Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

Lake searched in 20-year-old murder of 12-year-old Pasco girl

SAN ANTONIO

Authorities don't know what they have at the bottom of the lake. They tried on Tuesday to keep their investigation hushed and expectations in check. But word bubbled up about a possible break in this case that haunts the Tampa Bay region: the murder of Jennifer Odom.

FBI officials and local authorities converged on a picturesque street Tuesday, chasing a lead in the 20-year-old unsolved murder of the 12-year-old girl. It led them into the waters of Lake Jovita, where dive teams spent the day in boats and under tarps. It ended with no major announcements except that investigators are searching for a vehicle.

A Hernando County Sheriff's Office forensics unit van and a black truck were parked in the driveway at 12714 Pompanic St., a two-story home with a manicured lawn and a private tennis court. More than a dozen marked and unmarked patrol cars lined the street where a pack of reporters and satellite trucks camped out in the sun.

Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis cautioned that the lead was just one of hundreds received in the notorious case. Investigators, however, rented hotel rooms close by Tuesday night to return to the scene today.

"We have been working several different angles on this case since I assigned a detective full-time to this investigation," Nienhuis said in a news release. "We are, of course, hopeful that this is the break in this case that we have been waiting for."

That Friday 20 years ago, Jennifer should have bounded off her school bus near St. Joseph, a rural community west of Dade City, and walked to the family's mobile home on Jim Denney Road.

Because her bus arrived first, Jennifer usually beat her younger sister, Jessica, home.

But Jessica arrived home, and Jennifer never did.

Some students reported seeing an old, light-blue pickup near Jennifer's bus stop that day, but no one saw the abduction.

Hundreds of volunteers combed the orange groves and woods near her home the weekend after her disappearance; thousands of fliers with the smiling face of the champion barefoot waterskier and honor student plastered surrounding towns.

Six days after she vanished, a couple found the remains of the 4-foot, 10-inch seventh-grader. Her body was discovered on a horse-riding trail near Spring Lake in Hernando County, about 10 miles from where she disappeared.

Detectives said she died of head trauma, likely in the same stand of pine trees where she was found. She was killed soon after she was abducted.

Investigators have tried year after year to generate new leads on her killer, using everything from billboards and a $20,000 reward to an appearance in 1994 on NBC's Unsolved Mysteries.

Al Kiefer Jr., 66, was questioned in the case.

A member of a prominent Dade City family that ran a downtown pharmacy and other businesses, he owns the house where authorities were searching Tuesday.

He now lives in Anchorage, Alaska, but said talk of the investigation seemed to be on everyone's lips when he came down to visit in April.

Reached by phone, Kiefer recalled the interrogation but declined to discuss details without an attorney.

"I know that they came in and asked different things," he said, "but that's just between me and them."

Four months ago — around the 20th anniversary of the abduction — Nienhuis announced that Hernando Detective John Ellis would spend the next year combing through dozens of binders and hundreds of pieces of evidence.

Pasco sheriff's spokeswoman Melanie Snow said the dive teams were searching for a vehicle. By 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, they returned to shore for the day.

They'll be back this morning at the lake, just 4 miles from where Jennifer vanished.

Times staff writer Tony Marrero and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

   
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