In 1974, Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies discovered human bones tied up in the mangroves in an area known as Burnt Bridges off Florida’s A1A highway. For nearly five decades, the victim’s identity remained a mystery.
The sheriff’s office identified Poole using a new technology known as genetic genealogy, having received help from Othram — a genome-sequencing lab that specializes in analyzing old DNA, Detective William Springer with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office told reporters at a news conference last week.
Poole’s is the latest cold case to make significant headway with the help of genetic genealogy, a process in which a person’s identity is narrowed down using DNA and complex family trees. In February, a college student helped the Pennsylvania State Police solve the case of a 9-year-old girl who was raped, strangled and left in a former coal-mining waste pit. In March, investigators in Illinois said they used the process to identify a human head found decades ago at a state park. It was a mother of three who went missing on Christmas Eve in 1992.
When Poole went missing in 1972, she was living in a trailer park with her family in Broward County, staying sometimes at a friend’s house in Wilton Manors, where Schaefer was once a police officer, Springer said. Poole had dropped out of school and sometimes hitchhiked, Springer said.
Just before Christmas, Poole disappeared. She left clothes and her pocketbook behind at the friend’s house in Wilton Manors, and Poole’s family reported her missing.
At the time of Poole’s disappearance, Schaefer was living in Broward County, Springer said. Around that time, Schaefer served jail time after pleading guilty to picking up two teenage girls, ages 17 and 18, bringing them to a wooded area, tying nooses around their necks and threatening them with sexual acts, TCPalm has reported. Schaefer was out on bail at the time Poole’s disappearance, Springer said.
Schaefer was subsequently convicted in late 1973 of killing 16- and 17-year-old Broward County girls, whose mutilated remains were found on Hutchinson Island. He was serving two life terms but was killed in December 1995 when a fellow inmate brutally stabbed him, the Sun Sentinel reported.
Schaefer was suspected in dozens of other killings, including of three Fort Lauderdale women who had gone missing between 1969 and 1972, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.
When police raided Schaefer’s mother’s home in 1973, they found writings detailing the torture, sexual abuse and killing of women, the Sun Sentinel reported. They also found the belongings of five missing or dead young women, TCPalm reported. Among the possessions, according to the Sentinel, were personal papers that belonged to two teenage girls whose skeletal remains were discovered in Martin County, where Schaefer had also once worked as a law enforcement officer.
Investigators didn’t start looking into Schaefer as a suspect in Poole’s case until this past spring, when the bones found decades ago were identified.
“Gerard Schaefer is the best suspect” in Poole’s death, Springer told reporters, saying that Schaefer was in the area and “active” when Poole went missing. Springer added that Poole’s being “tied up in the mangroves” also fit Schaefer’s style, saying his “M.O. was to pick up young girls hitchhiking.”
That theory is based only on circumstantial evidence, though, Springer said. Next investigators want to piece together Poole’s “last days,” said Springer, who is trying to locate friends in whom the teen might have confided before she went missing.
Patti Poole, Susan’s sister, told WPLG that she remembered the day her sister disappeared. “I knew something was wrong when I saw her purse on the couch of a friend of hers,” she told the station.
She said the discovery has given her a sense of closure: “My search is finally over,” Patti Poole said.