CROCKETT, Calif. — A California inmate already serving 295 years in prison for sexual assault charges has been linked through DNA to the brutal 1996 killing of a pizza restaurant employee found beaten and drowned in a basement bathroom in 1996.
Danny Lamont Hamilton, 51, has been charged with the murder of Priscilla Ann Lewis, 21, of Vallejo. The charge contains several enhancements, including murder by lying in wait, murder during a felony kidnapping and felony murder committed during a rape.
At the time of her killing, Lewis was a server at Four Corners Pizza-N-Pasta in nearby Crockett, according to the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office. The restaurant, which remains in business today, was at the time one of four businesses located in the small, rundown Valona Square Mall.
The businesses shared restrooms in a dimly lit basement, which the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time was open to anyone who entered the building.
The cook at Four Corners became concerned the night of Sept. 24, 1996, when Lewis failed to return from a break. He went into the basement around 10:30 p.m., just before closing, that night and found Lewis’ body in the ladies’ restroom.
It was a horrifying sight.
“She was brutally murdered,” Lewis’ cousin, Troy Kinslow, told KRON in 2019. “She was beat, her neck was broken, she was strangled and her face was in the toilet.”
Lewis’ cause of death was asphyxia due to drowning, authorities said.
Kinslow told the news station that the murder — Crockett’s sole homicide for 1996 — rocked the small community. He said the crime has particularly haunted him, in part, because his cousin, with whom he grew up in Port Costa, was scared of the basement and would normally use the restroom in the bar across the street.
Wendy Williams, a colleague of Lewis’ at the time of her death, made the same observation back then.
“It’s creepy down there,” Williams told the Chronicle. “We never went down there to use the restroom. We would go across the street to the bar.
“I think she was snagged and dragged down those stairs.”
According to The Associated Press, Kinslow has also been haunted by the fact he saw Lewis the night she was slain.
“I was across the street, at the bar drinking, and had seen her on her break,” Kinslow said. “And the next morning I went to the store to get something to drink, and a friend said, ‘You heard about her?’”
The Chronicle story about Lewis from December 1996 described her as a perky, hardworking young woman who was deeply mourned by those who knew her. Ovid Holmes, who at the time was a lieutenant with the sheriff’s office, knew Lewis as a child.
“I remember her as a pretty, blue-eyed little girl,” Holmes said.
Current Contra Costa County officials said detectives have spent the past 25 years interviewing dozens of people, serving multiple search warrants and analyzing evidence left behind at the scene. The case remained unsolved, however, until Kinslow urged a fresh look at the case in 2019.
“They told me, ‘You have been on us,’” Kinslow told the AP. “My thousands of texts and calls got them fired up.”
The crucial move came last year, when investigators submitted evidence for genetic testing using current DNA technology.
The profile of Lewis’ killer matched that of Hamilton, whose DNA was in the database due to his sexual assault conviction, according to authorities. Details of that case were not available Monday.
Jennifer Sylvestre, Lewis’ best friend, told KRON three years ago that she was hopeful DNA would someday bring her friend justice.
“I mean, she was a great, kind person but she was a fighter,” Sylvestre said. “There had to be DNA under her nails. She had to have fought back, whether she knew the person or not, there’s absolutely no way that she didn’t fight for her life.”
In a written statement, Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston recognized the homicide detectives and crime lab staff who worked relentlessly to solve the case.
“We continue to investigate unsolved homicides in an effort to provide families, like that of Priscilla Lewis, with answers and some closure and to hold suspects accountable,” Livingston said.
Online records indicate Lewis’ father died the year before she did. Her mother died in 1999.
Her surviving relatives and friends still miss the bubbly woman they say lit up a room with her presence.
“She can finally rest now,” Kinslow said in a Facebook comment. “I can’t possibly put into enough words what this means to all of us, including her friends and the community.”
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