house to Red Steer, wait depending on the line, and go to Columbia Park all before meeting (her boyfriend) in Pasco," Runge said. "It would take about 20 minutes to drive to Big Pasco alone. There's no chance."

'It was handled poorly'

The sheriff's office, which at the time was a small department, had a rule in 1975 that a person needed to be missing for 24 hours before they started an investigation.

A deputy went to Columbia Park soon after the 911 call to check out the El Camino, eventually letting the person of interest move the car from the scene. That was a major mistake that should never have happened, Runge said.

The Varley family searched for Shannon as they waited for the 24 hours to pass. The sheriff's office eventually started its official investigation but didn't have too much to go on.

"There were a lot of things that were done that shouldn't have been done," Jean Varley said. "It was handled poorly. But it was different back then. Things were done differently."

In the months following Varley's disappearance, the family's phone rang with tips, though none of them panned out. Soon, they started to come to the realization that they may never see her again.

The family's fears were confirmed more than three months after the disappearance when the sheriff's office called to say she had been found in the marsh.

"I asked them, 'Well, what killed her?' " Jean Varley said. "They said she had been shot in the head. At least we knew where she was."

After Varley's body was found, detectives developed a pool of suspects that to this day still includes a former Pasco pimp and a convicted killer, Runge said.

The early investigation focused heavily on the pimp -- who kidnapped a 17-year-old girl from Columbia Park within weeks of when Varley and Merckx went missing -- and a man who lived close to Varley, Runge said. But detectives could never get enough evidence on the suspects and the pimp's DNA did not match the hair found on Varley's body.

Runge has requested an interview with the killer at Walla Walla State Penitentiary, he said.

"I am still trying to keep my mind open," Runge said. "I think we have three really good suspects in the case."

Sitting on a bench in Howard Amon Park recently, the Varley family shared memories of their loved one and talked about whether her killer will ever be caught.

Sandi Linnen has good days and bad days when she remembers her older sister, she said. The two shared a bedroom growing up, and Linnen was the last family member to see her sister alive.

"I go back and forth," she said. "It would be nice to get the resolution of who, but it's not going to change anything. It doesn't bring her back. But if he is still out there he needs to be held accountable."

Jean Varley has called the sheriff's office countless times during the four decades since her daughter's death, she said. Not a day goes by she doesn't think about her daughter.

Jean said learning who killed her daughter, even after all the years, is still important to her and would bring a sense of closure.

"After all this time, it would really be a miracle," she said. "For a long time I wanted to know who killed her. Then I started to wonder about why they did it. That part took over more. I'll tell you this, if they ever do find somebody I would like to talk to whoever did it."