HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — A little over 9 years ago, Katie Lavender’s mother got a knock on the door with news that no parent could ever imagine receiving— her daughter had been killed.
The case had a few leads at first but eventually went cold. Now police have new evidence to share with the public and a new suspect.
Katie's mom Melba Lavender describes her as a bookworm and a writer that could make anyone laugh.
"She had a lot of friends. She don't think she do. But she did because, you know, my daughter... everybody thought she was super cool."
In 2013, Katie Lavender had just moved to Hot Springs and was still getting settled in the city. She worked full time at the local Xerox store near the Oaklawn Race Track. She would sometimes take walks among big crowds downtown during the racing season.
But on March 19th, 2013, Hot Springs Police Department Detective Mark Fallis got a call. "It was a Tuesday evening, we were actually at work. It was about six o'clock in the evening, when we got the call of a possible deceased person at 515 Higdon Ferry."
After responding to the 911 call, Hot Springs police discovered that Katie was found dead in her apartment. She was only 20 years old at the time of the murder.
Fallis was one of the first to arrive on scene.
"Everyone's a suspect in these kind of cases," he said. "So we look into everyone and anyone who's had contact or especially during that time frame."
That includes the strange phone calls before her death and the last place she was seen— on a walk downtown that was captured by local security cameras.
"You can see an individual walk down, he talks to who we believe is Katie. And then both of them proceed up to the white car, get in the white car, and pull out onto the Central Avenue and head toward Katie's apartment," Fallis said.
As officers asked for the public’s help in finding the car’s owner, they also spoke to witnesses.
Fallis said they started with the person who found Katie’s body. "Katie's boyfriend was there. He came to the police department gave us a statement."
Police say her boyfriend was upset at first, and cooperated well enough. But Katie’s mother Melba said that’s not how it went for her.
"He wouldn’t talk to me. They said he was too tore up to talk to me about it," she said.
But she said she didn’t trust that story at the time and her daughter’s boyfriend still won’t speak to her.
"I told him before it ever happened if anything ever happened to her I was coming looking for him," she added.
That uneasy feeling and Katie’s move to Hot Springs mostly came after some questionable events in their romantic relationship.
Two years before Katie’s murder, a scandal in Arkadelphia involved the pair and a local lawyer, leading to all three, "arrested for solicitation and prostitution."
Court documents show the lawyer pleaded guilty for sexual solicitation of Katie and her boyfriend.
The lawyer received some jail time and a fine and his license to practice law was suspended.
At that point in the investigation Fallis said that "it could be could have been a motive."
But the detective explained that the lawyer had an alibi away from the crime scene on the night Katie was killed.
"Running down that lead, you know, we couldn't find anything that linked [the lawyer] to that," he said.
After her arrest Katie was kicked out of school at Henderson, but her boyfriend was not.
The pair stayed in touch once Katie moved to Hot Springs but Mrs. Lavender would describe it as too in touch.
"You couldn't have a phone conversation with or without him back there listening... and you got to the point that once he was even here at the house," she said. "She just sat there texting him what you was saying or she'd have the phone open where you could hear."
But as far as the investigation was concerned, the details surrounding Katie's death are still hidden from the public. But Detective Fallis said there's a good reason for that.
"Anything that happened inside that apartment, there's gonna be two people that know about it. That's the person who did it and myself," he said.
Fallis hopes that anyone truly involved in Katie’s death slip-up in an interview and share information they wouldn’t otherwise know.
But detectives still wanted to figure out who could have that information and who was driving that car. Officers thought new DNA technology could help get those answers.
"I believe that whoever she got in the car with that is potentially their DNA at that house. And that is potentially their fingerprint into the house," Fallis said.
But he went on to explain that it was only a partial fingerprint and the DNA didn’t match any past arrests in the country.
"This DNA is already in been through the Arkansas State Crime Lab and is in CODIS," Fallis said.
But detectives still wanted further analysis of the DNA they had but the process for this relatively new technology would still take lots of time and money.
So while the department started the process, Fallis said they had "exhausted leads" in the interim.
That all changed this year when their DNA results came back, nearly a decade after Katie's death.
The DNA results would finally put a face to whoever was at the scene. But when the computer generated image came back, the results were a bit of a surprise.
"Once I got the picture, it's actually in a way, it's disappointing," Fallis explained.
With 93% confidence Parabon reported the DNA on Katie’s body was from a Latino man; a description that didn’t match the main persons of interest so far.
Now Hot Springs police has the face of a suspect but no name, something Detective Fallis said is, "...very frustrating; that's the person who I need."
The composite shows what the suspect would look like as a 25 year old, but his current age is still unknown.
The DNA test also indicated with high confidence as someone with brown hair, no freckles, and brown or hazel eyes.
But Fallis said "there is some hope" now to find new leads in this case from this photograph, but also, "a lot of questions."
Also clarifying that while this photo is unexpected, the case is still open, explaining, "I have not cleared anybody."
The department now is once again turning to the public’s help to identify the man in the photo that no one seems to recognize.
All as Katie's mother works to push forward and now offering a $1,000 reward to whoever can give information that leads to the killer's arrest.
"Every time I think about her it comes all back," Melba Lavender said, "There's somebody out there that knows and I wish they start talking."