How a determined detective, partial palmprint cracked 8-year-old murder case

Technology evolved to link palmprint to suspect in rape, murder

By Erik von Ancken - Anchor/Reporter

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Life moved on long ago on Orange County's Makoma Drive, and the grass has now overgrown the yard where 36-year-old Katharyn Zafra's body was found partially nude in 2011.

The fence from which crime scene investigator techs lifted a partial palmprint has been replaced, and the house that had been abandoned at the time of the rape and strangulation is now a home.

Orange County Sheriff's Office Detective Kevin Wilson said at the time of the murder, detectives questioned Zafra's family and friends but that didn't reveal any suspects.

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Neither did the palmprint. It was incomplete and could not be run through police databases.

"At the time when it was ran, it wasn't really enough to make a match at the time," Wilson said. "When I obtained the case in October 2017, I just decided to rerun the print."

Wilson discovered that scanning and recognition technology had advanced enough in six years that the incomplete print was now readable and searchable.

The new search revealed a match.

"It was Jose Melina Mejia," Wilson said. "And at the time, he had an active warrant within the Orange County system."

Wilson said Mejia had been arrested in the past, so his fingerprints and handprints were in the police database.

When Orange County's fugitive unit picked up Mejia for the warrant, Wilson interviewed him in jail.

Mejia denied having anything to do with Zafra's rape and murder, so, to rule him out, Wilson obtained a warrant to collect Mejia's DNA.

"We had a feeling the DNA would tell us if it was him or not," Wilson said. 

It was Mejia, Wilson said. The DNA sample taken from Mejia matched the DNA that crime scene techs collected from under Zafra's fingernails in 2011, according to Wilson.

But Wilson couldn't arrest Mejia. Mejia, from Honduras, had been in the U.S. illegally, according to Wilson.

"[Mejia] was actually deported three days before [Wilson tried to arrest Mejia]," Wilson said.

Wilson spent the next year searching for Wilson in Honduras, working with U.S. marshals and Honduran authorities.

Two months ago, Wilson got a call from U.S. marshals, saying that they'd found Mejia.

"We found him in Jacksonville, Florida," Wilson said.

Mejia had sneaked back into the U.S. illegally a second time, according to Wilson. Had Mejia tried to cross the border legally, he would have been arrested on the murder warrant.

Mejia was transported back to Orange County and booked into jail. He again denied murdering Zafra. 

"Well, it's kinda hard to deny the DNA," Wilson said.

Mejia now awaits trial for Zafra's murder.

Wilson called Zafra's family to tell them Mejia had been arrested.

"They were just like, 'Thank you,' a lot of 'thank yous' and happy about how things have gone and staying with the case," Wilson said.

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