COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- South Carolina taxi driver John Orner was shot in the head and dumped over a cliff in 1961 -- a crime that remained unsolved for decades.
"It was a gruesome killing. He was executed," Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.
"The victim's pockets were pulled out. He didn't have any money, and he was a taxi driver, so he would have some money. So we believe robbery was the motive," he said.
Three weeks later, police got a break when a Tennessee state trooper stopped Edward Freiburger, an 18-year-old soldier who had gone AWOL from Ft. Jackson in South Carolina.
Freiburger was carrying a loaded .32-caliber revolver when he was taken in to custody. The gun was the same type used to kill Orner, and detectives were able to prove that Freiburger bought the gun in a Columbia pawn shop the day before the slaying.
Ballistics tests were inconclusive, however, and Freiburger was released from custody without being charged. The Orner case went "cold," in police parlance, meaning there were no new leads or evidence. Eventually, the gun, the crime scene photographs and the rest of the evidence were boxed up -- and stayed boxed up for almost four decades.
The case was reopened in 1997, when the sheriff's office created a cold case squad.
"I was somewhat amazed and fascinated that they had the file from 39 years ago at the time ... and some of the photographs, and that they had located some of the physical evidence that were still there at the time," prosecutor Knox McMahon said.
Many of the original detectives had died, along with other witnesses and friends of the victims, making the case difficult to prosecute. Freiburger's alibi witness, a fellow soldier, was also dead.
But science had improved over the years, and advances in ballistic testing meant that investigators were now able to tie Freiburger to the murder.
"The weapon has a fingerprint that it puts on the bullet," Lott said. "The ballistic expert was able to go back and identify the that fingerprint that gun made when it fired the bullet and say, 'That is the gun that fired the bullet that killed Mr. Orner.' "
Freiburger had moved back to Fort Wayne, Indiana, had a clean record and was living a quiet life. His past came back to haunt him in April 2001.
"It was like a ton of bricks had fell on top of him. I think after all this time he felt like he had got away with it, and here we were knocking on his door," Lott said. "We were back investigating it, and we were not going to let him get away with it."
When a search warrant was issued, Freiburger went back to South Carolina and turned himself in, his attorney, John Delgado, said.
At trial, the prosecution relied heavily on the new ballistic evidence, and the testimony of the now-retired trooper who arrested Freiburger in 1961. A jury found Freiburger guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
"The bottom line is that we looked at the evidence as it came in and made
decisions," jury foreman Scott Sylvester said. "We went on the evidence,
which led to an indisputable amount to his guilt."