LARGO — For 20 years, fingerprints taken from a window screen held the secret to a young Oldsmar mother's night of rape and terror.
A man had crept through her window, stripped off his clothes, ordered her from the bed where she slept with her 5-year-old daughter, and sexually assaulted her. Then he made her shower to wash away evidence.
At the time, the prints held little power because authorities could not match them with any known suspects.
But Thursday, modern technology and 2 1/2 hours of jury deliberations finally brought justice. Dwayne Edward Sheppard, 43, was convicted of armed sexual assault, which could send him to prison for life.
The victim, now 45, remained stoic in the courtroom as the verdict was read. Her daughter, now grown, supported her with an arm around the shoulder. The Times is not naming them because of the nature of the crime.
Sheppard, whose most recent address is New Port Richey, was also supported in court by his wife and children. He handed over his wallet, keys and gold chain and headed off to jail without looking back.
None of the families wished to comment.
The rape was revisited in 2005, when a sheriff's technician reopened old cases with a computerized fingerprint matching program that was not available in 1985.
Sheppard's prints were on file because he had been arrested for "night prowling" a year after the rape.
When detectives reviewed that arrest they found chilling similarities to the Oldsmar rape. Sheppard had been picked up in the middle of the night only a mile or two from the rape scene. He had a knife, a woman's stocking and an inhaler in his pocket. He said his friends had talked him into wearing the stocking as a mask and scaring somebody by looking through their window.
In the rape case, the victim told police the assailant had talked of tying her up and threatened her with something sharp. He also sniffed something from a small, silver canister.
"That played a very significant role in our decision," said juror David Gidron. "The victim had said he wanted to tie her up and she pretty much talked him out of it."
Defense attorney Nicola Brown acknowledged that the night prowling arrest "raises an eyebrow."
But she urged the jury to consider his explanation in isolation.
"Couldn't it be a situation where a 21-year-old young man did something really stupid?" she said. "That's what it could be chalked up to."
The jury also discounted Sheppard's explanation of how his fingerprint might have landed on the screen, Gidron said.
At the time of the rape, Sheppard worked for the city of Oldsmar. He was a meter reader, he said, and while he didn't specifically remember the house or touching any screen — it was 23 years ago — if he saw objects in the driveway or out of place, he would typically pick them up and lay them next to the house.
That seemed unlikely, Gidron said. The meter was in the front of the house. The window that held the screen was in the back, separated by a fence.
"That story didn't line up," Gidron said. "When it came down to it, the fingerprint was the key evidence."
Judge Philip Federico will sentence Sheppard in a few weeks, after an investigation into possible mitigating or aggravating factors.