The state and the FBI agreed, and in July 2021, an FBI agent specializing in genetic genealogy told Suffolk County detectives she’d found a distant relative of the unknown suspect, along with a last name: Rice. Working on that information, detectives landed on Herbert Rice, who was long dead. Unable to get a DNA sample to confirm their theory, they tracked down one of his sons. After failing to collect a DNA sample from him covertly, Bottari, the detective, knocked on the son’s door and told him what they were trying to do.
The son said he hadn’t been close to his father and allowed the detective to swab his cheek, Bottari said. The DNA sample verified in late August that the son’s father was the killer.
Bottari told the son and his mother, who filled in more of the story.
At the time of the murder, the son’s mother said, she had kicked Rice out of their house, according to detectives. Rice had moved in with his mother, who lived about four houses from the yard where Eve Wilkowitz’s body was discovered on March 25, 1980, detectives said. In the case file, detectives saw that Rice’s mother had been questioned by police who canvassed the neighborhood. She told them she hadn’t noticed anything, Bottari said.
Rice’s son had done nothing wrong, but he told detectives he still wished he could apologize to Wilkowitz’s family, police said.
Rice’s son could not immediately be reached for comment. The son’s mother declined to comment.
On Dec. 6, Bottari and a sergeant from the homicide unit visited Irene Wilkowitz in Rhode Island to tell her what they’d found.
Wilkowitz, who works as a nanny, shares an apartment with her son, because she remains afraid to live alone. Knowing the chances of a breakthrough were slim, she thought that the detectives were probably coming to say they’d hit a final dead end. She introduced them to Evan and made small talk while Bottari used FaceTime to patch in the FBI agent who’d done the genealogical investigation.
“These are the most exciting kinds of visits we can do, to give a family some sort of answer,” Bottari said. “Especially for her. We had decades of detectives who worked on this.”
Wilkowitz cried in her son’s arms while the detectives gave her Rice’s name and birthdate. They told her how they’d figured it out. It amazed her.
She thanked the detectives, and after about 30 minutes, they left. Wilkowitz leaned against her kitchen island for a while, crying. Still shaking, she called Beyrer and thanked him.
Wilkowitz said she was open to talking to Rice’s son. Bottari tried connecting them. The son has told detectives he is considering it, Bottari said.
“I just want to say thank you,” Wilkowitz said, “and how sorry I feel for him and his family to know that a family member is responsible for a crime like this and they have to live knowing that. It’s horrible for them as well.”
Before announcing the case was solved, Suffolk County authorities wanted to make sure they had the right man. So they got a search warrant to exhume Rice’s body. The results came back March 23, nearly 42 years to the day Eve went missing. The samples taken from the remains matched the suspect’s DNA, Bottari said. It was him.
“There is no way we would have gotten to where we are today had it not been for science and genetic genealogy to let us dig deep, find family members and get us to Mr. Rice,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison said.
Beyrer praised Wilkowitz for keeping attention on the search for the killer.
“She deserves the credit and I think she’s the star in this case,” Beyrer said.
The case is now closed. But Wilkowitz still suffers from the trauma of losing her sister, and of going decades not knowing who killed her. She still has questions that will never be answered.
“I can’t ask him anything — why did he do it? Why did he pick on an innocent beautiful woman who was just walking home?” Wilkowitz said. “There are no real answers, no reason why.”