Girl's murder remains mystery despite new efforts

Published May 14, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

Time has changed the grove where a Hernando couple found Jennifer Odom's body in 1993.

The orange trees look bigger; the underbrush thicker. The pine tree branches sag, as if weighted down by the burden of knowing who discarded the girl's body.

Hernando County sheriff's officials returned to the scene Wednesday morning for another attempt to mine the foliage for overlooked clues in the 12-year-old's murder.

It was a long shot that came up empty.

A team of inmates from Sumter Correctional Institution's boot camp cleared small trees and shrubs from an area the size of half a football field just west of where Jennifer was found. They decided to search that particular spot after Maj. Richard Nugent and the investigators decided it hadn't been thoroughly checked the first time.

Detective Carlos Douglas, who has worked the case from the beginning, joined a team of crime scene technicians to scour the site. The search dogs did not pick up a scent. The metal detectors never went off.

"Nothing. We found nothing," Nugent said.

Jennifer stepped off a school bus carrying a book bag and clarinet case in the rural east Pasco community of St. Joseph's on Feb. 19, 1993. She was never seen alive again.

Four-hundred neighbors combed the countryside. The remains of the 4-foot-10 seventh-grader were found six days later. She had major injuries to her head.

A six-member task force comprised of Hernando, Pasco and state investigators worked full time to solve the crime. A $20,000 reward was offered.

Initially, more than 600 leads flowed in. The number dwindled as days dragged into months.

A year after the killing, Maj. G.Z. Smith, who has since left the Sheriff's Office, was stumped. He said there was a strong possibility the crime would go unsolved.

"And what's even worse is that, if we solve it, it may take another crime to do it," Smith said at the time.

In October 1997, a 9-year-old girl disappeared from her house in Blanton, a small town only a few miles from where Jennifer lived. Sharra Ferger's body, nude except for a small patch of shirt, was found hours later in a pasture a few hundred yards from her house. She had been stabbed more than 30 times.

Pasco deputies arrested one of Sharra's neighbors but released him four months later after DNA tests didn't connect him to the crime.

Hernando and Pasco authorities have compared the two cases _ they met again a few weeks ago to go over any new developments.

"There isn't any evidence that we have found that would link these two cases," said Pasco sheriff's spokesman Jon Powers.

Nugent agreed but added that the proximity of where the two girls were killed makes him think that they could be related.

"We haven't proven one way or the other if we are dealing with a serial killer or a one-time crime," he said.

Serial killers tend to leave a trail of evidence that authorities can use to build a case. Sooner or later they make a mistake and get caught, Nugent said. But if a one-time murderer killed Jennifer, the Sheriff's Office might not ever make an arrest.

Jennifer's stepfather, Clark Converse, said he would feel no personal satisfaction if the killer was caught.

"We would have to open up all those terrible memories again," he said. "The family has fought hard to move on."

An arrest remains unlikely, but one piece of evidence in Jennifer's case might eventually help solve the crime.

A couple hunting for scrap metal north of Spring Hill in 1995 found Jennifer's book bag and clarinet case. The FBI lab found one fingerprint inside the bag that was not Jennifer's or any of her family members'. The print, however, doesn't match any on file with the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement or area sheriff's offices.

The only way the case will be solved is if someone comes forward with new information, Nugent said. That way they might be able to match the print to a suspect, a scenario Nugent described, like Wednesday's search, as a long shot.

"There's not much left for us to go on," he said.