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Quest for girl’s killer became personal for pair

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In Bill Roach's home, the photo is on the mantel.

At Mike Flaherty's place, it's on a wall in the main hallway between the living room and kitchen.

"Every time I've painted, I've taken it down and put it right back up," Flaherty said.

The photos are of Elissa Self-Braun, an 11-year-old girl from St. Louis who was abducted and murdered in 1991.

Roach and Flaherty, the lead investigators on the case, helped catch her killer, Martin Link. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection early Wednesday. He would become only the second person to be executed in Missouri in the last five years.

The case has left a lasting mark on the two former St. Louis police officers, themselves fathers of young daughters at the time of the investigation.

"It didn't just tug at your heart strings," Roach said in a recent interview. "It pulled them out of the joint."

Elissa was on her way to her bus stop when she was abducted from a Tower Grove alley, raped, strangled and later dumped into the St. Francis River in southeast Missouri.

Flaherty still talks about the case in play-by-play form, rattling off exact days and times, quotes from crime lab scientists and tiny details about seized evidence — like it all happened last week.

Roach's voice trails off, his eyes locked into space, when he speaks about seeing the girl's mud-caked body in a morgue in southern Missouri.

"This was not the way life was intended to be for her," Roach said. "She should have been playing with friends, at slumber parties. She shouldn't be lying on a cold, metal table 120 miles from home."

A couple times a month, Roach, 62, and Flaherty, 60, meet at the Schlafly Tap Room for some beer and conversation. The topics vary — jobs, family, friends, sports, old times — but eventually, consistently, the two always end up talking about Elissa's case.

"It's one of those cases where you wish you didn't have to talk about it anymore, but, boy, it deserves it," Roach said.

"It always comes back to that little kid," Flaherty said.

'WE JUST KNEW'

Roach and Flaherty were juvenile officers for the St. Louis Police Department in 1991 when they were given a 'serious missing child" assignment.

From the moment they started to work Elissa's case, they had a bad feeling about it. They sensed it wasn't going to be another in a string of countless runaway cases that got thrown their way.

"We just knew — 'I'm not sure this one's going to turn out the way most of them do,' " Roach recalled.

The two officers worked quickly to establish a relationship with the girl's family and to try to track her down. But on Jan. 15, 1991, four days after Elissa disappeared near the 3800 block of Humphrey Street in Tower Grove, her body was found on the banks of the St. Francis, 120 miles south of St. Louis.

"She left for school one morning, and met the boogeyman in the alley," Flaherty said.

Despite the fact that Elissa was found in Wayne County, the two St. Louis officers were told to stick with the case. Determined to find Elissa's killer, Roach and Flaherty began pursuing leads.

"This case just got to me, you just could not stop, whatever it took," Roach said. "Because it was so sad."

"Oh, it was tragic," Flaherty said.

'MISSION FROM GOD'

As investigators in the juvenile division, Roach and Flaherty were used to handling cases involving troubled teens, family issues and runaway kids. They referred to themselves as "the social workers of the Police Department." Both were in their early 40s at the time and had been with the department more than 20 years.

Unlike homicide investigators, who can handle dozens of death cases a year in a city such as St. Louis, Roach and Flaherty weren't as accustomed to such a violent crime, especially involving a young girl. They said this played a role in why they were so emotionally invested in the case, both then and now.

The pair stayed in constant contact with Elissa's family and worked after hours on leads. They learned about the smiling girl in the photo, who played softball, took dance classes, made good grades at a city magnet school and usually didn't stray too far from home. They began to use the famous phrase from the movie "The Blues Brothers" to describe their pursuit of Elissa's killer.

"We're on a mission from God," the two told their colleagues.

Weeks after Elissa's killing, a sex crimes detective told Roach and Flaherty they might want to look at Link because he had served six years in prison for raping a girl in the same city neighborhood.

Flaherty interviewed Link's father, who chillingly indicated Link used to set out on float trips on the St. Francis River from the very spot where Elissa's body was found.

The officers then found out that a few days after Elissa was kidnapped, Link had robbed, sodomized and tried to rape a woman at a laundromat; tried to rape another woman at knifepoint; attempted to abduct an 8-year-old girl; and held up an ice cream shop while driving a stolen Ford Tempo.

The big break in Elissa's case came when Flaherty tracked down a jar of Vaseline found in the stolen Tempo. He noticed the jar in evidence photos of the car.

Flaherty brought the jar to the St. Louis crime lab. Scientists told him that Link's prints were on the lid and that there were tiny flecks of blood inside. The blood samples were so small that a new DNA analysis technique had to be used to test them. The samples were a match to Elissa.

The final piece of the puzzle was the paperwork for a repaired tailpipe on the Tempo. Link had the tailpipe repaired in the hours after Elissa was killed. At the parking lot near the St. Francis River, where Elissa's body had been found, a gash in a boulder perfectly matched where a car of that type would have hit it. Roach remembers telling crime scene technicians to take photographs of the boulder. He had a hunch.

Link was arrested for Elissa's murder in August 1991. But Roach and Flaherty, who have actually never interviewed or even spoken with Link because he immediately invoked his right to remain silent, kept gathering evidence and interviewing potential witnesses until the trial.

"We knew we had the right guy, but you didn't want anyone to cast aspersions, or put a certain amount of doubt out there," Flaherty said.

A jury convicted Link in 1995 of the first-degree murder, rape and kidnapping of Elissa. The jury then recommended the death penalty, and the judge sentenced him to death. Police and prosecutors say Elissa appears to have been taken at random and was targeted because Link honed in on young women.

"We'll never know why or exactly where he killed her, and you know, it's not really important," Roach said.

FINAL CHAPTER

Early Wednesday morning, when Link is scheduled to be executed, the two officers will be there, at the maximum security prison in Bonne Terre, Mo. It will be the final chapter for them, too, they said.

Roach, when he stood over Elissa's body at the morgue, told her he would see the case through to the end. Attending Link's execution, he said, would be a fulfillment of that vow.

"That will be the final minute," Roach said.

"One of the most overused words in the lexicon is 'closure,'" Flaherty said, "but sometimes it fits."

Flaherty said that it didn't matter what he thought about the death penalty — that it was what the justice system in Missouri had determined Link deserved.

"It's the ultimate punishment for the most heinous crimes," said Flaherty, who retired from the Police Department in 1994 and now works in the St. Louis County court system. "This is a heinous crime."

Roach, who retired a few years later and now works as a civilian specialist in the St. Louis County police's office of emergency management, is more adamant. When people ask him if Link deserves to die, he is unequivocal: Yes.

"This isn't about revenge or vengeance or getting even," Roach said. "This is about accountability."

Link, now 47, declined the Post-Dispatch's requests for an interview.

At Roach's office in Chesterfield, he keeps a mug shot of Link on a clipboard by his desk.

"He has to look right at me every day, I just want him to know," Roach said. "It's not about hate or anything, I just don't want to ever forget." After the execution, Roach said, he will remove Link's photo from his office.

"But that little girl," Roach said of the picture he keeps of Elissa in his home, "her photo will always stay."

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