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Police try to connect suspect with boy

Police arrest a man on a murder solicitation charge and look for evidence that would tie him to a missing Clearwater boy.

By CHRIS TISCH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 2001


Police arrest a man on a murder solicitation charge and look for evidence that would tie him to a missing Clearwater boy.

CLEARWATER -- Kevin Jalbert always liked to make up stories. He inflates his tales and makes unsubstantiated boasts, his sister says.

She thinks Jalbert does it to get attention.

This spring, Jalbert said something that got a lot of attention: He told an acquaintance he was a child murderer who wanted to strike again, court records state.

Specifically, Jalbert spoke of the abduction of a young boy in Pinellas County, court records say.

Those statements triggered the response of more than a dozen investigators. Some of them had spent eight months probing the puzzling disappearance of 8-year-old Zach Bernhardt, who vanished from his Clearwater apartment a year ago this month.

The information about Jalbert was the 746th lead in the Bernhardt investigation, and it was a lead investigators considered seriously.

Five Clearwater police detectives, nine undercover detectives, at least 16 agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and six forensic specialists took part in the investigation at one time or another.

Detectives put a tracking device on Jalbert's truck, subpoenaed his phone and computer records and watched him from the ground and air.

Investigators also got an undercover detective close to Jalbert. Police say Jalbert tried to solicit the undercover cop to help him abduct, rape and kill a child in the Clearwater area. Police then arrested Jalbert on a murder solicitation charge and questioned him about Zach's disappearance.

Jalbert denied having anything to do with Zach. His attorney, Ocala lawyer Charles Horn, now says Jalbert was living out a fantasy when he talked about murdering children.

"He has some pathological need to make himself into something he isn't. I think the man's all talk," Horn said. "What he said doesn't amount to evidence that he committed the crime."

Jalbert's sister, Jodi Linger, says her brother's mouth often has gotten him into trouble.

"He can make up some big ones," Linger said. "His mouth just rattles. I don't believe half of what he says to be true."

Jalbert has been in the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $500,000 bail since his arrest on June 22.

Clearwater police continue to investigate Jalbert in connection with Zach Bernhardt's vanishing, though no additional charges have been lodged in the three months since his arrest.

"I know they're still working on that," assistant state attorney Tim Hessinger, who is prosecuting Jalbert on the solicitation charge, said last week. "I know they're still investigating that issue."

Clearwater police won't comment on the case. Though police officials initially said they were looking at a potential link between Zach Bernhardt and Jalbert, they won't say whether their interest has swelled or fizzled since his arrest.

Court records released to the Times last week indicate investigators looked hard for potential physical evidence that could tie Jalbert to Zach.

Investigators took DNA samples and fingerprints from Jalbert, but none matched anything collected from the scene from which Zach disappeared.

Investigators also searched Jalbert's house and combed his truck for two days, testing everything from bottle caps to candy wrappers for blood, hair or fingerprints that could link to Zach Bernhardt. But records don't indicate anything significant was found.

Court records show investigators also examined the hard drive of a computer belonging to Leah Hackett, Zach's mother, though police won't say why.

Jalbert's mother has said her son never knew Leah Hackett, while Hackett's family has said she never knew Jalbert.

But court records reveal evidence that, at first glance, seemed alarming.

Investigators initially thought Jalbert failed a polygraph when asked about Zach, records show. The final results of that polygraph test were not released to the newspaper last week.

In addition, a receipt from a Citrus County landfill, found discarded behind the passenger seat of Jalbert's truck, indicated Jalbert had visited the landfill on Sept. 27, about two weeks after Zach vanished.

Detectives also found a collection of child pornography on Jalbert's home computer, records state.

And a cop from Massachusetts, who knew Jalbert before he moved to Florida several years ago, told one Clearwater investigator that Jalbert had come under investigation in the 1994 abduction and sex battery of a 6-year-old boy.

Police showed the boy photos of Jalbert, but the boy could not make a positive identification, Peabody police Sgt. Charles Randall told the Clearwater investigator.

"Randall felt that Kevin Jalbert was 'definitely capable' of being involved in our . . . disappearance," the Clearwater investigator wrote in a report.

Horn says he doesn't blame Clearwater police for investigating Jalbert in connection with Zach Bernhardt. But he says Jalbert did not have anything to do with the boy's disappearance, or any child abduction or murder, despite his statements.

In fact, Horn says transcripts of conversations Jalbert had with an undercover detective indicate he was full of fibs.

Jalbert said he was molested by a family member as a young boy. He said he had sexual relations with another family member, and he bragged about sexually abusing a young boy in his family.

Linger, Jalbert's sister, said she has never heard those claims and thinks Jalbert was lying.

In addition, Jalbert said in his conversation with the undercover detective that he knows Secretary of State Colin Powell and used to have dinner at Powell's house. Jalbert said he and his lover, who died several years ago, both were in the U.S. Army, were openly gay and were often invited to Powell's house for dinner. Jalbert said Powell told the pair being gay in the military was okay.

Horn said this was certainly one of Jalbert's many lies.

"It all leads back to Colin Powell. I'm sure he's consulting with Mr. Jalbert right now," Horn said jokingly. "I mean, come on."

Jalbert ended up arranging with the undercover detective to drive around Clearwater looking for a young boy to abduct, rape and kill, police say. Jalbert drove to Clearwater, bringing with him bleach and a funnel, which he said he would use to wash away DNA evidence he might leave on the abducted child, arrest reports state.

Horn said transcripts indicate that the undercover detective would point out young children as they drove but that Jalbert would come up with excuses to back away from abducting the children.

"Mr. Jalbert said a lot of things that weren't true," Horn said. "But I don't think there's anything there to say he committed any crime in his life."

Jalbert was scheduled to go to trial last week, but Horn asked for a delay so Jalbert could be psychologically evaluated. A hearing is scheduled for October.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

To contact authorities

Anyone with information about the disappearance of Zach Bernhardt is asked to call Clearwater police detectives at 562-4422.

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