RENO — For Cecily O’Connor, the 40-year wait to see her daughter’s killer brought to justice may soon be over.
Charles Gary Sullivan, the 73-year-old man charged with killing Julia Woodward — O’Connor’s daughter — in 1979 made his first court appearance Tuesday morning in Reno where he pleaded not guilty. Sullivan was arrested in Arizona in August and was extradited Friday to the Washoe County Sheriff’s jail, where he is being held without bail.
Sullivan is facing one count of murder in connection the death of Woodward, a 21-year-old woman who went missing soon after moving to the Reno area in early 1979. Her body was later discovered in the desert hills 15 miles north of Reno, with zip ties around her ankle
A break in the case came after police were able to link modern technologies to tie DNA evidence found on Woodward’s jeans back to Sullivan.
For O’Connor, learning that authorities finally had a concrete lead in the four-decade-old case left her “dumbfounded” and “gobsmacked.”
“It’s been 40 years. I thought nothing would ever happen,” O’Connor said after the hearing. “This is wonderful.”
The anxiety and the nerves had been building for O’Connor as Tuesday’s hearing drew closer. When Sullivan walked into the courtroom, striding just a few feet in front of her, O’Connor could barely bring herself to look at the man accused of killing her daughter, sans a single, quick glance.
“I can’t look at him. It makes me physically ill,” she said.
Authorities believe that Sullivan may have also killed two other women in the Reno/Tahoe area in the late 1970s: 17-year-old Jeannie Smith and 23-year-old Linda Taylor, according to court documents. Sullivan has not been charged in those cases, and Attorney General Aaron Ford, whose office is prosecuting the case, said they are focusing on the Woodward case.
Sullivan was previously convicted of false imprisonment after he picked up a hitchhiker in 2007 near the Nevada County line in California, binding her hands and ankles with zip ties and telling her that “the only thing that’s going to be involved is sex, and we’re just going to be out here for a few days having fun.” Sullivan was required to register as a sex offender as part of his conviction.
Ford said he believes this is the first time the attorney general’s office has taken the lead on a cold-case prosecution.
“Forty years ago, Julia Woodward’s untimely death shook our community. And it has never been forgotten,” Ford said. “While the prosecutors in my office recognize the complexities and challenges that come with taking on a 40-year-old case, I am proud that we are pursuing justice on behalf of Julia, her family and her friends.”
Sullivan was remanded to Washoe County Jail pending his next appearance in court, scheduled for Jan. 30.