LAKE PANASOFFKEE — The Lake Panasoffkee bridge is a forgettable span that thousands of travelers cross every day.
There is little to distinguish this half-mile section of Interstate 75 from the rest of the highway. Thick trees line both sides of the bridge, giving little indication that there is water underneath. Travelers speed past, likely never giving the bridge or the lake beneath it a second thought.
However nondescript the bridge may be, countless travelers have given it a deadly history that has left a mark on Sumter County. Before the bridge was widened to accommodate the traffic flow, fatalities were a common occurrence.
But perhaps the best-known fatality on the bridge was not the result of an accident.
On Feb. 19, 1971, two hitchhikers were walking on the side of the northbound lanes of the bridge when they noticed the body of a young woman floating in the water below. The hitchhikers flagged down a Sumter County sheriff’s deputy, beginning what has now become one of Sumter County’s oldest homicide investigations.
Thirty-five years later, Sumter County sheriff’s Capt. Gary Brannen thumbs through the contents of a cardboard box marked “Little Miss Panasoffkee,” which contains the entire case file on the still-unidentified woman.
“We don’t necessarily hold out a whole lot of hope of solving who killed Miss Panasoffkee,” Brannen said, using the name former sheriff James Adams gave the woman in the 1980s. “Our best hope is that we will find out who she was. That’s what we really want to do. She’s somebody’s child. They’re still worried about that child, not knowing what happened to her, and we’d like to put that to rest.”
The accepted theory
“Little Miss Panasoffkee” was found with a man’s size 36 leather belt looped twice around her neck, and investigators determined the cause of death was strangulation.
“It appeared that she had been murdered, maybe in a car as it was being driven down the road, or killed at some point in time, and brought there and dumped out, off the bridge,” Brannen said. “Even then, it was a well-traveled roadway. It very well may have been just somebody passing through that did this and then dumped the body.”
Forensic anthropologist William Maples of the University of Florida examined the remains after they were exhumed in 1986.
Maples concluded that the woman was most likely between the ages of 18 and 19 when she died. She could have been as old as 23. “Little Miss Panasoffkee” was Caucasian, but facial features indicate that she may have had some Native American ancestry.
“This person had been taken care of at some point in time,” Brannen said. He noted that X-rays of the remains revealed that the woman had undergone dental work to include fillings in several teeth. Maples also found evidence that the woman had possibly gone through two pregnancies, giving investigators reason to believe that the woman still has family somewhere.
“We believe it’s a person who is disenfranchised from her family. They’re not in the family fold, so to speak,” Brannen said.
“People come to Florida even today. A lot of them come here for the wrong reasons, because they think that everybody in Florida lives on the beach and there’s all sorts of jobs available,” he said. “Really, Florida can be a very treacherous place for people who are not familiar with it and are somewhat naive.”
Perhaps Maples’ most peculiar find was evidence of orthopedic surgery to the woman’s right ankle.
“Her right ankle had orthopedic surgery and the technique that was used in it was called the Watson-Jones technique,” Brannen said.
“We believe that the surgery occurred probably between 1967 and 1970. This was something that we really thought would give us a very good chance of doing something,” he said. “We thought that was a very good clue that we got out at that time in 1986 to the orthopedic community through medical journals and such, to see if possibly somebody had done surgery on someone and then later on that person went missing. Again, that didn’t give us anything, but we’re still hopeful.”
When the investigation began, many tips investigators received came from people who believed the girl may have been their runaway daughter, Brannen said. In contrast, he said, most of the leads that investigators receive today are from people who believe the woman may be their mother, whom they have not seen for many years.
Investigators combed missing persons files from around the country, but no match was ever made. Likewise, no strong suspects in the murder have ever been identified.
“Thirty-five years of work and we don’t have any more of an idea of who she is today than we did in 1971,” Brannen said. “It’s one of those cases that still haunts us.”
Reasons for hope
One major obstacle that has hampered the investigation from the beginning was the lack of resources that were available in Sumter County in the early 1970s.
“Our laboratory resources were not what they are today. The media was not as accessible. The Internet wasn’t there,” Brannen said. “There were all sorts of things back then that hampered an investigation. But they did as best as they could back then with what they had.
“The good news is that we were able to send the bones recently to the FBI in Washington, and they were able to extract some DNA,” he said. “So if we do come to a good lead to where we believe that this person could be a relative of Miss Panasoffkee, we can take DNA samples and send them to the FBI to see if they’re included in that.”
In addition to the availability of DNA technology, recent plans to develop a statewide cold case team, utilizing resources from law enforcement agencies from across Florida, have been set in motion. The idea of developing what is known as a Cold Case Review Assessment Team in Florida is something that was spearheaded by Sumter County officials following their work with the cold case team run by the Texas Sheriff’s Association.
Sumter County sheriff’s officials sought the help of the Texas team during their investigation of the 2000 murder of 72-year-old Margarita Ruiz and her 45-year-old daughter Esperanza Wells in the rural community of Tarrytown, near Webster. After the homicide had been classified as a cold case for six years, investigators earlier this year were able to identify a Wisconsin man as the individual who allegedly shot and stabbed the two women to death.
Brannen said the Texas team developed a profile of the perpetrator in that case that was revealed to be very accurate once the case was solved.
“We didn’t solve our case directly as a result of what they told us,” Brannen said, “but when we did solve it, the profile they gave us was 100 percent accurate. They said it was a paranoid schizophrenic in a delusion, at least 25 years old, and that’s what it was.”
Once the team is started, agencies from all over Florida will be able to bring their own cold cases to the team in Tallahassee, which will meet two to three times a year. The team will examine evidence and report on what they believe needs to be done in order to move the case forward.
“Sometimes the best thing for one of these cases is a fresh set of eyes,” Brannen said.
“This cold case assessment team concept is profilers, laboratory people, investigators, forensic crime scene people, a medical examiner who all get together and start listening and round-tabling this case,” he said. “Before you know it, the detectives who make this presentation have two or three pages of notes to go back and work with to breathe life back into a cold case.”
“There’s that kind of talent here in Florida,” Brannen said. “It’s just a matter of getting that talent all in one place at the same time.”
Even without the benefit of state assistance, the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office has had exceptional luck in solving cold cases. In addition to the Ruiz-Wells homicide, in the past year alone two other cold homicide cases were solved, the oldest from 1987.
“From what I understand from larger agencies, they wish they could do three,” Brannen said. “You just never know. We’re hoping that at some point in time somebody is going to come forward.”
Dan Sullivan is a reporter with the Daily Sun. He can be reached at 753-1119, ext. 9059, or email@example.com.