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Two decades later, Panhandle murder unsolved

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, — Not long after the 18-year-old woman's corpse was discovered on Eglin Air Force Base's reservation, detectives began hunting for the "long-armed man."

They never found him.

Twenty years later, lawmen still haven't closed the 1988 homicide case of Ulai Sookruetai.

"I can say there are people ... that have information and have not come forward with it," said Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Investigator Tom Bowman, who is assigned to the cold case. "It's crazy. You have an 18-year-old who's killed."

In the beginning, it was a missing person case — and the public was more helpful.

Ghost sightings poured in soon after Ulai disappeared Sept. 13, 1988. A newspaper carrier told police he saw her at a pharmacy on Racetrack Road. Others thought they had spotted her elsewhere, describing her small frame, the dark hair that fell below her shoulders and even the school books she carried.

The callers were fooling themselves, investigators said later.

It turned out Ulai was dead — wrapped in a sleeping bag, stuffed in a cardboard box and hidden in a blueberry patch.

The man who found her is still haunted by it.

"I didn't want to go get the law to come out there for some kind of animal, so I ... opened the box," said David Tolbert, who was searching for scrap metal when he found Ulai's body.

"I rolled it back till I exposed a knee on that girl," he said. "I had nightmares for a long time."

Ulai had no obvious injuries. "She hadn't been shot or stabbed or beat up," said Dr. Edmund Kielman, the deputy medical examiner at the time who performed her autopsy.

There were no signs of struggle or sexual abuse, and no evidence of drugs in her blood. There were signs that she'd been dead and exposed to the elements for many weeks.

Who killed her and why? How did she die?

After a series of interviews, investigators came to believe a man with long arms, a long neck and large feet was the last person to see Ulai. They think he could hold important clues to her death.

A ride, but not home

Ulai came to the United States from Thailand in 1977 shortly after an airman, Kenneth Gwiazda, married her mother, Sumalee. Ulai was 7 years old when she began her American life as part of the Gwiazda family in Michigan.

Six years later, Gwiazda arrived at Eglin as a technical sergeant with the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing. He brought Sumalee, Ulai and a son, Michael, to live with him on the Emerald Coast.

While Gwiazda never adopted Ulai, he said he always considered her a daughter.

"Our feeling was that was a paperwork thing," he said shortly after her death. "There was no question that I was her father."

The family was not available to comment for this story.

As a teen, Ulai spent much of her time dancing or skating or window shopping at Santa Rosa Mall, friends said. She wanted to be a model one day.

Teachers described the Niceville junior as a popular, diligent student.

On Sept. 13, 1988, she was attending a Students Against Drunk Driving meeting at Niceville High. When it ended, she called home at 8 p.m. to ask for a ride, and Gwiazda drove up to pick her up.

She wasn't there when he arrived. Gwiazda waited for an hour, then went back home to Hickory Court on the base. About the time he got there, Ulai called again, saying she had missed him and was across the street, using the telephone at a coin laundry near the intersection of Palm Boulevard and John Sims Parkway, a short walk from the school.

A little angry and late for work at a second job as a hotel security guard, Gwiazda asked Ulai if she could call a friend for a ride home.

The friend couldn't come right away.

Later, Ulai's mother said the friend recalled an unsettling part of Ulai's phone call.

"Ulai said there was some stranger guy there who said he would take her home," Sumalee said. "She said maybe she would let this stranger guy take her home. I think that's what she did."

Niceville police began searching for Ulai after her parents reported her missing that night.

Within a week, investigators said they suspected foul play.

Her family insisted that she wouldn't run away. Lawmen wouldn't call her a runaway, anyway; as an 18-year-old adult, they said, she could come and go as she pleased.

'A very good lead'

The story stalled for nearly a month as police had no new details to report.

Late Nov. 17, 1988, more than two months after Ulai's disappearance, Gwiazda answered a knock at his door. A sheriff's deputy, a chaplain, an Air Force doctor and Gwiazda's base commander were on his doorstep.

"I knew they were there with bad news about Ulai," he said later.

Tolbert had found Ulai's body about 40 yards off a dirt road about a mile south of the Shoal River Bridge and a quarter-mile west of State Road 85.

Ulai's mother identified her by her clothes and jewelry. Kielman examined Ulai's decomposed body and estimated she had been dead since the date of her disappearance. There was grimy cellophane tape left near her head, and investigators speculated it might have been used to strangle her.

At the time, Tolbert was a pastor at the Holley Assembly of God. He said investigators quizzed him, thinking perhaps someone had confessed the murder to him and told him where to find the body.

That led nowhere. Tolbert knew nothing — except that it had rained the day before he found the body and there were fresh footprints near the spot where Ulai was dumped. He remembered seeing a dark green sport utility vehicle parked nearby.

"It may not have been anything, but the fact that they had been up the road, and been at least within 50 or 75 feet of that box — that's always bothered me," Tolbert said.

Eventually, deputies released a sketch of a thin, pale man with wavy blond hair who they believed picked up Ulai in the dark outside the Majik Market convenience store next to the coin laundry where she made her last phone call. He was described as about 18 years old (he'd be about 38 today) and about 5 feet 8. He drove a large, dark car with a Florida license tag that included the letter Y, a witness said.

DNA testing wasn't used at the time of the discovery, Bowman says. But the cardboard box that held Ulai's body is still in evidence, along with several other items from the scene. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has taken samples from it for DNA testing.

"We have come up with a very good lead," Bowman said. "I cannot say how the DNA testing's gone."

He does not name a suspect.

The FDLE is working jointly with the Sheriff's Office on the case.

"Although this is a cold case, I would consider it an active cold case," said Bowman, adding there's "not a week that goes by" without some investigation into it.

Without revealing details, Bowman says progress in the case, which he took in September 2006, has been significant.

Investigators have met with the state attorney's office "to make sure we can move forward" with certain evidence, Bowman said.

But he doesn't have enough to charge anyone. What is the missing piece?

"A confession would be nice," Bowman said. "There are a lot of pieces that are missing in these cases. There's so much that we want to know that we may never know."

In coming weeks, Bowman plans to take a trip with the FDLE to interview two people. He said the Sheriff's Office would quickly release news if the case is solved.

Two decades later, Panhandle murder unsolved 08/31/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 31, 2008 10:52pm]

    

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