MASARYKTOWN — Inside the home of Evelyn and Patrick DePalma, investigators found a milk jug without a cap.
A forensic technician with the Sheriff's Office swabbed the rim for DNA.
At the time, it meant nothing. Authorities collected dozens of samples Oct. 29, 2006, as they scoured the home trying to determine who killed the church-going elderly couple in this quiet community.
The evidence led nowhere fast. And for nearly two years, interviews with neighbors, tipsters and relatives only generated more dead ends.
Then July 11 of last year, authorities announced a major break in the case: the arrest of Robert William Jardin, a 33-year-old mason from Brooksville.
Authorities initially revealed little about how Jardin entered the investigation. But new details — gleaned from nearly 1,000 pages of court documents reviewed by the Times — suggest it came almost completely by surprise.
A state computer found a DNA match. And from there, the story began to unfold.
• • •
The DePalmas' nephew, Joseph Evans, was the first to discover something amiss. He came to the house on Korbus Road at 1:30 p.m. Sunday for dinner. He visited often and called ahead. They were expecting him.
He knocked and no one answered. He went around back to find the shed doors pried open. He called 911.
A sheriff's deputy took the screen off a window to get a better look inside the house. He saw the feet of a person lying on the floor and blood splattered on the walls.
Deputies kicked in the door to find a scene from a Truman Capote novel.
The feet belonged to Patrick DePalma Sr., 84. He lay on his stomach, head and torso halfway into the den, a mess of blood by his head. He wore a blue sweat suit; his slippers were astray nearby.
Evelyn DePalma, 79, sat on the floor, upright against a twin bed and the wall of the southeast bedroom. She wore a red sweat suit and a pair of slippers. Blood stained her clothes, the bed, the wall, the door, the carpet and a pair of wooden shoes next to her.
They had been stabbed to death with a long-bladed knife.
The house was ravaged, as if someone had been looking for something. His blood appeared on a shower curtain; hers on the pantry — both far from where they eventually died.
Deputies retraced their steps and left. Yellow crime scene tape wrapped the house for two weeks.
• • •
Jardin emerged three months after the Sheriff's Office botched the arrest of David Alexander Bostick, a distant DePalma relative. Authorities charged Bostick with the murders, only to see the case dissolve with insufficient evidence.
When the charges against Bostick were dropped, it came as a huge blow — to the community, which finally had felt a sense of calm with an arrest, and to the investigators, who were left with few solid leads.
From the start, the investigation had produced few results.
Investigators canvassed the small community near the Hernando-Pasco county line. They even videotaped the funeral to look for people on the short list of potential suspects.
For a time, they suspected the DePalmas' son, Patrick DePalma Jr., documents show. The Sheriff's Office asked North Carolina authorities to do surveillance on his home in Asheboro, N.C.
The couple's only son, who inherited his parents' estate, was previously arrested on drug charges. But other than a financial motive, the initial documents do not suggest why he became a person of interest.
Jardin's name never appeared among the hundreds interviewed as part of the initial investigation, records show.
The divorced father of three is a former Marine who goes by the nickname "Jarhead." Sheriff's Office reports suggest he was dishonorably discharged and later worked for a Tampa construction firm, among other odd jobs.
In January 2008, he pleaded guilty to stealing from a pawnshop where he worked. He received three years of probation.
The judge ordered a DNA sample — standard procedure in all felony convictions — for the vast databases maintained by law enforcement agencies. His DNA appeared in the system in June, and authorities received a "hit." His DNA matched that found on the milk jug at the DePalma home.
Investigators asked Jardin to come to the Sheriff's Office under the guise of an unrelated investigation about a bar fight. But soon, Deputy George Loydgren turned the conversation. He asked four questions:
Did you know the DePalmas?
Have you ever heard anything about the homicide in Masaryktown?
Have you ever been to the DePalma residence?
Do you know anyone who has been there?
Jardin answered "no" to each question. Then detectives asked Jardin if he knew why he was being questioned. He replied: "I have got some demons. I've done a lot of stupid s--- as a younger kid and got away with it."
The irony registered. Authorities didn't have enough evidence to arrest Jardin, but they set out to find it.
• • •
Jardin lived in a trailer on a friend's property at 6498 Zagnut Lane, near Cortez and Mariner boulevards. Detectives asked the owner if they could look around.
Inside, they found the DePalmas' Bissel vacuum cleaner and an RCA stereo taken from the home. Inside Jardin's 1989 Chevy pickup, they found a set of keys. The Winn-Dixie customer tag on the key ring matched the DePalmas' account.
In a second interview on July 11, Jardin conceded he was at the home the night of the killings, and he was arrested.
Authorities ran further tests that showed Jardin's DNA in the sink traps at the DePalma residence.
"I know the forensics unit worked very heard getting anything and everything (at the scene)," Tim Whitfield, director of scientific investigations at the Sheriff's Office, said in an interview. "Sometimes it only takes one thing."
The breadth of the case means it might be months, if not a year or longer, before Jardin goes to trial.
But last week prosecutors made an announcement: They will seek the death penalty.
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.