For eight years, Indian River County Sheriff’s Office fingerprint expert Robin Pettey has puzzled over the identity of a middle-aged woman found strangled in a canal east of Fellsmere.
She wonders, too, if she’ll ever learn the true name of an infant girl left dead in a Vero Beach ditch months earlier, another suspected homicide victim.
Baby Hope, a name investigators gave the infant after the grisly find in February 2001, is one of 19 people found dead along the Treasure Coast over the past 35 years whose identities remain mysteries.
Since 1975, eight unidentified bodies have been discovered in St. Lucie County; seven have been recovered in Indian River; and two each in Martin and Okeechobee counties, according to local medical examiner’s records.
A few fell prey to homicide, their bodies showing signs of gunshot wounds, stabbings or strangulation. Others were victims of suicide, car crashes or a fatal hit-and-run.
Some discoveries border on the bizarre, like the 2002 recovery by three fishermen of the head of a suspected Cuban refugee found floating 21 miles offshore from the Fort Pierce Inlet. After pulling the head aboard, the anglers said they stored it in a bait bucket and kept fishing.
A suspected drug house in Port St. Lucie led authorities in 2006 to the area’s 17th unidentified body, where human bones were found in a Santeria cauldron seized from a shed. The pot also contained 50 non-human bone fragments from birds, sheep, goats, a pig and a cow, according to the University of Florida’s C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory.
Forensics experts noted the artifacts were “reminiscent of Santeria or possibly Palo Monte Mayombe,” religions evolved from Central Africa slaves, who worshipped using a vessel filled with human bones, sacred earth, sticks, coins and other items.
Because these human bones — a skull, right humeral head and two hands — were determined to be former anatomical specimens fastened with metal screws and monofilament line, it may be impossible to ever confirm an identity, District 19 medical examiner Roger Mittleman said.
Martin County Sheriff’s Office homicide detective John Silvas, said so far, they haven’t come across any bone-filled cauldrons, but he would like to resolve whose bones were found stuffed in a shoe box authorities recovered from a Palm City field on Jan. 26, 1975.
The box, containing a hand, arm, sternum, face and feet, was found west of the Turnpike off Loop Road, Silvas said. The skull and leg bones are missing.
For years investigators suspected they’d found a female victim of suspected serial killer Gerard Schaeffer, a former Martin sheriff’s deputy who was convicted of killing two teenage girls in 1973.
“He was on a suspect list,” Silvas recalled, “And I was hoping, because there are nine girls still missing.”
Experts determined the bones belonged to an adult male. A cheek bone showed an injury that could have been made by a machete and the right hand showed a fracture, common to boxers, Silvas said.
Other area cases, admittedly less than the 200 unidentified bodies on file in Palm Beach and Broward counties, will likely remain unsolved, particularly when all that’s left are bone fragments too degraded for DNA testing.
Still, local investigators, who easily recite facts related to a decedent and refer to each as someone’s daughter, mother or grandfather, share a stubborn hopefulness that their relentless searching will one day produce a match.
The process begins when a body is brought to the medical examiner’s office.
“When there’s no identity, we have to take everything into consideration,” said Mittleman, adding if possible, the body is fingerprinted and samples of blood, hair and tissue are collected.
Authorities use autopsy reports, dental records and evidence found with a body to launch a search.
Information is cross-checked with the Florida Unidentified Decedents Database, fluiddb.com, and the Doe Network, doenetwork.org, an international center for unidentified and missing persons operating in the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and Mexico. The network posts information and photos of personal items, sketches or, in some cases, a clay bust created by using a victim’s skull.
For Pettey, who has been honored for identifying the remains of two local women missing for years, said each week she reaches for the 2001 file of murdered Jane Doe found in Fellsmere to scour databases and make calls.
“It’s very frustrating,” she acknowledged. “You feel like you’ve hit a brick wall ... but I’m not going to give up.”
With the manner of death a brutal homicide, Mittleman echoed Pettey’s long-standing frustration in not being able to return to this woman her identity.
“Obviously this was something horrible,” he said. “We keep sending out her fingerprints, but to no avail. Sometimes you have to send prints out multiple times before you get a hit.”
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY
On Dec. 17, 2007, a worker found human bones along with suspected Santeria artifacts in a wooded area near the 3900 block of 71st Street and Old Dixie Highway, in Winter Beach. Reports show the skeletal remains, determined to be from a middle-aged man, were discovered about 20 yards off the roadway. Information such as cause of death was not available.
On Dec. 31, 2005, a Vero Beach resident walking along the beach north of the 1500 block of Gracewood Lane found two pelvic bones authorities believe belonged to a man of unknown age, who had a large build. According to reports, the bones reflected saw blade marks that could have been made by a propeller. A medical examiner’s report indicates one pelvis showed possible shark bites.
On June 22, 2001, the strangled body of a middled-aged woman was found in a ditch off a dirt road, about 200 feet south of County Road 512 east of Fellsmere.
The woman, who was either Hispanic or Caucasian, was at least 45 years old, stood 5-feet, 5-inches and weighed 140-160 pounds. She wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans, has light brown or whitish blonde hair and had a full set of dentures.
Based on the decomposition of the body, investigators believed the body had been in the ditch for two to three days.
Authorities had a sketch drawn of the woman and, because they have the skull, an artist created a clay reconstruction of the woman’s face posted at the Doe Network.On Feb. 6, 2001, a grove worker discovered the body of an infant girl floating in an irrigation ditch in a remote area surrounded by citrus groves in the 2600 block of 82nd Avenue in Vero Beach.
Investigators estimated the 7-pound infant to be between newborn and about a week old. She probably was alive at the time she was thrown in the ditch, medical examiners said at the time.
No cause of death was apparent, but officials suspect she died from suffocation or drowning.
Authorities soon after broadcast a TV commercial throughout Florida appealing for clues, but tips that came in led them nowhere.
On July 10, 1983, a badly decomposed body believed to be the victim of a hit-and-run was found by two people along U.S. 1, 3.5 miles south of Vero Beach.
The adult man was 5-feet, 9-inches tall, curly brown hair, in his late teens to early 20s, wearing a grayish T-shirt with blue trim, gray cutoff shorts and white loafer-type shoes.
Authorities believe the man was hit by a vehicle, but they never identified the driver or what kind of vehicle was involved in the fatal collision.
On Sept. 1, 1982, the body of a Caucasian woman with mutiple gunshot wounds was found in the north canal along State Road 60, about 11 miles west of Vero Beach.
The woman, approximately 28 to 35 years of age and about 5-feet, 6-inches tall, 130-140 pounds, had dark brown hair and was dressed in blue jeans, white terry-cloth blouse with gold fringe around the bottom and knee-high stockings.
She had scars above and below the navel area, and wore a silver and gold wedding band on her left ring finger and a small ring with gold, white and turquoise on top with a silver band on her right little finger.
On Sept. 10, 1980, a truck driver for the Minute Maid Co.’s Fort Pierce division found the bloody corpse of a Caucasian woman along the north side of State Road 60, about 15 miles west of Vero Beach.
Investigators suspected the woman was stabbed to death and dumped on the side of the road about 12 hours before she was found.
The woman was estimated to be between 55 and 62 years old. She was 5-feet, 4-inches tall and weighed 160 pounds, with grey and black hair.
On Dec. 14, 1999, the skeletal remains of a left foot and ankle were found off Pratt-Whitney Road, near South Fork High School. Authorities said they believed the bones were tied to an 11-year-old slaying in which body parts of a man were stuffed into suitcases and left in rural areas of Martin and Palm Beach counties.
Scientists then said the foot, which underwent DNA sampling, had characteristics similar to other body parts thought to be those of a slain Lake Worth man.
A University of Florida anthropologist determined the foot, found with a sock inside a black leather shoe, was associated to an upper torso found in Martin County in March 1990 and the lower trunk found in Palm Beach Gardens in February 1989.
On Jan. 26, 1975, a shoe box containing the bones of a hand, arm, sternum, face and the feet of an adult male were discovered in a field west of Florida’s Turnpike off Loop Road in Palm City.
Martin County Sheriff’s Detective John Silvas said the bones were discovered by a Palm city resident who lived on Markel Street.
“Whoever did this murder was very familiar with that area,” he said, “and was comfortable in that area.”
Investigators for years suspected the bones, dumped up to a year before, could have been a female victim of suspected serial killer Gerard Schaeffer, a former Martin County sheriff’s deputy convicted of killing two teenage girls in 1973.
“I was hoping,” said Silvas, “because there are nine girls still missing.”
Experts at the University of Florida determined the bones belonged to an adult male. A facial cheek bone showed an injury consistent with the tool mark of a machete. A right hand bone also reflected a fracture common to boxers. Cause of death is listed as possible sharp force.
ST. LUCIE COUNTY
On April 22, 2008, the body of a middle-aged African-American man was discovered 1 mile west of Interstate 95, and 1 mile south of Indrio Road. The suspected grove worker, a victim of suicide, was found hanging, fully clothed in cargo shorts, a brown belt, Joe Boxer undershorts and a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt. Authorities were unable to obtain fingerprints. No other details were available.
On May 26, 2006, authorities executing a drug raid at the 1600 block of Southwest Day Street in Port St. Lucie related to a cocaine trafficking ring discovered a Santeria shrine inside a backyard shed. A cauldron found sitting on a pallet was later found to contain a human skull, right humeral head, and two hands from a former anatomical specimen, according to officials with the University of Florida’s C. A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory. More than 50 non-human bones were identified, with fragments of perching birds, a sheep, goats, a cow and a pig.
Forensics experts noted the seized artifacts were “reminiscent of Santeria or possibly Palo Monte Mayombe,” one of several religions evolved from Central Africa slaves, who worshipped using a vessel filled with human bones, sacred earth and sticks.
On Aug. 23, 2002, the head of a presumed drowning victim was recovered by three local fishermen about 21 miles offshore from the Fort Pierce Inlet.
Reports show the men used a gaff to fish the head out of the water and placed it in a garbage bag and stored it in a bucket. About five hours later, the men docked and reported their discovery. Authorities later suspected the head belonged to a Cuban refugee because it was found at the same time other deceased Cubans were recovered from the ocean.
On May 18, 2002, an adult Hispanic man estimated to be between 21 and 35 years old was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver as he rode a bicycle in front of ABC Liquors in the 2900 block of U.S. 1 in Fort Pierce. The unknown cyclist was wearing blue jeans, red short sleeved Polo shirt and black underwear. His pockets contained $2.05 and two keys. He was described as 4-feet, 5-inches tall, weighing 131 pounds, with straight black hair and brown eyes. Cause of death listed as blunt force trauma.
On May 6, 1995, a man between the ages of 21 and 35 years old was the victim of a fatal hit-and-run as he walked west on Orange Avenue, west of Jenkins Road in Fort Pierce. Described as 5-feet, 6-inches tall, weighing 154 pounds, with black hair, the man’s cause of death was listed as blunt trauma. The car’s driver was never identified.
On Jan. 14, 1994, a pickup truck carrying nine Okeechobee farm workers flipped on Orange Avenue, killing a Hispanic man estimated to be between 21 and 35 years old. The pickup was headed east on Orange Avenue at 7:30 a.m. when it veered off the road about 1 mile east of the Okeechobee County line.
The pickup went back onto the roadway, crossed the center line, and went back off the road, hitting a guard rail along a canal. As the truck rolled over, an aluminum bed cover flew off and seven workers were thrown from the back of the truck and on the shoulder along a canal.
At the time of the crash, the group was headed to a nearby orange grove owned by Pride Orange Groves of Port St. Lucie.
On June 16, 1990, the body of a Hispanic man between the ages of 21 and 35 was discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean about 40 miles offshore, and closer to the Bahamas when a person on a passing ship, the Texas Clipper, spotted it.
The Coast Guard brought the body to Fort Pierce.
An autopsy failed to determine a cause of death, and there were no signs of trauma on the body, medical examiner reports show.
A suspected Cuban refugee, the man was described as 5-feet, 6-inches tall, weighing 180 pounds, with tattoos and dressed in bikini-type shorts, XL, with “BOZZ” imprinted on left front.
On Oct. 7, 1986, the badly decomposed and bound body of a middle-aged white man was found in a ditch along Ralls Road in St. Lucie County. Authorities estimated the man, who had both arms tied behind his back, had been dead from three to five weeks. The blackened skull, marked by a fatal gunshot wound and multiple fractures, was found about 15 feet west of the body.
The body was clad in gray Nacona brand cowboy boots; Jordache blue jeans; a Hennessy pin-striped shirt, size large; a woven leather belt and Calvin Klein underwear.
Personal effects included $372 (seven $50 bills) in his pants pockets, and a Seiko Lassale quartz watch with a silver face, gold numbers and a grey leather band.
On June 26, 2002, the body of a suspected homeless man between the ages of 46 and 60, was found behind an abandoned residence on the 700 block of South Parrott Avenue.
The decomposed body, listed in medical examiner reports as between 5-feet 6-inches to 5-feet 11-inches tall, was clothed in pants, a T-shirt, black shoes and socks and was found with no personal items. Cause of death is listed as heart failure.
On May 29, 1989, the scattered skeletal remains of a man between the ages of 40 and 60 were discovered in a cattle pasture 3.3 miles south of State Road 70 and 100 yards east of Burman Road.
Dressed in size 30-waist blue jeans, with a dark leather belt, red medium shirt, with writing that looks like “Odyssey,” the man had on western-styled size-9D boots, with Tony Lama socks featuring a white star with blue trim. Cause of death is listed as possible head injury.