Investigators have promising lead in 1999 BR homicide

Kassie Federer’s killer busted through the dead-bolted door of her apartment and chased her until she had nowhere else to run, firing at least two errant gunshots before fatally striking the LSU psychology student nearly 15 years ago.

Days, months and years passed. Detectives exhausted every lead they turned up.

Nevertheless, the investigation met the same unfortunate fate as countless other homicide cases before and after Federer’s death: The case went cold.

Recently, though, Baton Rouge police homicide detectives armed with fresh eyes and some now-expired grant funding took an unfettered look at Federer’s death and many others. And in the case of Federer, who was just weeks away from her 20th birthday when she was gunned down in September 1999, felled by a single bullet that pierced her side, investigators found a promising lead.

Testing something collected from the scene, police now have an unidentified DNA profile.

“We consider the lead to be very significant, and we’re following up on several different avenues for locating the donor,” Detective John Dauthier, the department’s only employee assigned full-time to cold case homicides, said in an interview. Dauthier declined to expand on the find. Detectives routinely keep some specific details hidden from the public that only people directly involved with a crime can confirm to them, at least partially to avoid arresting people on false confessions.

Still, the discovery brings a raw ingredient to an investigation that for years has remained dormant, with tips being “virtually nonexistent for the last decade,” Dauthier said.

A promising life

A confident, hazel-eyed beauty from Ponchatoula, Kassie Federer grew up as a ballet dancer, known by friends and family as being as sweet as the strawberries for which her hometown is famous.

“I just remember her as being a really sweet girl but strong-willed,” Kate Guidry, Federer’s friend and roommate at the time of her killing, said recently. “She would tell you what she thought but in a nice, kind way.”

Guidry met Federer during spring 1999 after the two were assigned as random roommates in Herget Hall at LSU. Both came to the university as transfers — Guidry from Auburn University in Alabama and Federer from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

When the spring semester ended, the two decided to move in together at the Park Place Condominiums on Park Boulevard near City Park. They had not been living there long when, on the afternoon of Sept. 13, 1999, Federer was killed.

“We saw each other that morning,” Guidry recalled.

Guidry was out running errands when Federer was slain. When Guidry arrived home, she saw emergency vehicles everywhere. She never suspected the commotion involved her roommate until, while walking up near the scene, people flocked to her.

“I think I remember saying, ‘Is Kassie OK?’ ” Guidry said.

She wasn’t. And Guidry had no idea why anyone would want to kill her friend.

‘Running for her life’

“Usually in a case like this, usually there can be a close relative, or an ill-gotten friend, or a robbery — something that will remotely justify what you see before you in your mind, and you start working on that angle,” said Ron Cowart, a retired Baton Rouge police officer who was one of several homicide detectives originally assigned to the case. “None of that manifested itself,” he said.

Federer, who was found fully clothed, was not sexually assaulted prior to being killed. Detectives, in fact, did not find any signs of a physical struggle. However, her body was found with a portable telephone nearby. And the only notable missing item from her apartment was her backpack.

“She was running for her life,” Cowart said, describing what detectives believe happened just before she was shot, based on evidence collected at her apartment. “And she sought the sanctity of her apartment to get away from whoever was coming for her.”

The attack occurred as Federer was arriving home from school. Detectives found a trash bag sitting by the door. Federer’s dog, a cocker spaniel named Freckles, was still inside Federer’s bedroom when an apartment manager found the student’s body roughly an hour after the shooting. Lights were still on inside the apartment, said Logan Collins, a BRPD homicide detective who has worked with Dauthier on the cold case.

“It does appear that she had time to grab a phone in an attempt to call 911,” Collins said.

Drawers weren’t pulled out. Rooms weren’t ransacked. No one heard a scream.

But gunshots were heard.

Federer’s next-door neighbor was home during the shooting. One bullet actually went through the wall dividing their apartments. However, the neighbor waited for her husband to come home before she told anyone, Collins said.

The husband, once informed about the shots, walked to Federer’s apartment and saw the open door. He didn’t go inside, Collins said, but instead went back to his apartment and prayed for a few minutes before calling the apartment manager, who found Federer’s body and told someone to call for help.

Quick on the scene

Scott Price, who grew up with Federer and also attended LSU, worked with her at an Eckerd drugstore.

On the afternoon of Federer’s death, Price was working. He sensed something was awry when she didn’t show up to her shift on time.

Because she didn’t live far from the store, Price told someone he would go check if she was at her apartment. He said he’d be right back.

Price drove up to see police cordoning off her apartment. He asked what happened. No one told him anything at first, though he soon learned.

“It was just a shock, a blow to me … a blow to the soul,” he said. “She wasn’t into drugs. She didn’t have money problems. She didn’t have bad relationships with people. … That’s why it was just so shocking, so unexpected.”

He said she didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, although she may have gone on the occasional date. Other friends and family members echoed this observation.

“It’s just a mystery,” Price said. “Nobody can come up with any answers.”

Price, who now lives in Ponchatoula, often passes her gravesite. He still stops by to visit it on her birthday, Sept. 28.

“I’ve never driven by and not looked over there and thought about it,” Price said, “and I probably pass it four or five times a week.”

A few leads

While Federer’s death remains unsolved, at times, detectives felt they were close to finding her killer.

A man who lived in another apartment in her building was once identified as a suspect. Police searched his Denham Springs home for any evidence that might connect him to the crime, writing in a search warrant affidavit that several of Federer’s friends and family members heard that the man told other people he killed Kassie Federer. The same friends and family members also heard the man spoke about seeing a vision of Federer, according to quotes from the affidavit included in an old story published in The Advocate.

Nothing of interest was found in his home, and no hard evidence connected him to the crime scene, police said.

The authorities also released a sketch of a man allegedly seen at Federer’s apartment in the week before the killing. The sketch generated publicity, but police never spoke to anybody who matched the description in the sketch, Collins, one of the current homicide detectives on the case, said.

“Nothing ever panned out,” Collins said. If the person in the sketch is ever identified, they would still like to speak with him.

Cowart, the detective who retired a few years ago, said detectives had hunches when the case was fresh. They just didn’t have enough evidence to make a solid case against anyone, he said.

Hope remains

For Federer’s parents, Warren Federer and Debby Durapau, the hope of finding their daughter’s killer has diminished some over the years. But it hasn’t vanished.

“It doesn’t get easier; you just learn to live with it,” said Durapau, 57, who in the years following her daughter’s death worked hard to keep the homicide investigation in the spotlight. Her efforts paid off, with the case featured on the popular television show “America’s Most Wanted” in 2000. Still, the publicity did not turn up any tips valuable enough to lead to an arrest.

“Both of her grandparents just died in the past year without it being solved,” Durapau said. “And that was tough.”

Durapau said one of her biggest fears is that her daughter’s case might only be solved if the killer strikes again.

“I know where Kassie’s at, and she’s not coming back,” Durapau said. “But I don’t want another family to have to go through this.”

At the home of Warren Federer, Durapau’s ex-husband and Kassie’s father, pictures of the young woman are ubiquitous even today.

Both parents think about their daughter daily and have more photographs of her at work and on their phones. Family holidays are tough. Events like weddings and birthdays, too, remind them of all the future experiences stolen from them when she was shot to death.

“I’m never going to be able to walk her down the aisle,” Warren Federer, 61, said.

There was at least one milestone, though, that he wouldn’t let her killer take from him.

On Kassie Federer’s 21st birthday, a little more than a year after her death, her father visited her gravesite. With him, he brought two beers — one for him, and one for his daughter.

“I actually brought a beer and set it on her gravesite,” he said, “and I drank one with her.”

When he returned the next day, the beer was gone.

Federer’s parents asked anyone with information about their daughter’s death to please contact police — no new detail is small enough to be insignificant. Police can be contacted at (225) 389-4869 or Crime Stoppers at (225) 344-7867.

“Still to this day it’s hard to believe that someone shot my daughter,” Durapau said. “You can kind of accept sickness, even a car accident … but it’s still so hard to even grasp that someone could do that.”

Not long after Federer’s death, her dog, Freckles, also died. “She just kind of, I think, grieved to death,” Durapau said.

The family cremated the dog, whose ashes were laid to rest near Federer’s grave.

Since then, the two have rested in peace together.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.