(Kate Erickson / The Herald)

(Kate Erickson / The Herald)

A piece of gum helped solve a 1984 Everett cold case, charges say

Prosecutors charged Mitchell Gaff with aggravated murder Friday. The case went cold after leads went nowhere for four decades.

EVERETT — Police call this the “gum ruse.”

On Jan. 17, three undercover detectives posing as gum industry reps asked Mitchell Gaff to participate in a survey. They were researching gum flavors.

Gaff obliged, chewing a piece and then spitting it into a ramekin.

That gum became a vessel for the last piece of DNA evidence investigators needed to potentially crack the 1984 killing of Judy Weaver.

On Friday, prosecutors charged Gaff, 66, with aggravated first-degree murder in Snohomish County Superior Court in the killing of Weaver, 42. If convicted, Gaff faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Police arrested Gaff on Wednesday after an investigation that went cold for nearly four decades. Investigators found the Level 3 sex offender in Olympia, where he lived under a legally changed name, Sam Wise Price. Detectives tried to interview him, but Gaff invoked his right to remain silent, according to a police report.

Weaver was the bar manager at the Bell-Ness Cafe where she worked with her boyfriend who owned the bar. On June 1, 1984, after working since 6 a.m., Weaver asked the bartender to call her a cab around 9:30 p.m. because she was too intoxicated to drive home, court documents said. By 9:50 p.m., the taxi hadn’t arrived, so she decided to walk.

Weaver stopped by the Dairy Queen near her Rucker Avenue home for ice cream, according to the charges. A witness said a young man appeared to be with Weaver at the restaurant. It was the last time anyone saw her alive.

Gaff allegedly entered Weaver’s apartment to sexually assault and bind Weaver. The ligatures Gaff used to tie Weaver’s throat ultimately killed her, deputy prosecutor Craig Matheson wrote in the charges.

After the assault, Gaff removed the batteries from the fire alarm and set fire to the apartment, prosecutors wrote.

Sometime after midnight, a witness walking down Rucker Avenue reportedly saw smoke billowing from Weaver’s home. He pounded on her door but no one answered.

Firefighters entered the apartment through an unlocked back door but had to back out because of the smoke. They eventually discovered the fire had been contained to the bedroom, where they found Weaver, according to the charges.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office determined Weaver was strangled to death. Authorities had a forensic scientist at the Washington State Patrol crime lab swab Weaver’s remains to preserve DNA evidence.

Charging papers reveal detectives looked at several potential suspects: Weaver’s boyfriend, a stepson, a business associate, a bar patron she had thrown out and the young man seen at the Dairy Queen. None of them could be connected to the killing, according to court documents.

The case went cold. Ten years later, police reviewed the case. They pursued a lead about drugs being trafficked through the Bell-Ness and that money laundering could have been a motivation for Weaver’s killing, prosecutors wrote. The tip didn’t go anywhere.

In July 2020, detectives took another look, using newly available DNA technology. DNA from saliva taken from the carpet in Weaver’s bedroom found no match in the national DNA database CODIS. The DNA was an apparent match for Weaver’s then-boyfriend.

Authorities sent other items to the crime lab for DNA testing, including the various ligatures used to bind Weaver, the charges say.

Three years later, in November 2023, police received the DNA report from the crime lab. DNA found in the wrist ligatures turned up a match in CODIS: Mitchell Gaff.

A couple months later, they reportedly conducted the gum ruse to compare DNA to that found on the ligatures. The DNA on the gum was a match to numerous pieces of evidence taken from the crime scene, according to the charges.

There is no record of Gaff and Weaver knowing each other, leading prosecutors to believe there was no “innocent explanation” for why his DNA was found at the crime scene, Matheson wrote in the charges.

At the time of Weaver’s killing, Gaff was 26. He lived at his parents’ house in the Lowell neighborhood of Everett. He worked for a carpet cleaning service, then got hired at a flower shop in August 1984. Two months after Weaver was found dead, Gaff broke into the home of two teenage sisters in Everett and raped them. He was convicted and sentenced in 1985.

On the eve of his release in 1994, prosecutors moved to have Gaff legally detained under the state’s sexual predator law. In 1995 and 2000, juries found Gaff to be a sexually violent predator who could be legally confined to receive treatment.

In the years after his conviction, Gaff admitted to sexually assaulting numerous others, according to court documents. At one point, Gaff was trying to attack 10 to 30 women a day, knocking some to the ground and putting his hands up their skirts, he admitted during a jury trial. In a psychological evaluation, Gaff admitted he preferred to use a knife to disrobe his victims.

Gaff was incarcerated at the state’s Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island for two decades. Therapists have diagnosed him as a “sexual sadist.” Gaff moved to a halfway house in 2006, but was sent back to the commitment center a year later after dozens of video tapes featuring depictions of sex, violence and torture were found in his room.

In 2016, Gaff was released to a “Less Restrictive Alternative” placement in the community, according to sex offender registry records. Despite changing his name, he was required to register as a Level 3 sex offender — those who pose a “high risk to sexually reoffend within the community at large.”

While Gaff moved through the criminal justice system, Weaver’s family looked for answers.

“It’s not going to bring Mom back,” her daughter, Cathy Myers, told The Daily Herald in 2009. “But it’s going to be closure.”

In a statement released Monday by Everett police, Weaver’s family thanked the investigators “who have worked so diligently over the years to compile the DNA evidence that ultimately led to an arrest.”

“Throughout the years our family has never given up hope,” the family said. “We are very happy there will finally be justice for our mom, Judy. We request our privacy at this time as we navigate the beginnings of this difficult situation.”

As of this week, Gaff remained in the Snohomish County Jail on a “no bail” hold.

Jonathan Tall: 425-339-3486; jonathan.tall@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @snocojon.

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