LARGO — Armed with DNA evidence, Pinellas sheriff's detectives traveled to Illinois to tell a prisoner that they knew about the 14-year-old girl he killed and left in an orange grove four decades before.
Jerry Lee Fletcher, 69 and already serving a long sentence for a similar murder, told detectives he had to submit a DNA sample a few years earlier so he "knew this day was coming."
On Friday, Fletcher appeared in court and pleaded guilty to the murder of Gina Marie Justi, closing one of the coldest cases ever solved in Pinellas County.
It was 42 years to the week since Gina disappeared from her home in the Town 'N Country area of Hillsborough County. Her body was found the next day in an orange grove in Palm Harbor.
Gina's brother Anthony, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, stood in court Friday and talked about his sister, "a loving young girl who laughed with her friends, enjoyed listening to Carole King and James Taylor, and was happiest when she was with her family."
He brought a picture of Gina and talked about all the milestones, holidays and family celebrations that she missed.
"Our relief in knowing that Gina's killer has been found was diminished by knowing that our parents were not alive to see this day," he said. "But they never gave up hope that this day would come."
Fletcher, now a scruffy-bearded 71-year-old, did not say much, other than to answer standard questions from Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews about whether he understood the proceeding and his guilty plea.
Gina vanished on Aug. 6, 1971. She left her house wearing a striped shirt and cut-off denim shorts. She said she was going to visit a friend; deputies later thought she may have been going to see a man giving away puppies.
DNA technology, and work by detectives Michael Bailey and Tom Klein, helped solve the case. After some unsuccessful attempts, detectives submitted evidence to the county's lab.
The DNA came back as a match to Jerry Fletcher.
Detectives had interviewed suspects, but Fletcher was not among them.
Investigators discovered that Fletcher lived in Tampa at the time. He had been charged in a knifepoint kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl there, but acquitted.
In the 1970s, he was convicted of abducting a 13-year-old from a babysitting job in Sparland, Ill. Like Gina, she had been raped, beaten and strangled. He has been imprisoned in Illinois since then.
On Friday, Assistant State Attorney William Loughery said Fletcher is serving a 50- to 150-year sentence in Illinois. If he ever completes that sentence, he will begin serving his Florida life sentence.
Bailey has long suspected that Fletcher may have had other victims. He has been locked up since the early 1970s, but before that his job painting heavy machinery and office furniture took him around the country. Someone who abducted and killed two girls so brazenly might have killed others, the detective theorized.
In Illinois, Bailey told Fletcher he would like to ask him about other victims. He said Fletcher cryptically seemed to agree. Fletcher said: Take the death penalty off the table, and maybe we can talk.
Now, the death penalty is off the table. So after the hearing Friday morning, Bailey went to the Pinellas County Jail to visit Fletcher.
He reminded him of their "gentleman's agreement."
Fletcher laughed, Bailey said, and admitted — with several profanities thrown in — that he was a liar.