Suspect’s family assists Orange County deputies in cracking 30-year-old cold case

Arrest announced ‘30 years to the day’ after murder

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office discussed an arrest made in a 1992 cold case at a news conference Wednesday morning.

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orange County Sheriff’s Office discussed an arrest made in a 1992 cold case at a news conference Wednesday morning.

Deputies said they arrested Ronald Cates in connection with the death of John Stagner, 53, which occurred on Aug. 10, 1992.

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According to investigators, Cates was a family friend of Stagner and a person of interest from the beginning, but probable cause to arrest him was not attained until the formation of the sheriff’s office’s cold case team in 2020, Sheriff John Mina said.

“I’m so very proud of our cold case team,” Mina said. “Since we started the cold case team in 2020, they have solved 13 cases dating back to 1984.”

Cates, who is currently awaiting extradition in North Carolina’s Rowan County jail, is facing a first-degree homicide charge in connection with Stagner’s death, Mina said.

“These cases are extremely important to us. We want our community to know that just because the case is a year old, or five years old or 30 years old, doesn’t mean we stop investigating the case,” Mina said.

Detective Kevin Wilson detailed the case, in which he said the original investigators did an incredible job laying the groundwork and interviewing family members.

“John Stagner was a very hardworking man that worked for Orange County. He was a maintenance worker that actually lived on the Orange County maintenance property,” Wilson said. “On the early, early morning of Aug. 10 of 1992, about 5 in the morning, his wife went in to wake him up and he was cold to the touch and deceased with head trauma.”

Detectives at the time reportedly knew that Cates borrowed several power tools from Stagner, but Wilson said Cates pawned them to fund a drug habit. At one point, Stagner confronted Cates about his missing tools, demanding the items be returned.

“At the time, when detectives started kind of investigating this, they went to the Cates’ home. One of the daughters was visibly shaking at home and said that he wasn’t in the home,” Wilson said. “Later on, the detectives learned that Mr. Cates actually hid under the house that day, asked his daughter to lie for him and say he wasn’t home.”

When detectives were able to locate and interview Cates later that day, as well as a week later, his and his family’s stories didn’t align, Wilson said. Years later in 1995, in what Wilson called a “suicidal incident,” Cates reportedly claimed he killed Stagner, saying so multiple times in front of his family members.

While there still wasn’t enough to charge Cates given the technology and evidence at the time, that changed in 2020 when a family member of the Cates family approached the sheriff’s office and “got this ball rolling again,” Wilson said.

“In March of 2022, I actually took over the case, conferred and checked in with the other detectives. We ended up making extensive interviews with these family members and the family members felt like they could come out and tell a little bit more of their story because they were in fear of Mr. Cates their whole lives because he was very abusive to them,” Wilson said. “In April 2022, he actually confessed to (the) Salisbury Police Department in the hospital up there — he was in there for basically a Baker Act but in North Carolina — and he asked to speak to a nurse, and the nurse heard him say that he killed someone in Florida in 1992.”

After research linked Cates’ statements to the cold case based on information posted on the sheriff’s office’s website, hospital staff invited Sailsbury police to obtain Cates’ confession on body-worn camera, leaving law enforcement with enough evidence to charge Cates with homicide in Florida, Wilson said.

Cpl. David Nutting, who oversees the team comprised of himself and three detectives, spoke more on the progress they’ve made since 2020.

“In a 1996 case, the stabbing death of Terence Piquette, Kenneth Stau is currently in the Orange County jail awaiting trial. That case was solved by the use of forensic genetic genealogy. We have a 2007 home invasion murder of Felix Paguata. Cameron Denard was arrested earlier this month (in connection with that death). He was in prison and that case was solved through the use of fingerprint technology,” Nutting said. “We have the 2015 murder of Delroy Baker, who was murdered in a home invasion. The case was solved through DNA work and cellphone analysis and extensive interviews, and that case was recently adjudicated; the suspect in that case — Louis Farmer — was found guilty by jury and sentenced to life in prison.”

Nutting also mentioned the 1997 murder of Donna Byrd, 42, whose strangulation death was linked to a Georgia man through fingerprint technology.

“In addition, some of the other duties that we have, we have over 20 unidentified human remains in our jurisdiction. We’ve secured funding through a variety of resources to test all of these remains through forensic genetic genealogy,” Nutting said. “So it’s gonna be a long process, however, you know, we’re confident that we will be able to identify all of these remains, and that will give us a jump start on murder investigations. Twelve of those victims are murder victims.”

In total, Nutting said the team has just over 500 cases that date back to 1941 with the murder of an Apopka police officer. The team works through more than 40 cases on a quarterly basis, Nutting said.

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About the Author:

Brandon, a UCF grad, joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021. Before joining News 6, Brandon worked at WDBO.