Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pinellas cold case detectives use DNA to solve 40-year-old rape, murder of teenager

Gina Justi was a popular 14-year-old girl with puppies on her mind that Friday afternoon in 1971.

The happy-go-lucky teenager walked from her home in the Town 'N Country area of Hillsborough County to check out the pups that a man was giving away from his house a couple of miles away.

She never came home.

Her body was found the next day, Aug. 7, 1971, face-down in a patch of high grass in a Palm Harbor orange grove.

On Tuesday, nearly 40 years after Gina's murder, Pinellas County sheriff's investigators said they have identified the man who raped her, beat her in the head, stabbed her in the back and strangled her with a leather strap.

A DNA match led authorities to 69-year-old Jerry Fletcher, an industrial painter. In 1971, the Justi family lived at 6408 Santa Monica Drive, about 7 miles from Fletcher's home.

Today, Fletcher is serving two life sentences in an Illinois prison for an eerily similar crime. In April 1973, Fletcher kidnapped a 13-year-old girl in Sparland, Ill., while she was babysitting. He raped her and strangled her with a sash, according to Illinois court records. Her body was found two days later in a cemetery about 25 miles away. Fletcher was convicted in that case in 1974.

Gina Justi's older brother, Tony Justi, said Tuesday that he was "overjoyed" when Pinellas lead detective Mike Bailey told him about the DNA match about a month ago.

Gina was one of six children. Their father died in 1999, their mother in 2008.

In a 1998 interview, Gina's mother explained the shock that washed over her when she heard her daughter wasn't coming home.

"When the officers came to tell us, it was 1 a.m.," Virginia Justi said. "I didn't cry. I trembled from head to foot, but I just couldn't shed a tear. I asked them if they wanted me to fix a pot of coffee. I guess I felt I had to be strong for the other children."

Tony Justi, 58, who now lives outside Savannah, Ga., said he is sad their mother didn't get to hear the news of the DNA match. "But Gina's aunts were just overjoyed to hear it," he said. "My godmother started crying when she heard."

In the early 1970s, Fletcher was a contract industrial painter who lived in Tampa but traveled frequently around the country to work, detectives said. He painted things like office furniture and heavy machinery. At the time of Gina's murder, he was unknown to investigators.

At least 12 detectives have worked on the case over the years, Detective Bailey said. In May 1974, authorities thought they had it solved when they arrested a 20-year-old Dunedin man who was rumored to hang out near where Gina's body was found at Sever Groves, south of Tampa Road and east of County Road 39 in Palm Harbor. But a witness who said he had overheard the man talking about the murder fled to Canada and the case fell apart.

Over the years, detectives continued to resubmit evidence associated with the crime as DNA technology improved.

Finally, a break: A recent submission to the Pinellas County Forensic Crime Lab helped develop a DNA profile sufficient enough to run through the national Combined Offender DNA Index System, popularly known as CODIS.

The system returned a match with Fletcher. After getting the match, Bailey went to Illinois to interview Fletcher in prison. Fletcher acknowledged he lived in the area in the early 1970s, but did not confess to the crime.

"When we told him why we were there, he decided he did not want to speak to us any longer," Bailey said.

Bailey said he is working with the Pinellas State Attorney's Office to charge Fletcher in Gina's murder, one of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's oldest cold cases.

But Tony Justi said he's not too concerned about whether Fletcher is ever brought to trial. Knowing he'll spend the rest of his life in prison is good enough, he said.

Justi said he hopes other families still waiting for answers in cold cases find some comfort from the long-awaited justice in his sister's murder.

"I'm so grateful they stuck to it. It was a 40-year-old case with no leads," he said. "The fact that they continued to pursue it is incredible and I'm so grateful to have an answer after all these years."

Times staff writer Emily Nipps and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Pinellas cold case detectives use DNA to solve 40-year-old rape, murder of teenager 06/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 6:07pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Another Pinellas foreclosure auction fools bidders, raises questions

    Real Estate

    For the second time in six weeks, a company connected to lawyer Roy C. Skelton stood poised to profit from a Pinellas County foreclosure auction that confused even experienced real estate investors.

    A Palm Harbor company bid  $112,300 for  this Largo townhome at a foreclosure auction July 21 not realizing the auction involved a second mortgage, connected to lawyer and  real estate investor Roy Skelton -- and that the bank could still foreclose on the  first mortgage.
  2. Two wounded in St. Petersburg shooting


    ST. PETERSBURG — Two men were wounded in a shooting Tuesday afternoon, according to the St. Petersburg Police Department.

  3. Pinellas keeps movie dreams alive with indie roles, including Kevin Smith's latest film


    Tampa Bay's film industry isn't dead. It's just resting, staying limber with a few shoestring indies and ambitious life support.

    Indie icon Kevin Smith, pictured at last week's San Diego Comic-Con, recently filmed his latest horror flick Killroy Was Here around Sarasota, and also filmed scenes at a house in St. Petersburg. (Getty Images for IMDb)
  4. Hernando Commission to ponder Weeki Wachee River water woes

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — Water-based recreation in western Hernando County is a hot topic among county commissioners, but planned discussions about ongoing problems on the Weeki Wachee River and a new proposal for a potential swimming area in the Weekiwachee Preserve slowed to drip Tuesday.

    Kayaks crowd the Weeki Wachee River. A former Southwest  Florida Water Management District executive believes Hernando County should focus its spending on protecting the river, instead of developing a center and beach at the Weekiwachee Preserve.
Times files (2016)
  5. New Port Richey seeks better special events spread among more city sites

    Local Government

    NEW PORT RICHEY – After a $3 million upgrade at New Port Richey's Sims Park, city leaders are worried about the wear and tear on the park from the litany of special events held there.

    Sims Park, the site of popular splash pads and home to frequent festivals and special events in downtown New Port Richey, could see fewer new events because of concerns about wear and tear at the recently renovated park. in a workshop Monday, New Port Richey City Council talked of spreading future events around to other locales in the city. 
TIMES files (2016)