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Science, detective work identify victim of 27-year-old Charlotte County murder

Gerald Lombard was murdered in 1994.
Gerald Lombard was murdered in 1994.(CCSO)
Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 11:38 AM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Some modern scientific lab tests, along with some old-fashioned detective work, has identified the victim of a 27-year-old murder case in Charlotte County, authorities said Wednesday.

The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office announced that a body found in the woods in northern Charlotte County in 1994 has finally been identified as Jerry Lombard, a drifter from Massachusetts.

“We just knew he wasn’t alive we just had a bad feeling because he was the one that always called,” said Lombard’s younger sister, Carole Dufresne.

Deputies think Lombard’s murder was connected to four other murders in the mid-1990s, and the work of Daniel O. Conahan, who remains on Florida’s death row for murder in one of those cases.

Trail of bodies

On Feb. 1, 1994, deputies received a call from a local construction company worker. The caller reported finding a human body in the woods near Wyandotte Avenue and Tulip Street in northern Charlotte County.

There was no identification found with the decomposing body and early attempts to identify the body were not successful. The cause of death was undetermined. This body was given the temporary name, John Doe #1.

About a half-mile away, on April 17, 1996, two county workers found human remains in the area of Trembly Avenue and Willow Drive in northern Charlotte County. Detectives discovered human body parts that were obviously dissected and decomposed. While searching the wooded area for body parts, another human body was discovered.

This male’s genitals had been removed by a sharp cutting instrument. This body had been there for about a day. Marks on the body indicated he was bound with rope or similar items and strangled. This body was quickly identified as Richard Montgomery, of Punta Gorda. The medical examiner ruled both bodies were homicide victims. The decomposed body was eventually identified as Kenneth Smith of Fort Myers.

After the discovery of John Doe #1, and before the discovery of Smith and Montgomery’s bodies, two other bodies were discovered in North Port wooded areas. The scenes in all cases were similar in many ways.

Daniel O. Conahan, 42, emerged as a viable suspect in the killings. In 1999, Conahan was tried and convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Richard Montgomery.

Due to circumstances surrounding the death of John Doe #1, Conahan is still considered a suspect in this case. Over the years, attempts to identify John Doe #1 failed until recently.

Science provides a clue

In June 2013, Heather Walsh-Haney, a forensic anthropologist from Florida Gulf Coast University, who was working with the cold case team working the case, submitted a tooth from John Doe #1 to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for the development of DNA and entry into national databases -- the National Missing and Unidentified Persons, and the Combined DNA Index System. It was determined that there was enough remaining DNA extract available for further testing.

In January 2020, investigators contacted Dr. Ed Green at the Biomolecular Engineering Department Laboratory at the University of California Santa Cruz. Green advised the laboratory could process the remaining DNA from the sample and determine if it was suitable for forensic genetic genealogy.

In December 2020, detectives were told there was sufficient data available to send to another lab for necessary additional sequencing and there should be enough data for genealogy searches.

The question was, could they find a match in the available genealogy databases?

In February, the data were forwarded to the FBI and the information was uploaded into available databases through Family Tree DNA and Gene by Gene. Mark James of the FBI FGG in Baltimore was contacted to assist in researching potential relatives of John Doe #1.

A lead eventually surfaced. Charlotte County investigators were provided with the likely family name and potential relatives of John Doe #1. This was a large family of 17 siblings -- and one of the brothers, Gerald “Jerry” Lombard, had not been seen or heard from since approximately 1991 or 1992.

They also learned that a niece in the family had submitted her DNA to Ancestry.com a few years ago, which is likely how the genetic genealogy match was made.

“I think if she had not done that we would not be sitting here doing this interview because I don’t think we would have identified him... actually I know we wouldn’t have identified him, ” said Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office Detective, Michael Vogel.

In April, DNA samples were obtained from a sister, a brother, and a son of Jerry Lombard. The DNA sample of the son was submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement laboratory last month, and the FDLE reported that the DNA sample from the son was a positive match to the DNA of John Doe #1, verifying the identity as Gerald Lombard.

Lombard was born in Massachusetts in 1962. Deputies say that according to the family, Jerry was a bit of a drifter, and it was common for him to disappear for long periods of time.

Conahan drove a Blue Mercury Capri and a Grey Plymouth station wagon. Jerry had no vehicle.

The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Team is asking anyone who knew Jerry Lombard to contact them. Also, anyone who may have seen Lombard with Daniel Conahan please call 941-639-2101.

Daniel O. Conahan is on death row. He is suspected of killing Gerry Lombard in Charlotte County...
Daniel O. Conahan is on death row. He is suspected of killing Gerry Lombard in Charlotte County in 1994.(Florida Department of Corrections)

And ABC7 Anchor Jacqueline Matter spoke with John Doe’s daughter, Danielle Niemiec on Wednesday. You can watch that full interview below:

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