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Forensic evidence leads to arrest of Golden Wok robbery suspect

Medford police have arrested a man suspected of robbing a Chinese restaurant in January.

Rhett William Howerton, 44, was arrested Thursday at his apartment in the 1800 block of Crater Lake Avenue. He was lodged in the Jackson County Jail on charges of first- and second-degree robbery and second-degree theft. He remained jailed Friday on more than $2 million bail.

Investigators allege Howerton went into the Golden Wok, 718 S. Riverside Ave., Medford, around 7:10 p.m. Jan. 18, with a knife and a demand note. He gave a note to the woman working at the restaurant's cash register, then threatened to harm or kill her with a knife before leaving with an undisclosed amount of money, according to a Medford police news release.

A Medford police forensic technician collected evidence, which police declined to describe, at the restaurant and a detective got surveillance video from a nearby motel. Police said the video was low quality but showed the suspect's vehicle, which had the driver's side front panel painted a different color than the rest of the body, turning south onto Central Avenue.

Analysis at the Oregon State Police crime lab linked the evidence to Howerton this week, Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said. 

"This case was made on forensic evidence," Budreau said. "Most aren't."

He explained that often the amount of good forensic evidence found at a crime scene is limited and analysis can take a long time. Investigators usually develop a list of suspects from other details of the case, such as witness statements and tips, then confirm an identity with forensic lab work.

"He wasn't on our list until we got OSP's lab findings," Budreau said of Howerton.

Howerton was familiar to Medford police, though. He had been arrested five times in the past six months, mostly on misdemeanor theft and domestic violence charges, Budreau said. Howerton most recently had been arrested Monday night on a misdemeanor theft warrant.

With the crime lab report in hand, detectives paid Howerton a visit Thursday, searching his apartment and matching his vehicle to that seen in surveillance video, Budreau said.

Anita Burke is online editor for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at aburke@mailtribune.com.

Rhett William Howerton