HUDSON — Before they divorced in 1996, Michael McIlrath dropped Lynn Allen only a few hints about his past.
He was full of grand stories and little lies, she remembered. He wouldn't say how old he was, only that he had been born a few years after her in Georgia, where he had an ex-wife and a few kids. Once he told her he had been in a special forces unit, but the military had no record of him. Another time, he said he had been an assassin.
He never mentioned that he had lived in Yuma, Ariz., for a while. Or that when he was in Arizona, he worked on a cotton gin with a 29-year-old man named Efren Contreras-Portillo, whose body was found in 1988, stuffed into a 55-gallon drum and dumped in the desert.
But last month, McIlrath, now 53 and serving life in a Florida prison for molesting a 10-year-old Hudson girl, was charged with murdering Contreras-Portillo after robbing him of $2,000.
The charges came 14 years after Allen parted ways with McIlrath — and nearly 20 years after Maj. Leon Wilmot of the Yuma County Sheriff's Office started investigating what had become a cold case.
"Any human being has the potential to kill someone," said Allen, a semiretired nurse who lives in Spring Hill, "but I could see the potential especially in him."
When Allen hired McIlrath, then a truck driver, to help her move from Long Island to Florida in 1993, he was helpful and sweet. They became friends; they decided to get married.
The first sign of trouble came when she had to pay for their wedding, their honeymoon, their bills, his nursing classes — even their wedding bands and her own engagement ring. Then she started suspecting him of neglecting or killing her pets. They fought, and he punched in a wall at her parents' house.
Eventually he cheated on her with another nurse, she said. She kicked him out in 1995.
The next time she heard anything about him — Wednesday — she learned he had spent the past decade in a Florida prison for forcing a 10-year-old Hudson girl to perform oral sex on him in late 1996.
McIlrath was working as a sponge diver in Tarpon Springs before he was convicted in 2000 of capital sex battery. He told deputies the 1996 incident was not his fault because the girl made a sexual advance on him and had "desire in her eyes."
Cold-case detectives from Yuma, Ariz., caught up with McIlrath in prison five years ago. They left their first interview believing McIlrath was the murderer they were looking for — but they didn't charge him until last month, after McIlrath contacted detectives last year and confessed to the crime, Wilmot said.
McIlrath's name kept surfacing as detectives investigated the murder of Contreras-Portillo. The two men worked on a cotton gin that was in operation in the area at the time. McIlrath was the primary person of interest in the crime, but he disappeared shortly after the murder, authorities said.
Wilmot said McIlrath told detectives he killed Contreras-Portillo over $2,000 — money the victim had been saving to fix his car.
The Yuma authorities have asked the Mexican consulate to help them contact Contreras-Portillo's family, to share the news of an arrest in the case. Meanwhile, they are working to extradite McIlrath from Liberty Correctional Institution, 50 miles west of Tallahassee, to Arizona for prosecution on a charge of homicide.
"It is nice to see the case come to closure," said Wilmot, "especially for the family."
For Allen, there is a different kind of closure. She says she understands their brief marriage better, but despite all she knows now about his history, she's still not sure what to believe.
"I don't know," she said. "He probably did have the potential to do that. I think I could see that. But who knows, you know?"
Times staff writer Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Vivian Yee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.