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Detectives hope for new leads as two Tampa cold cases mark 25 years

TAMPA — Cynthia Wheaton was 28 and helped manage the popular Tex Mex Cantina on the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Cheryl McMullen was 33 and worked as the night manager at Bennigan's in Carrollwood.

Twenty-five years ago this week, both women were killed. Despite exhaustive investigations, their cases remain unsolved.

The pair are linked by little more than what they did for a living and when and how they died. Despite the similarities, investigators think the crimes were the work of separate killers.

Today they are under the watch of Greg Thomas, a cold-case detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Although they're not the Tampa Bay area's most prominent crime stories, Thomas knows that behind every victim is a grieving family that deserves answers.

• • •

By all accounts, Cynthia Wheaton lived for her job. In three months at the Tex Mex Cantina, she had risen from a server to a manager and had been making trips to Orlando, where the restaurant was opening a second location.

On May 4, 1990, she had closing duties in Tampa. She left some time that evening. She was never seen alive again.

When she missed work for two days straight, her co-workers checked her apartment in the Sulphur Springs area of Tampa. They found it vacant except for her two cats, Pete and Rio. There were no signs of a struggle. They reported her missing.

Nine days later, a construction worker clearing land for development off Lutz Lake Fern Road in northern Hillsborough County found her decomposing body. An autopsy revealed she had been strangled. She still wore jewelry and her restaurant uniform — a white shirt and black slacks.

Her car, a 1990 Honda CRX, was found the next day in the parking lot of what was then the Sailwinds Apartments, near Fletcher Avenue and N Dale Mabry Highway. Evidence indicated that Wheaton's body had been in the car's trunk. A security log showing the names of everyone who had moved in and out of the parking lot turned up no likely suspects.

• • •

It was during the 10 days that Wheaton was still missing that Cheryl McMullen was killed. In the early morning of May 12, she was alone, tending to closing duties at the Bennigan's at 13262 N Dale Mabry Highway.

At 6:45 a.m., another manager arrived and found McMullen's body in a rear office. She had been shot three times.

A drop-safe in the office was propped open. Restaurant managers estimated that between $1,500 and $2,000 was missing. But whoever killed her left behind the jewelry she was wearing.

Although the theft made robbery an obvious motive for the killing, the original investigators did consider at least one other possibility. For much of the investigation, detectives put an intense focus on McMullen's husband, Russell. The two had been having financial and personal problems, Thomas said. But under interrogation, Russell McMullen, who has since died, maintained his innocence.

• • •

Twenty-five years' worth of investigative material in both cases now fills several volumes in the Hillsborough County sheriff's criminal investigations division.

In recent years, the Wheaton and McMullen cases have been given to the sheriff's cold-case team — a group of civilian professionals that includes retired investigators, medical examiners and prosecutors. Their review has provided a few new threads for Thomas to follow. The work can be tedious and frustrating — checking the findings of the original case detectives, reviewing reports, interviewing witnesses again.

"There really isn't a formula to attack a cold case," he said.

In McMullen's case, advances in fingerprinting technology have led to new examinations of old evidence. Reviews of Wheaton's case have yielded even more.

Among the points of interest: In the early morning of May 5, Tampa police received a call of a silent alarm at the Tex Mex Cantina. As officers arrived at the closed business, they looked through the windows and saw someone walking inside the building. An exterior door was ajar.

Before the officers could investigate, they came upon two men in a pickup truck in a far corner of the parking lot. The men were smoking crack cocaine. As the two were being arrested, Thomas thinks, whoever was inside the restaurant was able to slip away.

"In law enforcement, we don't really believe in coincidences," he said. "Most likely (the alarm call) has something to do with her homicide."

Thomas thinks the killer was someone Wheaton knew. That person also likely knew that the restaurant next door, Tchoupitoulas River Cafe, shared the same ownership, and that the businesses both stored their proceeds in the same safe. With Wheaton's keys never found, the theory is that the killer wanted access to the safe. But when the police were called, the person fled without getting anything.

It's the working theory in a case that now, like McMullen's, comes down to reworking old leads, and hoping for new ones.

"Every case is different," Thomas said. "It's definitely not like the TV shows. People always ask, how come you haven't resolved one in a year or so. It's not like that."

But with enough time, and the right witness coming forward, Thomas said, there is always hope.

Contact Dan Sullivan at or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.