Woman buried in Tahoma’s cold case murder solved using decades old rape kit

Harold Carpenter

TAHOMA, Calif. — A murder suspect in a 1979 cold case in El Dorado County has been arrested after investigators found a DNA match for an unrelated crime in Washington state, officials reported Wednesday.

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office said the arrest of Harold Carpenter, 63, is the result of dogged detective work on the part of local investigators and the Spokane Police Department as well as a Washington Attorney General initiative that resolves to examine the evidence in a backlog of thousands of unexamined sexual assault kits statewide. 

Carpenter is in the Spokane County Jail on a fugitive charge, pending extradition to California on a murder warrant.

On Sept. 28, 1979, Patricia Carnahan was beaten, strangled, and left for dead at a South Lake Tahoe campground. Carnahan’s body was recovered and investigators gathered evidence, including a sexual assault kit which provided a DNA sample. No suspects were arrested. Her identity was unknown, and she was buried in a nondescript grave marked “Unidentified Female.” 

Patricia Carnahan

In 2015, investigators with the El Dorado County Cold Case Homicide Unit revived the case. A forensic anthropologist from California State University, Chico exhumed her body. After detectives placed photos of her jewelry in a newspaper, family members identified a pendant worn by Carnahan. After comparing and confirming family DNA to the victim, the body was released to them for proper burial.

But the killer remained a mystery until recently when, as part of a nationwide effort to eliminate the backlog of untested SAKs, authorities in Washington tested a SAK collected in a 1994 rape investigation. The rape case was deemed “unproveable” in 1994 and the kit remained untested until 2023. 

Once the kit was tested, the CODIS system — the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System — recently found that the DNA collected from the Washington victim also matched the DNA evidence collected from Patricia Carnahan, identifying the suspect in her murder as Harold Carpenter.

El Dorado County investigators developed probable cause to arrest Carpenter for murder and traveled to Spokane to assist SPD in the arrest. 

This is one of the oldest cold case murders in the country to be solved through a sexual assault DNA review run through CODIS.

“This is the 13th case solved after the creation of the cold case task force,” said El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson. “I’m proud to say our Cold Case Unit is one of the most successful of its kind in the United States. Sadly, Ms. Carnahan was buried in a potter’s field under a headstone of an ‘unidentified female.’ Because of the tireless dedication of our investigators, she was identified and returned to her family. Now due to multi-state collaboration by numerous agencies her killer will finally be held accountable.”

The unmarked grave of Patricia Carnahan before she was identified, located in Tahoma.

Funds from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative paid for the 1994 sexual assault kit’s testing, allowing the suspect’s DNA profile to be added into CODIS. The Washington initiative is a statewide effort to eliminate a backlog of untested sexual assault kits in Washington that began in 2017, when the Attorney General’s Office was awarded a $3 million federal grant to fund the work.

“Cases like this illustrate the need to test every sexual assault kit and get their DNA profiles loaded into the federal database,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. “Every untested kit could be a potential break in a cold case. Hard work and cross-state collaboration made this case successful. I’m grateful for the hard work from law enforcement to pursue justice in this case.”

Carpenter is being held without bond in Spokane as the extradition process has begun. The Spokane rape case will not continue forward as the statute of limitations has expired and the victim is now deceased.

If anybody has any information on this case or Harold Carpenter, contact the El Dorado Cold Case Task Force at 530-621-4590 or email

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office thanks the following agencies for their assistance in this investigation: El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, Spokane Police Department, Spokane County District Attorney’s Office, Washington State Attorney’s General’s Office, Lassen County District Attorney’s Office, Lassen County Sheriff’s Office, California Department of Justice-DNA Crime Lab, California Department of Justice-Latent Prints, Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Arlington County Police Department in Virginia.

Source: El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office

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