A hair ties neighbor to nurse's 1995 killing

Published Dec. 29, 2000|Updated Sept. 28, 2005

As they scoured her mobile home in March 1995 for clues to who strangled Kathleen Leonard, Sarasota County sheriff's investigators dusted a few fingerprints and plucked a single strand of dark brown hair off a towel that had bound her hands behind her back.

Although the prints matched those of her neighbor, Joseph Magaletti Jr., and the FBI said the hair appeared to be his, there wasn't enough evidence for detectives to arrest Magaletti.

That changed Thursday, when deputies charged the short-order cook with first-degree murder in the 44-year-old nurse's death, more than five years after the single hair was wrapped in paper and filed in the Sheriff's Office property room, along with a hair sample Magaletti provided.

Despite the strong police suspicions about Magaletti, nothing had happened in the case until Leonard's former boyfriend, Rich Caldwell, asked Sheriff Geoff Monge earlier this year to make sure the case didn't go unsolved. Soon after, detectives mailed the hair strand and the sample from Magaletti to a North Carolina laboratory.

Investigators hoped the results of a mitochondrial DNA analysis, a fairly new test, would provide them with solid evidence. The test has been used to identify the remains of the outlaw Jesse James, Czar Nicholas II and a Vietnam War soldier who was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

"When the murder occurred, we were aware of the evidence we had," Sgt. Keith Muncy said. "We wanted to allow the technology to become accurate enough to prosecute."

Magaletti, 50, was held without bail at the Sarasota County jail.

According to the test performed on the hair sample, the DNA matches that of less than 1 percent of the people in the world, and Magaletti is among them.