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After 36 years, OSU student's murder solved



Published: Mon, October 23, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The victim's body was dumped into scalding water that blistered her skin.

COLUMBUS (AP) -- Something was wrong.

Nathan Katz sensed it when his wife didn't answer phone calls to their Columbus apartment Sept. 29, 1970.

She was supposed to be home in case workers stopped by to fix some of the problems in their new town house.

Katz went home during his lunch hour and found the bedroom in disarray and the bathroom door locked.

When the apartment manager helped him open the door, they found a crime scene that shook the city.

Sharon Leichtman Katz's nude body was in the bathtub, binder twine wrapped around her neck.

Whoever raped and strangled the 21-year-old Ohio State student left behind plenty of physical evidence, but crime scene technology was primitive in 1970. Two years later, the crime was labeled a cold case.

Then, this month, Columbus police announced that DNA evidence had solved the 36-year-old crime.

"This was a true innocent victim, a classic cold case," said Sgt. Jeff Sacksteder, head of the cold case unit. "A female victim, sexually assaulted in her own home, totally innocent. These are the cases you want cleared."

Case reopened in 2001

The victim's family never thought the crime would be solved, even after one of Sharon Katz's two sisters, Nori Hart, persuaded investigators to take a fresh look at the case in 2001.

Detective Ralph Taylor of the cold case unit was assigned to the reopened investigation.

The crime was haunting. Katz's body had been dumped in scalding water that blistered her skin.

Nathan Katz, who was 23 at the time and worked for the Ohio Department of Taxation, was considered a suspect. The couple had been married for nine months.

But there were dozens of others police were looking at as well.

The apartment complex was still under construction, with workers wandering in and out of buildings.

The Katzes were high school sweethearts from Dayton who married in December 1969. They moved to the apartment complex less than a month before the slaying.

They chose it because it was close to the elementary school where Sharon Katz, an education major, would do her student teaching.

Columbus police homicide detectives set up an office in a vacant apartment and spent weeks conducting interviews.

They focused on workers, interviewing more than 50.

Siblings' memories

Hart, who was 18 at the time of the killing and preparing to start her freshman year at the University of Cincinnati, said her memories of the slaying remain vivid.

"Not a single day has gone by that I don't think about Sharon and what she went through."

Sharon's brother, Ahron Leichtman, who was 27 and working in Washington, D.C., at the time of the slaying, said: "It torments you."

"You come home for the funeral of your murdered sister, with no hint of who did it, then you're supposed to go back to your normal life."

Sharon's father, Hyman Leichtman, died of a heart attack 31/2 years after the killing. He was 67.

"He grieved himself to death," Hart said.

Their mother, who largely was spared the graphic details of her daughter's death, died in 1995.

The family pushed police to reopen the case in January 2001, after Hart read a newspaper story about Reynoldsburg police using DNA evidence to solve a 22-year-old homicide.

In that case, the victim also was found in a bathtub.

Hart's husband contacted the Franklin County prosecutor's office and asked whether the man responsible for the Reynoldsburg crime could have been connected to Sharon Katz's death.

The case was referred to Taylor, who ruled out any connection between the cases.

But in reopening the Sharon Katz case, the detective saw some promising leads and learned that the physical evidence still existed, including swabs from the body that were preserved in slides.

Those slides yielded DNA.

"At that point, it was a matter of finding out who it belonged to," Taylor said.

He sought and obtained DNA from Nathan Katz and a handful of other suspects, each of whom was cleared.

How killer was ID'd

But the case file provided an intriguing name. Among those interviewed by detectives within days of the crime was a 21-year-old plumber named James Keifer, who was working in the complex on the day of the attack.

He denied any involvement.

A little more than a year after the killing, police encountered Keifer again.

He was arrested and confessed to attacking and nearly killing a 29-year-old housewife in her Columbus home on Jan. 7, 1972. The woman, whom Keifer knew from doing plumbing work in the house, had been choked unconscious, stripped naked and left for dead in the garage. Keifer pleaded guilty to assault with intent to kill and served three years in prison.

Police again interviewed Keifer about the Katz case, and he again denied committing the crime. A detective noted in his summary that Keifer should be considered a suspect in the 1970 slaying.

In 1983, Keifer was arrested again, this time he was accused of breaking into a Westerville home and fleeing when confronted by a man who lived there. Police stopped Keifer nearby and found a handgun in his car.

He served two more years in prison.

"When I did focus on Keifer and got his history, I thought, 'This is him,'" Taylor said.

Comparing the DNA

But in May 2002, Keifer died of an asthma attack at age 53. His family had cremated him, along with whatever DNA evidence police had hoped to gather.

Taylor located Keifer's parents, who agreed to supply DNA. It was their samples, from cheek swabs, that police used to link Keifer to the crime.

Nathan Katz said he was somewhat relieved to learn that the suspect was dead.

"I'd almost rather have it that way," he said last week. "He's not hurting anyone else now."

Katz, 59, remarried in 1972 and has two grown children. He owns a central Ohio real-estate company.




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