Police investigators in Florida believe they have solved an elderly woman’s cold case murder with the help of a fake restaurant promotion, announcing the suspect’s arrest just short of the grim anniversary. Michael Lapniewski Jr., 55, was arrested in Mississippi on Jan. 26 for first-degree murder, but he lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, back in 1987, when he murdered local woman Opal Weil, 82, said the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in a press statement and affidavit.
Deputies say Weil lived alone near her brother and sister-in-law and was visited often by family, so it was unusual when she did not pick up the phone the morning of Feb. 9, 1987, after her sister-in-law called. Believing Weil was out for a routine walk, the sister-in-law called her every five minutes. Still no answer.
The sister-in-law dropped by, discovering that the kitchen nightlight was on, which was odd because Weil routinely turned it off when she woke by 6 a.m. Then she found a windowpane had been removed from a door leading to the Florida room. It was leaning against an exterior wall.
Inside, the sister-in-law made the tragic discovery: Weil was unresponsive in a bedroom, with blood around her mouth, bruising to her face, and ligature marks on her neck, police said.
Investigators said they discovered that a ground wire for the telephone line was cut, though it did not disrupt service. There were no fingerprints on the door windowpane, but there were leather or cloth glove marks, authorities said. Scratch marks and pry marks were on the Florida room door near the latch. Investigators determined that several drawers appeared to have been hastily searched, boxes being partially left open.
That included a jewelry box, left with the lid off and felt-lining partially out of the box. Items, including Weil’s wedding ring, were stolen, authorities said.
Hairs from the person investigators believe to be the suspect were recovered from Weil’s home. Though investigators managed to develop a partial DNA profile, they did not get a match until after cold case detectives in December 2020 asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Parabon Nanolabs to test again.
Authorities claim Parabon managed to track down three brothers as potential suspects. Detectives ruled out two, including one who was deceased. That left Mississippi man Michael Lapniewski.
Detectives began an undercover operation to confirm a forensic match, including collecting discarded red coffee straws and a restaurant spoon with Lapniewski’s DNA, which matched the profile from the hairs at Weil’s home.
Officers said they were able to collect the restaurant spoon with the help of a Bay St. Louis Police Department detective, who owned a restaurant and personally knew the suspect. As part of the plan, he set up a local promotion offering a free meal, thanking local customers, and promoting the restaurant to residents. Investigators said they lured Lapniewski there with a flier, and accordingly, they got a spoon and fork he used.
Investigators said that the defendant lived less than a half mile from Weil at the time of the 1987 murder. Speaking to investigators, Lapniewski denied being near her home during the timeframe of the murder. He denied recognizing Weil, seeing her, talking to her, or being at her home.
“I wouldn’t know anyone to tell on because there wasn’t anybody dead there when I lived here,” he allegedly said. “When I lived over here nobody died.”
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