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Police focus on random attack in schools official's death

Investigators have eliminated friends and relatives of Kathy Taft as suspects in the March attack that led to the State Board of Education member's death, sources told WRAL News Tuesday.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Investigators have eliminated friends and relatives of Kathy Taft as suspects in the March attack that led to the State Board of Education member's death, sources told WRAL News Tuesday.

Taft, 62, died March 9 at WakeMed, three days after she was attacked in the home of a friend and suffered a severe head injury. Search warrants released last Friday also state that she was sexually assaulted.

A Greenville resident, Taft had undergone neck surgery in Raleigh on March 5 and was recovering at the home of friend John Geil, at 2710 Cartier Drive. Geil was in Florida at the time.

During a search of Geil's home, police seized bed linens, clothing, dishes, computers and items like golf clubs and shotgun barrels that could have been used in an assault, according to a search warrant. Forensic technicians also obtained fingerprints and DNA evidence from the crime scene.

Residents on Cartier Drive said police collected DNA samples from them about three weeks after the attack, which experts said was a way to rule people out as suspects.

Sources said the DNA eliminated Taft's relatives as suspects, including her sister Dina Arnold Holton, who was staying with her in Geil's house. Investigators are now viewing the attack potentially as a random crime, sources said.

"It's a very clumsy case. It's a very odd victim that he picked there," said Michael Teague, a forensic psychologist who used to work for the Raleigh Police Department and who specializes in working with sex offenders.

"We have lots of rapes, we have lots of murders., but very seldom do we have the rape murder together," Teague said. "I'm not sure he meant to kill her. He may have. I just don't have a real clear idea about that. He definitely became very irrational there at the end."

Holton, of Oriental, called 911 on the morning of March 6 to report that Taft was unresponsive and that she thought it was a complication from her surgery.

She told the dispatcher that she couldn't get Taft out of bed and that there was "blood everywhere."

"I heard footsteps, and I know somebody was in that house," Holton said Tuesday. "I didn't know that house. I'd never stayed in that house before. Then, I found her, and that's when I called 911."

Police were called after Taft had been taken to WakeMed, when her surgeon examined her and realized she had been assaulted. A medical exam at the hospital also turned up evidence of a sexual assault.

Police have said that the attack occurred "some hours before" investigators were called, but the time of the crime hasn't been narrowed down from late March 5 to early March 6.

Neighbors said Tuesday that they have a hard time believing the attack on Taft was random, noting there has never been violent crime in the area before.

Investigators also searched Taft's Lexus and Holton's Dodge Durango for clues. The Durango was parked outside a Harris Teeter about a block away after Holton locked her keys inside, according to a search warrant.

A man who worked in that shopping center told WRAL News that he saw the Durango in the parking lot with the engine running when he arrived for work at 6 a.m. on March 6.

Police took an image off the security video at Harris Teeter that showed a tall man carrying a messenger bag – the man's face couldn't be seen because he wasn't facing the camera – and showed it to store owners in the Glenwood Village Shopping Center as they searched for leads. Several store owners said they didn't recognize the man.

Teague said collecting DNA from people near a crime scene is a common tool for investigators, who believe innocent people are usually willing to cooperate with police.

"They would go to the top of the list (of suspects), I would say, if somebody refused to give a DNA sample," he said.

Taft's family has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Anyone with information that might help police is asked to call Raleigh Crime Stoppers at 919-834-HELP.

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