By: Wendi Lane
PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFTS) — The family of Opal Weil, who was violently murdered in her St. Petersburg home in 1987, is finally getting some peace after an arrest has been made in the decades-old cold case.
“She was a very kind and gentle woman, 82 years old, and she had beautiful white hair,” said Traci Crawford, Weil’s great-niece.
Crawford said her great aunt’s life was violently taken on February 9, 1987.
“Under cover of darkness, this person came into her home and beat her and inevitably strangled her to death,” said Crawford.
Crawford’s father, Fred Smith, is now 91 years old.
He and his wife were close to Weil and say her death devastated their lives.
“It was a very crushing blow for the whole family,” said Smith.
There were no suspects, and the case went cold. Crawford said her mother never stopped fighting to find out who did it.
Not until she fell ill last year with dementia, now she’s in hospice.
“Her one dream was for this person to be found before she passed,” said Crawford.
And she may have gotten her wish, thanks to new technology.
Detectives with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office reopened the case in 2020.
Using genealogical technology from clumps of brown hair found at the 1987 crime scene, they narrowed it down to a suspect, Michael Lapnieswki Jr., who detectives say lived a half a mile from Weil at the time of the murder.
Lapnieswki had since moved to Mississippi. According to an affidavit, undercover detectives with the PCSO traveled to Mississippi and followed Lapnieswki.
They retrieved straws he’d thrown out at gas stations.
They also made fliers advertising a free meal at a local restaurant where they retrieved Lapnieswki’s spoon.
Detectives say DNA from the straws and spoon matched the clumps of hair found on Opal Weil’s nightgown and on her bed the night of her murder.
Lapniewski was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He has since denied his involvement in the crime. But detectives believe he could be linked to other cold cases in the area.
As for Weil’s family, they say they’re so grateful for the detectives’ hard work, and Crawford hopes her mom gets her dying wish and that her aunt finally gets justice.
“After 36 year’s he’s been able to walk this earth. He’s been able to breathe air, something my aunt didn’t get the luxury of doing, and I hope that he’s man enough to stand up and confess to what he’s done,” said Crawford.
This story was originally published Feb. 2 by WFTS in Tampa Bay, an E.W. Scripps Company.