AMHERST, N.Y. — “It’s the most gruesome crime scene, if not the most violent crime scene, of their careers,” said former Amherst Police Lieutenant Detective Rick Walter about generations of detectives who have combed a 1991 cold case.
25-year-old Michelle Vandinther was young, beautiful, a deeply faithful Jehovah’s Witness and a newlywed.
She was closing the Wendy’s location she managed at the corner of Transit and Wehrle Drive in Amherst on the night of June 14, 1991. Around 11 p.m., detectives say someone knocked on the drive-thru window of the restaurant and asked to come inside and Michelle let them in.
Police say Michelle would normally have been home from work around midnight. Around 1 a.m., when she hadn’t arrived home, her husband went looking for her.
"Around 2 a.m. a call came out for a stabbing at Wehrle and Transit,” said Walter, who was the first officer to respond to the scene that night.
"I was two blocks away. I was there probably within a minute. When I pulled in the lot from Wehrle, there was a man near the drive-thru window in obvious distress," he said. “I got out of the car, and he told me his wife was in there. She was stabbed, and he thought she was dead."
More officers quickly arrived on scene and entered through an unlocked back door of the restaurant. Walter said there were signs of a struggle. A garbage can was knocked over, and keys were found on the ground.
Officers were able to determine fairly quickly this was personal and not a robbery.
"There is, I don't know how many thousands of dollars in a safe. Her purse is there, her car is there, credit cards are there,” Walter said. “Even the donation thing for muscular dystrophy with Jerry's Kids is still on the counter. Not even an afterthought, this person went in there with the intent to confront Michelle in some way, or a conversation went south."
Detectives are certain that Michelle knew the person who showed up at her drive-thru window that night, even taking it a step further to say she trusted them.
Walter said they learned from employees that Michelle was very particular about safety and closing procedures at the restaurant, which leads them to believe she had a relationship with this person.
"When someone gets stabbed 37 times in the most violent manner you can imagine, with most of the wounds to the neck and back as she is trying to escape in defense wounds, it's a violent attack, and it's personal,” Walter said.
The knife used in the attack is believed to have come from a drawer in the restaurant. It’s been tested for DNA in recent years without any luck.
Generations of law enforcement from multiple agencies have combed this case. Amherst Police detectives have even traveled to different states and countries, following leads.
Through the eyes of Walter, this case is solvable, and he has never given up on it. He went from responding to the scene to being assigned the cold case when he was promoted to detective.
“I've never given up on it, I still think it can be solved. I think somebody out there that knows something,” he said.
Now 30 years later, Michelle's murder still haunts detectives and her relatives. If you have any information on this cold case you are asked to contact the Amherst Police Department.
Want to know more?
Listen to our full interview with former Amherst Police Lieutenant Detective Rick Walter on our podcast Unsolved:True Crime in WNY.