Navy airman's 1984 slaying solved through genealogy, Seminole County sheriff says

25-year-old Pamela Cahanes was killed near Sanford

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

SANFORD, Fla. - A Jacksonville man has been charged with murder in the 1984 Seminole County cold case of Navy Airman Apprentice Pamela Cahanes. His arrest is the culmination of more than three decades of investigative efforts, Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma said.

Cahanes, of Stillwater, Minnesota, was 25 when her body was found near Sanford on Aug. 5, 1984. She was slain two days after graduating from the Navy Training Center in Orlando, Lemma said. Her body was found near a vacant home on West First Street, now Riverview Avenue. Detectives said she was strangled.

Lemma held a news conference Thursday to announce the arrest of Thomas Lewis Garner, 59. The sheriff said Garner served in the U.S. Navy at the same time as Cahanes and later became a dental hygienist, living a relatively normal life.

"He was probably under the belief that he was getting away with murder," Lemma said, adding that Garner has not admitted to killing Cahanes.

The sheriff said several investigators worked the case for almost three decades, waiting for technology to improve enough to find a suspect. DNA was left on some of Cahanes' clothing found at the scene. In the last 10 years, with help from NCIS, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Command and, later, Parabon NanoLabs,  which is a genealogy service, Lemma said investigators were able to create Garner's family tree and, eventually, guarantee he was their suspect.

"We were certain that he was the person responsible for the murder. Actually, it was scientific confirmation," Lemma said.

Garner was arrested in Jacksonville and charged with first-degree murder. He is being held in the John E. Polk Correctional Facility without bail.

News 6 spoke with Cahanes' older sister Wednesday, who said detectives flew to Minnesota on Thursday morning to surprise the family with news of the arrest. 

"When she came and sat us down and said they got him, I was jumping out of the chair. I couldn’t believe it," Eileen Bergmann said. 

Loved ones said Cahanas joined the Navy to see more of the world. They said they don't know know why she was murdered and they didn't know the suspect. 

"I guess (we) didn’t think this day would come. It was 1984. They didn’t have DNA in those days and it went on and on," Bergmann said.  

Lemma said he's glad to know the suspect is off the streets.

"We can now say we’ve put closure to this thing -- this horrible, horrible tragedy, and the person responsible is not out there walking the streets," Lemma said.

Bob James is a retired Seminole County investigator who worked the case from the start. 

"Just to provide the family with closure -- every family deserves it, and I hate to have an unsolved case," James said.

Lemma said solving the case was a huge step for everyone involved, and he's glad they finally got answers.

“Our hearts go out to Pamela Cahanes’ family members, who have been steadfast in their search for justice,” Lemma said. “Thanks to decades of persistence from our Major Crimes Unit and partners from NCIS and FDLE, we have taken a giant step forward.”

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