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Images of child tragedies stand test of time

By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2002

The passage of time and how we perceive it is a strange phenomenon, Marjorie Goldstein and I agreed Tuesday, the 21st anniversary of the day her daughter, Elana, was fatally shot while walking home from her school bus stop in Central Pasco.

In some ways it seems to have been forever since it happened, but I can remember every detail of walking down a corridor at University Community Hospital, desperately not wanting to intrude on a family's grief.

Likewise, I remember the day Clark Converse, Jennifer Odom's stepfather, was in our office talking about the search for his missing stepdaughter. And I remember, a few minutes later, my then-colleague Sally Hicks answering a telephone, turning pale and saying, "Oh God," as she reached for a pen to begin recording that Jennifer's body had been found.

No less clear in memory is the afternoon that Ricky Merrill's parents sat over lunch in a Brooksville restaurant and pleaded with me to help them find out who murdered their son and his friend, Dori Colyer, by setting them on fire in Merrill's El Camino on a downtown Brooksville Street. And equally clear is the night Merrill Wentworth sat, tearful, on the back porch of his West Hernando home and asked for the same help in the death of his daughter, Diane.

Questions have outnumbered answers over the years, but it was comforting to learn last week that the people who really count in those investigations, the police, haven't forgotten.

The Goldstein case is considered closed because authorities believe the man who murdered Elana died 13 years later while imprisoned on another charge. That doesn't mean it will ever be closed for her family.

Also considered closed is the case of Diane Wentworth, found strangled on a country road in 1983. A Spring Hill man was charged, tried and acquitted in that case, and Hernando sheriff's deputies consider the case closed.

But, even within the last year there has been activity in the cases of Jennifer Odom, a popular 12-year-old from northeast Pasco County who was kidnapped near her home and found murdered, six days later, in a copse of trees in Hernando County.

After Richard Evonitz, 38, shot himself to death during a standoff with Sarasota police this summer, Hernando deputies took a "long hard look," at his comings and goings, according to Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Joe Paez.

Police in Virginia were checking to see whether Evonitz had killed three girls there in the late 1990s. Evonitz had been charged with a sex crime involving a child in Florida in 1987 and had been known to be in and out of the state.

"Our investigators spent a long time tracking the timeline of when he was in Florida," said Paez, "and finally determined that he was not in the state at the time of the Odom murder."

And it wasn't the first time the Odom case has galvanized investigators there into a flurry of action.

In 1998 a Maine woman said her husband, who had worked in Florida, had murdered Jennifer. Many elements of her story didn't pan out and, after hearing it, a grand jury refused to indict the man.

Hernando County has come up with an unusual approach to working on the Odom and other "cold cases." Two retired New York Police Department detectives, John O'Haloran and Lou Hernandez, who, between them, have worked on hundreds of homicide cases, volunteer their time to help Hernando authorities on unsolved cases. "They work strictly as volunteers," Paez said. "We pay them nothing, but they put in a lot of hours."

There is also renewed interest in the Merrill and Colyer case, according to Brooksville Police Chief Ed Tincher, who was a patrolman when the murders occurred in 1981. Police believe they know who the killer is, but lack evidence to make an arrest.

Tincher's department is pursuing a new/old lead, a possible witness or participant whose role was discounted by investigators back then.

"It was a guy," said Tincher, declining to name him for the time being, "who lived at what was then the Tangerine Hotel downtown."

Tincher said the man, who was engaged to a Pasco woman, suddenly left town that night, leaving his singed coat and clothes behind in a trash can, and leaving evidence in a sink at the hotel that he had cut off his singed hair.

Pasco authorities hope soon to move into the "closed" column the case of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger, raped, beaten and otherwise brutalized in 1997 by someone who left her body in a field near her Blanton home.

Her uncle, Gary Elishi Cochran, 36, and a family friend, Gary Steven Cannon, 21, are awaiting trial for her murder.

Some cases are colder than others.

Helen "Wendy" LaRoche, a 21-year-old newlywed, was shot to death during a convenience store robbery in 1986, and the case remains unsolved. Travis Crouch, a 20-month-old boy, died of a head injury police think he received in 1998 while alone with his father and the father's girlfriend, neither of whom has been charged.

Also unsolved is the November 2000 death of 1-month-old Puirmesh Mangroo of Zephyrhills, found dead in the crib he shared with his twin sister. Deputies say the death was "most definitely a homicide," but nobody has been charged.

One way or the other, this is the last of 21 annual columns I have written about these cases of the unsolved murders of children and young adults.

They began with a promise I made Marjorie Goldstein and her late husband, Bob, that night in 1981 as their daughter lay dying in an intensive care unit a few feet away, to stay with her case as long as I had the opportunity.

The columns have appeared annually during the first week of December, the anniversary of Elana's death, and my retirement in August means there won't be any more. It was an obligation I assumed for myself, not my eventual replacement or my current colleagues.

But if there is news in any of these cases, you're going to hear about it.

Count on it.

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