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Suspect in strangulation deaths bound over for trial

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Steve Marcus

Nathaniel Burkett appears in court at the Regional Justice Center Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012. Burkett is suspected of killing two Las Vegas women. A preliminary hearing was set for Oct. 5.

Updated Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012 | 11:39 a.m.

The man accused of three decades-old Las Vegas strangling deaths, one in 1978 and the other two in 1994, will have his first appearance later this month in Clark County District Court.

Nathan Burkett, 62, has been charged with two counts of murder, one count of murder with a deadly weapon and one count of sexual assault, according to a criminal complaint amended Wednesday.

Burkett was bound over Wednesday to District Court at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing before Justice of the Peace Eric A. Goodman.

The evidentiary hearing began Friday and resumed Wednesday with testimony from a DNA expert.

Metro Police arrested Burkett in July after DNA evidence allegedly tied him to the deaths of Barbara Ann Cox, 22, and Tina Mitchell, 27. In October, prosecutors added a third murder charge related to the death of 32-year-old Althea Williams, who police believe was strangled with an object such as a belt.

Julie Marschner, a forensic scientist for Metro Police, testified Wednesday that she conducted lab tests on DNA evidence found on Cox's body.

Marschner said she extracted enough DNA from semen found on a vaginal swab to construct a partial male DNA profile.

The partial male DNA profile was entered into a national database that matches DNA profiles with those of convicted felons and people arrested on certain other crimes, Marschner testified. The entry resulted in a match with Burkett.

The partial male DNA profile matched with Burkett was rarer than one in 700 billion people, Marschner testified.

Metro sent forensic evidence from the Mitchell case to another laboratory, which produced a DNA profile eventually matched to Burkett, Marschner testified.

Williams' death is the lone case without DNA evidence tied to Burkett. There was not enough DNA evidence present on Williams' body to construct a suspect profile, Marschner said.

The preliminary hearing began Friday in Las Vegas Township Justice Court. Testimony from seven witnesses Friday laid the groundwork for the prosecution's attempt to illustrate similarities among the three killings.

Cox’s body was found April 22, 1978, outside a Las Vegas apartment complex in the 200 block of West Bonanza Road, about a mile from where the bodies of the other victims were found. Mitchell and Williams’ deaths occurred nearly three months apart in 1994 — on Feb. 20 and May 14, respectively — but their bodies ended up in the same spot: under a clothesline outside apartments near Washington Avenue and H Street.

Authorities arrived Feb. 20, 1994, to find Mitchell’s body covered with white towels snagged from an overhanging clothesline. Several months later, police were called to the same location, where they discovered Williams’ body, which was not covered by anything, underneath a bare clothesline.

A former Metro homicide detective said the similarities between the Mitchell and Williams cases led them to believe the same person was responsible for both killings.

Special public defenders David Schieck and Alzora Jackson are representing Burkett, who appeared in court in a wheelchair. Marc DiGiacomo and Pamela Weckerly, both chief deputy district attorneys, are prosecuting the case.

"You have essentially three very similar, very same (mode of operation) crimes," DiGiacomo told Goodman Wednesday, arguing there was enough evidence to establish probable cause. "You have DNA in two of those women."

Goodman agreed and sent the case to District Court, where Burkett scheduled for an appearance at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 26.

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