Saturday, August 26, 2000

Inmate accused in seamstress' death

Convicted killer now charged in '97 strangling

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — A murderer already sitting on Kentucky's Death Row now stands accused of killing a Cincinnati Opera seamstress nearly three years ago.

Fred Furnish
Fred Furnish
        Officials announced they will seek the death penalty again against Fred Furnish, who was indicted Friday for murder, robbery and burglary in the strangling of Doris Bertsch, 70. Mr. Furnish remains jailed in Eddyville, Ky., but lived at the time of her death in November 1997 a few hundred yards from her Kenton Hills home.

        What prosecutors think decisively linked Mr. Furnish, an early suspect, to the crime was not made clear. Neither Commonwealth Attorney Don Buring nor detectives who worked on the case were legally free, Mr. Buring said, to explain what changed between Friday and the months before, when investigators said no DNA evidence linked Mr. Furnish to the crime.

Doris Bertsch
Doris Bertsch
        He would not confirm that subsequent DNA tests found something previous ones didn't and said Mr. Furnish was never dismissed as a suspect.

        He waits out his appeals in prison in Eddyville, where he was sent after his conviction last summer for the June 1998 home-invasion strangling of Ramona Jean Williamson in Crestview Hills. A housekeeper found the body of Mrs. Williamson, 66, in her home, where her jewelry box was ransacked. Mr. Furnish became a suspect after a carpet-cleaning receipt with his name was found on her kitchen table.

        Mr. Furnish, 32, also a convicted burglar, was arrested three days later after investigators discovered he used Mrs. Williamson's debit card and proceeds from selling her jewelry to buy crack cocaine.

Ramona Jean Williamson
Ramona Jean Williamson
        He was also convicted in that case of being a persistent felony offender, a charge that adds prison time onto any other conviction. Mr. Furnish is charged with that this time too.

        Friday's indictment charges that Mr. Furnish either committed the offenses or helped someone else do them. The possibility that at least one more person was involved in the killing was suggested by female DNA found under Mrs. Bertsch's fingernails.

        Over the course of the investigation, detectives said, they spent thousands of hours checking leads, canvassing the neighborhood and shepherding DNA tests through the crime lab, including moving some evidence out of the FBI lab after some tests took too long. They asked newspapers and television stations several times to plead for tips. Each of those stories generated dozens of leads, detectives said.

        “It was what we call a whodunit,” Covington Detective Jim Coots said. “There was no smoking gun. We had a lot of work to do.”

        They also said they're still looking for an explanation for the blood found under Mrs. Bertsch's fingernails. The blood contained only X chromosomes, proving it came from a woman. So Mrs. Bertsch likely struggled with a woman during the crime, police said.

        Mrs. Bertsch's daughter, Denise, wrote a statement about the arrest. She thanked Covington police, especially Detective Coots, for the work he and other officers did toward “finally holding someone responsible.”

        Her family's life was forever changed on Nov. 25, 1997, she wrote, “but hopefully one of our questions can now be answered.”

        She had been shopping with her mother the day of her death. Police suspect Mrs. Bertsch came home and was killed while interrupting a robbery.

        Detective Coots said he hoped the indictment gives the Kenton Hills neighborhood some peace.

        “There are a lot of good people there,” he said. “This changed the way they lived.”


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