DNA clues helping to solve cold case in Palm Harbor

Marian Justi-LePino remembers her big sister sweeping down the stairs of the family home after a shower. Hair tied up in a towel, Gina Marie Justi was singing one of her favorite Carole King songs, Beautiful.

The year was 1971 and the Justi family lived on Santa Monica Drive in Town 'N Country, a new development west of downtown Tampa. It was summer, and the six Justi children were out of school. Tony Justi, the oldest, was working as a fence installer.

At 14, Gina was losing her baby fat and growing out her wavy, dark hair. Clad in a brown striped shirt and cut-off denim shorts, Gina left the house on foot on Friday, Aug. 6, 1971.

Justi-LePino said her sister was going to visit a friend who lived nearby. Pinellas deputies said they believe she was going to a man's house to look at free puppies he was giving away.

Either way, it was the last time anyone in the Justi family would see Gina alive.

"She just vanished," said Pinellas County sheriff's Detective Michael Bailey.

The next afternoon — Aug. 7, 1971 — the body of a young girl was found facedown in a clump of high grass in a Palm Harbor orange grove that today is the site of a subdivision called Sever's Landing.

She had been raped, beaten, stabbed in the back and strangled with a leather cord.

It didn't take long for detectives in Pinellas to make the connection between the body and the missing girl from Tampa. In the middle of the night, authorities came knocking on the door of the Justi home.

"I will never forget my mother's blood-curdling scream," said 51-year-old Justi-LePino of Harrison, N.Y. "She said 'Noooooo, not my baby!' "

Detectives interviewed family members and the "puppy man," who said Gina never made it to his house. They didn't find anyone who witnessed Gina's abduction.

Two years after Gina's murder, her older brother John died from injuries he sustained in a car crash. Gina's father died in 1999, her mother in 2008.

It would be nearly 40 years before the surviving Justi children would hear that authorities believe they have identified Gina's killer.

• • •

There was no DNA testing in criminal cases in 1971. For years, the Justi case lingered, passing through the hands of at least a dozen Pinellas detectives. During that time, DNA science and techniques advanced. States started creating databases, which were shared with the FBI to create a national DNA database called CODIS.

Using evidence collected at the crime scene, the Sheriff's Office had come up with a partial DNA profile of a suspect, meaning deputies had pinpointed part of the numerical representation that can be used to identify someone. But each time the profile was submitted for comparison, the answer came back: no match.

Bailey, who took over Gina's case in 2009, worked with an analyst with the county's new DNA lab, who was able to develop a more complete profile. Within days of submitting it to the national database, they got a hit.

The DNA taken from Gina's body matched a 69-year-old man named Jerry Lee Fletcher. In August 1971, Fletcher was a 29-year-old industrial painter who lived in Tampa but traveled across the country painting heavy machinery and office furniture. Fletcher, Bailey learned, was in prison in Illinois.

As Bailey and the Justi family soon found out, Fletcher was serving two life sentences for a killing nearly identical to Gina's.

• • •

On April 19, 1973, a 13-year-old was snatched from a baby-sitting job in Sparland, Ill. Two days later, Shirley McCune's body was found in a cemetery about 25 miles away.

Like Gina, she had been raped, beaten and strangled with a sash.

Fletcher was arrested after he was linked to the burglary of a mobile home where Shirley was killed. Shirley's older brother, Loren McCune, said he still remembers the horror of identifying his little sister's body, a task too terrible for other family members to bear.

McCune, now 73 and living in Lacon, Ill., said he sat through every moment of Fletcher's trial. In July 1974, after eight days of testimony, Fletcher was convicted of murder and indecent liberties with a child. He was sentenced to two life terms and has been in prison ever since.

In a sad twist of fate, it was the outcome of a 1972 trial in Tampa that cleared the way for Fletcher to be in Illinois when Shirley was murdered.

Six months after Gina Justi was found dead in the orange grove, a 16-year-old Tampa teenager told police that Fletcher had kidnapped her at knifepoint as she exited a bathroom at a Dale Mabry restaurant. The teen said Fletcher forced her into a green station wagon and drove her to a dirt road north of Tampa, where he threatened to stab her if she didn't perform sexual acts.

The girl told police she bathed after the incident, so authorities did not collect any evidence from her body. A Hillsborough County court file shows Fletcher was charged with aggravated assault in that case. A jury acquitted him after deliberating less than an hour. Fletcher went free.

The verdict had far-reaching consequences, said Bailey, the Pinellas detective. If Fletcher had been convicted, he might have gone to prison, which means his path may not have crossed Shirley McCune's in 1973. But if Fletcher hadn't murdered Shirley, his DNA wouldn't have been available to make the match in Gina's case.

Bailey said the DNA evidence, Fletcher's conviction in Illinois, the allegations of the Tampa teenager and experience from nearly two decades of detective work convince him Fletcher probably has other victims.

"There's more people out there. I don't know who they are," Bailey said.

Bailey is working with the FBI to create a time line of Fletcher's movements, so other detectives can check to see if Fletcher was in their jurisdiction when unsolved crimes were committed.

Tony Justi, 58, who lives outside Savannah, Ga., said he, too, suspects Fletcher is a serial rapist and killer.

"Because of the violence of the attacks, it's hard to believe there's nothing in between (Gina and Shirley)," he said. "It sounds like he's compelled to do it."

• • •

Though it's been 40 years since her sister's murder, Justi-LePino remembers Gina like it was yesterday. Gina taught her how to read and how to write in cursive. Gina helped her into her first pair of roller skates, showed her how girls shave their legs, and taught her how to sew bell bottom jeans.

"You couldn't have asked for a better big sister. I was like her shadow. I was so in awe of her and her friends," Justi-LePino said. "I really felt so alone after Gina died. I just remember thinking 'How can I live without my sister?' "

She did learn to live with it, "but for me, the pain never goes away," she said.

Bailey is working with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office on Fletcher's case and said he hopes to see him charged with Gina's killing and extradited to Florida to stand trial.

Justi said he wonders if facing the death penalty might compel Fletcher to come forward about other crimes.

After waiting four decades for the truth, Justi-LePino said she has questions for Fletcher: What were Gina's last words? Did she cry out for her parents? Did she pray in her final moments?

"Maybe if he had a modicum of a conscience," she said, "he would give me some answers."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and John Martin and Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.

DNA clues helping to solve cold case in Palm Harbor 07/23/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 24, 2011 12:20am]

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