DNA in decades-old cold case to be reexamined

West Bay

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Following a hunch, a Cranston detective approached a car on the side of the road in 1988.

It was dark and about an hour until midnight.

As he got closer, he noticed the blood.

He looked around, stepping over the guardrail. He ran down the embankment.

There she was.

Lauren Morris, the missing 18-year-old girl, was floating in the water.

The 23-hour search was over but the investigation had just begun.

The Summer of ’88

Lauren had her whole life ahead of her. In 1988, she graduated from Bristol High School and was about to start taking classes at CCRI.

“She was your typical 18-year-old girl,” Detective Robert Santagata recalled. “Very outgoing. Very approachable from all accounts. She was enjoying being 18.”

By July 18, summer was in full swing. Lauren’s mom was at her job with the Girl Scouts of Rhode Island in Providence.

Santagata said Lauren took the bus from Bristol to Providence to borrow her mom’s car. She said she’d be back at 5 p.m. to pick her up.

Five o’clock came and went. Lauren never returned.

“That was very unusual,” Santagata said. Lauren’s mom took the bus back to Bristol and called the police. She filed a missing persons report and waited.

Route 10

Detective Santagata drives by Spectacle Pond every day. It’s right next to Cranston Police Headquarters.

“At the time, none of this was developed,” he said, referring to the nearby buildings and streetlights. “This would have been a pretty dark area. Especially at 11 o’clock at night.”

He parked his cruiser where the officer found Lauren’s mother’s car on July 19, 1988. It was in the breakdown lane of Route 10 South.

The car had blood in it.

“She would have been taken over this embankment,” he said while pointing to the grass between the highway and the pond. “You get that surreal feeling when you’re standing here. As a detective, you try to play it out in your mind as to what could have happened. What happened?”

That alert officer, following his hunch, found Lauren’s body floating in the pond eight feet offshore. The official cause of her death was drowning. She had blows to the back of her head.

“It does appear she put up some sort of fight,” Santagata added.

The search for Lauren was finished but over the next 24 hours, detectives scoured the scene looking for clues. File video from 1988 shows detectives walking shoulder-to-shoulder, picking through the tall grass.

There were multiple suspects but no arrests.

Waiting for Justice

It’s now been more than 30 years since Lauren was killed. Her mother can’t talk about it with reporters anymore. It’s too painful.

“She always had hope that there will be justice for her daughter,” Santagata said. He has the same hope.

“This is a pretty…I’ll use the word heinous crime,” he said.

The DNA evidence collected from the scene has been tested before and didn’t come back with any hits. Since the technology has improved in the last few years, Santagata believes retesting it could lead to a break in the case.

He also hopes someone will finally speak up about what they know. The case was added to a deck of cold case playing cards. Each card highlights an unsolved homicide or missing person case in Rhode Island. The decks have been made available for prisoners in the state and the public can buy them as well. Santagata hopes anyone with information will call 1-877-RI-SOLVE.

Santagata and the other detective on the case still have a lot to uncover. He says every detective who has worked the case since 1988 thinks about it often.

“It’s one of those cases that haunts them,” he said. “It was such an unknown. Her being so young makes it even harder.”

He added, “You always wonder to yourself how someone 30-plus years could live with this and not say a word.”

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