BRANDON — Twenty years ago, an assailant entered Lu Shay's Consignment Shop in Delray Beach and bludgeoned and stabbed a sales clerk who was just days away from retiring.
Police collected plenty of evidence that day in August 1998. Droplets of the killer's blood led from 68-year-old Sondra Better's body to the cash register drawer, out the front door and onto the sidewalk. Investigators also recovered fingerprints from a decorative marble ball found in the store.
"But the person responsible for this heinous case just seemed to disappear," Delray Beach Chief Javaro Sims said at news conference Wednesday.
The case grew cold, leaving investigators and Better's family to wonder if an arrest would ever be made.
The answer came Wednesday in a Brandon apartment complex when Hillsborough sheriff's deputies and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents showed up at the door of 51-year-old Todd Barket and arrested him on a first degree murder charge.
Until a few months ago, Barket was never a suspect. He stayed out of trouble and eventually settled in the Tampa Bay area, authorities say.
Then a blunder led police right to him.
Investigators zeroed in on Barket in January after he applied for a job as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home and submitted fingerprints to the Agency for Healthcare Administration for a routine background check, police said. Delray police were notified of a "reverse hit" — Barket's prints matched fingerprints collected from the Sondra Better murder scene and stored in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, known as AFIS. Investigators then confirmed DNA left at the scene was also Barket's.
He was arrested about 8 a.m. at the Park of Vincenzo apartments on Oakfield Drive. In a photo released by the Delray Beach Police Department, two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies lead a handcuffed Barket from his apartment. He's wearing a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops. His head is lowered, his eyes down.
"Twenty years is a long time to want and ask for justice for a loved one," Sims said the during the news conference called later that day. The Palm Beach Post posted portions on its website.
The day of the killing, police arrived at the consignment shop to find Better lying in a pool of her own blood, according to an arrest report. Shards of glass, apparently the remnants of a heavy ashtray, were scattered around and under her body. Two decorative marble balls, part of a set of three, were found on the floor between her cheek and right hand. The third decorative ball was found on a wooden tray sitting on a table inside the store. Fingerprints on that ball would later come back as Barket's.
An autopsy confirmed Better had been repeatedly beaten about the head with a blunt object and stabbed twice in the neck. She had defensive wounds on both her hands, and one of her fingers had nearly been severed. Investigators never found the weapon that caused the stab wounds, but a cake cutter was missing from the store.
When the fingerprints on the ball came back as a match to Barket, detectives got a search warrant and came to Hillsborough County on Monday to collect a DNA sample from him. In an interview with detectives, Barket said he lived in Palm Beach County at the time of Better's killing and said it was possible he had visited Lu Shay's Consignment Shop, the report says. Asked about a scar on his chin that detectives suspected he got from his struggle with Better, Barket said he'd been bitten by a dog.
Barket was 29 and living at Lantana at the time of the murder, according to police. It's unclear how long he's lived in the Tampa Bay area. Photos posted on public portions of Barket's Facebook pages show him and his wife smiling at the Gasparilla celebration in 2013 and at Raymond James Stadium in 2010.
One of the Facebook pages says Barket lives in Tampa and works at a bank, but jail records list his occupation as nurses aid at the Crossings at Riverview, an assisted living facility. A representative there did not return a message Thursday.
Robert Stevens worked as the lead detective on the case until he retired in 2007. By that point, he'd obtained DNA samples in the case from 36 male donors but never got a match.
At Wednesday's news conference, Stevens said Better was killed just a couple of days before her scheduled last day at the shop. She and her husband, Seymour "Zeke" Better, had planned a trip to New York to renew their wedding vows.
Stevens said Barket's arrest brought some closure for Seymour Better and the rest of Sondra's loved ones, as well as for Stevens himself.
"When you get a case where there's a true innocent victim," he said, "it's hard to let it go."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow tmarrerotimes.