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Pinellas deputies search Largo site for remains of woman missing in 1982 cold case

Forensics experts and detectives are excavating a site for the remains of Retha Hiers, who went missing in 1982.
Dana Hiers, 54, of Largo, back, holds her cellphone while Pinellas County deputies and forensics dig through an empty lot Wednesday in Largo. Hiers mother, Retha Hiers, disappeared in 1982.
Dana Hiers, 54, of Largo, back, holds her cellphone while Pinellas County deputies and forensics dig through an empty lot Wednesday in Largo. Hiers mother, Retha Hiers, disappeared in 1982. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jun. 29|Updated Jun. 29

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies are excavating a site in Largo in search of the remains of a woman who went missing in the 1980s, sheriff’s officials said on Wednesday.

Retha Hiers is seen in this undated photo. Hiers disappeared in 1982.
Retha Hiers is seen in this undated photo. Hiers disappeared in 1982. [ 429297_HO_LARGOCOLDCASE | Photo courtesy of Dana Hiers  ]

Retha Hiers went missing in 1982 at age 46. Authorities believe she may have been killed by the same man who was a suspect in the disappearance of two other women in Pinellas County — Margaret Dash, who went missing in 1974, and Donyelle Johnson, who disappeared in 1989.

Dana Hiers, 54, right, and Janie Smith, 62, both of Largo, talk about Hiers mother, Retha Hiers, and Smith’s niece, Donyelle Johnson, who both disappeared in the 1980s.
Dana Hiers, 54, right, and Janie Smith, 62, both of Largo, talk about Hiers mother, Retha Hiers, and Smith’s niece, Donyelle Johnson, who both disappeared in the 1980s. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The suspect in all three cases is a man named Cleveland Hill, who died in 2018 in his mid-50s. Hill was an asphalt contractor who had previously worked as a minister.

According to an archived Tampa Tribune story from 1993, Hill also had faced charges of assault with intent to commit a murder. Authorities said four days after his wife filed for divorce in 1968, he shot her and her mother-in-law. Both of the women survived. He was found guilty of a lesser assault charge and sentenced to five years of probation, which he violated, and he was sent to prison about a year after the conviction. He was paroled in 1971.

Hill also served 19 years in prison on federal drug charges and was released in 2008.

All three missing women were in relationships with Hill when they vanished, according to Dana Hiers, the daughter of Retha Hiers. However, Hill had denied any romantic involvement with the women, according to the Tribune article from 1993.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Hill remained a suspect throughout the investigation, but authorities were never able to gather enough evidence for Hill to face charges. Even on his deathbed, Hill refused to answer questions from investigators, Gualtieri said.

Pinellas County forensics officials search an empty field Wednesday in Largo. Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies were excavating a site in search of the remains of a woman who went missing in 1982.
Pinellas County forensics officials search an empty field Wednesday in Largo. Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies were excavating a site in search of the remains of a woman who went missing in 1982. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The excavation is taking place at 1201 Gooden Crossing in Largo, an empty lot near the St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, across from the Pinellas Trail. Detectives are expected to be on-site Wednesday and Thursday.

Dana Hiers, now 54, described her mother as a “pistol” who loved fast cars and cooking. Retha Hiers disappeared on Dec. 28, 1982, after leaving home to buy some washing powder and bleach.

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The last time she saw her mother that day, Dana Hiers was in the back of a pickup truck waving goodbye. She was going with her father, some siblings and a friend to buy motorcycles, which were Christmas gifts for the family, while her mom stayed home.

Dana Hiers recalled her father asking if her mother would be at home when they got back. Retha Hiers — who was having an affair with Hill at the time — said she would be.

“I can remember her standing at our back door, waving at us, telling us she loves us and goodbye,” Dana Hiers told the Tampa Bay Times at the excavation site Wednesday. “It’s the last I remember, at the age of 14.”

Janie Smith, the aunt of Donyelle Johnson, also came to the excavation site Wednesday. She said Johnson was in her early 20s and in college when she went missing. She disappeared on her way to school. Her car was found near Belcher Road and East Bay Drive after an anonymous caller reported it around the time she went missing.

Smith remembered Johnson as a beautiful and smart young woman.

“When I had my kids, she was there for me,” Smith said. “I miss her so much.”

Both Smith and Dana Hiers were grateful that the Sheriff’s Office was still investigating the disappearances. Hiers said she was pleased when she heard the Sheriff’s Office was searching for her mother’s remains again, adding that authorities had previously unsuccessfully searched a different spot at the site in 1993.

If her mother is found, it will bring her peace, she said.

“I can finally put her to rest,” Dana Hiers said. “I can put her in a proper place. She needs to be in a proper place. In the ground, anywhere, that’s not a proper place.”

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