Lifestyle & Human Interest

Cold Case Solved: 35 Years After Woman Was Strangled Walking Home, Police Identify Killer


After 35 years, investigators in Milwaukee have identified the man who they believe killed 18-year-old Traci Hammerberg thanks to modern advances in genetic genealogy.

After Hammerberg went out partying one night with friends, she left around midnight on Dec. 15, 1984, to walk almost four miles back to her Port Washington, Wisconsin, home.

The following morning her body was found in a driveway, partially stripped of clothes.

She had been raped, strangled and beaten over the head with a metallic object, according to WITI.

At the time, investigators were able to get a DNA profile from semen found on Hammerberg’s body, but it didn’t help them identify a suspect at the time.

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For decades, this heartbreaking rape and murder remained unsolved.

Earlier this month, however, investigators were able to reanalyze the DNA profile built in 1984 to help identify the man they believe was responsible.

Investigators began comparing the unidentified DNA sample to those in genealogy databases in March, according to NBC News.

Genetic genealogy helps investigators take unidentified DNA samples and trace the unknown suspect’s family tree.

Investigators identified a second cousin of the unidentified murderer and began eliminating other families members based on who would have been in the Port Washington area at the time of the crime.

Eventually, their investigation led them to a Wisconsin man named Phillip Cross; he would have been 21 years old at the time of Hammerberg’s murder.

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Authorities were able to confirm their suspicions by comparing the DNA sample from 1984 to a DNA card created for Cross after he died at 48 of a drug overdose in 2012.

At the time of the murder, Cross was working the graveyard shift at Rexnord Plastics. The Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office believes Hammerberg accepted a ride from him on her way home from the party.

They think Cross, who had a history of violent outbursts, was upset after Hammerberg refused his sexual advances which led him into a violent rage where he raped and killed her.

Hammerberg’s case is among the many cases genetic genealogy has been instrumental in closing as of late. Others include a 27-year-old murder in Washington and a 51-year-old murder in South Dakota.

“I wanted to face Traci’s murderer. We didn’t have that opportunity,” Ozaukee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said, according to WITI.

“He was able to live his life afterwards. He had children. Traci didn’t have that opportunity. He stole that from her.”

Lorri Sell, Traci’s sister, told WITI she and her family are thankful authorities never gave up on her sister’s case and finally brought them some closure.

“I know that Traci is up there and she is looking down on all of us and is happy with us,” she said.

“I never ever have stopped thinking of my sister. I also think what she would be like today. She would have been an awesome aunt to my daughter Rebecca,” Sell said. “She was one of the nicest people that anyone could know.”

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Kayla has been a staff writer for The Western Journal since 2018.
Kayla Kunkel began writing for The Western Journal in 2018.
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