NEW PORT RICHEY — Lisa Schoneman retired from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office in 2014 regretting only the possibility that, in her absence, any of the dead might be forgotten.
She had spent 25 years with the agency, 14 as a major case detective and the last several with a specialization in cold cases. She pushed for six years, along with agency leadership, for cold case grants they never received — until they finally did, two months before her retirement. At a time when the agency had no dedicated detectives for cold cases and meted out old crimes to deputies juggling active investigations, she rescued files languishing in cabinets and trunks.
But one case — a case she’d been on since day one — went cold on her desk. So in the days before her retirement, Schoneman called the closest thing Beverly Bobrick had to a surviving relative, her late nephew’s wife, and she apologized. Of all the homicides Schoneman had worked from the beginning, the 2005 killing of 79-year-old Bobrick was the last one she hadn’t solved.
Then, late last month, the Sheriff’s Office announced it had arrested someone in Bobrick’s death: Brian Stoll, who’d been serving a 23-year prison sentence for a series of burglaries he committed in Bobrick’s area around the time of her death. And Schoneman’s unsolved homicide count ticked down to zero.
“That feels pretty good,” she said.
The Bobrick case stuck with Schoneman for several reasons. Yes, there were the details of the crime — the perpetrator, according to deputies, broke into her Port Richey home, beat her to death and killed her dog, Pepe. But it also came in what Schoneman remembered as a year with both a lot of homicides and a shorthanded major case staff, and the case took a great deal of work, with thousands of pieces of evidence, hundreds of hours of investigation and a forensics team at the crime scene for days on end.
And there was Bobrick herself. Once, she ran shooting galleries and balloon-dart games on the Tampa-to-New York carnival circuit and helped raise her nephew, her only living blood relative at the time of her death. In her later years, she had friends over to play bridge and ran the kitchen during Monday-morning bingo at St. James the Apostle Catholic Church. It wasn’t that the victims deserved to die in the other cases Schoneman worked, she said, but much of the time, the people they spent time with or the things they did complicated their lives and deaths.
“Mrs. Bobrick was in her house, with her little dog, in her bed, asleep — doing what we all do every night,” Schoneman said. “The little dog killed me as much as Mrs. Bobrick did.”
Stoll quickly emerged as a suspect, Schoneman remembered. He had confessed to several nearby burglaries, in which he targeted older residents, whose pills and cash he would steal. In one of those burglaries, the victim was home: Stoll left Merle Smith, a man in his 70s, bloodied and black-eyed.
The evidence in the Bobrick case didn’t single out Stoll, though. His friends, possible witnesses, wouldn’t cooperate. The key piece of physical evidence was a pubic hair found in Bobrick’s home (though there wasn’t evidence of sexual assault), and in 2009, the Sheriff’s Office got a warrant to take a sample of Stoll’s hair. But for years, the case stalled there.
Schoneman set the investigation in motion and came back to it year after year, even when she couldn’t find new evidence. As the authorities credit it, time gave them the ability to close it. Years after the killing, Det. Todd Koenig said, some of those uncooperative witnesses cooperated. They told investigators that they saw Stoll in bloody clothing and that he told them about killing a woman and her dog, Koenig said at a news conference last month. Koenig also alluded to “new technologies” that rendered the hair newly useful.
The Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss evidence any further until the case goes to trial, so it’s unclear exactly what technology came in handy. In the courtroom, hair-based forensics have a checkered past and, maybe, a promising future. Matching hairs microscopically has been shown to have serious flaws, and in 2015, the FBI admitted that its examiners gave invalid testimony in hundreds of trials involving hair analysis.
“If what they’re talking about is hair comparison microscopy, that’s really problematic,” said Kate Judson, executive director of the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences. But she added that “there are a lot of ways that a hair could be important evidence. If it had a root on it, it could be a way to identify someone.”
Hair historically has been useless for getting DNA without that root. But in the past few years, a University of California, Santa Cruz paleogeneticist figured out how to get DNA from a hair without the root and has started to work with law enforcement agencies. The technique helped identify victims in New Hampshire’s well-known Bear Brook murders, in which bodies found in barrels in a state park went unidentified for decades, though Judson cautioned that it’s too early to know whether brand-new technology will always be reliable.
When word came of Stoll’s arrest, Schoneman said, she wasn’t surprised: She and Koenig had been in touch, as he asked questions and kept her in the loop. But it did put to rest the one thing she’d worried about. Bobrick hadn’t been forgotten.
“It may not be relatives, but there are people out there who remember her,” Schoneman said. “We remember her.”