DNA testing reveals killer in 1989 strangling of Las Vegas schoolgirl

Published Wed, Jul 21, 2021 (2:43 p.m.)

Updated Wed, Jul 21, 2021 (6:30 p.m.)

Stephanie Isaacson

Stephanie Isaacson

Decades have passed since Stephanie Isaacson, 14, was abducted, beaten, raped and strangled to death while walking to school.

The case was solved this month when DNA identified Darren R. Marchand as her killer, according to Metro Police.

The Las Vegas man, who was a suspect in another slaying, took his own life in 1995, Lt. Ray Spencer said today.

The DNA testing was conducted by a private company, Othram Labs.

For 32 years, Metro investigated the slaying, chasing tips in Washington state, Texas and Ohio, said Spencer, noting that older in-house testing technology hadn’t provided a hit with what little DNA was recovered from the crime scene.

About 6:30 a.m. on June 1, 1989, Isaacson left her house near Nellis Boulevard and Stewart Avenue, Spencer said. She was heading to Eldorado High School but never made it. Her father reported her missing to Metro after she didn’t return home.

That night, Metro found her backpack and belongings in the desert. Her body was discovered nearby, about 25 yards off a path she took to school, Spencer said.

Kimberly Murga, director of the forensics unit at Metro, said the unknown suspect’s DNA was tested in 1998 and again in 2007. The DNA profile was uploaded to a national database, she said.

Earlier this month, Ohram Labs, using minimal DNA for genome sequencing — fewer than 15 human cells — got a match with Marchand, police said.

Three years before he killed Isaacson, when he was 20, Marchand was arrested in the strangulation death of Nanette Vanderburg, 24. Vanderburg was found dead in her home on Feb. 27, 1986, Spencer said.

But the case against Marchand was dismissed due to a lack of evidence, Spencer said.

“Marchand’s DNA from the case involving (Vanderburg) was compared to the DNA located in Stephanie’s case and it was a match,” police said in a news release.

Spencer today read from a statement provided by Stephanie’s mother, whom he didn’t name. 

“I’m glad they found who murdered my daughter,” the statement said. “We never believed the case would be solved. It’s good to have some closure, but there’s no justice for Stephanie at all. We will never have complete closure because nothing will ever bring my daughter back to us.”

The last push to solve the case was kicked off by a donation from Justin Woo, a Henderson retiree with a background in advertising and marketing.

Woo said a friend introduced him to David Mittelman, the owner of Othram Labs, and he made a $5,000 donation to fund testing in a cold case from the Las Vegas area.

The Texas-based lab reached out to Metro, which forwarded the DNA from Isaacson’s case.

For seven months, Woo was not privy to which case Metro picked, he said. It wasn’t until a couple days ago that he learned the case had been solved, and it wasn’t until today that he found out any specifics.

“It's really such a sad case, and we're glad that we could help with it,” Woo said.

Woo, founder of the nonprofit Vegas Helps, which aims to fund “acts of kindness,” said he hopes the group can pay for similar endeavors in the future. In this case, Woo made the donation from his own pocket, he said.

Woo said he was also trying to get ahold of retired Metro Deputy Chief Mike Hawkins, who worked on the case.

“What bothers me the most is I know there is someone out there who got away with murder,” Hawkins said before his retirement in 2001. “I think about Stephanie Isaacson.”

"I still feel bad about not getting that solved for the family," Hawkins said at the time.

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