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Cracking Cold Cases

A grant for DNA testing helped solve decades-old murders and sexual assaults

Det. Robert Schoonover (left) and Sgt. Ronnie Booker (right) update a cold case file at Jacksonville Sheriffs Office in Downtown Jacksonville.  
Dennis Ho
Sgt. Ronnie Booker leads the Cold Case Unit at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office which is using DNA to solve decades old murders. 

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Anyone with information about a cold case is asked to contact either First Coast Crime Stoppers at 1-866-845-TIPS or the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Team at 904-630-1157. Tips can be submitted at fccrimestoppers.com.

For the men and women of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, it was one of their most troubling cases — a 10-year-old girl brutally sexually assaulted and strangled in broad daylight on a hot August day in 1984.

Every few years, detectives would look at the case again. They would search through their files and interview people who were at the Westside Jacksonville apartment complex the day Tammy Welch was murdered.

Investigators were looking for new evidence, or old evidence seen in a new light, or someone who might remember a single detail that might lead to a break in the case. They sought assistance from Naval Investigative Criminal Services, since Tammy’s father was in the Navy and was away at sea when the slaying occurred.

Almost three decades later, police say they have finally been able to solve the killing of Tammy Welch. They credit the advancement of DNA technology and a $500,000 federal grant that allowed them to go back through 305 cold-case murders and 200 sexual assaults and use cutting-edge technology to tie perpetrators to their crimes.

“Without that grant, and without the money to work this cold case, it could have gone unsolved for another 28 years,” said Chief of Detectives Tom Hackney in February when he announced the arrest of James Leon Jackson, who is now 60, for the rape and murder of Tammy Welch.

While the grant’s main parameters were for crimes committed between 1990 and 2001, police said the Welch case has been reviewed several times and needed to be solved.

The case had troubled police from the start, Hackney said. Dedicated officers, many with children the same age as Tammy, doggedly worked the case until technology and DNA pointed them to a suspect.

Sheriff John Rutherford, who said he’d lived in the area and had a daughter about Tammy’s age, called the crime “very traumatic” to the Westside community.

During their investigation, police interviewed Jackson, who lived in an apartment complex next door to the Welch family.

Jackson claimed in interviews to have been sleeping at the time of the crime and did not know anything about what happened.

Fifteen years went by, and when investigators interviewed him again, he repeated his story and said he’d had no contact with the Welch family.

In 2002, Jackson was again interviewed as part of a cold case investigation, and he agreed to provide a voluntary cheek swab DNA sample, which was entered into a database.

Ten years later, after receiving the $500,000 federal grant in 2011, detectives bundled up evidence from the Welch case and sent it to a forensic DNA lab for testing.

DNA found in Tammy Welch’s sexual assault kit was linked to the DNA on the cheek swab belonging to Jackson and the crime was solved — 29 years later.

Hackney said the analysis of each item sent to the lab cost several thousands of dollars. The DNA samples have to go to an approved lab, where they are subjected to a variety of tests. They’re then compared with millions of samples from crime scenes to determine if there’s a match. The results must be conclusive so they can withstand the scrutiny of defense attorneys and convince a jury, especially if there is a death penalty case involved, Hackney said.

Jackson was first arrested as part of an unrelated drug investigation, then he was charged in February with first-degree murder, sexual battery of a child under 12 and tampering with evidence.

Jackson, who is being held without bond in the Duval County Jail, has pleaded not guilty to each of the charges. He is represented by a public defender.

The victim’s younger sister, Jennifer Roache, wrote in a Facebook posting, “I hope [the] family can get the closure we deserve.”

The squad, comprising Sgt. Ronnie Booker and four senior homicide detectives — whom Hackney called “the best of the best” — has solved two other cold-case murders in the last two years since receiving the grant.

Michael Jerome Williams, now 52, was arrested Oct. 23, 2012, for the February 1999 murder and sexual battery of Andrea Clements at the Palms Motel on North Main Street in Jacksonville. The arrest was the direct result of forensic examination and additional interviews, police said.

Williams was arrested while incarcerated for a 1999 murder that he committed in Georgia one month before Clements’ 
slaying. Florida prosecutors filed a motion saying they intend to seek the death penalty against Williams.

Also arrested by the Cold Case Team is Michael V. Franklin, now 31, on charges of first-degree murder, three counts of armed robbery, one count of armed robbery with assault and battery, sexual battery and kidnapping.

Franklin was arrested March 22 for a May 4, 1998 case in which he is accused of shooting and killing Michael Bouey during a home invasion robbery. Several other victims were made to perform sexual acts on one another, and one of the female victims was sexually assaulted by one the suspects.

In St. Johns County, a 55-year-old man who was serving 150 years in prison for a 1982 slaying in Jacksonville was charged with the murder of 38-year-old man about 30 years ago.

William Browning was identified through DNA testing and charged in the death of Ralph Whitemore. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office also received a $217,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, said Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan of the SJCSO.

Nassau County defense attorney Terri Sopp, who is not representing any of these defendants, said it is difficult to represent cold-case defendants because “these cases present special challenges because of the inherent passage of time.”

“The biggest problem with cold case ‘hits,’ DNA, fingerprints, hair, etc., is that when the case really is cold, it is difficult to establish defenses, find witnesses and reconstruct a defendant’s life from five, 10, 15 or even 20 years ago,” Sopp wrote in an email.

On a statewide basis, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement maintains one of the largest DNA databases in the country. As of March 2013, there were 897,476 offender DNA samples, with the database adding 7,426 samples in the month of March, said Gretl Plessinger, an FDLE spokesperson.

Those March samples yielded 466 hits, a record for the most hits in a month, which helped law enforcement agencies generate leads and solve crimes, she said. Of those hits, 281 were convicted offenders and 41 were from arrestees.

Under state law, DNA samples are collected on all felony convictions and those arrested for homicide, assaults, sexual battery, lewd and indecent exposure, and felony burglary and theft. A Florida law being phased in will require DNA samples to be collected from all felony arrests.

The state and city are all connected to CODIS, a federal-based computer program that operates state and national databases of DNA profiles. The bulk of its samples come from convicted offenders and unsolved cases, Plessinger said.

CODIS, an acronym for Combined DNA Index System, automatically searches the database, looking for matches between unsolved crimes and DNA submissions from offenders. Lab analysts review potential hits to determine their validity.

The cost of collecting samples from offenders is $28, which includes everything from the swab kit to the lab analyst who puts the DNA into the computer database, Plessinger said.

Hackney and Robert Schoonover said officers have to triage the unsolved cases from 
the 11-year period to go after those most likely to produce results, looking at which ones might have enough evidence to spend the time and money to submit them for additional DNA testing.

They examine whether the statute of limitations prevents prosecution. There is no statute of limitations on murder. They also look at whether new technology will be useful, if someone credible has confessed to the crime, and if a new reliable witness has come forward.

So far, police have reviewed about 250 of the cold-case slayings in the 11-year focus period, from 1990 to 2001, and are hoping for some more hits before the grant money is exhausted. The sex crimes unit is looking into cold-case rape and assault cases from the same period that might be solved through DNA testing.

“With sex crimes, some of the rape cases had evidence that was never processed or not fully processed,” Hackney said.

“Sex crimes are a little delicate,” he said. Some rape victims never forget their attack, have tried to move on, and are not really interested in police coming back years later to investigate. “It’s like scratching a scab off.”

Hackney said he hopes the cold-case squad can secure additional funding and give a fresh look at more cold cases.

“With another grant, we can take a 
bigger bite of the elephant,” he said, adding 
that he hopes the federal government extends the program.

Hackney said investigators are always interested in what members of the public know about any of the unsolved slayings. The killings are listed by year on the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office website at bit.ly/UnsolvedHomicides.

“If someone knows something about an older murder case, we would like them to come forward. They can do so anonymously,” Hackney said. Victims’ families have a difficult time when they lose a loved one.

“But when families don’t have answers, it can be very difficult,” Schoonover said.

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