A horrifying crime that had left detectives stumped for 44 years has finally been solved – after advancements in DNA technology revealed the identity of a man who raped and murdered a teenage girl in 1976.

Nursing student Janet Stallcup was just 19 years old when her body was discovered strangled in the front seat of her car eight days after she went missing while driving to a friend's party.

But now the Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) in California, US, has named Terry Dean Hawkins as a suspect after a living relative of his submitted a recent DNA sample at the request of officers investigating the cold case – and it turned out to be a match.

Hawkins died in an Orange County jail a year later, aged 23, in 1977, while incarcerated for charges unrelated to Stallcup's murder.

He had worked as a mechanic and lived in Garden Grove, said a spokeswoman for the OCDA. His criminal history included drug and weapons-related crimes, DUI and indecent exposure.

Hawkins was charged, but never convicted, as a defendant in the 1975 killing of a 30-year-old woman in nearby Laguna Hills.

"We’ll never have all the answers, but there’s so much relief in finally knowing who did this,' Stallcup’s sister, Lee Neil, told the Mercury News.

"One of my greatest fears over the years was that whoever did that to her may have gone on to hurt many more people."

Stallcup was found sexually assaulted and strangled in the front seat of her Ford Falcon eight days after leaving to go to a friend's party on December 19, 1976.

Her car was found parked at an apartment complex in Yockey Street, just a short distance from her home in Garden Grove.

Ms Neil said no one in her family had ever met Hawkins before and investigators believe Stallcup’s killing was a random act of violence.

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Hawkins genetic material was isolated by the county's crime lab in 2002 from swabs taken at the scene.

The DNA remained unidentified until 2020, when police detectives asked the District Attorney’s Office to open a genetic genealogy investigation.

The technique uses genetic information submitted by relatives of possible suspects to enhance searches for matches to samples collected by investigators.

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It can link a person to an unidentified sample even if their DNA isn’t in an existing database, and the investigation led authorities to suspect Hawkins in Stallcup’s killing.

"I’ve seen the detective’s file on the case, and it’s got to be at least three inches thick,” Ms Neil said. “We’ve been through three generations of detectives on this investigation."

She added: "We’ll never have all the answers, but there’s so much relief in finally knowing who did this."

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