BROOKSVILLE — It took nearly a decade and a half to bring Megan Lee Ann Pratt's killer to justice, but the 3-year-old girl with the chubby cheeks and bright blue eyes was never found.
On Tuesday, nearly seven years after Megan's stepfather was convicted for her murder, Hernando Sheriff's Office investigators were back at the property west of Brooksville where he said he buried the girl's body.
This time, they came with University of South Florida anthropology students and the school's cutting-edge ground-penetrating radar. Investigators hope the extra help, technology and expertise will help them find what might have been missed years ago.
"We have this ability," said Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Phil Lakin. "Let's try to bring closure for the family.
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Megan was living with her mother and stepfather, Jesse and Vicki Ann Schober, when she vanished from the family's ramshackle mobile home north of Wiscon Road.
The couple, both in their early 20s at the time, told Jesse Schober's mother, Sarah Mowery, that the girl had been killed in a car crash. They moved out of Florida and eventually divorced. Ten years passed.
But something never felt right to Mowery. In 2002, the South Carolinian began a search. She poured over death certificates and drove south to check every cemetery in Hernando County. She found no answers.
When Mowery returned home, Jesse Schober's new fiancee told her that Megan died in 1991 and was buried near the mobile home where the Schobers had lived.
Sheriff's investigators traveled to South Carolina to interview Schober, who admitted to delivering the blows that took Megan's life.
Schober later guided investigators to the 20-acre field where he said he had buried Megan in a sleeping bag. Investigators searched for two weeks, using ground-penetrating radar, cadaver dogs and state prisoners.
No charges were brought against Schober and his ex-wife until August 2003, when officials said they got a crucial piece of evidence that allowed them to paint a clearer picture of the killing.
On Megan's last night, Jesse Schober took the girl for a bath. After she splashed around in the water, he slammed her skull against the bathtub, knocking her out, according to Sheriff's Office reports.
Later, either Schober or his wife placed the unconscious girl in her bedroom and left, investigators learned. The next day, Megan was dead.
By piecing together the statements, investigators think Schober placed Megan's decomposing body in a garbage bag and then into a sleeping bag. He dug a hole in the woods behind his home and set the body on fire.
The statute of limitations should have prevented the state from prosecuting Schober and Vicki Schober Grossberndt on a second-degree murder charge. As part of an agreement reached with the State Attorney's Office, however, Schober waived the statute of limitations in exchange for his plea in order to resolve the case. His ex-wife had agreed to testify against him in the event of a trial.
Schober was sentenced to 25 years and is scheduled to be released in fall 2015, records show. He would be 47 years old.
Investigators found no evidence connecting Grossberndt to Megan's beating.
The mother, however, acknowledged she bore responsibility and pleaded no contest to aggravated child abuse. She was sentenced to six years in prison, with credit for time served.
She was released in 2006, records show.
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The land around the trailer the Schobers called home looks very different today than it did when Jesse Schober buried his stepdaughter there.
The trailer remains, but many of the trees in the area have been leveled, said Lakin, who was a patrol deputy at the time of the investigation into Megan's death. The owner of the property, who lives in the trailer, gave the Sheriff's Office permission to search the property.
Erin Kimmerle, an assistant professor at USF's Tampa campus, came with a team of doctorate students on Tuesday to focus on a 5-acre area.
Sheriff's Office photos show the students rolling what looks like an all-terrain baby stroller back and forth over the land. The radar in the cart detects anomalies under the top layer of soil. When a screen at the top of the cart registered a suspicious spot, team members stuck a small red flag in the ground.
The students dug some holes on Tuesday but didn't find anything. Sheriff's investigators will return in the coming days to finish the search, Lakin said.
Kimmerle couldn't be reached Wednesday, but Lakin said the team effort allows students to assist in the investigation and glean hands-on experience at the same time.
The Sheriff's Office has contacted Mowery and Megan's brother, now in his 20s and living out of state, to let him know they were looking again.
"I think everybody involved in the case, including the students at USF, would all be very happy to be able to honor our victim," Lakin said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files. Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.