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Pinellas investigators continue excavation for 2nd day after tip on cold case

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Posted at 9:50 AM, Jun 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-30 06:45:00-04

LARGO, Fla. — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) will continue digging up the land at a property in Largo on Thursday after it received a tip about a cold case on Wednesday.

PCSO said forensic units are conducting excavation work at 1201 Gooden Crossing, which is west of the Pinellas Trail and near Ulmerton Road.

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The tip received, according to PCSO, lead to "detectives and forensics following up on cold cases from the 1970s and 1980s regarding three missing females."

The sheriff's office said the tip it received is related to the disappearance of Retha Hiers and said its current work is only related to her.

However, her disappearance is connected to a man named Cleveland Hill Jr., who is also connected to the disappearances of two other women, Donyelle Johnson and Margaret Dash.

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office cold cases:

  • Retha Hiers
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      • 42 years old when she went missing in 1982
      • "Retha Hiers was last seen leaving her residence in her vehicle. It was found abandoned in March 1983 at the Breakers Apartments at 2929 Gulf to Bay Blvd in Clearwater, Florida. Hiers had been involved in a relationship with Cleveland Hill Jr."
  • Donyelle Johnson
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      • 21-22 years old when she went missing in 1989
      • "Donyelle Johnson was last seen leaving her residence for a class at Saint Petersburg Junior College in Clearwater, Florida. Johnson's vehicle was found abandoned behind the Hardees restaurant at Belcher Road and East Bay Drive in Largo, Florida. A black male named “Johnny Bailey” called a towing company to report car trouble and to have the vehicle towed. He has never been identified or located. Johnson had been involved in a relationship with Cleveland Hill Jr."

Clearwater Police Department cold case:

  • Margaret Dash
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      • 38 years old when she went missing in 1974
      • "Margaret Dash was reported missing by her husband. He reported that Dash was having an affair with Cleveland Hill Jr. (Black Male, 23 years of age at the time). The husband stated Hill threatened to kill his wife if she did not leave her husband and run away with him. Dash's vehicle was located in St. Petersburg two months after she was last seen."

Hill, per PCSO's website, "died in 2018 and denied any knowledge or involvement until his death."

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The Clearwater Police Department said it has no reason to believe that Margaret Dash's case is connected to the excavation. The only thing that connects the disappearances of Dash and Hiers is their relationships with Hill Jr.

Several family members of Retha Hiers spent the day Wednesday watching as forensic experts dug up the property and combed the soil for evidence.

Dana Hiers will never forget her last memory of her mom. She was 14 and going with her dad and siblings to buy gifts a few days after Christmas.

“My dad was at the back door getting in the truck and my dad asked my mom 'Retha, are you going to be here when I get back?' and she said 'Yes, Howard I'll be here.' I can remember her just waving bye telling us she loved us. It was the last time I saw her," Dana Hiers remembered.

She and her six siblings have wondered every day for 39 years what happened to their mom.

"I miss that smile. Her love for her kids. I just pray we find something. It’s been too long. Too long. I’ve worked on this for over 30 years myself," she explained.

In 1982, Hiers left her Largo home to buy laundry soap and she was never seen again.

The property detectives are focusing on now was once owned by Hill who was a local minister and asphalt contractor who Hiers had a relationship with.

She had just severed ties with Hill before her disappearance.

A few days after she disappeared, her husband received a letter that was supposedly from Hiers saying she was leaving him for Hill and that she wanted her husband to care for their children.

Four months later, her car was discovered abandoned on Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater.

Hill served time in prison for assault after shooting his wife and mother-in-law in 1968. He was released prior to meeting all three women. He later died of cancer in 2018 and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said he denied being linked to the disappearance of any of the women.

Dana Hiers doesn't believe it.

"Every woman who he got involved with, I’ve heard they try to break off the relationship and they disappear. They just disappear so I know he had something to do with it," she said.

Detectives dug up the same land in 1993 but didn’t find anything. Now, they hope improved technology will help them find evidence that could potentially give the Hiers family closure.

Habitat for Humanity currently owns the property and planned to break ground on the land for three new homes within the next few months. The families were already selected. Now, that project is on hold as the investigation continues.

Mike Sutton, who heads up Pinellas County's Habitat for Humanity Chapter said they won't decide what will happen next until the investigation is finalized.

"If they do find some remains, we will deal with it at that point and figure out the next steps. We’ve built almost 800 homes now in our community and we’ve never had a situation like this but just getting to know the Hiers family and knowing the pain they have experienced, we want some answers for her so pausing the project won’t hurt Habitat for Humanity in any way," Sutton said adding that they will find a new location for the families if needed.