Homicide detectives spend most of their time trying to find the killer. But in a macabre Daytona Beach, Fla., case, police know whodunit. They just want to make sure they know who died.
They're now asking Marylanders for help in identifying the victim of the 16-year-old shooting. The body, believed to be that of a man who lived in Chevy Chase two decades ago, was found only last month, wrapped in plastic and encased in concrete beneath the enclosed patio of a filthy Daytona Beach home.
"It's a bizarre story," said Daytona Beach Detective Gary Meyer.
Police suspect that the remains are those of Joseph Michael Jones, who may also have been known as Michael or Mike Jones. They believe that he lived in the Washington, D.C., area before 1971 and that he was in his mid- to late 20s when he was killed in the spring or early summer of 1977. That would put his birth date between 1948 and 1952.
Today his remains lie in a cooler at the Volusia County medical examiner's office while police try to confirm his identity and locate his relatives. If no one claims the body, it will be buried in a pauper's grave.
Witnesses in Florida recall Mr.Jones as a heavyset white male, about 6 feet tall with reddish-brown hair, a thin mustache and gold dental work. He drove a white, mid-'60s Ford Thunderbird, but the car disappeared after he vanished. Police believe he worked at odd jobs in Florida and surmise that he may not have completed high school.
But without a photo or a firm birth date, investigators have been unable to confirm the body's identity. Maryland State Police and Montgomery County police have been unable to help, Detective Meyer said.
Florida motor vehicle records for unrenewed licenses and registrations from the 1970s have been destroyed. Investigators were able to get a set of fingerprints, and a search of old records for a match is under way. But because of the age of the prints, the search must be done by hand.
Anyone with information about Mr. Jones is asked to call Detective Meyer at (904) 254-7419.
Daytona Beach police spokesman Al Tolley described the affair as "an unusual case, and complicated."
He said that Mr. Jones was living in the Chevy Chase area in the early 1970s when he met Noreen Pettis, whose maiden name was Petty. At the time, Ms. Pettis was separated from her husband and had four children, all younger than 5. Now 46, she lives in Daytona Beach in the house where the body was found.
Ms. Pettis told police that she and her children drove with Mr. Jones in the Thunderbird to Daytona Beach in 1971 and lived intermittently with Ms. Pettis' parents until Mr. Jones vanished in 1977.
His disappearance apparently went unreported at the time.
"There were no missing persons reports here in Daytona Beach, no suspicious incident reports or anything that would relate to this particular incident," Officer Tolley said.
Police opened the murder case only last month when an informant told them they would find a body under the patio of a house on Center Street in an older, lower-middle class neighborhood in Daytona Beach.
"He [the informant] came to this information just as a matter of conversation, I believe, with Noreen," Officer Tolley said.
The conversation took place years ago, the informant told police. He said Ms. Pettis told him that her parents had died and that their house was in probate, but that she was reluctant to move in.
"Later we find out why," Officer Tolley said.
After an initial investigation, police went to the house on Aug. 12, armed with a search warrant and jackhammers. Within three hours, they found what they were looking for.
The body was remarkably well-preserved, thanks to its concrete tomb. An autopsy X-ray revealed a single bullet in the skull.
They also found Ms. Pettis, who had moved back and was still living in the house. She had raised her four children there, with the secret in the patio floor. The children had grown up and left home, but their mother now had a 3-year-old fathered by a boyfriend who had moved out in 1991.
After questioning Ms. Pettis and her neighbors, investigators concluded that Mr. Jones was probably shot to death in his sleep by Ms. Pettis' mother, Elsie Petty, who disapproved of the couple's relationship and often argued with them. No murder charges have been filed. Mrs. Petty died of natural causes in 1989. Her husband, George Petty, died in 1982.
Ms. Pettis won't be charged, police said.
"She provided a clear and convincing statement that she was not involved in the actual homicide," Officer Tolley said. She told police that she had no foreknowledge of the crime and was not at home when it occurred.
"Her role was after the fact," Officer Tolley said. Police, who were able to verify much of her story, believe that Ms. Pettis helped her mother seal the body beneath the patio, which was already under construction.
In 1977, she could have been charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact, or with improper disposal of a body, police said. But the statute of limitations has run out on both crimes.
Ms. Pettis does face a misdemeanor charge of child abuse. When police entered her home last month, they found her young daughter covered with sores and insect bites. Their house was shin-deep in filth and garbage.
The child is now in state custody. City health officials have condemned the house until it is cleaned. Ms. Pettis was freed on $1,000 cash bond and is believed to be living with friends while she attempts to clean the house.