MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. (PIX11) – On March 14, 2003, 20-year-old college student Megan McDonald was bludgeoned in the head by someone sitting in the back seat of her white Mercury Sable before she was dumped out of the vehicle.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of McDonald’s death in Orange County, New York State Police told PIX11 News they’re closer than ever to making an arrest in the brutal killing of McDonald, who was the daughter of an NYPD detective.

“We feel that the suspect no longer has a tight grip on his close circle of friends from back in 2003,” Major Crimes investigator Brad Natalizio told PIX11 News, indicating that some witnesses are talking. 

Natalizio stressed that the police are only interested in making one arrest.

“I’m coming for you,” Natalizio said of the prime suspect.

State Police revealed for the first time last year that the male suspect had been driving a Honda Civic hatchback with a loud sound system, before he and a friend got into McDonald’s car near the Kensington Manor apartment complex in Walkill.

Natalizio gave the Detectives’ Endowment Association in New York City credit for bringing new attention to the case last year, when the union offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction – something the FBI has also done. The state police investigator also said a story reported by PIX11 News last March led to new leads.

“Certain people who did not cooperate in the past have now provided key information about the suspect and key evidence in the case,” Natalizio said.

Paul DiGiacomo, the president of the DEA, had only learned in early 2022 that the cold case victim was the daughter of late NYPD Detective Dennis McDonald, who was part of the police team that investigated the first terror attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. DiGiacomo was moved to publicize the case after seeing crime scene photos of Megan McDonald’s severe head injuries.

“It was a very vicious attack on this young girl, and she had a very promising future ahead of her,” DiGiacomo said on Tuesday. “And to take that away from Megan and her family, there has to be consequences.”

When DiGiacomo first spoke about the case in 2022, he said of the head wounds, “They were horrifying, even to a seasoned detective like myself.”

Investigators work to find killer

Megan McDonald was a SUNY Orange college student working her way through school with a waitressing job at the American Café in the Galleria Mall.

“This case is unique in nature,” Natalizio told PIX11 News last year. “Because the level of violence we saw inflicted on Megan is something I’ve never seen in any other case.”

State police have DNA evidence from the crime scene and investigators have been working hard on getting witnesses to corroborate their evidence.

Megan McDonald’s father had retired from the NYPD in 2000 and died suddenly in 2002 at the age of 47. Her older sister, Karen Whelan, said there was “no warning.”

Megan celebrated her last Christmas that same year.

“We don’t want to convey that we’re sad anymore,” Whelan told PIX11 News over the phone in 2022. “We want this killer to know that he’s a coward. He attacked my sister from behind. He was a coward, and he can’t keep hiding.”

Investigator Natalizio said the first suspect back in 2003 was one of McDonald’s ex-boyfriends, but “this original suspect has been eliminated and we have a new person of interest in this case.”

Natalizio said people living in Wallkill and Middletown in Orange County need to erase the narrative they’ve heard about the case for so many years and consider the new evidence state police have accumulated.

In 2021, investigators did a recanvass of residents who lived at the Kensington Manor apartments in Walkill, where McDonald’s white Mercury Sable was found abandoned on March 14, 2003, the date she was killed. One resident of the complex told them she recalled something very specific about the early hours on that date: A Honda Civic that had a loud sound system. Natalizio said the hatchback “was observed following Megan’s vehicle the night of the homicide in the Kensington Manor area.”

“This information is important because it’s consistent with a person of interest who did operate a vehicle back then of that style,” Natalizio said in 2022.

The state police investigator said after the driver with the loud sound system got into Megan McDonald’s Mercury with another man, the group drove off and were hanging out near Bowser Road in another part of Wallkill. Natalizio said Megan was attacked in her car with a blunt object.

“The evidence revealed she was killed in the driver’s seat of her Mercury Sable,” Natalizio told PIX11 News. “At the crime scene, at Bowser Road, and that she was left — she was dumped — out of the car.”

The two men then drove McDonald’s vehicle back to the Kensington Manor complex. One of the men who was in the car died in recent years; Natalizio said he was tormented by what he witnessed inside the Mercury. 

The other unidentified man is the prime suspect. The FBI did a behavioral profile of the suspect and concluded he was a manipulative narcissist.

“He’s a very controlling individual,” Natalizio said in 2022. “And we believe that’s why we haven’t gotten the cooperation of the community.”

The State Police want the suspect’s friends to know they’re not a target of this investigation. Natalizio said the suspect had been intimidating members of his inner circle for years, keeping them quiet about what they know.

“We’re here to tell these individuals they’re not going to be in trouble,” Natalizio said. “We support them.”

Natalizio said what happened to Megan McDonald is “intimate partner violence.”

“It’s a crime of rage,” DiGiacomo confirmed.

Timeline on the day Megan McDonald died

State police have a very good timeline of Megan McDonald’s final day. The young woman worked until 3 p.m. at the American Café, and then went to the bank. At 7 p.m., McDonald drove by a party at Greenway Terrace in the Town of Wallkill. She was invited in but told some friends she was visiting another friend in Middletown.

At midnight, Megan McDonald left Middletown and drove back to Wallkill in the early minutes of March 14, 2003. She briefly returned to Greenway Terrace, but then left. At this point, the Honda-style hatchback was seen following McDonald’s white Mercury near Kensington Manor, investigators said. Two men then got into McDonald’s car, according to investigators.

It’s believed Megan McDonald was killed in the early morning hours of March 14, 2003, but her body wasn’t found until 1 p.m. the next day near Bowser Road. Her mother was trying frantically to reach her on the phone.

Last year, Karen Whelan described her sister as “amazing.” 

“She’d really light up a room. She just made everybody feel comfortable,” Whelan said.

Whelan and her husband said they know Megan McDonald – a “spitfire” – was standing up for herself before she died.

On the 20th anniversary of Megan McDonald’s death, the lead investigator is appealing for any bit of information that will allow him to finally close the case. Brad Natalizio asked anyone with a tip to call the Major Crimes Confidential Hotline at 845-344-5370.