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.
Key dates in Jennifer Odom case
Feb. 19, 1993: Jennifer Renee Odom gets off the school bus near her home in rural east Pasco County.
Feb. 25: The 12-year-old girl's body is found along a horse riding trail near Spring Lake in Hernando County.
March 1: Detectives announce she was killed within a day of her abduction and probably died in the same area where her body was found.
March 10: Authorities say that "more than five" people have been interviewed as suspects in the murder, but that no arrests are imminent. A pickup seen near her bus stop still is considered the strongest lead.
May 28: Authorities unveil a new tool in the search for tips: a life-sized mannequin, with blond hair, dressed in the same kind of red sweater, white turtleneck, white jeans and black boots that Jennifer Odom was wearing when she was last seen. The mannequin also has a book bag looped over its right shoulder and a Hooters jacket slung over its left.
Aug. 25: This would have been Jennifer's 13th birthday. Her stepfather, Clark Converse, announces that a Clearwater radio station, WTMX (MIX-96), which began a reward fund for information leading to the conviction of the girl's killer, will cap the reward at $20,000.
December 1993: Out-of-state murder cases in which young girls are the victims — 12-year-old Polly Klaas in California, and Angie Housman, 9, and Cassidy Senter, 10, outside St. Louis — renew interest in the Odom case and send local investigators scrambling to learn information that might connect to Jennifer's abduction and murder.
January 1994: The arrest of Lewis S. Lent Jr., a 43-year-old drifter, in Massachusetts in connection with the murder of two children sparks additional interest for investigators in the Odom case. Lent once lived in Lake County, two counties east of Hernando.
February 1994: Investigators try a new approach to generate clues: a billboard, showing a young girl dressed in a red sweater holding her teal knapsack and Hooters jacket; a small, black clarinet case sits at her feet. "My murderer has these clothes, clarinet and bookbag," the message reads. Ten billboards, seven in Pasco and three in Hernando, go up by the end of the first week. Leads in the case are now down to a trickle.
March 1994: The arrest of 50-year-old Lakeland man Frank T. Potts on charges that he raped an 11-year-old girl in 1993 draws the attention of authorities investigating the Odom case. Potts also is the subject of a mushrooming investigation by authorities in six states into a string of 15 killings over 15 years. Authorities confirmed that Potts owned a blue pickup and made efforts to alter its appearance sometime between the Odom killing and his arrest 10 months later on the unrelated charge. Search teams comb his 40-acre property on the side of a mountain in north Alabama for what they suspect are the grave sites of several murder victims, ranging in age from 12 to the early 20s. Potts was never linked to or charged in the Odom case.
June 1994: Producers from the NBC television show Unsolved Mysteries travel to Brooksville to tape footage for a 15-minute segment about the Odom case. They bring a psychic who had worked on high-profile murder cases in the past. The show airs Dec. 2, and produces more than 200 telephone tips from viewers.
Jan. 5, 1995: Jennifer's book bag and clarinet case are found in Hernando County, about 12 miles from where her body was found two years earlier.
July 1998: Hernando County deputies fly to Maine to question Walter Ducharme about the unsolved 1993 murder but leave without arresting him or naming him as a suspect. In December, a grand jury declines to indict Ducharme, who had been accused by his former wife of involvement in the abduction and killing. The woman later withdrew the accusation.
2000: The Odom case is among the top priorities when the Hernando Sheriff's Office appoints its first full-time cold-case detective.
February 2006: Hernando Sheriff's Office announces it has enlisted the help of the FBI to reprocess much of the physical evidence in the hopes that DNA technology advances will yield new clues. By this point, the case has generated about 6,000 tips.
July 2007: The cold case is among several featured on a special deck of playing cards distributed to jail inmates in Hernando County and throughout Florida. Jennifer Odom is pictured on the queen of hearts.
February 2013: Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis appoints a detective to work full time on the Odom case.
Caryn Baird, Times news researcher and Tony Marrero, Times staff writer