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Hernando sheriff steps up Jennifer Odom murder investigation

BROOKSVILLE — Renee Converse picked up the phone Tuesday morning and heard the voice of the man hunting her daughter's killer.

The call wasn't unusual. Converse knows Hernando sheriff's Detective James Boylan so well now that she calls him Jim. But this time, Boylan had some encouraging news: Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis had assigned an additional detective to work full time on the unsolved murder of her daughter, 12-year-old Jennifer Odom.

Later that morning — one week shy of the 20-year anniversary of Jennifer's disappearance — Nienhuis announced that Detective John Ellis will spend the next year combing through dozens of binders and hundreds of pieces of evidence to try to break the 20-year-old case.

"I'm glad," Converse said a few hours later. "Hopefully, someone will come forward and say, it's been too long, let me bring this puzzle together."

• • •

Feb. 19, 1993, should have been like any other day for Jennifer and her family.

The bubbly honor roll student should have bounded off her school bus near St. Joseph in eastern Pasco County and walked to the family's mobile home on Jim Denney Road. Because her bus arrived first, Jennifer usually beat her younger sister Jessica there.

That day, Jessica found the door locked and the home empty. Jennifer 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 a Hernando County orange grove about 10 miles from where she disappeared.

Since then, investigators have tried various methods of generating new leads, from billboards and a $20,000 reward to an appearance in 1994 on NBC's Unsolved Mysteries.

In 2007, members of Hernando County Crime Stoppers handed out special playing cards to inmates at the Hernando County Detention Center. Each card featured a brief description of an unsolved case from around the state and a hotline number.

Jennifer's card was the queen of diamonds and featured two color photos. One showed the Hooters sweatshirt she was wearing that has never been found. The other photo showed her bookbag, discovered in 1995 along with her clarinet case on a dirt road about 12 miles west of where her body was discovered.

These efforts have led to thousands of tips and some promising leads, but no arrests.

Nienhuis said Tuesday that his agency is no closer to solving the murder. He acknowledged Jennifer's killer may never be found.

But new technology developed over the past two decades might help, the sheriff said. So, too, could the passage of time.

"We know that there are probably people out there who know something and may be willing to talk because their relationships or life circumstances have changed," Nienhuis said.

• • •

When Boylan sits down at his desk, Jennifer smiles at him from a photo tacked to the corner of his bulletin board.

Boylan, 45, was working undercover in vice and narcotics when the girl disappeared, and he helped search the woods for evidence after she was found. He placed her photo on the board about three years ago, when he was assigned to work cold cases.

"The investigation's very close to me, like it is to everybody in this agency," he said.

Detectives have worked several dozen leads in the past decade and are still actively investigating some of them. Ellis will be a fresh set of eyes, Boylan said.

Ellis, 44, joined the Sheriff's Office 11 years ago, working patrol and investigating property crimes before joining the major case section. He called his new assignment a privilege.

"There's a lot of interest in this case, and I'm honored they would ask me," he said.

• • •

Renee and her husband, Clark Converse, still live in the same home on Jim Denney Road, named after Renee's father. She's a technology help desk manager for Pasco County government. Clark runs the family's tree-service business.

They eventually removed the bed from Jennifer's bedroom to make space for an exercise machine and a treadmill, but her bookshelves and bulletin board full of photos are still there. So is her beloved blue beanbag chair.

Jennifer would have turned 32 last August. Renee says she would have been proud of Jessica, now 29 and about to finish the registered nurse program at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

Jessica's 4-year-old daughter, Emma, sometimes asks about the brown-haired, brown-eyed girl she sees in photos. That's your Aunt Jenny, her family replies.

Jennifer's family doesn't do anything special this time of year. The pain, Renee said, doesn't become sharper when the calendar flips to February.

She regularly brings fresh flowers to Jennifer's grave in nearby Sacred Heart Cemetery and thinks about what could have been.

"She would have made a big, positive difference if whoever had done this to her would have allowed her to continue on," she said. "I thank God every day that he let me be her mother."

She has faith in the theory that someone out there may be ready to divulge a long-kept secret.

"They may have feelings or people in their lives now that make them say, 'I really need to do the right thing,' " she said. "If you know something, please, do the right thing."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow him on Twitter @TMarreroTimes.

>>fast facts

Any detail can help solve the case

Anyone with information about Jennifer's death can call Detective John Ellis at (352) 797-3722 or email

jellis@hernandosheriff.org.

Hernando sheriff steps up Jennifer Odom murder investigation 02/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 11:13pm]
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