Discarded Cigarette Butt Leads Police to Suspect in 1985 Florida Murder

The 1985 killing of Tonya Ethridge McKinley, 23, has been solved, say police in Pensacola, Florida. Daniel Leonard Wells, 57, was responsible, cops say, according to The Pensacola News Journal. He’s now charged with first-degree murder, and first-degree sexual battery.

McKinley, the mother of an 18-month-old boy, was seen alive early New Year’s Day in 1985 at Darryl’s Bar & Grille. She was later found in an empty lot half-naked, officers said. She had been fatally strangled, and sexually assaulted, police said.

The investigation hit numerous dead ends over the years, lasting so long that retiring detectives had to pass it on to their successors.

“It seems that every couple of years a new lead would pop up and we would drop everything to run it down,” Pensacola cops said in a statement. “We did this time and time again. In the meantime, a baby boy grew up without a mother, parents buried their daughter without knowing justice, and a killer was walking around free. For thirty-five years.”

Police credit Parabon NanoLabs with helping them break the case. You may have heard that name before. Investigators nationwide say the genetics company have aided in solving cold cases. At the point, the process has become kind of routine. The arrest of Wells isn’t an exception: cops say they found DNA at the scene of the crime. Using that, they and Parabon made use of an open-source genealogy database, used it to locate distant relatives of the suspect, and finally found the defendant, officers said in the Pensacola News Journal report. Cops said they confirmed he was their suspect by getting his DNA from a discarded cigarette.

Daniel Leonard Wells

“My mom, she never got to raise me, never got to be a part of my life,” McKinley’s now-grown son Timothy Davidson Jr. said according to the outlet. The defendant “got to live his life the last 35 years. He got to have a family. He got to be around his children … and all those years he was out there, knowing what he did. He was carrying it around with him and he was never going to tell anyone what he did. He wasn’t going to ever just say what he did on his own.”

Court records viewed by Law&Crime show no attorney of record. Wells is being held without bond at the Escambia County jail. A video appearance was scheduled for court to take place at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday.

[Image of McKinley via Pensacola Police Department; mugshot of Wells via Escambia County]

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