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A Message From The Grave

Fifteen Years After DNA Scientist Helena Greenwood Was Murdered in Del Mar, the Science She Helped Advance May Have Snared Her Killer

March 12, 2000|FRED DICKEY | Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine about Indian gaming in California

Headed south from London toward the English Channel, the industrial hardscrabble of England begins to fade at Winchester. Passing Southampton, workaday gray gives way in winter's old-gold sun to the mossy browns and greens of Hampshire's New Forest. Deftly placed among its tufted heaths and spreading trees are well-groomed towns bordering the long waterway that moved the RMS Titanic and 10,000 other ships down to the sea from Southampton's docks. * Appealing though the view from the train may be, tourism is not my purpose. I am here about murder.

My destination is Lymington, which faces the Isle of Wight, just across a narrow channel. It is Lymington where an old man awaits me. I'm told that he also awaits his end; he is a victim of cancer and grief. The weight of this mission fogs the scenery before me.

On Aug. 22, 1985, this stricken man's daughter, an esteemed 35-year-old British-born DNA scientist named Dr. Helena M. Greenwood, was found strangled to death in the front yard of her home in Del Mar, north of San Diego. The crime happened on a Thursday morning as she left for work. The absence of evidence mocked investigators, though they believed they knew the killer's identity.

For 14 years, the mystery remained, her murderer beyond the reach of justice. Over those years, the science that Helena Greenwood helped advance continued to progress, one breakthrough at a time. Now it may be her means of speaking from death's silence to point out her killer. On Dec. 15, 1999, a man named David Paul Frediani was arrested for her murder. He was the same man convicted of breaking into her home, then near Palo Alto, and sexually attacking her the year before the murder. The evidence against him is based on the cumulative advances in DNA research over the last dozen years. Sometimes irony is our friend.

I am in England to trace Helena to her roots. She was born here in 1949, the only child of the achieving Greenwoods: Marjorie, a geologist, and Sydney, who became head of the Southampton College of Art and went on to attain the title of "Fellow, Royal Society of Art," a very big deal.


I pay the taxi driver one unfamiliar coin at a time and glance curiously at the solid brick house. I've been told that 87-year-old Sydney is dying, and playing tag with reality. I'm a little nervous. It's tough enough to build a quick bridge to living strangers, but to interrupt a man who is busy dying seems awkward, even rude.

The door opens to a man stooped and slow but with clear blue eyes that size me up in return. A few words of warm greeting tell me Sydney Greenwood isn't about to quit anything--working, mourning or living. I ask how he is feeling. He answers that his prostate cancer is under control and he's painting again. He tries to prove it with a shaky, shuffling vaudeville dance step that says the legs may be gone but the mind is still in the game.

Sydney, puffing deeply but evenly, shows me to his living room and talks and talks. "That prime minister of yours?" he says, serving coffee and biscuits. "I rather like him. Let the man have his occasional tart. He seems to think it's good for him."

I ask about his art; I remark on his charming community. Then, "May I ask about Helena, Sydney?"

He rocks thoughtfully in his chair, as though her memory lives in a separate place he has to travel to. "She was a wonderful girl," he says at last. "She was a happy, well-behaved child." He glances at a pile of sketches against the wall, topped by one of a waif dressed in her mother's clothes, which drag the ground, her feet swimming in the grown-up's shoes. He continues: "I thought, 'Why would anyone hurt my girl?' I have never understood it. She had so much to look forward to. Had done so much already. . . . I'm glad her mother wasn't here to endure that."

"Pardon me?'

"Marguerite died a few weeks before Helena. Leukemia. There's no one left." I stare at him but he doesn't notice. He looks straight ahead into what only he can see.

I am well-schooled in the journalistic art of skepticism, but I sit earnestly and learn about a remarkable woman. On a bookcase shelf, two PhD dissertations are placed proudly side by side, one by mother, one by daughter. Helena earned her doctorate in chemical pathology from the University of London at the unusually young age of 26. Professor John Landon, who supervised Helena's PhD program, recalls that she "was in the top 10% of scientists, definitely. Determined and focused." Her name became known through her authorship in professional journals of articles with such intimidating titles as "The measurement of urinary digoxin and dihydrodigoxin by radioimmunoassay and by mass spectroscopy."

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