DNA evidence leads to arrest in case of child who vanished from bedroom in 1997

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MIDWEST CITY, Okla. -- Thanks to DNA evidence police in an Oklahoma City suburb arrested a man in connection with a kidnapping case dating back to 1997, authorities said Tuesday.

Kirsten Hatfield, 8, disappeared from her home in Midwest City one night in May 1997. Police said the second-grader's bedroom window was cracked and her underwear was found in the backyard, according to KFOR.

Anthony Palma lived two doors down from Hatfield when she disappeared -- and he still lives there to this day. On Tuesday, his home was surrounded by crime scene tape and police officers were going in and out as they continued their search. According to court documents, Palma was interviewed by an FBI agent on May 17, 1997, at his home but was never arrested.

Kirsten Hatfield was 8 years old when she disappeared form her Midwest City, Okla., bedroom in May 1997. This age-progressed photo, at right, shows what she would look like in 2013 at age 24. (Photo: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)

Kirsten Hatfield was 8 years old when she disappeared form her Midwest City, Okla., bedroom in May 1997. This age-progressed photo, at right, shows what she would look like in 2013 at age 24. (Photo: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)

Authorities went back to his home in June of this year to speak with him again. His wife, who married him after Hatfield disappeared, said, “Tony still gets upset about the case when it is mentioned.”

Officials asked why he became upset and his wife said “because it happened so close to his house.”

A Midwest City officer and FBI agent went to Palma’s work to interview him. He has been a groundskeeper at Lake Thunderbird State Park since 2001. Palma denied any involvement in the case but consented to a DNA swab.

Anthony Palma

Authorities said “the report showed that Anthony Palma’s DNA matched the DNA found on Kirsten’s panties and window sill. The match was one in 293 sextillion.”

But not everyone in the suspect's life is convinced.

“They’ll just never make me believe that Tony did something like this. He’s not capable,” friend Linda Churchman said.

Churchman said she has known Palma, his wife and daughter for about 10 years when her grandson dated Palma’s daughter.

“He’s almost been like a son to me. I mean, any time I needed help, he was always there and like my grandson, he was always there for him,” Churchman said.

Palma's friend described him as a "loving husband, loving parents, that I knew of, you know."

“This is just a shock to me,” Bennie Summers, Jr. said.

“He was a family man, went to work every day, came home, helped the kids with bikes, go-carts. You know he was just a typical good guy,” he went on to say.

Other neighbors said they didn’t really know Palma but were surprised he still lived in the same house.

“You would’ve thought he would’ve moved and hidden himself. But, you know, sometimes they hide in plain sight,” Julie Frost said.

A woman named Lisa now lives in the home where Hatfield used to live. She does not know the family and did not know what had happened in that house before she moved in.

She does, however, know Palma and said he fixed her a meal when she was sick and would help her take care of her yard.

“This has just totally floored me,” she said.

She does not think Palma is capable of such a crime either, but said the case does need to be solved.

“I hope they get closure. I hope that they’re able to take and put the baby at rest, wherever she may be,” said Lisa, who did not give her last name.

In 1985, Palma served 1.5 years of a 5-year sentence for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon out of Cotton County but has had a clean record since then.

Before working at Lake Thunderbird, he worked at State Capitol Park. He would have been working there at the time of Hatfield’s disappearance.

Palma is being held in the Midwest City jail without bond.

His wife and daughter are not able to stay in the home because police have taken control of it.