Justice within reach in golf pro's 1986 death

Justice within reach in golf pro's 1986 death

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A fellow golf pro remembers waiting to meet the always-punctual Sarah Hunter at a tournament in Vermont in September 1986, but she never showed.

It turns out no one had seen her since the night before.

Two months later, Hunter's body was found next to a cornfield in Pawlet. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted.

Nearly three decades later, a California man was extradited to Vermont to face a first-degree murder charge in Hunter's death after authorities say DNA linked him to the crime. He pleaded not guilty this past week in Burlington.

Golf pro John Ottoviano says Hunter's abduction and death shook up the community. He says he'll always remember Hunter for her smile and for how happy she was teaching others to enjoy a sport she loved.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

Prosecutors seeking to bring charges in the slaying of a Vermont country club golf pro nearly three decades ago got a break when authorities said DNA evidence had linked a California man to the crime.

Fifty-four-year-old David Allan Morrison pleaded not guilty this past week in Bennington to a charge of first-degree murder in the death of 36-year-old Sarah Hunter, who disappeared in September 1986.

Hunter was outgoing and well-liked and loved her job at the Manchester Country Club.

On Sept. 19, 1986, fellow golf pro John Ottaviano waited for her at a tournament in Bennington. But Hunter, who was always punctual, never showed up.

No one had seen her since the night before.

Then word spread that her car had been found, parked behind a car wash at a gas station in Manchester. Weeks later, her purse was located in brush along a road in Danby. Two months after she disappeared, a landowner discovered her body in a wooded area next to a cornfield in Pawlet. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted.

"It's not a large community and to have somebody abducted and murdered was certainly out of the ordinary," said Ottaviano, now superintendent of the country club. "It certainly shook everybody up."

Morrison, who worked near a gas station and convenience store where Hunter had stopped Sept. 18, was a top suspect immediately, but investigators couldn't find the necessary evidence to bring charges.

He left Vermont in 1988 and was arrested later that year in California. He pleaded guilty to charges of attempted murder, sexual assault and kidnapping in Chula Vista, California, and is serving a sentence of 20 years to life.

In 2009, police in California interviewed Morrison about an unsolved killing in California that was similar to Hunter's. A detective told Vermont authorities Morrison denied killing the victim in that case but did not deny killing Hunter, the affidavit said.

Morrison indicated that the Hunter investigation was something he would deal with when he "felt the time was right" and he did not "think I will take this to my grave," the affidavit said. He told police he had "made peace with it. I know her family hasn't," the affidavit said.

He said if he were going to talk about Hunter, it would have to be with the Vermont State Police detective who interviewed him after her death. Retired Sgt. Tom Truex agreed to travel to California. Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage asked that evidence collected from the Hunter crime scene undergo DNA testing before the interview.

Morrison was charged in 2012 after hair found in his car was compared to DNA from Hunter's sister.

"A lot of people are happy that he was going to be brought back to justice," Ottaviano said.

It took nearly two years to get Morrison transferred to Vermont because of multiple hearings. A lawyer for Morrison didn't return a phone call Friday seeking comment.

This past week, the Manchester Country Club reinstated a youth golfing clinic named after Hunter. Each spring, the club also holds the Sarah Hunter women's invitational tournament.

"She was very outgoing, always had a smile on her face — just happy to be alive, happy to be around people," Ottaviano said. "She was helping people to improve a game that they liked and she loved."