Monday, June 3, 2024

Murder in Micanopy

 Pearle Bartley
55 Years Later, Pearle Bartley's Murder is still Unsolved

By Robert A. Waters

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), there are at least 350,000 unsolved murders in America. In Florida, 20,000 cases have gone cold. Florida's clearance rate on murders is the national average, about 66%, meaning one-third of murders in the state are still open. I find those numbers staggering. How many killers live among us? In 1969, a 72-year-old store owner met a gruesome death in a historic central Florida town. There isn't a great deal of information about the case, but here's what is known.

Micanopy, named after a Seminole chieftain, was founded in 1821. It is the oldest inland town in the state. During the Seminole Indian wars, many residents holed up in Fort Defiance, located near the town. In 1836, Seminole chief Osceola unsuccessfully attacked the fort. After a battle lasting a little more than an hour, Osceola retreated. More soldiers in Fort Defiance died of malaria than fighting Indians. Major J. F. Hieleman, who led the counter-attack on Osceola, perished from the disease a few days after the battle.

In 1969, Micanopy had a population of about 750. Pearle Bartley, born in 1897, owned a small general store there. Called "Pearle's Place," she resided alone in a home attached to the store. On October 29, two customers walked into the business and found her lying on the floor. She'd been strangled to death and money was missing from the cash drawer.

Pearle's granddaughter, Marci Buchanan, said, "She was a very caring, gentle, docile person. She would have given anybody anything. So it just really shocked our family she was murdered like that." Marci remembers Pearle playing the "Missouri Waltz" on the piano. She told reporters her grandmother taught her to "tend a garden and crochet."

Micanopy lies about 12 miles south of Gainesville and 26 miles north of Ocala. Today it still has a population of less than 1,000. Canopied by hundreds of huge oak trees, the village is known for its eclectic mix of stores that sell vintage books, art, crafts, rare jewelry, music, and antiques. Many of the businesses are located in 19th century-era  buildings (see picture below). The town has no police force, so the Alachua County Sheriff's Office investigates any major criminal activity in the area.

After the murder, Alachua County homicide investigator Kevin Allen said deputies set up roadblocks to question drivers coming into or going out of Micanopy. While canvassing the area, many residents had noticed "that there was a blue or black motorcycle at or around the scene at the time of the homicide." No local citizen was known to own such a motorcycle.

Decades after the murder, two suspects emerged. Georgia serial killer Carlton Gary (pictured below) resided in Gainesville at the time of the murder. Pearle fit the killer's profile--he enjoyed strangling elderly white women to death while raping them. (Investigators have never said whether Pearle was sexually assaulted.)

A fingerprint found at the crime scene did not match Gary. Detective Allen spoke with Gary while he was on death row and said "he made admissions to almost every crime he had committed including robberies and burglaries, but he said he was not involved with any sexual murders of elderly females in Georgia or the state of Florida." On March 15, 2018, the killer was executed for the rapes and murders of three women in Georgia.

The fingerprint had been lifted off a Coca Cola cooler that sat near the body of Pearle. It came back to a "hustler and con-man" named Austin Felker. According to Allen, Felker had recently moved to Florida and "was the new owner of a blue and black motorcycle." But he had no history of violence. Was he the killer or just a customer? It's likely no one will ever know since he died many years ago.

The murder of Pearle Bartley is still being investigated. It speaks highly of Detective Allen and others who won't let the coldest of cases rest.

No comments: