By Joe Johnson
A man who was to begin trial on Monday for murder in the death of an Athens woman 18 years ago pleaded at the last moment to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
In accordance with the negotiated plea, Western Judicial Circuit Judge Eric Norris sentenced 35-year-old Abdus Salaam Laroche of Decatur to serve 20 years in prison and another 20 years on probation for the 2002 stabbing death of Pamela Crisler.
Retired Athens-Clarke police Lt. Mike McKeel, who was the original lead investigator for the Crisler homicide said that he was pleased that the nearly two-decade-old case had been brought to final adjudication.
"I am glad to see closure to this case, especially for Pamela's family," said McKeel, now a deputy with the Oconee County Sheriff's Office.
The case against Laroche had largely hinged on DNA evidence, and during years of trying police were unable to find a suspect whose DNA matched evidence collected at the crime scene.
“I had always hoped to get a hit so that we could solve the case and let (Crisler’s) mama know before she died, but unfortunately she passed away a few years ago,” McKeel said after Laroche was arrested nearly three years ago.
According to Clarke County Superior Court documents, Laroche admitted that in the summer of 2002 he killed Crisler, a 49-year-old mental health and substance abuse counselor, during a burglary of a home at College Place Apartments, a complex off West Broad Street that has since been renamed University Oaks.
Police said that Crisler was staying in the apartment of a man who went to Florida to visit his sister.
The case went cold after several years, but a break came after Laroche in 2017 was convicted in the Atlanta area for felony copyright infringement for selling bootlegged DVDs, Athens-Clarke County police said.
As part of plea bargain, police said, Laroche received probation and agreed to supply a DNA sample. That sample was entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the FBIA's national DNA database, and police in Athens were subsequently notified that Laroche’s DNA matched genetic evidence found at the Crisler murder scene.
Police arrested Laroche for Crisler’s alleged murder on May 8, 2018.
A Clarke County grand jury subsequently indicted Laroche for malice murder, two counts of felony murder, first-degree burglary and aggravated assault, according to court records.
In addition to the purported DNA match, prosecutors located a witness in California to whom Laroche reportedly confessed to killing Crisler.
In the lead-up to a possible trial, Western Judicial District Deputy James Chafin filed a motion to compel testimony from the out-of-state witness. Chafin stated in the motion that “(Laroche) told (the witness) that he had broken into an apartment and this lady woke up and he had to kill her. Mr. Laroche said he put the knife to her throat and killed her.”
Chafin, the lead prosecutor in the case, said the plea agreement and sentence Laroche received brought closure to the victim’s survivors.
“ Despite the passing of almost two decades, Pamela Crisler’s killer was finally brought to justice," Chafin said.
“This cold case was solved through a combination of DNA evidence, advancements in technology and traditional law enforcement investigative work,” Chafin said. “This case required the hard work, persistence and collaborative efforts of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office.”
He said that “solving cold cases is one of the priorities of local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office. I would encourage anyone with information regarding any unsolved homicides to contact Sgt. David Norris with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.”
Norris can be reached at (762) 400-7165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.