ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – The crime scene in a wooded area off Piedmont-Wekiva Road in the Apopka area was gruesome.
A man searching the woods for scrap metal lifted a piece of tin and discovered what he called a rotting “mummified” body still wearing her jewelry and a blood-stained New York Giants t-shirt.
In 1993, it made headlines for weeks. Detectives had no clue who the woman was and even published a composite sketch. Then the case went cold. The woman’s case file now rests in the Cold Case Room - a storage room at the end of an industrial hallway in the basement of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
Detective Corporal David Nutting has been tasked with managing the room and all of the folders in it, spread out on shelves of towering cabinets that slide along tracks. It takes spinning a wheel to roll a cabinet along the tracks to access the folders on the other side.
“We have over 500 cold case folders,” Nutting said.
The folders are in chronological order dating back to 1941. Some have been opened, organized and updated over the years. Some have not.
“As those cases pile up those are families that are left without answers,” Nutting said.
Orange County Sheriff John Mina made getting results for those families a priority. Last year, he dedicated Nutting and two others entirely and exclusively to the new Cold Case Unit.
In the past, detectives would look over a cold case in their spare time. The problem? Cold case investigations take so much time — weeks and months. Detectives working on active cases generally didn’t have enough time to make any real progress on cold cases.
“Just to build a case and do a comprehensive audit and reconstruction takes weeks if not months sometimes,” Nutting said.
As an example, Nutting poured a bag of audio cassette tapes into a pile on a table. The tapes are recordings of witness interviews in a decades-old case. Every single tape must be converted to a digital file so detectives can listen to the recordings again and, just as importantly, preserve the evidence for the future.
The magnetic strip inside the analog cassette tape will eventually disintegrate and or lose its magnetism making the recordings a total loss.
“And this is just one case,” Nutting said.
Each one of 500 folders needs to be dissected. The papers and pictures in the folders are old and must be scanned to preserve them.
Surveillance video needs to be rewatched, sometimes for days at a time.
“It could take an hour or two to go through one channel, and you have eight channels to go through. On one day,” Nutting said.
And witnesses and family members need to be re-interviewed, sometimes across the country, if detectives can find them.
“I never feel like I’m spinning my wheels but I do get overwhelmed sometimes,” Nutting said. “I definitely lose sleep over some of these cases.”
But the new attention to these age-old files by the detectives is getting results together. Detectives just knocked on a man’s door in Georgia and arrested him, they said, after identifying him from a bloody fingerprint as the murderer who left a young woman tied up in a comforter 23 years ago.
In just the past year, the cold case unit has solved 10 cold crimes. That’s more than have been solved over the past several decades.
“It’s like chopping wood, we just keep chopping,” Nutting said.
Nutting, as the unit supervisor, is opening all of the case files and assigning the ones that have the best chance of being solved to detectives immediately. The more difficult ones will be assigned later.
As for the woman’s body found in the woods in 1993, Nutting said detectives back then nicknamed her “Miss Wekiva.”
They’d like to learn her real name so they can notify her family and determine if her killer killed again.
“If we identify her we may be able to break the case wide open,” Nutting said.