Gator Nation Cold Cases
by Robert A. Waters
Gainesville is the home of the University of Florida. For many years, it was the epitome of a small Southern college town. Now it’s the home of Gator Nation and all that that entails. Over the years, Gainesville has amassed an impressive list of unsolved crimes. Perhaps the most infamous was the Tiffany Sessions kidnapping. In 1989, the pretty co-ed went out for a jog and never came home. Her disappearance is still a mystery. But there are other lesser-known cases that also need closure.
On the night of December 29, 1979, Suzanne Powell, 20, left the Majik Market convenience store where she worked and drove to what was then the Atlantic Bank on 3838 NW 13th Street. As she did every night, she intended to deposit receipts from the business. Powell, a student at the University of Florida, drove up to the night deposit box. As she slowed to make the drop, a shotgun blast shattered the windshield of her car. When police arrived, they found Powell lying dead on the ground with financial documents from the store scattered about. She’d been murdered for $ 275. Although investigators developed two suspects, escaped prisoners Readus Sheperd and Thomas E. Willard, they had no evidence other than the word of an anonymous jailhouse informant. (Recently, one of Sheperd’s close relatives informed investigators that he’d once admitted to killing a woman in Gainesville.) Sheperd is now long-dead and Willard disappeared never to be seen again. In fact, there was never any physical evidence at all against the two. After more than thirty years, the murder remains unsolved.
In the early morning hours of December 1, 1994, the Gainesville Fire Department responded to reports of a blaze at 1031 SE 3rd Avenue. Firefighters found two bodies inside a burning house. The victims were identified as Treva Gernannt, 88, and her daughter, Emily Wallace, 66. Their deaths were not caused by the flames, as first suspected. Gernannt died of numerous stab wounds. Investigators could never determine the cause of Wallace’s death, but the fact that there was no carbon monoxide in her body indicated that she was dead before the fire started. Gernannt and Wallace were well-known for their church work and for helping the homeless. In fact, their home was near a path used by transients. It is thought that the two Christian ladies may have attempted to help the wrong person and ended up getting murdered. It’s been more than fifteen years and this murder is still a mystery.
On June 27, 2005 , Phillip “Brian” Sweat answered a knock on his door at 4024 SW 38th Street and was stabbed to death. As he lay dying, Sweat called 911 and described the attack. His assailant was a black male, he said, wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt and jeans. Before he could relay additional information, he told the dispatcher: “I’m getting light-headed. I’m going to die.” With that, his voice stopped. Investigators have theorized that Sweat was taking a nap when he heard a knock on the door. At that time, a would-be burglar (who’d rung the doorbell to determine whether someone was home) attacked Sweat, stabbing him. His home was located near a group of what cops called “seedy” hotels. Sweat’s case has been featured on Florida’s Cold Case Playing Cards. These cards were distributed to inmates in the state’s prisons with the hope of generating leads on unsolved cases. For five years, Phillip Sweat's unknown killer has walked free in the heart of the Gator Nation.
Julie Cohen, 22, was the first female to be admitted into the University of Florida’s Graduate Forestry program. In March, 1977, she was alone in the Austin Carey Memorial Forest working on a class project. Part of her research consisted of taking samples from local trees and grasses. When Cohen didn’t show up for her class the next day, fellow students began a massive search. Her remains were found in the forest--she’d been strangled with her own bra. Investigators theorized that the attack was “personal or maybe sexual.” There were signs of a struggle, but little evidence was left at the scene. Cops set up roadblocks along Waldo Road but no one claimed to have seen anything unusual. Detectives recently submitted items to a specialty lab in hopes of getting “touch” DNA (cells from the killer that may have transferred onto Cohen’s clothing). It’s been 33 years since Julie Cohen was murdered. No suspect has ever been charged.
Unknown killers walk the same streets, shop the same stores, and attend the same sporting events we do. Their pasts hide dark secrets that are buried with their victims. Here’s hoping technology or conscience will someday shed a light on these murders.