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After apparent murder, woman found burning behind church

Detectives hope photographs of jewelry found on her body will help identify her.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
St. Petersburg Police crime scene technicians Paul Procissi, left, and Emil Nikolov photograph tire tread marks near McCabe United Methodist Church after a burning body was discovered there early Thursday. Investigators said the jewelry pictured below was found on the unidentified victim. Anyone with information is asked to call Detective Mark Deasaro, (727) 893-7339.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- A worried church member called the Rev. Floyd Waters at 5:30 a.m. Thursday to say the parish was burning.


Not again, Waters thought. In 1991, an arson fire gutted the sanctuary.

He soon learned McCabe United Methodist Church was not on fire. Instead, a woman, who apparently had been murdered, was in flames behind the building.

"We don't know who she is," St. Petersburg homicide Sgt. Mike Puetz said Thursday after a day of gathering evidence, which included making casts of tire tracks.

Hoping to identify the woman, detectives released photographs of jewelry found on her body, which was burned beyond recognition. Charred newspaper and black fabric dotted the ground near her body.

Detectives said they did not know anything about the woman's life. An autopsy will be done today, said Dr. Jon Thogmartin, medical examiner.

The woman, described only as black, 5-feet-2 to 5-feet-6 and 120 to 140 pounds, was left in a secluded field behind the church at 2800 26th Ave. S.

Firefighters and police were alerted to a fire on the grounds at 4:13 a.m., when a passer-by called from a cellular telephone. The caller, who was not identified by police, mentioned seeing a white van in the area, and detectives were tracking that lead late Thursday.

When firefighters arrived, they found the woman's body and sprayed it with foam and water. Investigators say her body had been burning for no more than half an hour.

"She was probably dead or unconscious prior to the fire," Puetz said.

Detectives are trying to determine whether a flammable liquid was used to start the fire or if clothing was directly lit.

Arson detective Bill Schorn and forensic technicians Paul Procissi and Emil Nikolov collected items from the scene in unlined metal paint cans. They also took several plaster-like impressions of tire tracks left on the dirt road leading to the field.

As they worked, a St. Petersburg man approached the yellow crime scene tape. He heard the news on the radio and worried the dead woman was his sister. She did not come home Wednesday night.

"My sister's been missing," Paul Word, 40, told officers. "I want to know if it's her."

His sister turned up later. She was fine.

At a nearby corner, a mother waited with her son for the school bus.

"This is really just too close to home," said Antoinette Howard, 32.

Police say they are relying on help from the medical examiner.

Thogmartin, the medical examiner, declined to discuss the investigation but spoke generally about determining manner and cause of death on a badly burned body.

He will look for carbon monoxide and soot in airways to see whether the person was alive at the time of the fire. He also will look for trauma during an internal and external exam of the body.

"Sometimes, it can be very difficult," Thogmartin said. "Sometimes, it can be relatively simple."

Police hope photographs of a bracelet and three rings will identify the woman and generate more leads. One ring is shaped like a heart with the letter "B" in the middle. The bracelet has circular links.

Anyone with information is asked to call Detective Mark Deasaro, (727) 893-7339.

Waters, the church pastor, said the person responsible for burning his church in 1991 was not brought to justice.

But Thursday, his thoughts were on the woman:

"I'm just concerned for the family of whoever that person is who's back there."

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