Familial DNA leads Florida cops to suspect in 1994 rape, murder of elderly woman

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — Florida cold case detectives armed with familial DNA say they have identified the alleged killer who raped and strangled an elderly Pompano Beach woman inside her home in the spring of 1994.

Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony announced Monday that Johnny Mack Brown, a U.S. Marine veteran who died more than a decade ago, was responsible for the death of Lillian Nicholas DeCloe. The 89-year-old widow was found dead the evening of April 23, 1994, when a niece who helped care for her stopped by with groceries.

Brown lived a few doors down from DeCloe in the 1990s. He died of natural causes in November 2010 at the age of 56.

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June Nicholas found her aunt, who lived alone, lying on her bedroom floor next to a toppled floor lamp. The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in 1994 that DeCloe was badly beaten and sexually assaulted before being strangled.

“My first thought was, you know, ‘Who did this?’” Nicholas said in a recent police video about the case. “Who did this?”

DeCloe, a retired teacher and nurse, spent the majority of her adult life taking care of those around her, including her family.

“She took care of most of us,” Nicholas said of her beloved aunt.

Nicholas was returning the favor as DeCloe’s health declined and her memory faded. When she arrived at DeCloe’s modest yellow brick home, she called out to the older woman.

“I call, ‘Auntie,’ you know, ‘where are you?’” she said in the police video. “I checked the first bedroom, which she would normally take her naps in, and finally, I went down to the end of the hall.”

Glancing into the back bedroom, she found her aunt’s body.

David Towsley, one of the detectives who most recently investigated the case, said DeCloe had bruises “everywhere,” and her injuries included a broken nose and broken ribs.

Neighbors told police they last saw DeCloe alive around 6:50 that morning as she went to buy a newspaper. No one reported seeing anyone or anything suspicious, despite the murder taking place in broad daylight.

Pompano Beach police spokeswoman Sandra King told the Sun Sentinel authorities were looking for anyone who knew anything about the crime or the man responsible.

“Some kind of human monster is walking around freely with the blood of a harmless 89-year-old woman on their hands,” King said in 1994.

The condition of the ransacked home led authorities to believe that burglary may have been the motive. The killer entered the home through a bedroom window.

The only item that appeared to be missing was a gold wedding band, police said.

“For the most part, there wasn’t a single clue, or witness, or anyone that could account for a potential suspect,” Tony said.

The case went cold and ultimately was passed on to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office when it absorbed the Pompano Beach Police Department in 1999. For decades, the files sat on a shelf.

DeCloe’s family was devastated by their loss.

“I took a whole year off of work, just to cope,” Nicholas said, weeping. “I had someone else take care of my kids for a couple of months because I couldn’t cope. It was that bad.

“I would lay in my bed, and I would see her on the floor.”

Unbeknown to Nicholas, and to authorities, the killer had left behind the most vital of clues: his DNA, in the form of semen on the nightgown DeCloe was wearing when she was murdered. The stain offered little information at the time of the crime, but that would change.

The case was reexamined in 2004, at which time the semen stain was discovered. The genetic profile from DeCloe’s nightgown was entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, but there was no match.

Towsley again reexamined the case in 2019 after Tony’s office established a dedicated cold case unit to tackle the more than 300 unsolved cases in the department’s jurisdiction. Analysts at Broward County’s crime lab obtained a more thorough DNA profile more than 28 years after the slaying.

“When I first got this case in 2019, I never thought it would, you know, result in anything like this,” criminalist Jennifer Parker said.

Listen to authorities and June Nicholas talk about her aunt’s murder below.

Once a DNA profile had been generated, cold case investigators asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct a familial search of its offender DNA database. The technique compares an unknown DNA profile to the offenders in the database, seeking a match with possible first-order relatives such as a father, child or sibling.

That search led to a known offender whose DNA was on file.

He was Brown’s son.

In August, a judge granted a request to exhume Brown’s remains from the South Florida National Cemetery in Palm Beach County.

Investigators collected tissue samples from Brown’s remains that were tested for DNA and compared to the genetic material left on DeCloe’s body. The two samples matched.

“The results were more than conclusive,” authorities said in a news release. “The DNA results are 66.8 trillion times more likely that they came from Brown and DeCloe than if they came from DeCloe and another person.”

Brown’s family told authorities the Vietnam War veteran struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction. Detectives believe that DeCloe was likely killed in a “burglary gone bad,” Tony said.

“I think it was just the opportunity. He lived close by, only a few houses down,” the sheriff said. “When he fell on hard times and he went homeless, and he had a drug habit, it indicated that he broke into the house. He may or may not have known she was there alone, but she was 89, she lived by herself, and it looked like all the drawers were opened and things were gone through the house.”

Detectives presented their findings to the Broward State Attorney’s Office, where prosecutors reviewed the case and agreed that Brown was involved in DeCloe’s murder, according to authorities. The case is considered solved.

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“Justice has no expiration date,” Tony said. “So long as we are responsible for investigating these cases, we are going to continue to push for the necessary manpower and effort to make sure that we can bring closure to so many families who have been waiting for decades, time and time again, in the hope that they get some resolution.”

The news has offered some relief to DeCloe’s loved ones.

“I know wherever she is, she can sleep in peace,” Nicholas said. “We’re glad that it’s closed. We can move on.

“We can die in peace.”

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