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Thirty years later, a family hopes for a break in Hillsborough murder

TAMPA — The dead girl lay in the weeds beside a chain link gate. The workers didn't notice her at first, even as they rode past her body toward the sewage treatment plant.

When someone finally saw her near a sign for the Progress Village Sewage Treatment Plant, they phoned sheriff's deputies.

She was Betty Sue Foster, a sometime carnival worker from Gibsonton. She was 17. She had been shot in the chest.

It was Dec. 12, 1983 — 30 years ago today. The murder was fodder for local news briefs, but quickly faded from the headlines. In the years since, her story has scarcely been mentioned. The killer has never been caught.

Her grave lies on the edge of her tiny Oklahoma hometown. But with the murder still unsolved, her family says, a part of Betty is still in Florida, a place they have learned to fear.

They want to honor her memory. They want to make her more than just another murder victim, another name in a list of names.

"If it were to be solved, it would bring her home," said her sister, Frances Randall. "It would take her off a list. It would finally be done."

• • •

She was free-spirited and athletic. She loved Corvettes and spaghetti and Steve Perry of the band Journey. She was reserved, but tough and bold, with a soft spot for those less fortunate and a willingness to stand up for little kids when they were picked on.

Her home was Geary, an outpost west of Oklahoma City with wide, dust-speckled streets and no stoplights. Betty was the fourth youngest in a family of seven girls and two boys.

The kids helped their mother, an always-working waitress at a local diner. They drew straws to decide who would cook dinner. They traded chores. Those with jobs helped mom pay the bills.

Betty came to Florida for reasons not uncommon to the millions who make their way to the Sunshine State. Warm weather. Sun-soaked, sandy beaches. Abundant and varied job opportunities. And, for Betty, there was a boyfriend.

She met Guy Watts while visiting Florida with her sister, Helen Baker. The handsome 23-year-old worked the carnival circuit based in Gibsonton. Betty was smitten.

When she returned home, he stayed on her mind. And soon, no one could stop her from going to be with him.

For her family, it wasn't as though Betty had run away but that she had seen something — a promise, a brighter future — and sprinted toward it.

"I guess we had to accept the fact that Betty had followed her heart," Baker said.

• • •

All that is known about the murder is contained in a single black three-ring binder that sits open in the center of Detective Mitch Messer's small desk in a corner office at the end of a long hallway at the Hillsborough County sheriff's headquarters.

Its yellowed, tattered pages sit under Messer's steely gaze. One of two of the office's designated "cold case" investigators, Messer never lacks for work.

On the desk, next to Betty's file, is another open binder that tells the story of another open case — that of a store owner killed inside her clothing business on 50th Street in 1995. On a cabinet across the room are the case files of some of the more than 150 cold cases the agency has.

For the moment, the Betty Foster case is one that consumes his attention.

• • •

Whatever ill befell Betty when she died, detectives think it may have happened on Dec. 11, after the Progress Village Sewage Treatment Plant had closed. The spot where her body was found, a dense thicket with signs declaring "No Dumping," was accessible through a 2-foot gap in a chained, padlocked gate.

What's known is this: Two nights earlier, Betty had an argument with Guy Watts, her boyfriend. When it escalated, Watts told Betty he was going to send her back to Oklahoma. She became quiet. Then, she left. She told friends that she needed to cool down. She never returned.

"What's interesting is I have a gap in my timeline," Messer said. "We believe she was alive for at least 24 hours doing something."

Watts, an obvious potential suspect, was ruled out. He had a solid alibi for the time Betty was missing. And despite their argument, he was not known for violent tendencies.

Before long, the case stalled. Nothing developed for more than 20 years.

• • •

In 2007, Betty's youngest sister, Frances Randall, called the Sheriff's Office. A forensic specialist for an Oklahoma police department, she wanted to know more about her sister's case.

The murder devastated the family and defined Randall's own life, she said, moving her to help other families get the sense of justice she had never known.

She inquired about forensic evidence, which prompted a review of Betty's case.

Detectives discovered new DNA, presumably from Betty's killer.

The male DNA profile was entered into the FBI's national database. No hits.

Detectives tracked down Guy Watts and another man, who were among half a dozen persons of interest in the case. Both submitted DNA samples. Again, no matches.

But it's not over. The forensic angle is what gives Betty's case its best shot at being solved, Messer said, something he refers to as "DNA bingo."

But something else could help, too. With all those who passed through Gibsonton, a carnival industry hub, perhaps someone remembers something, he said. Maybe someone was afraid to speak 30 years ago but no longer.

"I've got a few people on my radar," Messer said.

• • •

For Betty's family, the prospect of justice always looms. They long to see her again. And ultimately, one way or another, they say she will come home.

"One day, we all will stand before our father in heaven and give account to this life," Baker said. "Whoever done this horrible act will answer to God."

>>fast facts

Solving the case

Anyone with information regarding the death of Betty Sue Foster can contact Detective Mitch Messer of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at (813) 247-8666.

Thirty years later, a family hopes for a break in Hillsborough murder 12/11/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 10:50pm]
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