Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

Pasco murder of Hernando Christmas shopper remains unsolved

Today is the 15th anniversary of her mother's murder and Karen Newell plans to bake her mother's favorite Christmas cookies, just like they used to do together every year. She is going to try to not look at a clock. But it's hard.

Every year since her mother was ripped from her has been a replay of dates; the last time Newell saw her, the last time she spoke with her. Detectives told her the time line of the murder. It is torture, every Dec. 9, to not look at the clock and say: At this time, she was having breakfast. At this time, she was Christmas shopping. At this time, she was kidnapped and terrorized. At this time, she was dead and dragged to the side of the road and left like a piece of trash. At this time, we heard she was missing. At this time, we still had hope. At this time, her body was identified. At this time, life changed forever.

• • •

The murder of Janis McDonnell has not been solved. She is what detectives call a true victim. No human being deserves a horrific ending, but many people who are murdered participate in high risk behavior: drugs, violence, prostitution. There are few random victims like McDonnell, who was 59 and lived in Hernando Beach with her husband, Jack McDonnell. He still lives there and did not want to talk for this story.

The McDonnells were retired snowbirds from New Jersey. She had three adult daughters from a previous marriage and eight grandchildren, whom she adored. She was barely 5 feet tall, weighed about 110 pounds, and loved gardening and baking and caring for people. She was born in England and had a dry wit and a great laugh. She was active and healthy. Her own mother died this year at 99 years old. McDonnell likely had much life left to live.

"It was truly a sin because she really was a lovely woman," said Sgt. Jim Sessa of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. "She was everyone's grandmother. There was no reason for such a heinous crime."

Sessa was the first detective on the case. He is now in charge of the major crimes unit and another detective, Lisa Schoneman, is on it. Both are determined to close the case.

"It's a vendetta for me," said Sessa, 58, who said this is the only homicide he never cleared. He doesn't want to retire until whoever did this is arrested. For years, McDonnell's daughters took turns calling Sessa once a week. He tried to give them hope.

"You want to call and tell them it's solved," he said.

• • •

On the morning of Dec. 9, 1997, McDonnell drove from her Hernando home to Pasco. Her relatives think she went without her husband so she could buy him a gift. She carried cash and had no credit cards.

Somewhere in the area around Gulf View Square mall, McDonnell was carjacked. Detectives believe McDonnell was forced to drive her attackers around for some time, possibly hours, before she was ordered to stop on Aripeka Road, a few hundred yards south of the Pasco-Hernando county line. The land around the road was sparse; brittle grass and shrubs in deep sugar sand. Here, she was murdered and dumped. Detectives said she suffered trauma to her head. A Hernando County worker who stopped to relieve himself by the side of the road found her body that afternoon. Her purse was gone, so she was not identified until the next day, when authorities matched the case with a missing person's report filed by her husband.

Her car was later found at a Walmart parking lot in Spring Hill. The interior was caked in blood. The murder weapon was never found.

The Sheriff's Office has at least two suspects.

Shane Happel and Paul Belotte, who were teenagers then and are 32 now, were convicted of carjacking elderly victims in Pasco around the time of McDonnell's murder. Belotte was in prison from 1999 until 2010. He now lives in Moon Lake and, when approached by the Times, told a reporter to leave.

Happel was incarcerated from 1998 to 2005. He wasn't out long before he was sent back to prison in 2008 for burglary and beating a man with a golf club. He is slated for release in 2014. He allegedly bragged to a fellow inmate that he "capped an old woman and ditched the gun in a lake," authorities said.

Their DNA has not been found on any of the evidence. But as new methods of testing are developed, the evidence is resubmitted. The Sheriff's Office still has the car, her clothes and samples from her body. More than 150 people have been interviewed about the case.

"There are people who know what happened and they need to come forward," Schoneman said.

The person who did this, she said, will always be a threat.

"This guy is not going to stop," she said. "It's going to keep happening."

• • •

Mandy Keen is 54 and the eldest of McDonnell's daughters. It's disappointing, she said, that no one has been arrested.

"I think it would at least help us feel better that the system works," she said, "to say to our children, 'This is what happens to people who do horrific things. They do get caught.' "

She and Newell, 51, live close to each other in New Jersey. The pain never lessens, but they learn to live with it. They and their children were in counseling for years after the murder. When Newell's daughter was 6, she asked her teacher to run her over so she could be in heaven with her grandmother. Keen's youngest daughter was 4 when McDonnell was killed. Every few years, as her brain developed, she reprocessed the trauma: "Why did this happen? Why isn't the person who did it in jail? Is this going to happen to you?"

Keen and Newell still get panic attacks in stores and parking lots. One time, Newell ran a red light with her children in the car because someone on the sidewalk looked suspicious and she was certain he was going to kidnap them. Keen and Newell have gone to psychics, hoping for clues. They search for new forensic testing methods to pass on to detectives. Newell had a dream her mother spread out the crime scene photos on a table.

"You can't be here," Newell said.

"Why not," McDonnell said.

"You're dead," Newell said.

"Yes," McDonnell said, "but look at the photos."

So Newell thought that if she viewed the crime scene photos, she could solve the murder. The detectives let her see them.

She found nothing. She wishes she never saw those images.

"They haunt me," she said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.

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