An anniversary no one's celebrating

Today marks 14 years since the fatal abduction of Jennifer Odom. Her case remains unsolved but not forgotten.

Published February 19, 2007

Murder forms strange associations.

Take Jennifer Odom and Jessica Lunsford, two girls whose lives never overlapped.

One was 12, the other was 9. Both were abducted and murdered on the North Suncoast. And in death, their lives have been linked.

These days, with John Couey being tried in Miami-Dade County on charges of killing Lunsford, it's hard not to think of the Odom case, and the justice that the dead girl has yet to receive.

Fourteen years ago today, on Feb. 19, 1993, Jennifer Odom was snatched from her bus stop in rural Pasco County. Hundreds of people searched for six days until her body was found in an orange grove in an out-of-the-way part of southeast Hernando County.

Her case has gone cold since.

Seven thousand leads have come in to the Hernando Sheriff's Office in the past 14 years. The murder has been featured on Unsolved Mysteries. Authorities even brought one man before a grand jury, but he was not indicted.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't do something in the case," said Hernando cold case Detective Mike Nelson.

Some possible suspects are around locally and some have moved to other states, but Nelson said he hasn't zeroed in on any single person.

So the mystery drags on for Jennifer, even as Jessica's case seems poised for a resolution.

"Not knowing who that person is, you look at everybody," said Renee Converse, Jennifer's mother. "Was it somebody she knew? Somebody she didn't know?"

"There's a real chance that the person who did it is somebody we have contact with," added Clark Converse, Renee's husband.

The couple say they've done everything possible to cooperate in finding Jennifer's killer. They want the person found so that no one else gets hurt.

But they also talk about how an arrest would dredge up the pain once again.

"If they catch someone, we're going to be thrown into the spotlight," Clark Converse said. "Learning how to deal with a trial and confronting this person is going to throw us to square one in learning to deal with this."

"It's going to be a bittersweet finale," Renee Converse said.

A year ago, the Hernando Sheriff's Office held a news conference to reinvigorate the case. It announced that the FBI's National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime was getting involved. The FBI would help look for similar cases around the country. Forensic evidence was being reprocessed.

A slide show was put together with photos of Jennifer set to a mournful sound track. Her parents spoke. The event generated attention and hundreds of leads - far more than in any of the other dozen or so unsolved murders in Hernando County.

"That just reinforces how much this case still pulls on the community," Nelson said. "One of these days one of those phone calls will come in that will make all the difference in the world."

Since that news conference, however, life has marched on for Jennifer's family. Her grandfather died. Her younger sister, Jessica, became engaged.

And as the date of Jennifer's abduction rolled around again this year, her family dealt with the same pain it does every day, only they "cry a little more," Renee Converse said.

"The reality is that Jennifer is gone and will never be in our lives again. Nothing is going to change that," she said.

But she's thankful for what they do know: "We are blessed that we have this much closure. We're not looking for her. We know where she is."

A Web site has been set up by the Hernando Sheriff's Office with pictures and information about Jennifer Odom: www.hcso.hernando.fl.us/Jennifer

Anyone with information is asked to call toll-free at 1-888-785-8308.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or 352 754-6114.