Free meal offer leads to arrest in 1987 killing of Pinellas woman, 82
A man’s inability to refuse a free meal contributed to his arrest in connection with the killing of an 82-year-old Pinellas County woman that had remained unsolved for 36 years.
Michael Lapniewski, 55, was booked into the Pinellas County Jail Tuesday afternoon on charges of first-degree murder in connection with the killing of Opal Weil, a widow who was choked and beaten at her home in Lealman.
According to an affidavit from Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office officials, DNA was a key factor in solving the case. But how they got the DNA was through a clever ploy in which they advertised a free meal at a restaurant — an offer Lapniewski responded to.
After he finished his meal and left, detectives confiscated the spoon and fork he had used and submitted them for a DNA test. According to the affidavit, they matched the hair found on Weil’s pink nightgown, electric blanket, and bed after her murder.
One important question remains, however: Could Lapniewski be charged in two similar attacks, including one in which an 84-year-old Seminole woman, Eleanor Swift, was suffocated with a sofa cushion in her home just days after Weil?
Pinellas detectives have previously said they believe the cases are related. Both women lived alone, and the killer gained entry into their homes by prying or cutting open a back door or window. Investigators found straight brown hair left at each crime scene. And the killer stole wedding rings from both victims.
Investigators also suspected a link to a third case, in which a 75-year-old woman was assaulted at her home in Pinellas Park. The attacker in this case tried to suffocate the woman with a couch cushion, but she escaped to a neighbor’s house. The attacker escaped with her wedding ring and other jewelry.
Weil lived alone on the 4700 block of 56th Avenue N, but was frequently checked over by family members who lived nearby. A family member found her dead on the floor of her bedroom on the morning of February 9, 1987. Her phone line had been cut.
Detectives submitted the hairs found at the crime scene as evidence and sent them to the FBI for testing. As DNA testing progressed over the years, it was discovered that the hair belonged to a man. The DNA was entered into a national database, but no matches were found.
In 2020, the sheriff’s office requested additional DNA testing, which later included a genealogical study by Parabon Nanolabs matching up to three brothers. The first brother had DNA that was already in the national database, so he was eliminated. The second brother was dead.
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The third brother was Michael Lapniewski, who detectives learned had lived less than half a mile from Weil in 1987. He had since moved to Mississippi, the affidavit said.
In coordination with the Mississippi Police Department, Pinella’s detectives followed Lapniewski to a gas station on the morning of July 16. They watched as Lapniewski used a red straw to brew a cup of coffee, then sucked on the straw before throwing it in the trash. After Lapniewski left the station, detectives confiscated the straw and filed it as evidence.
Lapniewski did the same three hours later, and again detectives confiscated the straw. Both straws were submitted for DNA testing.
But the detectives had another trick up their sleeve. A Bay St. Louis Police, Miss., Department detective owned a restaurant there and knew Lapniewski. They devised a plan to advertise a promotion where loyal customers could get a free meal if they showed up at the restaurant on a specific day and time. They taped a flyer to Lapniewski’s vehicle to promote the action, and he showed up for dinner.
The DNA of both the spoon and the fork and coffee straws matched Lapniewski, the affidavit said.
He was arrested in Mississippi Thursday and extradited to Pinellas County. Security deposit information was not immediately available.
Times Staff Writer Natalie Weber contributed to this report.