Pinellas authorities say a man serving a life sentence in Illinois is a suspect in the rape and slaying of a 14-year-old Tampa girl in 1971
LARGO - The Justi family gave up hope years ago that investigators would find out who raped and killed 14-year-old Gina Justi in August, 1971.
Then, recently, a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office cold case detective called.
The DNA genetic fingerprint of a man serving a life term in Illinois for murdering a teenager matched DNA found on Gina.
After almost 40 years there finally was a suspect.
“It kind of came out of the blue,” said James Justi, who was 12 when his sister left the house for the last time. “We were totally, totally shocked. We totally gave up on it.”
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Gina Justi and her family just had moved to Town ‘N Country from Saugerties, NY, when she left her home on Aug. 6, 1971. A “typical teenager who liked to listen to James Taylor and Carole King,” said her brother, Tony Justi, she had set out walking to a house a couple of miles away to look at a puppy.
The next day her body was found in a Palm Harbor orange grove where a subdivision now stands. She had been strangled and raped. She also had been stabbed once in the back.
For years there was only a partial DNA genetic profile, said Pinellas Sheriff’s Detective Michael Bailey. With a partial DNA profile there is no definite match.
Last year, Bailey said, the sheriff’s office had the partial DNA profile run through the national data base. There was no match.
Then the forensic laboratory operated by the Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s Office gave it a try. Analyst Ryan Satcher took DNA from the girl’s clothing and submitted it to a process that picks up more of a profile than earlier technologies had.
Satcher said he didn’t get a full DNA profile, but he got one complete enough to run through the national data base. “Three days later Illinois sent us a letter matching it to a convicted offender,” he said.
The convict was Jerry Fletcher, 69, who is serving a life prison sentence in Dixon, Ill., for the murder of a teenager in 1974.
Since the match was made about a month ago, detectives said, they learned Fletcher in the early 1970s was an industrial painter in the Tampa Bay area, working mostly on office furniture and heavy equipment. He would work six-week stints then take two weeks off as he went from job to job throughout the country.
At the time of Gina’s death he lived 7 to 8 miles from her home.
Last week Bailey and another detective interviewed Fletcher, speaking with him about his background and his whereabouts at various times. When he found out why the Florida detectives were in Illinois he stopped talking, Bailey said. He did not say he was involved in Gina’s slaying, or with anyone else’s, Bailey said.
Pinellas investigators initially believed Gina was slain at the grove and the killer made no effort to conceal the body, which was lying beside a thicket in plain view of a dirt road. Later a prosecutor said it was possible she was killed in Hillsborough County and her body was taken to the grove.
Hillsborough and Pinellas deputies as well as the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney’s office investigated the slaying.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” Dennis Quilligan, chief investigator for the state attorney’s office, said at the time.
Pinellas deputies questioned several suspects. Three years later a 20-year-old Dunedin man was charged in the case. The charge was dismissed when the state failed to produce a critical witness.
Bailey said detectives also considered a group of four or five people known to pick up and rape women. Each was cleared through the same DNA testing that has implicated Fletcher, Bailey said.
In a 1999 interview, Gina’s mother, Virginia Justi, told a News Channel 8 reporter: “She never had the opportunity to drive a car, graduate from high school, got to school prom, get married … all the things every mother looks forward to her child doing.”
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Tony Justi was 19 and sitting in the room he shared with his brother, John, in the family’s split-level home when investigators arrived at about 1 a.m., the day after Gina disappeared.
“They came with some terrible news,” said Tony Justi, who now lives in Georgia. “It was the news we were afraid of.”
As bad as it was to learn his sister had been raped and killed, the horror was compounded during the next few months because every male member of the family was considered a suspect, Tony Justi said.
The family suffered another tragedy about a year later when John Justi was in a car crash. He died from his injuries the following year. He was 20.
As years passed Virginia and Tony Justi did what they could to keep the case alive, but there were no answers.
Until the DNA case came back. The family found out about a month ago.
“I just want to give so much credit to the guys at Pinellas County Sheriffs Office,” said Tony Justi. “This is a 40-year old case, with not much to go on. Leads they had 40 years ago just dried up, but they stuck with it and didn’t give up.”
Tony Justi said he heard there was a suspect in his sister’s rape and murder about the same time as Osama bin Laden was killed.
“A lot of reporters ask if it brings closure,” said Tony Justi. “I heard a great answer from a survivor of 9/11. There is no such thing as closure, just a feeling of justice.”
“We have to commend the police for not giving up,” said James Justi who, like his older brother, offered one regret: that investigators did not find out about Fletcher before Virginia Justi died at age 76 three years ago.
“I was kind of upset they couldn’t catch him a couple years earlier,” James Justi said. “My mother was always calling the cops, always looking. It’s probably what made her die earlier. She couldn’t handle my sister’s death. It drained the life right out of her having her daughter raped and murdered.”