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New DNA testing leads to arrest in rape, murder of Sarasota woman 19 years ago

Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight announced the arrest of 39-year-old Luke Fleming on Wednesday. Deputies found 47-year-old Deborah Dalzell raped, beaten and strangled in her Sarasota home in March 1999 following a call from concerned coworkers. [Sarasota County Sheriff's Office]
Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight announced the arrest of 39-year-old Luke Fleming on Wednesday. Deputies found 47-year-old Deborah Dalzell raped, beaten and strangled in her Sarasota home in March 1999 following a call from concerned coworkers. [Sarasota County Sheriff's Office]
Published Sep. 21, 2018

The Sarasota County's Sheriff's Office arrested a St. Petersburg man after linking him to a 19-year-old murder case through DNA testing.

Deputies arrested 39-year-old Luke Fleming in the rape and slaying of Deborah Dalzell in March 1999, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight announced Wednesday at a news conference.

In 1999, Dalzell, 47, was found raped, beaten and strangled in her Sarasota home, deputies said.

Coworkers concerned when she failed to show up first alerted police to her disapperance. During the initial investigation, semen was collected at the scene and run through a database but no matches were found. The case went cold after investigators ran out of leads.

Over time, DNA technology improved, making it possible to project physical appearance and ancestry from DNA evidence. The investigation resumed. The crime scene sample was compared to a database of DNA profiles provided voluntarily and a link was found to Fleming's father.

"His arrest didn't happen overnight and it wasn't easy tracking him down," Knight said. "But thanks to DNA evidence, coupled with ancestry and genealogy, we have finally connected the dots that detectives have been working on for almost two decades."

The arrest was made in Manatee County, deputies said. Fleming was charged with murder and sexual battery with great bodily harm and is being held in Sarasota County on $1.2 million bail.

Over the past year, Fleming has been living in Pinellas County and working for a seafood company in St. Petersburg, according to the Sheriff's Office.

He moved to Sarasota from Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1991 and graduated from Riverview High School in 1997, deputies said. He was 20 and living in Sarasota when the murder occurred.

Dalzell's sister, Peggy Thistle, spoke at the news conference Wednesday on behalf of her family. Thistle said she remembered her sister as kind and smart. Thistle was the last person to speak to Dalzell before she disappeared, investigators said.

"It's an emotional day today," Thistle said. "We miss Deborah every day. We never gave up hope."

Contact Devin Rodriguez at drodriguez@tampabay.com or follow @devinreports