ST. JOSEPH, Fla. - One week from the 20th anniversary of Jennifer Odom’s murder, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office announced they will put additional and exclusive resources into investigating Odom’s homicide.
Sheriff Al Nienhuis said they will use federal forfeiture funds, mostly from drug seizure cases to follow new leads and test evidence. It will also allow Detective John Ellis to come on board for one solid year to look at old case files and follow up on existing leads, and maybe even generate new ones.
It’s welcome news to retired Hernando County detective Mike Nelson. Now a war crimes investigator in the former Yugoslavia, Nelson retired six years ago as the lead detective in the Odom case.
He rarely comes back to Florida. When he does, he always drives by the fenced-off old orange grove where Odom’s body was discovered. A place where he is haunted by the memory of a little girl he never met.
“Usually I make it a point whenever I’m in the area I try and drive by at least once. Unfortunately, this is just not a good memory at all,” says Nelson. He leans on the locked gate and looks down the path to the crime scene. “What little piece did I overlook or what didn't I see. There's something,” says the veteran detective who put nearly 10 years of his life into the case.
The person who murdered Jennifer Odom still haunts an entire town and the people who knew the 12-year-old.
Her mother says she hasn't slept well since that day. “February 19, 1993,” says Renee Converse, Jennifer’s mother. It’s a day many will never forget. A day when evil came to St Joseph in Pasco County. It skipped the rows of orange groves and cow pastures and stopped at a line of mailboxes where Jennifer got off her school bus alone.
For Jessica Floyd and Erik Mayorga, it is an image they can't shake. They were friends and classmates of Jennifer. “She did the same thing every day. She'd get off the bus, turn around to her best friend, say 'call me',” says Floyd, now 33 years old. She says most students had no reason to suspect it would be the last time they would see her. “It was really only an hour or two later that we started getting phone calls,” Floyd recalls.
Search parties in the hundreds frantically combed the woods. Until six days later, the body of the smart, athletic seventh grader was discovered in the wooded area of neighboring Hernando County. A recent rain washed away almost all evidence.
Some students on the bus say they remembered a blue pickup creep toward her. A tip that never panned out. Most students on the bus that day, such as Floyd and Mayorga, saw nothing. And that, to this day, haunts them even more.
“I just remember being interviewed so many times by the FBI and so many different people and I just really didn't see anything,” Floyd says emotionally. “In just a split second everyone's life in that town changed,” interjects Mayorga.
Renee Converse lives with the memory of watching her daughter get on the back of the bus that morning and then look out the window. It was the regular morning routine. Jennifer would get on the bus. Renee would follow it. As she would turn to head to work, Jennifer would look out the window. “She would wave to me goodbye and smile and that's the last thing I remember is her waving like that,” recalls Converse.
At the Hernando County Sheriff's Office Cold Case Unit, they refuse to let the stacks and rows of boxes of Jennifer's case collect dust. They refuse to call it cold. They say it implies it's not being worked. After nearly 4,000 leads in two decades, this past year created nearly 10 new ones. Partial evidence from her murder scene still gets tested by the FBI's crime lab as forensic technology evolves.
There's not a person on that school bus whose life didn't change that day. Somewhere out there, a person took a young girl's life and killed the innocence of a small town. In the end, detectives know it may not be countless hours of police work and leads that solves this case, but rather the human need to clear a conscience. “Sooner or later we all have to meet our maker,” says Nelson. “Somebody is walking around carrying a heavy load on their shoulders."
Anyone with information that could help investigators with the Jennifer Odom case, can call Detective Jim Boylan. The phone number for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit is 352-754-6830.
President Barack Obama says Nelson Mandela earned his place in history through struggle, shrewdness, persistence and faith.