She was murdered 38 years ago. Her son’s football coach is now charged based on DNA.

The Florida woman was found in her apartment strangled with a clothes hanger. She had been raped. DNA through a genetic genealogy test now has led to an arrest.
Joseph Clinton Mills, 58, of Lakeland, was arrested by Lakeland Police Department detectives on Dec. 12 and charged with the 1981 murder and sexual battery of 31-year-old Linda Patterson Slaten.
Joseph Clinton Mills, 58, of Lakeland, was arrested by Lakeland Police Department detectives on Dec. 12 and charged with the 1981 murder and sexual battery of 31-year-old Linda Patterson Slaten. [ Lakeland Ledger ]
Published Dec. 19, 2019

More than 38 years and three months after a Lakeland woman was found dead inside her apartment, a suspect has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Joseph Clinton Mills, 58, of 12013 Bailey Road, Lakeland, was arrested by Lakeland Police Department detectives on Dec. 12 and charged with the murder and sexual battery of 31-year-old Linda Patterson Slaten. Mills would have been 20 years old at the time of her death.

New DNA technology offered by Parabon Nanolabs matched Mills’ DNA through a genetic genealogy report in June, according to a police report.

LPD detectives were called in November 2018 by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Orlando and asked if they wanted to send DNA from the Slaten cold case murder for further testing.

In December 2018, the DNA was sent to Parabon for testing. The resulting report indicated that the person who most likely killed Slaten was Joseph Mills, according to an arrest affidavit filed last week with the Polk County Clerk of Courts.

The Lakeland Police Department is holding a 1 p.m. news conference Thursday to share details of the death and the resulting arrest.

Timeline of events

A timeline highlighted in court records shows that on Sept. 4, 1981, at approximately 8:35 a.m., Lakeland police officers were called to 303 Brunnell Parkway, Apt. No. 31. The caller was John Allen, a maintenance worker for the Lakeland Housing Authority, who was alerted by Slaten’s sister, Judy Butler.

Butler told police she had walked to her sister’s apartment to see if she wanted to meet for coffee, and when Slaten didn’t answer the door, she said she started to walk back to her apartment.

As she did so, she noticed that the screen from her sister’s bedroom window was missing. When she looked through the opening, Butler saw her sister lying on the bed with what appeared to be a wire hanger around her neck.

When officers arrived, they found Slaten’s body — strangled to death with the hanger. Her dress was pulled down from the top, and up from the bottom, exposing her female body parts. Her underwear and shoes were on the rug below her feet, and detectives say she was bleeding from her vagina.

Although there didn’t appear to be any signs of struggle in the bedroom or on the bed, the south-most window was not locked and the screen was removed.

According to reports, her children, Jeffery Slaten, 15 at the time, and Timothy Slaten, then 12 years old, were sleeping.

During an interview with detectives, Jeffery said the family had moved into the apartment about two weeks prior to his mother’s death.

Slaten’s body was taken to Lakeland General Hospital, where the autopsy and sexual assault kit were completed by Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Ramsey. During the pathological examination, Ramsey collected vaginal swabs and sperm from her body cavity, according to authorities.

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In 1981, FDLE authorities could not find a DNA match in any established law enforcement databases to the swabs collected during the autopsy.

Related: Genealogy database leads to arrest in 1998 rapes, Pinellas sheriff says

Children’s recollection

Slaten’s children shared similar timelines with police. Jeffery said that the day of his mother’s death, he had arrived home from football practice after school and was hungry, but there wasn’t much food in the house.

Around 5:30 p.m., he left the apartment and rode his bike to his grandparents’ house. They brought him back home around 9:30 p.m. and found that nobody was there.

Around 10 p.m., Slaten came home to tell her son that she was at the next-door apartment with his brother, Timothy, playing cards.

At about 11 p.m., Timothy and his mother returned home. And at midnight, she was washing dishes while her son went to bed.

Jeffery told police that the last time he saw his mother was when she went to her bedroom.

He turned off the television shortly after midnight and fell asleep. He told police he didn’t hear anything during the night.

Timothy told detectives on the day his mother was killed he was picked up by his football coach, known to him as “Joe,” and taken to practice at Winston Elementary.

Around 8-8:30 p.m., the coach brought Timothy back to the apartment. He ate dinner and went next door with his mother to play cards with the neighbors.

Around 11-11:30 p.m., Timothy said he and his mom went home, and he saw his brother Jeffery in the living room watching TV. He went into his bedroom in the northwest corner of the apartment and went to sleep, and said he didn’t hear anything during the night.

Three days later, police identified the coach as Joseph Clinton Mills.

Mills, employed by the Publix Dairy Warehouse, was a coach for the Lakeland Volunteers football program and said he only met Slaten once. He told police that on Sept. 1, 1981, he took Timothy home from football practice because Timothy didn’t have a ride home that night. He said he didn’t get out of his car and didn’t speak to Slaten that night.

On Sept. 3, one day before Slaten’s murder, at around 5:50 p.m., he said he picked up Timothy for football practice and dropped him back off at the apartment around 8:30 p.m. While he was dropping off Timothy, he claimed that Slaten walked out to his car and thanked him for bringing Timothy home. Mills told police he left and hadn’t returned to the apartment since that night.

Related: Florida truck driver arrested in 1980 Colorado killing based on DNA test

DNA technology finds connection

On Nov. 20, 2018, LPD Detective Tammy Hathcock was contacted by Lori Napolitano from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Orlando. Napolitano said she was calling law enforcement agencies regarding a new DNA technology being used. She wanted to know if the Lakeland Police Department was interested in submitting DNA collected from the Slaten murder case to Parabon Nanolabs for further testing. Parabon is a testing company that uses genetic genealogy to help with locating possible matches to DNA recovered from crime scenes.

On Dec. 4, 2018, the LPD sent the DNA from the Slaten homicide to Parabon for further testing.

On June 5 this year, Parabon released its report, hypothesizing that the person who killed Slaten was most likely Joseph Mills.

“Joseph should be strongly considered due to the fact genetic connections were found to both sides of his family tree, and he was living in close proximity to the scene of the crime in 1981,” read the report.

Mills currently resides at 12013 Bailey Road, Lakeland, and on July 29 the LPD started monitoring trash collected from 12013, 12011 and 12007 Bailey Road for the purpose of obtaining DNA from Mills. Once the trash was collected, the Lakeland Police Crime Lab sent the items to be processed by FDLE, including two cotton swabs, two adhesive patches to colostomy bags and a plastic spoon.

Detectives found that a 2013 Facebook photo shows Mills had a colostomy bag.

On Aug. 9, FDLE reported that the DNA profile obtained from the original vaginal swabs was consistent with the DNA profile collected from the adhesive on the colostomy bags.

The fingerprints taken from Slaten’s window also were a match to Mills’ prints, documented for an unrelated arrest in January 1984, according to reports.