ST. PETERSBURG — Police had two victims: Paula O'Conner, found strangled in her home in 2007 along with her son Alijah, suffocated at just 15 months.
Police had a suspect: former Air Force Sgt. Ralph "Ron" Wright Jr., the man O'Conner said was a deadbeat dad who refused to help their sick child.
But it wasn't until Wednesday that police had an arrest: Wright was taken into custody in Palatka on two counts of first-degree murder in the July 2007 slayings.
From the start, Wright denied any involvement in their deaths. He denied that he was the child's father. He even denied being intimate with the mother.
But police say his story unraveled when detectives used his DNA to prove that he was Alijah's father. They wondered what else he had lied about.
Wright's undoing began months earlier, when St. Petersburg police detectives interviewed him at MacDill Air Force Base. Wright cut his finger with his keys. He dabbed the blood with a tissue, then tossed it into the trash — or so he thought.
Detectives preserved that tissue.
It was their first real clue.
• • •
Paula O'Conner first met Ralph Daniel Wright Jr. — he goes by Ron — in January 2004.
She was single and working as an insurance underwriter. He said he was divorced with a 10-year-old son. He said he was a reserve deputy from Orlando re-called to active duty after Sept. 11, 2001. "He said he loved me," O'Conner later wrote, "and that I was the only one for him."
Even as they grew closer, O'Conner became suspicious. She never met his family, and he often left her to go on "secret assignment."
When she became pregnant in 2005, O'Conner later wrote, the father just disappeared.
Alijah was born on April 9, 2006, without his father there. But O'Conner's pregnancy had many complications. The baby needed open-heart surgery.
The mother hired a private investigator to find the father. O'Conner learned that Wright was married to another woman, with another family.
"Meanwhile I have huge medical bills and no way to prove paternity at this point …" O'Conner wrote. "The Military apparently thinks this is a JOKE!!"
O'Conner's account of the relationship is detailed on her Web site, militarydeadbeatdads.com.
She sued Wright to prove paternity and to get his military benefits to help pay the six-figure medical bills overwhelming her.
Police now call that motive.
Said St. Petersburg police Maj. Michael Puetz: "It was a situation where … he had reason to be angry with her, concerned that paternity would be established, that he would be liable for some rather extensive medical expenses."
• • •
After the slayings, Wright was questioned several times by detectives. His story never wavered. "He had told us that he had a brief platonic relationship," Puetz said, "that he was not involved sexually with her, that this child could not be his."
Then came that fateful interview at MacDill in 2007. Wright cut his finger, and detectives recovered the tissue.
When the DNA test proved paternity, police declared Wright their prime suspect at an October 2007 news conference.
They talked to Wright again. He stuck by his story.
" 'I know what your tests say,' " Puetz recalled Wright saying. " 'I am not the father of that child.' "
The lie allowed police to get a court order to obtain a "cleaner" DNA sample from Wright. They swabbed the inside of his mouth.
The state lab couldn't find Wright's DNA on any crime scene evidence. So detectives resubmitted the evidence to a more advanced private lab out of state.
Months later, police said the advanced tests and the new DNA sample linked Wright to the crime scene.
A Pinellas County grand jury indicted Wright on Dec. 18. Though he would not offer any details, Puetz said the case is built on more than just forensics.
"The bottom line is the case itself is not just based on the DNA evidence," the major said. "There was other testimony presented to the grand jury as well."
• • •
After the Air Force cut him loose, Wright moved to Orlando and traveled the country as a trucker. His wife filed for divorce in June. Police said he never tried to run or hide.
When police learned Wright was making a delivery to Palatka on Wednesday, they decided to catch him off guard. Putnam County deputies arrested him as St. Petersburg detectives watched. Wright was booked into the Putnam County jail but should be back in Pinellas County within a week.
"We're very pleased that the arrest has been made," said O'Conner's uncle, Henry Hart, speaking for her family. "We're looking forward to justice being served."
St. Petersburg detectives sat down with Wright for one more chat on Wednesday. Once again, he stuck by his story.
"He denied involvement in the murder," Puetz said. "He denied paternity of the child."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.