Three decades ago, 12-year-old Jennifer Renee Odom stepped off a school bus near her home in rural Pasco County and waved goodbye to her friends.
The bus stop was roughly 200 yards from her home, but she never arrived. Six days later, her body was found in a Hernando County orange grove. The medical examiner ruled her death a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head. Detectives said she likely died there in the woods, not long after her abduction.
Over the years, the case garnered national attention and haunted the Tampa Bay region. Thousands of dollars in reward money offered for tips went unclaimed. Detectives logged tens of thousands of hours chasing leads. Jennifer’s family waited for news as the years turned to decades.
On Thursday, a month shy of what would have been Jennifer’s 43rd birthday, officials announced that they had finally made an arrest in the case, and that prosecutors would seek the death penalty against the man accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering Jennifer.
A few hours later, Jeffrey Norman Crum, 61, made his first appearance in front of a judge.
Crum is already serving two life sentences for another decades-old rape case in Pasco County that was solved in 2015. It was Crum’s arrest in that case, authorities said, that made him a person of interest, reinvigorating an investigation that would yield enough evidence to persuade a grand jury this week to indict him in Jennifer’s death.
“Full of life”
Before she became a homicide victim, Jennifer was a seventh grader at Thomas E. Weightman Middle School, where she played the clarinet in the school band.
She was also a barefoot water-skier who placed high in tournaments. Often, she was the skier who climbed to the top of the human pyramid gliding atop the water.
Together, Jennifer and her sister Jessica built forts, rode four-wheelers and spent summer days swimming in the creek behind their house on the family’s 15-acre property in St. Joseph, a small community west of Dade City.
“Full of life,” is how Renee Converse described Jennifer in a 2018 Tampa Bay Times story marking the 25th anniversary of her daughter’s slaying.
The morning of Feb. 19, 1993, was crisp, Converse recalled then. Jennifer was dressed in jeans and a turtleneck, both white. She pulled a red cashmere sweater — a gift from her grandmother — over her shoulder-length chestnut hair.
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Then she laced up a pair of black boots and got into the car with her mother. The two drove 200 yards up the winding lime-rock driveway to wait for the school bus near their mailbox.
Jennifer climbed aboard the bus and took her usual spot on the back seat so she and her mother could see each other until Renee, following behind, turned left to head to work.
About 4 p.m., Jennifer’s 9-year-old sister, Jessica, arrived to find their house locked and empty. Normally, Jennifer made it home from school about 3 p.m. Jessica called her mother. Some students had seen an old, light-blue pickup near Jennifer’s bus stop that day, but no one saw the abduction. Within hours, deputies launched a widescale search, aided by some 400 volunteers who helped scour about 60 square miles of countryside.
Six days later, a couple found Jennifer’s body near a horse trail off Powell Road south of Brooksville, amid a cluster of pine trees in an orange grove. It was about 10 miles from where she disappeared.
About two years later, a couple searching for scrap metal in a remote area several miles away in western Hernando found Jennifer’s book bag and clarinet case.
Former Hernando County sheriff’s Major G.Z. Smith, who oversaw the investigation in its early years, said in 1994 that investigators were stumped. He said there was a strong possibility the crime would go unsolved.
“And what’s even worse is that, if we solve it, it may take another crime to do it,” Smith said at the time.
Over the years, investigators amassed some 1,000 pieces of evidence, took thousands of tips and conducted hundreds of interviews to try to determine who killed the girl. They tried various methods of generating new leads, from billboards and a $20,000 reward to an appearance in 1994 on NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries.”
In 2007, members of Hernando County Crime Stoppers handed out special playing cards to inmates at the Hernando County Detention Center. Each card featured a brief description of an unsolved case from around the state and a hotline number. Jennifer’s card was the queen of diamonds and featured two color photos.
But it was Smith’s comment about another crime that would prove prescient.
Solved Pasco case creates new lead
About 13 months before Jennifer was found dead, Pasco County sheriff’s detectives launched an investigation into the attack on a 17-year-old girl enrolled in Land O’Lakes High School’s special education program who was found in a pool of blood behind an abandoned house south of Masaryktown.
It was Jan. 16, 1992, and the girl had been sexually assaulted and beaten after getting off the bus from school. When the former honor roll student and track and field participant recovered, she was paralyzed on her left side, investigators said.
The case went unsolved for years. But in 2015, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco announced that new technology had led to the arrest of a man named Jeffrey Crum, then 53.
Investigators used a DNA procedure known as familial searching, which allows law enforcement to find a suspect by comparing DNA left at the scene with that of family members. The shortfall of a standard DNA search is that a suspect’s genetic fingerprint must be on file in the offender database for law enforcement to make a match. Crum’s wasn’t.
But when Florida Department of Law Enforcement specialists ran the DNA from semen found on the victim, it led them to Crum’s son, Jeffrey Crum II, who is in prison. Investigators then obtained DNA samples from the younger Crum’s brother, father and grandfather. A direct comparison between the DNA found on the victim and that of the father found a match.
The odds of finding another match, Nocco said, was one in 7.7 nonillion — a number with 30 zeros.
Investigators concluded that Crum took the girl by the arm and led her behind the abandoned house, where he hit her head with a blunt object so hard it crushed part of her skull and caused her to lose part of her brain.
In 2019, Crum was sentenced to life in prison in the Pasco case. The victim’s aunt spoke in court during the sentencing hearing, recounting the lifelong damage he had inflicted.
“Her life stopped that day,” the aunt said.
She also mentioned Jennifer Odom.
“A year later, a young lady, Jennifer Odom, was killed,” she said. “And that brought back so much different things that today her murderer has not been caught.”
“Number one suspect”
When Crum was implicated in the 1992 case, “he quickly, almost instantaneously became our No. 1 suspect” in Jennifer’s case because of the similarities, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said at a news conference Thursday.
Nienhuis said biological evidence in that investigation helped lead to Crum’s arrest and indictment in the Odom case, but officials did not provide more details, citing the active investigation.
“All of us, especially those of us in law enforcement, can think of Jennifer as our sister, our niece, our granddaughter, and realize, man, this is a tragedy beyond tragedy,” Nienhuis said.
Crum is now in the Hernando County jail and on Thursday made his first appearance by video. Judge Kurt E. Hitzemann ordered him to be held without bond and appointed a public defender to represent him.
Records show Crum has a significant history of convictions for violent crime, including a 1981 robbery and a 1985 sexual battery case in Hillsborough County.
Records also indicate that Crum in 1992 lived on Somerset Lane in Spring Hill. His residence was about 21 miles from the place where Jennifer was last seen, and 12 miles from where her body was found. He worked in construction as a drywall installer.
He drove, sheriff’s officials said, a blue truck.
As the years wore on, Jennifer’s mother, Renee Converse, and other family members tried to have faith that her murder would eventually be solved.
“I think they would have done anything in the world to have solved this case,” Converse told the Times in 2018. Converse did not immediately respond to a text message from a Tampa Bay Times reporter on Thursday.
Detective George Loydgren, who became head of the Hernando Sheriff’s Office cold case division in 2014 and has spent years investigating Jennifer’s killing, said “shock” is probably the best word to describe the reaction of Jennifer’s family when he told them about the arrest. He said he did it quickly “because I didn’t want to get emotional.”
“It’s a lot for them to take in and absorb, and I can imagine it’s going to take some time before it really sinks in,” Loydgren said.
Nienhuis asked that anyone with more information about the case contact the sheriff’s office. He said they received an anonymous tip leading them to believe there are people who have not come forward who know more about Crum’s connection to the crime.
“We truly believe there is one or more individuals out there that have information that can help add a little piece to that mosaic about what happened with Jennifer,” Nienhuis said.
Times staff writer Natalie Weber contributed to this report, which includes reporting from Times files.