A woman’s body was found in this steamer trunk on Halloween of 1969 near the parking lot of a restaurant.
ST. PETERSBURG — It was Halloween 1969. Payday for St. Petersburg police Sgt. Bill Carlisle. His police chief joked they needed some excitement, maybe a bank robbery.
Instead they were called to the scene of a gruesome murder that has haunted Carlisle to this day and drew him to a chilly St. Petersburg cemetery Wednesday morning.
Carlisle watched as a new set of investigators worked to exhume the body of a woman in her 30s found dead that Halloween day in 1969 in a steamer trunk near the parking lot of the Oyster Bar Restaurant. The rope used to strangle her was still around her neck.
Carlisle and his detectives interviewed scores of people, checked with luggage manufacturers and talked to the FBI. Seven missing women matched the body's description, but the case was never closed and the woman never identified.
It is one of three unsolved homicides with unidentified victims that cold case investigators are now determined to crack.
So, as Carlisle watched, investigators and a team from the University of South Florida spent Wednesday morning exhuming the bodies from Memorial Park Cemetery. They hope to match the DNA from the bodies with the families of missing people nationwide.
Carlisle, 83 and long retired, saw the body put in the ground. He wanted to see it come out.
"It still haunts me," he said. "I dream about it. Believe me."
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In June 1973, a teenage girl from the Carolinas reportedly named Marie was involved in an altercation with a man who pushed her into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Marie died on impact. The man was charged with manslaughter, the charges were dropped and the criminal case was closed.
Marie's real name was never discovered.
In April 1980, two men were shot to death in Room 15 at the Siesta Motel. Neither man had identification, but one was later identified. The second, a white man in his 30s, was never identified.
Kyle Coy "Cowboy" Watson was charged with murder. He was shot to death a few months later outside Knoxville, Tenn. Case closed.
The teenage girl, the man in the motel and the woman in the trunk were buried in plots next to a sprawling tree. No headstones marked their graves.
Now they were being dug up from their potter's field. Maybe they would soon be reburied with names.
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Brenda Stevenson, a civilian investigator who works with homicide detectives, said examining the bodies brings some closure to families, if not justice.
In 2008, Stevenson discovered the identity of a body found in 1989 using DNA. She said they have an obligation to the victim's families to let them know what happened to their missing loved ones.
"How do you go 20, 30, 40 years without knowing what happened to your daughter or son?" Stevenson said.
John Bunnell, the cemetery's general manager, agreed to exhume the bodies at the cemetery's expense, and Erin Kimmerle, a USF forensic anthropologist, helped police and the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office unearth the bodies Wednesday. Some of Kimmerle's students assisted.
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As police, professors and students dug and sifted through dirt, Carlisle stood nearby watching.
After his 20 years with the St. Petersburg Police Department, he retired and taught at the police academy for 16 years. Some of his former students were at the exhumation and thanked him for showing up.
He used the steamer trunk case as a teaching tool at the academy. It showed that you can have the what, where, when, why and how, and it still doesn't matter much without the who.
After glancing at all of the new tools unavailable 40 years ago, he had one thought: "I just hope it works."
Andy Boyle can be reached at (727) 893-8087 or firstname.lastname@example.org.