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Man, 60, accused in 1998 kidnapping, sexual battery, Tampa police say

The assault took place in 1998 when a then-22-year-old woman was held at knifepoint and assaulted inside a pick-up truck. Two decades later, Tampa police say they’ve made an arrest.
James Byrd, now 60, was arrested at his Marion County home on Wednesday on charges of sexual battery and armed kidnapping, according to Tampa police. He was linked to the 1998 attack on a 22-year-old woman in Tampa, investigators say.
James Byrd, now 60, was arrested at his Marion County home on Wednesday on charges of sexual battery and armed kidnapping, according to Tampa police. He was linked to the 1998 attack on a 22-year-old woman in Tampa, investigators say. [ Marion County Sheriff's Office ]
Published Dec. 11, 2020

A 60-year-old Marion County man is accused of kidnapping and sexually battering a woman at knifepoint more than two decades ago in Tampa, police say.

James Byrd was arrested Wednesday in Belleview on charges of sexual battery and armed kidnapping, according to Tampa police. He was linked to the 1998 attack on a 22-year-old woman through genetic genealogy, investigators say.

The incident took place on March 8, 1998. Byrd offered to give a woman walking near Columbus Drive and Interstate 4 a ride in his small blue pick-up truck, according to the arrest report. She said yes. Then he drove her to the area of E Washington Street and S 50th Street, where U.S. 41 now meets the Selmon Expressway.

Byrd, then 38, pulled out a 6-inch knife and told the woman “do what I tell you and you won’t get hurt,” the arrest report said.

He then sexually battered the woman, police said, then drove off and left her there. She walked to a gas station and called 911. She gave a description of the man and the vehicle, police said, and a sexual assault exam was performed to document her injuries and obtain DNA evidence from her attacker. But no arrest was made.

In 2015 the DNA collected in that case was submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for testing. It matched the DNA collected in two sexual assaults investigated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in 1999. But there was no evidence that could identify a suspect.

In March and July, state forensic scientists tried but failed to match the DNA in the 1998 case to familial DNA. But on Sept. 25, investigators got a lab report that the 1998 DNA sample was “possibly” linked to Byrd.

Detectives then started looking closely at Byrd. They learned that he used to live near the area where all three assaults took place, that he matched the description given by the victims and that he was a suspect in a 1998 rape case in Hollywood that also involved a knife, the arrest report said. That case was not prosecuted because the victim did not cooperate.

The victim in the 1998 Tampa case, now in her 40s and living out of state, looked at three photos of possible suspects in October, police said. One of those was a photo of Byrd from the time of the assault. But the woman “did not select a photo due to fear of picking the wrong person.”

Investigators located Byrd in Belleview and started surveilling him. They followed him and a woman to a doctor’s office in The Villages on Nov. 11, the report said. They saw him throw a lit cigarette to the ground and step on it — which investigators then grabbed.

It was submitted for testing, and on Nov. 23 the state lab said the DNA profile from the cigarette butt matched the genetic evidence obtained in the 1998 assault.

Investigators obtained a warrant to take Byrd’s DNA sample and carried it out on Dec. 1. Byrd said he was married at the time (his wife had since died.) “He stated he had no sex outside his marriage with the exception of his now fiancé,” the report said. When asked to look at a photo of the victim, Byrd said he had never seen her before. Investigators also talked to Byrd’s stepdaughter, who they said linked him to a gray pick-up truck mentioned by the victims in the 1999 assaults.

Then on Dec. 4, the DNA sample taken from Byrd was matched to the sample taken after the 1998 assault, the arrest report said. It was not known where Byrd was being held late Thursday, but he will be returned to Hillsborough County to stand trial in the 1998 case. Investigators did not discuss the status of the two unsolved 1999 attacks.