‘Family almost lost hope’ – DNA testing IDs woman in cold case murder


A family in desperate search for a mother missing for over four decades may be closer to answers after a DNA test linked her to the body of a woman found in a canal in a long unsolved case. The woman had been fatally shot and her body was discovered off State Road 60, according to sheriff’s officials.

Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers spoke about the case, saying that deputies can now give a name to the woman whose identity remained a mystery throughout the years.

From left to right: Hubert Townsend, Debra Townsend Dubois, Danny Townsend and Evelyn Horne Townsend. Undated photo, PROVIDED BY DEBRA DUBOIS

“In 1982, we didn’t have the technology we have today. They had no idea who this woman was. For 42 years, the sheriff’s office has referred to her as Jane Doe,” Flowers said Tuesday during a news conference at the sheriff’s office. “Her name isn’t Jane Doe anymore. She is Evelyn Horne Townsend.” 

Flowers, his voice wavering with emotion, stood next to Townsend’s relatives as he announced the breakthrough in the case. The major announcement came two weeks after law enforcement officially identified the remains as that of the Perry, Florida woman. 

Flowers commended deputies, saying they were able to give Townsend her name back. 

“I didn’t think my mother’s body would ever be recovered,” said Townsend’s daughter, Debra Townsend Dubois, 59, of Texas. “I’ve always been glued to the television and detective shows. Every single time a body was found anywhere in the country, I always wondered if it was my mom. I now no longer have to do that.”

Flowers said deputies have identified new suspects and persons of interest – who have since died – in the case. The sheriff said that deceased, potential suspects will probably make people more willing to come forward with information about what happened to Townsend.

“There are people who are still fearful of (the suspects.) They believe there are mafia ties,” Flowers said. “I’m still very hopeful we’ll be able to get closure in this case.” 

The last phone call 

Dubois had just turned 18 when her mother called her on the phone, inviting her to church in Plant City. It was the last time Dubois would hear the voice of her mother on July 17, 1982.

“We talked for a few minutes. She was coming through Plant City and wanted us all to attend church on that Sunday,” said Dubois, who was living with her aunt at the time. “We hung up and she never called back. That was the last time I heard from her.” 

The phone call, which lasted a few minutes, along with a handful of vintage photos are the only pieces Dubois has to remember Townsend. One photo shows Townsend posing at a beach in Wisconsin.

An undated photo shows Evelyn Horne Townsend on a beach in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. PHOTO PROVIDED BY DEBRA DUBOIS

In another photo, Dubois and her brother, Danny are sitting on the back of a bull while Townsend and her husband Hubert stand nearby. A third photo is a glamorized shot of Townsend with a bright smile. 

“Those photos today are a prized treasure of mine,” Dubois said. 

Dubois said Townsend was a beautiful woman who lived a complicated life. Dubois described her mother as a drifter who never had a steady job, but always had plenty of money. 

One month after Dubois’ 18th birthday, her mother, whom she described as sophisticated, disappeared. Dubois reached out to law enforcement to get answers on what happened to Townsend.

“For 41 birthdays, I had wondered where my mother was,” Dubois said. “Was she okay? Was she dead or alive? Would I ever find out before my own death?”

Townsend’s whereabouts remained a mystery over the years. The family had no connection to Indian River County, where deputies were working on a case involving an unidentified woman found fatally shot on Sept. 1, 1982 in a ditch on State Road 60. 

At the time, deputies only knew a few facts about the mystery woman. 

She was white, 30-to-40 years old, up to 5-feet 8-inches tall with brown hair and weighing up to 140 pounds. The woman had on a silver and gold wedding band and a turquoise ring, sheriff’s reports show.  

Sheriff’s officials put out a notice to the public saying that anyone with information leading to an arrest can possibly be eligible for a reward of up to $5,000 by contacting Treasure Coast Crime Stoppers at 1-800-273-TIPS or tcwatch.org.

DNA Testing 

The sheriff’s office partnered with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2023 to work on identifying the woman’s remains. Detectives used money from FDLE’s Unidentified Human Remains grant to have Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company based in Virginia, conduct genetic DNA testing on the woman’s body.  

Evelyn Horne Townsend’s daughter Debra Townsend Dubois stands alongside Det. Phil Daughtery and her uncle Lavone Horne as she speaks to reporters on Tuesday March 12, 2024 at the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

“Her body was exhumed in 2016 in a partnership with the University of Florida. We pulled DNA at that point,” Flowers said. “In 2016, genetic DNA was still in its infancy.”

Last month, the DNA testing led deputies to identify the woman’s brother, Lavone Horne, 87, who lives in Rockledge, sheriff’s officials said. Detectives and Horne confirmed the body was of Townsend, who was born on May, 9, 1939.  

“We’re still trying to figure out why she was in Vero Beach,” Flowers said. Dubois said her mother was passing through the beachside town at the time of her death. 

Dubois said she was notified of the breakthrough in the case the morning of Feb. 29.

“What a horrible way for her last day on earth to end,” Dubois said. “I want to thank all the people over the years who tried to find out who this unknown woman was.”

Flowers said Townsend was involved in drug activities, but didn’t release further details. Dubois said her mother was never forgotten by law enforcement or the citizens of Vero Beach.

“It’s better than not knowing what happened to her,” Dubois said. “We have peace and comfort in bringing her body home now.”

Cold case unit

Suspicious deaths over the years have added to the cold case database in Indian River County. The county has 35 cold, unsolved cases, including the Townsend investigation, said Sgt. Kevin Jaworski, a spokesperson with the sheriff’s office. 

Evelyn Horne Townsend’s daughter Debra Townsend Dubois speaks to reporters on Tuesday March 12, 2024 at the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

Sheriff’s Det. Phil Daugherty, lead detective over the Townsend case, said the recent breakthrough gives them hope that DNA technology will help answer more questions about other unresolved homicides. Daughtery said Townsend being identified is one small piece of a big puzzle.  

“Anytime you get a break in a case this old, that’s encouraging for any of the cases we have. Being able to bring the family closure – they almost had no hopes left that anything was going to ever happen with this,” Daughtery said. “We still have a lot of work to do to figure out who did this and why.”     

Flowers established the cold case unit soon after being elected as sheriff. The sheriff said the Townsend case is the first of many cold cases deputies hope to close using genetic testing. 

“Our cold case committee is constantly reviewing evidence to determine if (DNA) or any other new forensic technologies will help us bring closure and justice,” Flowers said. “We are still working (the Townsend) case actively.” 

Ed Glaser, cold case coordinator, said the committee meets every month to review the unresolved homicides spanning back to the 1960s. Glaser said the unit’s biggest challenge is matching old evidence with new technology. 

“The evidence deteriorates over the years,” Glaser said. 

A message

Dubois had a message for everyone with a missing loved one.

“Please do not ever give up hope,” Dubois said. “There’s always hope in finding them and identifying them. My mother is proof of that. May she now rest in perfect peace.”

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