The last time Wendy Jerome was seen alive she was leaving her home in Rochester, N.Y., to deliver a birthday card to a friend who lived nearby. It was around 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving and Wendy, who was 14, had to be home by an 8 p.m. curfew.
When Wendy didn’t return by that time, her parents became frantic. Less than three hours later, their worst fears were confirmed when a passer-by found Wendy’s body in an alcove behind a school near her home. She had been raped and beaten to death.
The date was Nov. 22, 1984. The police sifted through hundreds of leads and hunches, all of them leading nowhere, and the case went cold.
Then, on Thursday night, 36 years after Wendy was killed, investigators went to the home of Wendy’s mother, Marlene Jerome, and told her that they had solved the case.
Using familial DNA, which relies on genetic evidence to identify the relatives of suspects and eventually the suspects themselves, the police said they had arrested Timothy L. Williams at his home in Melbourne, Fla., on Wednesday and charged with him with murdering Wendy.
Mr. Williams, 56, was 20 at the time of the killing and lived near Wendy in Rochester, the police said. The two did not know each other, investigators said.
Speaking through tears at a news conference on Friday, Ms. Jerome thanked the police for never giving up on the investigation, even as the original detectives on the case retired and the trail went cold.
“I never thought I would see this day, and now it’s here,” Ms. Jerome said. “I just wish my husband had been alive to see this. He passed away in 2011, and I know he’s up there with her, smiling and saying: ‘It’s over. It’s finally over.’”
At a court hearing in Florida on Thursday, Mr. Williams waived extradition to Rochester and is set to face a charge of second-degree murder, the police said. The statute of limitations for a rape charge has expired, prosecutors said. It was not immediately clear if Mr. Williams had a lawyer.
The brutal rape and murder of Wendy — who fought back when she was attacked — haunted Rochester for years.
Julie Hahn was 11 in 1984 when her mother told her that another girl in Rochester had been killed. The case became “part of my life,” she said, and helped persuade her to become a prosecutor. As chief of the Major Felony Bureau in the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, she has worked on the investigation since 2011 and was among the investigators who went to Ms. Jerome’s house on Thursday to tell her the news of Mr. Williams’s arrest.
“Marlene and her family deserve justice,” Ms. Hahn said. “This community deserves justice for victims of violent crime whose cases go unsolved. And, finally, Wendy deserves justice.”
The Rochester Police Department’s announcement of the breakthrough came in the midst of an extraordinarily tumultuous week. On Tuesday, the police chief and several of his highest-ranking officials resigned or were demoted, months after the death in March of Daniel Prude, a Black man who suffocated after he had been placed in a hood by Rochester police officers and pinned to the ground.
Mr. Prude’s family has accused officials of covering up his death to protect the officers involved, and protesters have taken to the city’s streets to demand justice.
Capt. Frank Umbrino of the Rochester Police Department said the arrest in Wendy’s case showed “the ship keeps sailing, and anybody that questions the dedication and the commitment of the over 700 officers in this department needs to really do a gut check.”
Mr. Williams was identified, he said, with the help of increasingly sophisticated DNA technology.
The first attempt to use DNA to find a potential suspect failed in 2000, he said, when a semen sample collected at the crime scene did not result in any matches in the Combined DNA Index System, which law enforcement authorities use to identify criminal suspects.
But the police continued to work the case, he said.
In 2016, investigators found “more items of potential evidence” that could be tested with DNA technology, Captain Umbrino said, declining to identify the items. After an initial application for familial DNA testing was rejected for lack of sufficient evidence, the state gave investigators permission to conduct that type of search in April 2019.
The results came back in July, with a list of potential suspects, Captain Umbrino said. Investigators, he said, then went back and found reports and evidence from the 1990s, which helped “close our circle a little bit tighter around our suspect,” he said.
Eventually, investigators were able to take a DNA sample from Mr. Williams, which strengthened the case against him, Ms. Hahn said.
Familial DNA has been used to solve numerous high-profile cases across the country, including the rapes and murders of dozens of California residents by a man who became known as the Golden State Killer.
Captain Umbrino said Mr. Williams had not been linked to any other crimes. He offered no other details about the man, other than to say he had traveled between Rochester and Florida over the years and was unemployed.
At the news conference on Friday, Captain Umbrino wept as he spoke to Ms. Jerome about the 36 years that it took to arrest a suspect.
“Marlene,” he said, “I’m sorry it took so long. But we finally did it.”