Cold Case Technique Class Studies Unsolved Murder; Investigators Examine Cases, Make Notes and Try to Form New Leads

Article excerpt

Byline: DANA TREEN

The unsolved case of Roberta Johnson - a mother beaten to death in her ninth month of pregnancy and buried in a sandy Ocala grave more than a decade ago - got a fresh look recently in Jacksonville, where the investigation is now focused.

When she died, detectives believe, Johnson was trying to shake down a married lover who has never been charged in the case.

Detective Donald Buie of the Marion County Sheriff's Office said Johnson was beaten on the back of the head before she was buried in a 4-foot-deep grave that was covered with the hood from an old Chevrolet.

In late June, Buie brought the case to a week-long class on cold case techniques at a police training institute on the University of North Florida campus.

There, a small group of homicide detectives and supervisors from Florida and Georgia spent mornings with instructors on subjects such as setting up cold case units and using improvements in technology and information databases. Afternoon sessions were dedicated to unsolved cases the detectives brought for dissection.

A prime suspect in the Ocala case, Buie told the class, was an Army recruiter in Central Florida named Drayton Florence Sr., whose son later became a professional football player and is a former Jaguar. Buie said if the recruiter was the father of Johnson's child, it would be his third outside his marriage.

"There is no other person that stands out," Buie said. "He's the only person who has not been cooperative."

Now 52, retired and living in Jacksonville, Florence confirmed to The Times-Union that he has been interviewed by police and had known Johnson for 10 or 15 years.

He said he told investigators everything he knew in 1999.

"I know I didn't do it," he said this week.

Florence said he did not have an intimate relationship with Johnson and she never tried to tie him to her pregnancy.

"It was troubling to me also," he said of her slaying. "She was my friend."

Florence was interviewed the weekend Johnson died but spoke only briefly to investigators, said Buie, who has had the case for about two years as part of his duties as a homicide detective.

In the classroom Buie laid out the crime, from Johnson's disappearance on April 24, 1999, to the conclusion that the man investigators wanted was panicked - in danger of being forced to pay child support and perhaps lose part of his pension.

It was a breaking point "that he just couldn't bear," Buie told the class. "So he definitely had to get rid of her."

But even with a search of Florence's house at the time, Buie acknowledges the case is unresolved because evidence has not been conclusive and witnesses never put Johnson and Florence together on the day she disappeared.

Poised with yellow legal pads for notes, the half-dozen other detectives in the classroom questioned Buie and offered suggestions while his supervisor, Capt. Robert Sandlin, scribbled them down.

"There's a lot here I like," Sandlin said after the session, checking two pages of notes that ranged from setting up a Facebook page on the case to using new techniques to retest evidence for new clues.

THE CASE

When she died, Johnson was a 38-year-old mother and bus driver who had done a stint in the Army, recruited by Florence.

On the day she disappeared, she took her daughter to Saturday classes at an Ocala high school and phoned her mother to say she had a 10 a.m. appointment at a local Winn-Dixie. After dropping her daughter at school, she took her daughter's boyfriend home.

He was one of the last people to see her alive.

Her body was found the following Monday after her family reported her missing and a city policeman noticed what appeared to be disturbed ground beneath an old truck hood off an Ocala lover's lane. Johnson was in the grave.

Her car was found in the Winn-Dixie parking lot. …