On Nov. 12, 1991, Theodore Dill Donahue decided it was time to clean out his apartment.
Earlier that day, a tersely written news item had appeared at the bottom of the 14th page of the metro edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, noting that a woman’s body had been found in the woods outside the city, where it had been abandoned weeks earlier.
Authorities hadn’t yet identified the woman as Denise Sharon Kulb, but Donahue, who had been dating the 27-year-old before her death, apparently felt it was time to get rid of the belongings that she had left behind before moving out.
He showed up at Kulb’s mother’s house on the opposite side of Philadelphia later that day, handing over a pile of clothing.
But there was one thing that he didn’t bring with him: a long, ribbed yellow sock.
“He decided to keep that, for some reason,” Anthony Voci, the supervisor of the homicide unit for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said at a Tuesday news conference.
Now, that missing sock has emerged as a crucial piece of evidence, although it’s not clear whether Donahue intended to keep it or simply forgot about it.
On Tuesday, nearly 28 years after Kulb’s body was found, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and Pennsylvania State Police announced that her former boyfriend had been charged with murder.
Reopening the cold case had been complicated by a lack of DNA evidence, so detectives instead revisited clues gathered nearly three decades ago, including the yellow sock.
That led them to Donahue, who had chosen “TedBundy1967” as his email handle, combining the serial killer’s name with his own birth year, prosecutors said.
The 52-year-old, who is being held without bond, also faces charges of evidence tampering, abuse of a corpse, obstruction of justice and making false reports to police.
His attorney, R. Emmett Madden, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Donahue maintains he is innocent.
“He denies the charges, and we will dispute it in court,” Madden said.
At the time of Kulb’s death, she was described in the Inquirer as a “streets girl” whose wild, free-spirited nature led her to drop out of high school and, ultimately, into a devastating heroin addiction.
As her drug problem worsened, she began working as a prostitute, lost two children to foster care, handed two others over to their grandparents and ran into trouble with the law.
A neighbor told the Inquirer that she was “always in trouble with drugs and alcohol and men,” which worried her mother and sisters.
But her older sister, Debra Kulb, who worked at a bar under the elevated train tracks in their working-class neighborhood, recalled how Denise had always walked in singing and dancing, making it impossible not to like her.
“She always wanted everybody to love her,” she said. “She just looked for love in the wrong way."
It’s unclear how the outgoing mother of four met Donahue, who has worked as a pizza delivery man in Philadelphia for the better part of three decades, according to authorities.
Officials say she moved into his apartment on a sloping street lined with rowhouses at the start of October 1991.
To her family, it had seemed like things were looking up: Debra Kulb told the Inquirer that after Denise moved in with her boyfriend, she seemed to get her addiction under control, and they started letting her spend time with her oldest daughter on weekends again.
“You could see that her confidence was up,” Debra Kulb told the paper. “She was going to job interviews, she was glowing.”
But she moved out of Donahue’s apartment after only two weeks.
Then Denise Kulb’s family learned that she had returned to sex work. When they gathered for a funeral on Oct. 19, 1991, they angrily confronted her about it.
“I beat her up,” Debra Kulb told the Inquirer. “That was the last time I ever saw her.”
That same day, family members told police, Denise Kulb got into a fight with Donahue outside the bar where her sister worked.
She had moved out of his apartment just days earlier, according to investigators, and it was the last time anyone would see her alive.
No one reported her missing, and nearly a month passed before police got a call about an unsettling discovery roughly 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia near the Delaware state line.