In the mangroves off a Florida highway in 1974, the authorities found human bones that appeared to have been the remains of a body that had been tied to a tree with wire. How they ended up there was a mystery for decades, and attempts to identify the victim went cold.
Last week, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office announced that the bones had been identified as the remains of Susan Poole, a 15-year-old girl who disappeared in Broward County just before Christmas 1972. The authorities believe Gerard Schaefer, a serial killer who was convicted in 1973 of the mutilation murder of two Broward County girls and is suspected of other killings, is the “best suspect” in Susan’s murder. Mr. Schaefer died in 1995, when he was killed in prison while serving a life sentence, according to the authorities.
At a news conference on Thursday, Detective William Springer of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said that Susan’s bones were identified using a process known as genetic genealogy, which involves comparing genetic evidence with ancestry records. Genetic genealogy has been a key tool for identifying more than 40 murder and rape suspects in cases that are years old, including the infamous Golden State Killer in California.
Little is known about Susan’s disappearance. When she was reported missing in 1972, Detective Springer said, she had left clothes and a pocketbook at an apartment where she was staying. She had dropped out of school before she disappeared, he said.
“Nobody knew where she went,” Detective Springer said. “What I’m trying to do is piece together her last weeks.”
When Susan’s bones were found in the mangroves of Palm Beach County, Detective Springer said, there was “totally nothing left of her except the bones.”
“Her clothing was pretty well deteriorated by then,” he said.
Around the time of Susan’s disappearance, Mr. Schaefer, a former police officer, lived near Susan and had been arrested and charged with kidnapping two girls and tying them up in the mangroves. Mr. Schaefer was out on bail at the time Susan went missing, Detective Springer said.
“His MO was to pick up young girls hitchhiking,” Detective Springer said. “Everything kind of fits.”
When the police raided the home of Mr. Schaefer’s mother in 1973, they found items including drivers licenses and jewelry that belonged to several victims, Mr. Springer said.
At the news conference on Thursday, Detective Springer said that Susan’s family “was happy to know what happened.”
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is now looking to speak to three friends of Susan and anyone who might know about her whereabouts when she went missing. There is no physical evidence to link Mr. Schaefer to Susan, Detective Springer said, adding that he would have to rely on circumstantial evidence to close the case.
“All we need is a lead,” the office said in a statement. “Who could have committed this heinous crime?”
Mr. Schaefer is believed to have killed a number of other girls, including Peggy Rahn and Wendy Stevenson, who disappeared in 1969, according to The Charley Project, an organization that catalogs details about missing people. Mr. Schaefer was never charged with their murders, but he admitted to killing them in a letter he wrote in 1989, according to the organization.
Mr. Schaefer’s crimes have been well documented over the years. He is the subject of a documentary and two books. In one book, “American Ripper: The Enigma of America’s Serial Killer Cop,” by Patrick Kendrick, a neighborhood friend of Mr. Schaefer described him as “preoccupied with girls.”
“He had a fascination with women like in a dirty little boy kind of way, and he didn’t lose that,” Mr. Kendrick said in an interview on Thursday.
Mr. Kendrick said that he intends to help the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, starting with reviewing lists of evidence that was found where Mr. Schaefer lived. Mr. Kendrick, who has been writing about Mr. Schaefer since the 1980s, said he had a long history of letter writing with Mr. Schaefer when he was in prison.
Noting that Mr. Schaefer’s “MO” was to pick up women who were hitchhiking and kill them, Mr. Kendrick said that he was not surprised to see that Mr. Schaefer was named a suspect in Susan’s killing.
“It fits the bill,” Mr. Kendrick said. “The timing’s right.”