In September 2007, Dennis Donahue was arrested for the 1993 strangulation death of a Buffalo woman. Based on the latest DNA evidence, cold case investigators also implicated him in connection with two other murder cases with similar MOs: an unsolved case from 1975 and the alleged strangling murder of his ex-girlfriend’s daughter.
Read on to learn more about the details of these cases and Donahue’s role in each of them.
Who Is Dennis Donahue?
Dennis Donahue, also known as Dennis Donohue, was born on September 9, 1952.
Not much is known about his childhood or early adult years. But by the mid-2000s, Donahue had been living a seemingly quiet life of solitude in a South Buffalo neighborhood on Weyand Avenue for 15 years.
He worked as a local bartender at the Southside Grill, which was just a few blocks from his home, but he mostly kept to himself.
Unbeknownst to residents in the area, Donahue had some very dark secrets from his past.
A few of his former neighbors said that they noticed some strange things about him, but would not have suspected him of criminal activity.
“I have never seen him talking to anybody,” said a former neighbor, Jeff Kazmierczak. “Just real quiet, kind of a [loner].”
Another former neighbor, Roger Schwarzott, agreed, adding that “he was kind of a real keep-to-yourself kind of guy.”
Despite not having too many interactions with Donahue, Schwarzott also recounted a strange incident that he witnessed outside of Donahue’s home.
“Well, I remember one time there was a girl there and she came running outta the house,” Schwarzott recalled, “just afraid out of her gourd. I don’t know what he did, but she was deathly afraid when she came running out of the house.”
Judging by these descriptions, it seems pretty safe to say that Donahue may have been involved in some unpleasant situations that his neighbors were unaware of…that is, until investigators were able to link him to three murder cases that had previously gone cold.
Dennis Donahue Was Known for Having a Temper
In early 1993, Donahue was dating a woman named Lynn DeJac (later known as Lynn DeJac Peters), but their relationship was tumultuous from the beginning.
Donahue and DeJac would often get into explosive arguments due to his controlling and aggressive nature. It also didn’t help that they were both heavy drinkers.
DeJac had two children from a previous relationship, 13-year-old Crystallynn Girard and eight-year-old Edward Girard. Crystallynn would sometimes get caught in the middle of these arguments between Donahue and DeJac, in an attempt to protect her mother.
Donahue was known for getting jealous every time DeJac went out without him, and he constantly accused her of cheating on him. Sometimes the accusations were warranted, sometimes they weren’t. Unfortunately, in the end, it was her daughter Crystallynn who ended up paying the ultimate price.
What Happened the Night of Crystallynn’s Murder?
On the night of February 13, 1993, DeJac and Donahue attended a wedding together. DeJac had left Crystallynn alone that night, as she often did, to babysit her younger brother.
However, the couple got into an explosive argument and ended up leaving the wedding reception early.
According to DeJac, the night of the wedding was the absolute last straw in her short-lived relationship with Donahue. After just two months of dating, she decided to break things off with him, but he refused to let her go and started getting aggressive.
Apparently, a few days before the wedding, Donahue had hired someone to follow DeJac during a night out with a few of her girlfriends. He was very possessive of her, accusing her of cheating on him, and this made her furious.
“Truth of the matter,” DeJac admitted, “I was playing him.”
But it wasn’t in the way Donahue thought. DeJac wasn’t cheating on him; she was trying to extort a business deal out of him for a profit, so that she could become more financially stable and independent. It didn’t work.
After she tried to leave Donahue on that fateful night, she headed over to her mother’s bar where she also worked. He followed her there and continued to harass her in front of everyone who was present, including other patrons and workers. DeJac decided to leave the bar and go home, but Donahue continued to follow her.
“I’m not saying I was a saint,” DeJac told The Today Show in 2008.” I wasn’t a saint, by no means…I know what happened. No one else knows what happened as far as what our lives were like. I lived in a house that was six doors down from where I [worked]. I could literally see my home outside the window from where I worked.”
Fueled by alcohol, drugs, and rage, the argument continued as DeJac kept trying to get Donahue to leave her home. Around midnight, Crystallynn emerged from her bedroom, awakened by all of the commotion, and tried to help her mother call the police.
The first time, Donahue knocked the phone out of DeJac’s hand, but she was able to retrieve it and call 911. Donahue finally left the house. Afterward, DeJac told her daughter that she was going back to the bar and instructed her not to answer the door when the police arrived, because she “didn’t want to get in trouble” for leaving her underage daughter alone to care for her son.
While she was at the bar for the second time that night, Donahue showed up again, still reeling from the argument that occurred earlier in the evening. According to DeJac, Donahue started chasing her around the bar in a drunken rage at one point.
That night, she ran into an ex-boyfriend of hers named Michael Nichter. The two spent the rest of the evening together and were followed by an incredibly angry and jealous Donahue. Allegedly, at one point during the night, Donahue caught up with the pair and put a knife to Nichter’s throat, threatening to kill him, but then let him go.
Nichter then drove DeJac back to her house so that she could check on her kids. They arrived there around 4:30 a.m. When DeJac saw that both Crystallynn and Edward were sound asleep, she asked Nichter if she could spend the night at his place for her safety. Nichter acquiesced.
DeJac returned home around 2:30 p.m. the next day (Valentine’s Day), only to find her daughter’s cold, dead, and naked body (save for a pair of red socks on her feet) lying face up on her bed. Mortified, she called the police.
They took her in for questioning. Unbeknownst to DeJac, this was not a routine interrogation. She would become the primary suspect in her daughter’s brutal murder…and was convicted just a few short months later.
The Trial and Conviction of Lynn DeJac Peters
Lynn DeJac Peters was charged with second-degree murder for the death of her daughter.
It’s important to note that, during the trial, she became pregnant with twin boys and would later deliver in prison. She married the boys’ father, Chuck Peters, shortly after they were born, while she was serving her prison sentence.
Despite a glaring lack of evidence and the fact that Lynn had a solid alibi in this case, the prosecution was able to use her parental negligence and irresponsibility, along with her drinking habits, to paint a negative portrait of her in the minds of the jury.
In addition to discovering male DNA mixed in with Crystallynn’s own blood throughout several parts of her body, the original coroner’s report also stated that there were trace amounts of cocaine in her system—not enough to lead to a death by overdose, though.
Prosecutors tried to insinuate that Crystallynn was a drug addict. But, DeJac vehemently refuted this, calling it a defamation of her daughter’s character. She argued that Crystallynn was a good person and a model student who was on the honor roll at school.
In the beginning, the focus of the investigation was on Dennis Donahue, given DeJac’s description of his behavior that night. But after he successfully passed a polygraph test, detectives moved on.
Then a man named Wayne Hudson, who was charged for a crime he’d committed and was facing a life sentence in prison, agreed to testify in court that DeJac had confessed to him that she’d killed her daughter that night.
He claimed that the two of them were drinking at the bar later that night when Lynn DeJac allegedly told him that she’d killed Crystallynn.
Hudson received a lesser sentence in exchange for his testimony.
Ironically, the prosecution even called Donahue as a witness. In return for testifying in front of a grand jury during the highly publicized 1994 trial, Donahue was granted automatic immunity by the state of New York. That meant that even if he were found guilty of the heinous sexual assault and murder years later, he could never be investigated, put on trial, or convicted in this case.
Also see: Cindy Shank Wiki: Mom of 3 Gets 15-Year Sentence for Crimes Her Dead Ex-Boyfriend Committed
A Violent Serial Killer?
To further understand this convoluted case, it’s important to know that, years later, detectives were able to link Dennis Donahue to the unsolved murders of two other women in the Buffalo area.
At the behest of one of his fellow parishioners, Detective Dennis Delano of the New York City Police Department opened a full-scale investigation into Donahue for the 1993 murder of Joan Giambra.
Donahue was previously considered a person of interest in the case, but at the time, there wasn’t enough evidence to apprehend or convict him.
The Murder of Joan Giambra
By 2007, Detective Delano was already well known for exonerating several innocent people behind bars in some very high-profile cases. So when Trish Radzikowski saw him participating in a musical performance at her local church, she knew that she had to approach him.
Radzikowski’s sister, 42-year-old Joan Giambra, was found dead in her apartment about seven months after Crystallynn Girard’s murder, on September 9, 1993.
Giambra was found lying naked on her living room floor, sexually assaulted and strangled to death. The main difference in this case—other than the location of the body—was that her 11-year-old daughter, Kathleen Giambra, was also found naked, lying on top of her mother in a completely catatonic and almost comatose state.
Kathleen says she has no memory of exactly what happened to her or her mother that night.
Police initially suspected Joan’s estranged husband, Sam Giambra, as the murderer. A week before she was murdered, Joan had obtained divorce papers—and was planning to serve them to him soon.
However, since there wasn’t enough evidence back then to prove he did it, he was never charged.
Retrospective DNA testing found underneath Joan’s fingernails, which were preserved in police evidence, showed the presence of another individual’s skin cells, proving that she’d tried to fight off her attacker by scratching him.
Upon tracking down Sam to talk to him about it, Detective Delano found out that Joan’s ex-husband had committed suicide in 2000. However, Detective Delano was able to definitively clear Sam’s name post-mortem, due to the fact that the coroner had kept a sample of his DNA. When tested against the skin cells that were found underneath Joan’s fingernails, there was no match.
After investigators had tested the DNA of everyone who was involved in the case and were hitting a brick wall, Joan’s eldest daughter, Jackie Giambra, recalled that her mother had been on a few dates with a bartender she met shortly after leaving her husband.
Apparently, the man had called Jackie a few times after her mother’s death, seemingly as a courtesy. As it turned out, though, he was asking incredibly probing questions that made him worth investigating. That man was, of course, Dennis Donahue.
Detective Delano’s cold case squad located Donahue and took a saliva swab from the inside of his mouth for DNA testing.
The test came back positive…and they knew they’d found Joan Giambra’s killer at last. Donahue was charged with her murder. When found guilty, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, where he remains today.
The Murder of Carol Reed
The cold case unit linked Dennis Donahue to yet another vicious murder in the Buffalo area with the same MO, dating back to 1975.
On September 9, 1975, Carol Reed was found raped, strangled, and naked in the living room of her apartment.
Donahue lived just down the hall from her at the time and had allegedly made passes at her several times, which she declined.
There was another common link between Reed and Giambra: both murders occurred on September 9, Donahue’s birthday.
A brief investigation ensued, but nothing came of it because, once again, DNA testing was unavailable at that time and there was no other significant evidence that could lead to a plausible conviction.
A Bittersweet Ending for Lynn Dejac Peters
Eventually, science caught up, and forensic analysis found traces of Dennis Donahue’s DNA on Crystallynn’s bedroom wall, bed sheets, and body, placing him at the scene of the crime.
Lynn DeJac Peters was released from prison in 2007. Shortly after her release, she sued the state of New York for wrongful conviction to the tune of $2.7 million…and won. She became the first woman in United States history to be exonerated of a murder charge based on DNA evidence.
The prosecution attempted to retry the case and charge DeJac Peters with second-degree murder manslaughter. They called in another forensic expert, Dr. Michael Baden, to re-examine the crime scene photos and the original coroner’s report.
Dr. Baden claimed that the original coroner had made a mistake, saying that Crystallynn appeared to be frothing at the mouth in pictures and there was more cocaine in the girl’s system than originally thought.
Prosecutors immediately surmised that Crystallynn wasn’t murdered, but that her death was the result of a cocaine overdose. The DA even suggested she had engaged in consensual sexual acts with Donahue at the age of 13 while under the influence of drugs.
This theory outraged both DeJac Peters and Detective Delano, who continued to deny that Crystallynn was a drug user. They argued that the small amount of cocaine in the girl’s system was most likely transferred to her during her sexual assault and murder.
Still, the cause of death on Crystallynn’s death certificate was changed from strangulation to a drug-related overdose.
Even though DeJac Peters was dismayed by this and tried to have the cause of death changed back to strangulation, this was still a positive outcome for her, because prosecutors were forced to dismiss all charges against her.
DeJac Peters also pursued a federal lawsuit against Erie County, where her case was tried, and the City of Buffalo in the amount of $30.0 million.
Sadly, one month after her release from prison and being reunited with her family, Lynn DeJac Peters was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She passed away at age 50 on June 18, 2014.
DeJac Peters’ family and attorney, Steven Cohen, have decided to move forward with the federal lawsuit.
“I’ve had the opportunity to get back my love,” said her husband, Chuck Peters, after her passing, “for seven years. We had seven very good years together when I didn’t think we were gonna have any.”
Detective Dennis Delano risked his entire career by pursuing this case. Several times throughout the course of his venture to prove DeJac Peters’ innocence, the DA instructed him to cease and desist his investigation. He was even placed on a temporary paid suspension, but he persisted until he finally uncovered the truth.
In 2008, Detective Delano filed an appeal to have his position reinstated. It was denied in 2016.
Where Is Dennis Donahue Now?
Donahue, now 66, is currently incarcerated at Coxsackie Correctional Facility in Greene County, New York, serving time for the rape and murder of Joan Giambra.
Despite all of the damning DNA evidence against him in the murder case of Crystallynn Girard, Donahue was never prosecuted for that crime due to the fact that he’d been granted automatic immunity for his 1994 testimony in the case.
In August 2012, he petitioned the court for a writ of habeas corpus, challenging the constitutionality of his second-degree murder conviction, but was denied.
He won’t be eligible for parole until 2032.