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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]
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