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DNA link brings answers, closure in 18-year-old St. Petersburg murder case

ST. PETERSBURG — Brenda Stevenson decided the murder case deserved another look.

It had been 18 years since the shooting. The only evidence police collected then that might still have DNA now — a Miami Hurricanes baseball hat left by a suspect — had been sent to the state crime lab seven years ago. At that point they found no DNA.

Maybe this time would be different, the St. Petersburg police homicide investigator thought. So she sent the baseball hat to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement again in July.

On Oct. 7, the FDLE called her back. This time the results were different.

• • •

James Butler was returning home after renting a video at Blockbuster. It was 8:21 p.m., July 16, 1991, when the 25-year-old parked his car at his house and walked toward a side door.

That's when a man confronted him and shot Butler one time in the chest. The man took Butler's keys and stole his car. By the time police arrived, Butler was dying on his patio.

Authorities considered the crime a random act of violence.

The only evidence was a bicycle left in the bushes and the hat. Prints were found on the bike, but they weren't good enough to make a match in the computer system.

That's where Stevenson comes in.

• • •

This is the inspector's 14th year with the St. Petersburg police. The 51-year-old is a civilian who works with homicide detectives. In 2007, she started working part time on cold cases.

She doesn't go to the crime scenes when they happen, she said. She deals with the aftermath.

"My crime scene is when I walk back through the photos, the evidence," she said.

This case came to her attention when Butler's parents called her in March 2007. They've had constant contact with the Police Department over the years, she said.

"They've never given up on closing this case," she said.

So Stevenson went over the original police investigation reports, the FDLE reports and the evidence.

The parents had always said they thought the baseball hat was the key. It wasn't Butler's, so it had to be the shooter's.

So she sent the hat to be analyzed again.

"Even in just seven years, the advances are so amazing in what they can do," she said of new DNA analysis techniques.

When the FDLE returned her call this time, it had a match.

Now they had a name, and maybe that guy's fingerprints would match the partial prints recovered off the bike.

It was a match.

So now police had a suspect: Alphonso Williams, who was 19 when Butler was killed.

But Williams couldn't be questioned. He was dead.

• • •

In September 2007, Williams, whose criminal record stretches back to 1988, and another man were riding their bicycles from a convenience store. A white Ford Expedition pulled up beside them in the 1600 block of 47th Street S.

A man leaned out the rear passenger window and opened fire, striking the other man in the leg and killing Williams.

That case is still being investigated. But now Butler's is closed.

• • •

Stevenson has closed four cold cases and helped identify the bones of a Jane Doe.

Sometimes family members are dead when cases are solved. But with this case, she could call the parents and let them know about their son's end.

"When 18 years go by and it's not solved, you wonder if it ever will be," said 69-year-old Beryl Butler, Butler's mother. "She's been relentless."

When investigators called Beryl and John Butler, who now live in Englewood, with the news a week ago, it was "total relief," Beryl Butler said.

She'll always miss her son, she said, but now there's closure. She finally knows the answer to the two most important questions — who and why.

"The outcome couldn't have been better," she said. "We don't have to face the perpetrator. We don't have to go through a lengthy trial. I have pity for his family because I know what it is like to lose a child, but … he got what he gave."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Andy Boyle can be reached at aboyle@sptimes.com. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com.

DNA link brings answers, closure in 18-year-old St. Petersburg murder case 10/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 11:21pm]

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