SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. (FOX 35 ORLANDO) - After more than three decades, authorities in Florida have made an arrest in the cold case murder of a 25-year-old Navy recruit.
Thomas Garner, 59, was arrested in Jacksonville, Florida on Wednesday for the 1984 slaying of Pamela Cahanes, said Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma.
“Our hearts go out to Pamela Cahanes’ family members who have been steadfast in their search for justice,” said Sheriff Lemma. “Thanks to decades of persistence from our Major Crimes Unit, and partners from NCIS and FDLE, we have taken a giant step forward.”
Deputies said Garner was living in a 600-square-foot apartment, working as a dental hygienist in Jacksonville and maintaining a normal life at the time of his arrest. He was transported to the John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Sanford, Florida. Garner and Cahanes were classmates at the Orlando Naval Training Center, said Lemma.
“Quite literally, he was probably under the belief that he's getting away with murder. This is a sad, sad tragedy. Our victim would have been 60 this year.” Lemma added.
Lemma said Garner killed Cahanes two days after she graduated from basic training. Investigators said a passerby found her body next to an empty house in Sanford on August 5, 1984. Detectives determined that Cahanes had been beaten and strangled.
“When she was found, she was on her knees, kind of leaning forward," Lemma explained. "At the time, she was only wearing her underwear.”
The Sheriff's Office said that through genetic genealogy research, they were able to develop "a DNA family tree that eventually matched the suspect to DNA found on the victim," collected from Cahanes’ fingernails and underwear.
“We submitted in 2000, we submitted in 2005, we submitted in 2007, and as technology evolved, more people participated in data base or data base submissions,” Lemma explained.
Then, the same genealogy software used to catch the "Golden State Killer" in California worked for investigators in Florida.
“Parabon NanoLabs was able to take this and create genotype and phenotype that crates a profile. We developed a suspect of Thomas Lewis Garner, 59-year-old suspect, who was living in Jacksonville. He served in the U.S. Navy at the same time of our victim,” Lemma told reporters.
Both the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement provided crucial assistance in this process.
"NCIS never lost sight of the fact that the family of Recruit Pamela Cohanes needed to know as much as possible about what happened to her,” said NCIS Special Agent in Charge Matthew Lascell. “Many people moved this 34 year-long investigation forward a step at a time, culminating yesterday in the arrest of her suspected killer and it's gratifying to have been part of discovering the truth."
Garner is charged with first-degree murder. He is being held without bail.