At last, an answer

22 years later, DNA identifies the now-dead killer of a former Sandusky woman

The Sandusky Register

Jan. 16, 2005



Two weeks ago, a detective from Oklahoma told Tracey Dennis something she'd been waiting 22 years to hear.

Police had found the man who bound, strangled and killed her then-30-year-old sister, Lissetto "Doll" Dennis, in a Lawton, Okla., motel room when Tracey was just 16 years old.

His name was Marshel Robinson, and he'd been linked to the crime scene through recent DNA tests. He also died more than six years ago in prison while doing time on an armed robbery conviction.

New technology had closed a long-cold case and put a face to the crime, but it hasn't helped Tracey make peace with her life's worst tragedy.

"I know I'm supposed to feel some type of closure or something, but I just don't," she said. "My sister was my everything, my every breath, and he took that away from me."

Tracey, now 38, and her sister, who would have been 52 today, were born in Cincinnati. Their mother died when Tracey was about five years old, and Lissetto, just graduated from high school and working at the former Good Samaritan Hospital in Sandusky, took her in and raised her.

Tracey, who now lives on Perry Street in Sandusky, remembers Lissetto as an intelligent, head-strong woman with a big, bright smile. She joined the military as a medic in 1978 to further her education and help provide for her family, Tracey said.

While stationed at Fort Liss in Lawton, Okla., Lissetto met fellow medic and future life-long friend Victoria Robinson, from Jacksonville, Fla. After she was discharged in 1981, she earned her associate's degree and returned to Cincinnati to work as a medical lab technician.

Lissetto flew to Lawton to visit Robinson, then 23 and still enlisted, for the Christmas holiday in 1982. Tracey, then 16, was planning to live with her sister in Cincinnati soon after she returned.

According to a Jan. 2, 1983, article in the Lawton Constitution and Morning Press, a maid at the Capri Motel in Lawton found both Dennis and Robinson dead on Dec. 31. One was in a nurse's uniform on the bed, the other nude on the floor at the foot of the bed, and both had electrical cords tied around their necks.

Det. Chuck Miller with Lawton police said last week that police had interviewed Marshel Robinson, who was at a makeshift party in the motel's parking lot on Dec. 31 and had an extensive criminal and juvenile record.

The suspect -- who was not related to Victoria Robinson -- was uncooperative and "lawyered up," Miller said, and disappeared before a follow-up interview could be conducted. During his first interview, however, he said something that amounted to a confession, Miller said.

"He became defensive and said he'd borrowed an iron from them and brought it back," Miller said. "The cord from an iron was wrapped around one woman's neck, but we'd never brought it up in the interview."

Police had probable cause and circumstantial evidence, but laboratory technology in the early 1980s couldn't link samples taken from the victims to the suspect. Tracey said the family never heard anything about a lead or a suspect.

"At the time, I didn't understand death the way I do now," Tracey said. "I was bitter, I was angry -- it just turned my whole world upside down."

By the late 1990s, DNA had become viable evidence. It was first used on a federal level in the weapons trial of Steven Yee, later convicted in Erie County for the 1988 murder of Sandusky resident David Hartlaub, and that case was cited to admit DNA evidence into the 1997 murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

Lawton, like police departments around the country, had started looking into "cold cases" that might now be solvable. One detective re-opened the nearly 15-year-old double homicide case in late 1997, and discovered Marshel Robinson was incarcerated in Oklahoma City, serving 45 years for armed robbery.

When detectives arrived at the prison to interview Robinson and take blood samples, they saw he had a tattoo on his chest of two bound women, Miller said.

The amount of biological material police had held in cold storage was small, however, and a match wasn't guaranteed. The detective working the case soon retired and other detectives were moved to other areas, Miller said, putting the case on hold again.

Finally, on Nov. 30, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations laboratory confirmed that DNA taken from one of the victims matched that of Robinson, who had died in July 1998 in prison from natural causes, an official with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections said.

Tracey heard from Miller on Jan. 1, almost 22 years to the day her sister died. Miller said although police knew the suspect was dead, "we wanted to put some closure on it, to make sure we had the right individual and close the case."

Robinson's likely killed the two women because he thought they were lesbians, Miller said. The words "lesbean whores"(sic) were found written, apparently in lipstick, on the motel room's bathroom mirror, according to the Jan. 2, 1983, Lawton Constitution and Morning Press article.

But Miller said police had no reason to believe the victims were involved, and Tracey said nobody in her family "ever thought anything like that," noting that her sister was engaged to be married when she died.

Learning the identity of her sister's killer has "been a blessing," Tracey said, but also opened up new emotions she must deal with. She has three children "who will never know how big (Lissetto's) smile was."

"I'm glad I have a face now, I know what he looks like, but I wish he was still alive so I could look him in the eyes and ask him why," she said. "I have to forgive him in my heart. I haven't gotten there yet, but I know I have to if I want to go where my sister is."