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Armed with patience and science, cold case detectives persevere

Detective Jim Boylan leads the Sheriff’s Office cold case unit.

Detective Jim Boylan leads the Sheriff’s Office cold case unit.

BROOKSVILLE — The office is stacked high with boxes of files.

In those files are thousands of pages of tips and records, all of which Detective Jim Boylan hopes will lead, just maybe, to answers in the 20 cold cases he pores over daily.

Well into its second decade, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office cold case unit works to solve cases from as early as 1972 and as recently as 2007. High-level felony or missing-person cases are classified as cold if a year passes without an arrest. With improvements in forensic technology, fewer cases are reaching that point, and the ones that have are closer to being solved.

"That's the only thing that keeps us going," said Boylan, 47, who has been with the unit for about six years. "There's always that advancement in technology that may help us solve the case."

The biggest change so far has been in DNA analysis, he said. Saliva, hair or blood left at a scene could lead to a potential match.

Such was the case in 2008 when a swab from the rim of a milk jug led to the arrest of Robert Jardin, a Brooksville mason who killed Evelyn and Patrick DePalma of Masaryktown. The murders went unsolved for almost two years. Then Jardin pleaded guilty to stealing from the pawnshop where he worked, and a judge ordered him to give a DNA sample, a standard procedure in felony convictions. His sample matched the DNA found on the milk jug, and after gathering enough other evidence, deputies arrested him.

Detectives can use fingerprints in a similar manner, Boylan said. In 2005, deputies found a body in the woods behind a convenience store near Interstate 75 east of Brooksville. But the body was too mummified to get a readable fingerprint. The man went unidentified for five years until forensic specialist Rachel Connors remembered an article she read in a forensic journal about rehydrating skin with fabric softener to get a more accurate print.

Using Downy, detectives identified the man as James Hullett, a man last seen in 1988.

"You never know what you have lying around the house that you could use," said Connors, 34.

Detectives also partner with the University of South Florida forensics team, Boylan said. For example, the USF scientists can use a sonar to sweep a potential burial site to detect a body or areas where the ground was disturbed.

Also, using skeletal remains, the team can make a composite picture that closely resembles the person.

The Sheriff's Office website shows three composites formed from skeletal remains. The earliest one is a clay reconstruction — the method that was previously used — and resembles a wax figure. The most recent composite was made by USF computers and looks like an actual person, down to the mustache and wrinkles on the forehead.

The Internet has also played a large part in finding leads. Ray Williamson, one of three volunteers who assist Boylan, said he relies on social media and online databases he has discovered through his genealogy-savvy wife to find people of interest.

Williamson, 73, brought his law enforcement and private investigation background to the cold case unit about five years ago. Even with the technology changes he and the others have witnessed, Williamson said he's still surprised by how long lab work can take and how many leads fall flat once results are in.

"It's very frustrating. It's not like the TV shows. You don't solve a case in an hour and get DNA in 10 minutes," he said. "Every time you're getting ahead, you slide back a step."

But Williamson said he won't quit until he cracks one case in particular: Jennifer Odom, the 12-year-old girl who was abducted from her bus stop in Pasco County in 1993 and murdered, her body dumped south of Brooksville. Last year, Sheriff Al Nienhuis appointed a detective to work full time on that investigation. In the cold case office, the girl's picture is pinned on a bulletin board next to those of Boylan's own children.

Photos of other victims, pictures of cars belonging to potential suspects and crime scene maps cover the walls.

The tireless work motivated Williamson to make a motto for the department:

"We speak for the voices that have been silenced by evil."

Kathryn Varn can be reached at kvarn@tampabay.com or (352) 754-6114. Follow @kathrynvarn on Twitter.

Armed with patience and science, cold case detectives persevere 06/19/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014 4:02pm]
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