BROOKSVILLE — One year ago, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis announced that he was assigning a detective to work exclusively on one of the Tampa Bay area's most confounding cold cases.
John Ellis would spend at least one year combing through dozens of thick binders of materials and dozens of pieces of evidence collected during the investigation of the murder of Jennifer Odom, a chipper 12-year-old from eastern Pasco County found dead in a Hernando orange grove in February 1993.
Since then, Ellis, along with Detective Jim Boylan, has interviewed several dozen potential witnesses and combed through hundreds of pieces of evidence, hoping someone might remember something or that new forensic technology might help break the case.
There have been no major breaks. Though the year has passed, the grindingly methodical work is far from done, and Ellis will stay in his special assignment for now.
"We're right in the middle of everything we're doing," Boylan said, "and we're going to keep pushing forward."
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On Feb. 19, 1993, Jennifer should have gotten off her school bus near St. Joseph in eastern Pasco County and walked to the family's mobile home on Jim Denney Road. She never arrived.
Some students had seen an old, light-blue pickup near Jennifer's bus stop that day, but no one saw the abduction. Four hundred volunteers searched 60 square miles of countryside. Six days later, a couple found Jennifer's body near a horse trail, amid a cluster of pine trees in an orange grove near Powell Road, in southern Hernando County, about 10 miles from where she disappeared. She died from a blow to the head.
"At the very beginning, there were two agencies involved, and we were going in so many different directions," Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Phil Lakin, supervisor of the Crimes Against Persons unit, said in an interview. "The goal was for John to comb through all of that information to see what hasn't been completely followed through on."
Boylan, 46, was working undercover in vice and narcotics when Jennifer disappeared, and he helped search the woods for evidence after she was found. He placed her photo on his office bulletin board about four years ago, when he was assigned to work cold cases.
Ellis, 46, joined the Sheriff's Office 12 years ago, working patrol and investigating property crimes before joining the major case section. He was assigned as a fresh set of eyes who would work alongside Boylan.
Ellis, who was out of the office last week and unavailable for an interview, has focused on migrant workers who were working in the area at the time. They are combing through fruit company payroll records to track down people who were employed picking oranges in the area.
"We're making contact with the full circle of family around (the workers) so we can verify alibis," Boylan said. "There were several people who could be potential suspects, and we're trying to eliminate everybody by making sure."
Boylan is focusing on Jennifer's neighbors and friends. And the investigators are also looking at more than 100 people who have committed assaults and abductions in Florida over the years.
The detectives have interviewed people as far away as Texas, New Mexico and California. Boylan even flew out west, though he declined to say to which state.
Though that kind of work is critical, advances in forensic technology likely hold the most promise, Lakin said.
Investigators cataloged dozens of pieces of potential evidence at the scene of Jennifer's abduction and where her body was found. In 1995, her bookbag and clarinet case were found on a dirt road about 12 miles west of where her body was discovered. Boylan and Lakin declined to talk about what specific pieces evidence they have sent for analysis, but say the items were found at the scene of her abduction and where her body was found.
The evidence is evaluated by the Hernando Sheriff's Office forensics specialist Rachel Connors and her supervisor, director Tim Whitfield. Some of it is then sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI or private labs for further analysis.
"I believe our biggest hope is the strides Jim has been making in the area of evidence analysis," Lakin said. "Physical evidence can make a case."
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On top of this work, investigators continue to catalog and follow new leads. About 100 such leads materialized in 2013 alone.
In June, divers from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the FBI spent two days combing Lake Jovita for a vehicle that might help break the case. They came up empty.
Boylan keeps in regular contact with Jennifer's mother, Renee Converse, and her husband, Clark. The investigators share promising leads to keep them informed and to see what they might know about, say, an identified person of interest.
Boylan hopes to call the family one day to say the case has been solved, but the progress made in the last year has brought its own kind of reward.
"If I had a thousand questions on this case, half of them are already answered," he said. "That brings a little bit of closure in our heads, knowing we're pushing in the right direction."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected]