'My heart just dropped;' USF project helps solve cold case

USF program helps solve cold case of missing girl from 1978

TAMPA -- At the University of South Florida they’ve taught detectives how to use sculpture to help solve cold cases. The human busts are constructed from a skull, some clay and few of any clues.

Recently, one of those busts helped solve the case of a missing Tampa woman. But not exactly the way they had planned.

It all started a year ago this month, when Sharon Scott broke down in tears after seeing one of the cold case sculptures of an unknown murder victim on display in Tampa. To her, it looked an awful lot like her long lost sister, Brenda Williams, who had vanished in 1978.

“I don't know if it's probable,” Tampa Detective Scott Bullard said at the time, “The time difference there is seven years between the disappearance and the time that this person was found.”

Still, Tampa police took DNA samples from Sharon and her sister Sheila.

They were all disappointed to learn months later that it was not a match after all.

Then, recently, something miraculous happened.

Detectives compared the same DNA with a human jaw bone found 30 years ago from a completely different cold case. And this time it was a match.

“My heart just dropped,” said Debra’s 89-year-old mother, Ruby Williams. “But, I was happy in a way that after all these years we had finally found out, you know?”

Ruby Williams says she had always held out hope Brenda had just run away. Made a life elsewhere.

The answer to what happened, even 40 years later, was hard to hear.

“In my heart, I just don't want to face up to it, I guess,” she said.

Williams says she's amazed by the technology that enables detectives to create the type of cold case sculptures her other daughters saw last year. She hopes one day it will relieve others of the same pain. The pain of not knowing.

“Somebody took their life away. And it hurts, it really hurts,” she said.

This year, the forensic anthropology program at USF was sidelined indefinitely because of a lack of funding. The same program had helped detectives solve another missing person case in 2015.

A few weeks ago, family and friends gathered for a memorial service in Brenda's honor. Her death is now certainty.  But questions of how she died -was she murdered, and if so is that person even alive - still linger.

“It could've been somebody knew she knew. Then again it could've been a stranger,” said Ruby Williams, “And, if they are alive, they will pay. Not by us, but by God.”

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