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Clues emerge in cold case murder that may be tied to Tarpon Springs

This composite poster of the woman known as “Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee” has been mailed to residents in Tarpon Springs. Investigators say she may have been a girl in Tarpon Springs.
Published Jun. 30, 2012

TARPON SPRINGS — It's the stuff of popular mystery fiction: A young woman from a European village disappears in Florida in the wake of Epiphany, the Greek Orthodox celebration that annually attracts thousands to the coastal community of Tarpon Springs.

The story might be true. It might not. But Sumter County Sheriff's Office Detective Darren Norris thinks he knows how it ends — with a rotting body floating in a lake fringed by pine woods in Central Florida.

In fact, the end of the story is the only part that's certain. On Feb. 19, 1971, hitchhikers discovered a woman's corpse beneath the Interstate 75 bridge over the marshy southern rim of Lake Panasoffkee north of Bushnell.

She was carrying no ID. With what remained of the body, a medical examiner determined she was strangled and had probably been dumped in the lake at least 30 days before she was found.

She was buried at the Oak Grove Cemetery in Wildwood, then exhumed in 1986 for re-examination. A 1993 episode of Unsolved Mysteries highlighted the case of the Jane Doe who had become known as "Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee."

Decades passed. No leads emerged. It became one of those cold cases kicked around at every police agency, passed from one generation of homicide investigators to the next.

Then, earlier this year, Norris came across an article on forensics innovations spearheaded by an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida.

Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee was getting ready to emerge again into the public eye, and this time, investigators believed she could be traced to the Tampa Bay area. Whether the rest of her story would emerge this time was anyone's guess.

• • •

Erin Kimmerle is a Tampa forensic anthropologist with a reputation for helping to crack seemingly insoluble cold cases. Her USF lab's Cold Case Project has pioneered methods for attaching names to unidentified bodies discovered in the state of Florida.

When Norris read about her work, he thought she could lend a hand with his 41-year-old cold case. He was right.

Working from photographs and detailed police records of the corpse and rags of clothing found in Lake Panasoffkee in 1971, Kimmerle's lab developed the most complete picture yet of the victim.

She was young — between 17 and 24 years old, the lab hypothesized — and petite, less than 5 feet 5 inches tall and about 115 pounds. She had dark hair and brown eyes, prominent cheekbones and a strong nose. At the time she was killed, she was wearing green plaid pants, a matching green shirt and a green floral poncho.

The woman's skeletal structure suggested she was of European descent, Kimmerle said. High-density strands in her bones, called Harris Lines, indicated she had endured some kind of childhood ailment that briefly arrested her growth — perhaps malnutrition or sickness.

It was all new information to the Sumter County Sheriff's Office.

"It's not uncommon at all that when we reanalyze cold cases, we get new information," Kimmerle said.

More was to come.

Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee's remains were sent to George Kamenov in the department of geological sciences at the University of Florida. Kamenov tried to determine where she was from by studying the lead isotopes in her teeth.

His method is based on the way elements from the environment leave their traces in the human body. Lead accumulates in children's teeth as they mature, until the tooth enamel seals off what can be viewed as a kind of snapshot of the place they lived.

The method is particularly useful in guessing whether somebody was born in Europe or the United States, Kamenov said. The teeth of those who grew up in Europe carry a distinctive lead signal, since European countries used leaded gasoline from Australia at a time when North American countries did not.

Kamenov went further. Comparing Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee's lead levels to those on record in various parts of Europe, he was able to pinpoint her possible hometown: Lavrion, a small fishing port southeast of Athens, Greece.

Detectives had never worked from so detailed a picture of Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee. It got them thinking: Not too far down I-75 was a large Greek community that sprawled from Clearwater through Tarpon Springs up to New Port Richey.

The drive from those towns to the area where the body was dumped would have taken almost two hours. But maybe it wasn't too far for whoever had strangled Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee, a person who might not have wanted to deposit a victim too close to home.

Her estimated time of death would have fallen in the weeks after Epiphany. Could she have traveled from Greece to Florida to celebrate?

"I was excited. Everyone here was excited," Norris said. "It gave us a much better place to target. Now we have the information that might actually lead us to identify this person, and maybe even solve the case."

• • •

On Friday, Norris mailed almost 6,000 pamphlets to residents and businesses in Tarpon Springs. He's hoping that someone might recognize the composite sketch of the dead woman that stares out impassively from the flyer with brown, almond-shaped eyes. He has approached the Tarpon Springs Police Department and community leaders in the hope of new leads. It could be that whoever killed Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee is still alive and in the area, he believes.

"Anything's possible," he said.

It's also entirely possible that the quest for a gulf coast connection will be futile.

The biographical and geographical profile of Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee pieced together by scientists deals in probabilities, not certainties. It could be she was of Latino or Native American descent, though the likelihood of European descent is stronger.

Even a measure as precise as the lead isotopes in her teeth is open to divergent interpretations.

"Let's say her house was painted with leaded paint from Europe. She would gather up the same signal in her teeth," Kamenov said. "That's why we cannot be 100 percent sure."

Even if she was from Greece, "We don't have anything that could pinpoint that this victim was from here," said Tarpon Springs Police Capt. Jeffrey Young. He said police have scoured their records for reports of missing persons or crimes in the 1970s that might be connected to the unidentified woman, and have turned up nothing.

Father Michael Eaccarino, dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, said that while tens of thousands attend the town's renowned Epiphany celebration on Jan. 6, most visitors are from the United States, not Greece, which has its own prominent celebrations.

Asked whether he thought it likely someone would travel from Greece to Tarpon Springs for Epiphany, Eaccarino said, "I really can't picture it. But stranger things have happened."

Stranger things have happened. A 41-year-old corpse was revived through modern forensics into a portrait of a living woman, down to the plaid pants she was wearing when she was strangled. A close look at her teeth pointed to a village on the Mediterranean Sea as the place where she grew up.

Norris is optimistic that someone, somewhere in the Greek communities of Pinellas or Pasco, will know something about her, about what happened. As he says, anything's possible.

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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