'Nothing will ever be the same'
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
DADE CITY -- Jessica Odom came down the dirt road, past Grandma's house and a swath of orange groves, to her white mobile home with green shutters.
She sighed. The door was locked again.
Sometimes Jennifer, 12, would do that: Beat her 9-year-old sister home from school and lock her out. It was part of a never-ending game of hide-and-seek. Jennifer always had the upper hand because her bus from Weightman Middle School came home first.
"I thought she was playing a joke on me," Jessica said. "And I was mad, and I went to Grandma's and I called Mom and said, 'Jennifer's playing a joke and she locked me out of the house and won't let me in.' "
Her grandmother, Margie Denney, had a key to the home and let her in. Jessie started looking.
No sign of Jenny in her room, or anywhere else in the house.
She called her mom, Renee Converse, who told her to check the closet where Jennifer always kept her book bag. Empty.
The rest of the story unfolded in a panic that is largely a blur to Jessica now.
Renee and her husband, Clark Converse, raced home to look for Jenny. Four hundred volunteers scoured the countryside for days, searching for the bubbly honor roll student.
The following week, a couple found Jennifer's body near a horse trail, amid a cluster of pine trees in a Hernando County orange grove. Her killer was never caught.
This Wednesday will be 10 years to the day that she disappeared.
It was a case that forever changed a family, the rural community of St. Joseph and a county that largely considered itself safe.
Parents clung tighter to their children. Posters for Community Child Watch, a neighborhood watch group formed in the wake of the tragedy, appeared in the windows of more than 400 Pasco County homes.
Sheriff's detectives spun their wheels chasing an elusive killer. And the Converse family missed out on the life Jennifer would have had.
Renee Converse pictures what Jenny would be like now, as a 22-year-old. She would have graduated from college last spring and probably would be starting law school.
She would have her mother's brown eyes, long brown hair and sunny smile.
"I think about it all the time," said Renee, 43, a data processing technician for the county. "What would she be doing? Where would she be? What would she look like? Would she be in school? Would she be married? Would she have children?"
Jennifer's friends think about her as they pass life's milestones -- birthdays, driver's license tests, graduations.
They grew up. Jenny remains frozen at 12.
The unused sink
Jessica Converse is now a 19-year-old with a soft smile and her adoptive father's surname. Her life has moved on and in many ways became normal.
She raised award-winning pigs for the county fair and graduated from high school. She has a boyfriend and studies at Pasco Hernando Community College with thoughts of becoming, perhaps, a pediatrician.
But every morning she walks past the door to Jenny's old room, into the oversized bathroom they were supposed to share.
The Converses built it with two sinks and two mirrors, so the sisters would have space to get ready in the mornings without bickering over the bathroom.
Now it's a room where Jessica feels alone, even though her sister's picture smiles at her from the other mirror.
"I don't use her sink," Jessica said. "She has her own sink, and I don't use it."
Most 19-year-olds would be thrilled to have the house to themselves when their parents go out of town for the weekend. But Jessica always stays with relatives or invites friends over to spend the night.
"I don't come home at night unless Mom is home," said Jessica, her voice quivering as tears streamed down her face. "I drove around one night for an hour and a half until she got home."
"I just walk around and I live my life as, 'What if?' " Jessica added. "I can't go out anywhere or do anything because, 'What if?' "
A difficult visit
From the moment Jennifer vanished Feb. 19, 1993, Clark and Renee Converse grappled with their grief in opposite ways.
Renee waited quietly at home, rocking in her wooden rocking chair, looking out the bay window, waiting for Jenny to walk down the driveway any minute.
Clark joined the search parties that combed 60 square miles of rolling groves, pastures and woods.
After Jennifer's body was found six days later in a southeastern Hernando County orange grove, Renee struggled to believe it was her daughter.
Authorities identified Jenny by her jewelry -- a gold chain with half of a heart-shaped "Best Friend" charm. Fingerprints later confirmed what detectives already knew, but the family never saw Jennifer's body, which had been exposed to the elements for nearly a week.
"For me, it was hard to believe it was really her, because we didn't see her," Renee said.
Her husband tried to help her cope.
"I'd try to talk to (Renee) about it -- you know, what was wrong, how she was doing -- and her response was, I'm fine," Clark Converse said. "She wasn't, but that was her response.
"My way of dealing with it was to go out to the woods where she was found, and yell and scream and let my anger out, and try to tidy everything up," said Clark, who would clear away the weeds and straighten the wooden cross planted at the crime scene.
Renee has never been to the site. Nor could she bring herself to visit the brushy area north of Spring Hill, where a couple found Jennifer's book bag and clarinet case in 1995.
The thought of going was always too painful, she said. But lately she has been thinking about making the difficult trek to the orange grove.
"Right now, I won't even drive down the road," Renee said. "I'm not saying I will -- I'm just thinking, maybe."
The 10-year mark is no different for the family than any other year that has passed since Jennifer's death, said Clark Converse, 55. He works at the county incinerator and runs the Pasco County Fair that, sadly, overlaps each year with the date of Jennifer's disappearance.
"People think that after it's been over for a couple of years, that you just get on with your life," Clark said. "And you don't. I mean, you do get on with your life, but you learn that it's a reality, that it's always going to exist and you learn how to cope with it.
"You don't ever wake up one morning and it's over."
Clark now stops to look at the missing children posters on the bulletin board at Wal-Mart. The sight of a school bus sometimes makes Renee cry.
For Jessie, it can be something as innocent as a slip of the tongue: Someone accidentally calls her Je-nnifer instead of Je-ssica.
Jessie swallows hard and tries not to let it show.
A vexing case
Hundreds of leads poured into the Hernando County Sheriff's Office in the days after Jennifer's body was found. Investigators from that office and other agencies -- the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI -- sifted through the tips but had little evidence to go on.
Some students had seen an old light blue pickup truck near Jennifer's bus stop that Friday, but no one saw the abduction.
More than an inch of rain fell the Monday after Jennifer's disappearance, possibly washing away some clues before her body was found that Thursday. Her clothes, which could have picked up hairs or fibers from her attacker, never turned up.
Her book bag and clarinet case went undiscovered for nearly two years. A break came in the summer of 1995, when the FBI found a fingerprint in the book bag that didn't match Jennifer, her family or the couple who found it. But so far authorities have been unable to link the print to anyone.
The investigation now falls to the sheriff's cold case unit in Hernando County, where Jennifer's body was found. Detective Mike Nelson and two volunteers, a pair of retired homicide detectives who come in two or three times a week, began reinterviewing witnesses several months ago.
More than 6,000 tips fill dozens of black binders inside two locked steel cabinets. One by one, the detectives are revisiting each lead.
Nelson also sent all of the evidence back to the FDLE to see if new technology could lift new clues.
He compares notes with investigators across the country handling similar child abduction cases, in the hope they are chasing the same attacker.
"I'm always trying to think of what else we can try," Nelson said. "I have to keep a notebook with me all the time. You don't know when it will hit you, 'Oh, let's do this or call this person.' "
The case lingers with the officers who handled it over the years. Several detectives still keep Jennifer's picture on their desks or dashboards. Former Pasco County Sheriff Lee Cannon thinks of her whenever he sees an old blue pickup truck.
"Every time I drive on County Road 41, I'm always on the lookout," said Cannon, who came to the Converse home 10 years ago to deliver the news of Jennifer's death.
Most murders are solved within a week -- when witnesses' memories are fresh, when agencies pour the most manpower into the investigation, when bits of evidence come together like pieces in a puzzle, Nelson said.
Everyone knows the chances of catching Jennifer's killer diminish as time goes on.
"It's still not unheard of for cases to be solved years later," said Harold Sample, who was Cannon's right-hand man during the early years of the investigation. "But it's going to take someone coming forward with personal knowledge to make it happen."
A haunting decision
Jennifer's death touched the Sample family deeply. Harold Sample's daughter, Michelle, wore the other half of Jenny's "Best Friend" charm. She was one of the last people to wave goodbye to her.
The girls, both clarinet players, were supposed to meet up later that evening to practice for a band competition.
Jennifer invited Michelle to get off the bus with her that afternoon, Sample said, but Michelle declined: Her mom would get upset if she didn't come home first.
The decision haunted Michelle for years to come.
"She second-guessed that for a long time, whether that would have prevented it," Sample said. "Of course, the other side of that is, it could have been both of them."
Jennifer's death unnerved the entire community. Emily Riley, one of Jenny's close friends, said her parents put her in an after-school program so she wouldn't have to take the school bus home.
Jessica Floyd, then a seventh-grader who got off one stop after Jennifer, said parents in the neighborhood took turns meeting children at the bus stop. Some residents tacked up Community Child Watch posters in their windows, a reminder that the neighbors were looking out for kids and their would-be attackers.
Jennifer's friends feared the killer might have her address book, which would contain their names, phone numbers and addresses, Riley said.
"The question was always, why her? Why that day? And why haven't they caught this person yet?" said Riley, now a 22-year-old nursing student. "I think that's why a lot of us still have a problem with it, because that person is still out there."
"Nothing was ever the same again," added Floyd, a 23-year-old now working for a pharmaceutical company. "Everyone was so aware, that just because this was a small town, it didn't mean something like this couldn't happen."
There will be no closure
While they want Jennifer's killer locked away from other children, catching him won't bring closure for the family, Clark Converse said.
They would have to endure a trial, listen to the grim details of Jennifer's final hours and face a new crush of reporters covering the high-profile case, he said.
"The only closure we would have is knowing what happened, but she's never coming back," Clark said.
It has been a searching decade for the Converses, wondering whether the killer could be someone Jennifer knew, someone whose path still crosses theirs.
"For us, we don't want to believe we could actually be shaking hands with or sitting down with the person who did this," Clark said. "I think we rationalize, 'Oh, it wasn't somebody we know,' because we don't want it to be somebody we know."
But the Converses can't imagine why anyone would want to kill Jennifer, leading them to think it was a random attack by a stranger.
Jennifer's room tells the story of her family's efforts to cope. Her framed portrait rises above a shelf filled with her barefoot water-skiing trophies. A tall bookshelf keeps her pictures, pencils and papers just the way she left them.
The other side of the room is now a storage space, stacked with boxes of stuff Renee Converse collected for an annual yard sale she holds with several friends.
Jennifer's memory is preserved, but life moves on.
"We were very together as a family, and we're still that way," said Renee, her eyes welling with tears. "We just have one less, and she is missed all the time."
At times, Renee still struggles to let go. Clark has come home some nights and found her back in her wooden rocking chair.
Staring out the bay window.
Still waiting for her daughter to come home.
-- Bridget Hall Grumet covers crime in east Pasco. She can be reached at (352) 521-5757 ext. 23 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 23.
Jennifer Odom timeline
FEB. 19, 1993: 12-year-old Jennifer Odom steps off the school bus, about 200 yards from her St. Joseph home in east Pasco County.
FEB. 25, 1993: A Brooksville couple discover Jennifer's body along a Spring Lake horse trail in a southeast Hernando County orange grove. Authorities say she died from a head trauma.
DEC. 2, 1994: Jennifer's case is featured on the NBC television show Unsolved Mysteries. Viewers call in with more than 50 tips.
JAN. 5, 1995: A couple hunting for scrap metal find Jennifer's book bag and clarinet case in a rural area in Hernando County, about 12 miles from where her body was found.
JULY 14, 1995: The FBI finds a fingerprint inside Jennifer's book bag. Authorities later say the fingerprint does not belong to Jennifer, her family or the couple who discovered the bag. They find no matches with fingerprints in state and federal criminal databases.
OCT. 2, 1997: Sharra Ferger, a 9-year-old girl, is taken from her Blanton home and stabbed to death. The case evokes memories of Jennifer's death, but authorities believe they are unconnected.
JULY 21, 1998: Police detain a Maine woodsman, Walter Ducharme, for questioning about Jennifer's death.
NOV. 18, 1998: After hearing two days of testimony, a Brooksville grand jury decides not to indict Ducharme in Jennifer's murder.
DEC. 3, 1998: Acting on a tip, a team of forensic technicians searches a Brooksville mobile home for clues in the Odom case.
DEC. 21, 1998: A sheriff's dive team spends five hours searching a large pond near the site where Jennifer's book bag and clarinet case had been found. A man said he found a bag with some papers and a videotape inside, but threw the bag back into the pond before realizing it might pertain to the Odom case. Divers can't find it.
2001: Hernando County's newly formed cold case unit picks up the Odom investigation.
JULY 3, 2002: Richard Evonitz, a man wanted for kidnapping and raping a South Carolina girl, kills himself as Sarasota police officers close in. Hernando detectives evaluate him as a possible suspect in the Odom case, but later rule him out.
-- Source: Times files
Anyone with information about Jennifer Odom's death is asked to call Detective Mike Nelson at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office toll-free at 1-877-282-5727 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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