DNA leads to arrest in 25-year-old slayings

Rudolph Churchill is charged in two slayings.
Rudolph Churchill is charged in two slayings.
Posted: March 21, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Hours before dawn on March 17, 1989, a man peered into an abandoned Oldsmobile in a North Philadelphia lot and saw a body.

Police identified the deceased as 19-year-old Ruby Ellis of the 2500 block of West Girard Avenue. A brief news item in The Inquirer the next day reported that she had been strangled, that she was wearing only a jacket, and that she had been dead for several hours when she was found in the car at 15th and Flora Streets.

Five weeks later, The Inquirer ran an item on another strangling: Cheryl Hanible, 33, of Southwest Philadelphia, found inside a burned-out, vacant bar on Girard, blocks from the site of the March 17 slaying.

She had been gagged with a sock and strangled with a shoelace. Neighbors described the building as "a hangout for the homeless, drug addicts, and prostitutes."

No arrests were reported, and the case went unresolved for 25 years - until Wednesday, when detectives using decades-old DNA collected from both crime scenes charged a Paulsboro man in connection with the killings.

Rudolph Churchill, 51, was charged with two counts of murder and related offenses and was awaiting arraignment Wednesday night.

Churchill wasn't on any suspect list in 1989, said Lt. Mark Deegan, who heads the Special Investigations Unit.

But about three years ago, the Police Department received a federal grant that allowed detectives to begin going through old cases for DNA evidence.

Detectives sent a bloody paper towel found in the backseat of the Oldsmobile for testing. From the Girard Avenue bar, they sent a sneaker missing a shoelace - presumably, the shoelace used to strangle Hanible.

When they reopened the cases, detectives had suspected there might be a connection between the two, Deegan said: The killings happened within 37 days of each other and just a few blocks apart.

But it was only when both items turned up a positive DNA match in the Combined DNA Index System that police were able to identify the suspected killer, Deegan said.

Churchill, originally from Georgia, has a long criminal history and was arrested in Philadelphia on a robbery charge less than a month after Hanible's body was found. He was sentenced to probation.

Churchill has spent time in prison, though - recently, a three-year stint in DeKalb County, Ga., for burglary. Upon his release, he would have been required to submit a swab of DNA - and that's how detectives were able to match blood from the paper towel and skin cells scraped from the bottom of the sneaker to Churchill, Deegan said.

"We've had quite a few cases where we submit DNA evidence, but it's not always good enough to ID somebody," Deegan said. This time, it was.

Churchill was arrested about 9 a.m. Wednesday and charged with two counts of murder and related offenses. Officers picked him up on the 1400 block of Fairmount Avenue - about five blocks from the abandoned lot where Ruby Ellis' body was found more than two decades ago.

Police said they had yet to establish a motive for the killings.

In Paulsboro on Wednesday night, a young woman who identified herself as a relative of Churchill's declined comment, quickly shutting the red door of the brick house on Huff Street listed as his residence.

Detectives were trying to find the victims' families to notify them of the arrest.

"They just need to know that even though a lot of time has gone by, we're still trying the best we can," Deegan said. "And technology is a big help."


awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan

Inquirer staff writer Angelo Fichera contributed to this article.

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