Hernando sheriff hosts cold-case conference

From left are Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis; Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast, chairman of the Florida Sheriffs Association Cold Case Advisory Commission; and Bill Gladson, State Attorney for the Fifth Judicial Circuit.

BROOKSVILLE — For the families of a kidnapping or murder victim, the pain and uncertainty never really end.

For law enforcement professionals, there’s the pain of knowing that a crime from as recently as a couple of years ago or even decades ago was not solved, but people want to know what happened to their loved ones, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said.

With Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast, chairman of the Florida Sheriffs Association Cold Case Advisory Commission, and Bill Gladson, State Attorney for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, Nienhuis talked about a meeting and training session held on Feb. 21-22 at the Emergency Operations Center in Brooksville.

Nienhuis is the president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association.

Professionals from several other fields of law enforcement and academia gathered to share information and updates, and offer guidance on possible courses of investigation.

Meetings like this are important for smaller counties that might not have the personnel or equipment to conduct investigations like the larger counties, Prendergast said.

Advances in technology also help law enforcement, with an efficiently-running crime lab being almost as important as detectives and officers in the field. In addition, sometimes witnesses have new information to share.

One case that’s gotten some attention recently is that of Jennifer Odom, a 12-year-old girl who disappeared 30 years ago, on Feb. 19, 1993, from a bus stop in rural Pasco County. Her body was found six days later but a suspect has never been caught.

In recent news stories, Odom’s family has been pleading for anyone with any information to come forward.

The commission came about in 2015 to share ideas about technology or techniques for solving cold cases, Nienhuis said.

“This is something that the Sheriff’s Association supports wholeheartedly,” he said. “It has resulted in some successful closures of cases and it is certainly something that we’ve used successfully in Hernando County.”

A detective he has assigned also appreciates the contacts he’s made.

Prendergast said there are a number of cases across the state that need to be solved.

“While we might not get the type of closure that some of the family members would like to see out there, we nevertheless endeavor mightily to go out and seek those answers for those cases that have been sitting on the shelf perhaps, sometimes for decades, and try to seek resolution, put the evidence together, deploy some of the new techniques and tactics and the great technology that’s emerged over the years since these cases were initiated, sometimes four or five decades ago,” he said.

They are working 80 cases across Florida, Prendergast said, ranging from a few years old to several decades old.

The commission itself doesn’t solve the cases, though.

Taxpayer money doesn’t pay for these events, Predergast said; this is sheriffs and other officials coming together.

Galdson of the Fifth Circuit said the goal is closure through the work of deputies and police officers. “As a prosecutor, that’s important to us because of course we deal with families and survivors of violent crimes every single day,” he said. “We’re there for them because of all the work that’s done by all the law enforcement agencies.”

Cold cases present a lot of challenges, he added, because of witnesses who might not have been interviewed or evidence that was missed.

Prendergast said often it’s less about closure for families than answers, and they know that the person who was lost left a hole in their lives.

New technology like Touch DNA and Rapid DNA might help, and sheriffs hope the Legislature will fund technology that could speed up DNA testing to the point where a person arrested could give a DNA sample and it could be tested rapidly and return a hit within an hour and a half.

Some of the tests are very expensive, and the labs often are overwhelmed with work.

Nienhuis said he talks about the Odom case with the state attorney and his detectives. 

She was truly an innocent victim, he said, and it’s talked about weekly if not daily.

“I will tell you we’ve made some advances in that case, and we’re hoping every single day that we get to a point where we develop a prosecutable case for the State Attorney’s Office,” Nienhuis said. “So that we can find justice for Jennifer Odom.”