On The Case With Paula Zahn is investigating a 44-year-old murder case involving the brutal murder of Michelle Mitchell, a nursing student at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1976.
Cathy Woods spent over thirty in prison after being convicted of the murder; however, the police now believe that the true killer is Rodney Halbower, but investigations are continuing.
On February 24, 1976, 19-year-old Michelle was driving to her father’s house when she began to have car trouble and pulled into a parking lot. She telephoned her mom, Barbara Mitchell, to come pick her up. Unfortunately, when Barbara arrived, she couldn’t find her daughter anywhere.
Later that evening, an elderly couple came home to find Michelle’s body in their garage – her hands had been bound behind her back, and her throat had been slit. A cigarette butt and a shoe print were found at the scene.
Several witnesses came forward, and one said they’d seen a man startle Michelle by grabbing her from behind. Other witnesses spoke of seeing a man running or walking quickly from the area.
Therefore, the detectives were understandably surprised when three years later, the main suspect became a woman. Cathy Woods had been living in Reno at the time of the murder but had since moved to Louisiana. And in 1979, she was a patient in a psychiatric hospital when she implied to her therapist that she had murdered Michelle.
The Reno police flew to Louisiana to question the severely mentally ill Woods, and they concluded that she had offered to fix Michelle’s car and then sexually propositioned her. When Michelle rejected the advances, she killed her.
The only solid evidence the detectives had was an unsigned confession; nevertheless, Woods was found guilty of murder twice, once in 1980 and again at a retrial in 1985. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
DNA evidence freed Cathy Woods
She remained in prison for 35 years until the authorities did a test for DNA on the cigarette butt and learned that Woods was not a match. It was determined that her confession had been coerced and that she was actually innocent.
The DNA was found to match a prison inmate in Oregon called Rodney Halbower. Halbower had been arrested in Reno in November 1976 for rape. In 1986 he escaped prison and stabbed a woman in a parking lot in Oregon.
The police now believe he was responsible for Michelle’s death and the rape and murder of five other women in the San Francisco Bay area. In 2018 he was sentenced to life in prison for the killings of 17-year-old Paula Baxter and 18-year-old Veronica Cascio in San Mateo County, Ca. The case of Michelle’s murder is still ongoing.
In the meantime, the state of Nevada compensated Cathy Woods for her false incarceration with $3 million.
More from On The Case With Paula Zahn
Follow the links to read about more crimes profiled on On The Case With Paula Zahn.
Martin Johnson was a sexual predator who preyed on teenage girls and plied them with alcohol and drugs. The police believe that when 15-year-old Heather Fraser refused his advances, he raped and murdered her before throwing her remains off a bridge into the Columbia River.
Police believe that in 1979, Dennis Eagle followed Betty Elias back to her apartment in Oakland, CA., where he raped and murdered her. He evaded justice for the crime for a staggering 37 years before DNA evidence finally caught up with him.
On The Case With Paula Zahn airs at 9/8c on Investigation Discovery.