By Angie Thompson
ASHBURN — Jeffrey Lynn Speck was a long-haul truck driver in 1997 when road workers found the stabbed body of Michaella Swaney dumped off I-75 in Turner County on Feb. 11, 1997. He would have gotten away with the crime, cold case investigators said, had it not been for the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
The journey that culminated in Speck’s Turner County grand jury indictment this month for the murder was a difficult one for several reasons. Swaney, who was 32 at the time of her death, was hitchhiking from Florida to her native Ohio.
“Someone who hitchhikes is at high risk for becoming a victim,” said Gary Rothwell, the Agent in Charge at Perry’s GBI office. “It also cuts down on the leads when there are no local connections to the victim. We usually begin by questioning people who are close to the victim.”
GBI Special Agent Ben Collins, also of the Perry office, has worked with Turner County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Steve Mauldin and Turner County Sheriff Randy Kendrick on the case. They gathered at the Turner County Civic Center Wednesday to announce the arrest. Initially, GBI Special Agents Bobby Young and Stephen Tinsley and then-Turner County Sheriff Donnie Sellers and Chief Deputy Mike Meeks were listed as contacts for people to call with information.
After Swaney’s body was found, evidence at the scene was gathered and an autopsy confirmed that she had been stabbed multiple times. The evidence collected also included seminal fluid taken from her body and stored with other case evidence. Her identity was revealed when fingerprints taken post-mortem matched those on file following a prior arrest.
The mug shot taken at her arrest provided a photograph of her to include in a flyer investigators created and distributed to law enforcement agencies, post offices and other public locations from Georgia to south Florida.
It was learned that Swaney had last been seen on Feb. 7, 1997, entering the Florida Turnpike toll plaza at Delray Beach, Fla. She was hitchhiking, witnesses said, and entered a car or truck at that location. Witnesses described a suspicious tractor trailer in the area shortly before Swaney’s remains were found.
The blue-eyed woman with shoulder-length light brown hair was last seen wearing a turquoise button up shirt and turquoise shorts, the flyer stated. She was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds. She was also described as having slightly-protruding “buck” teeth. The flyer also indicated that Swaney could have used the aliases Michelle, Micky, Nicky or Latisha Conroy. The flyer urged anyone with information about her whereabouts between Feb. 7, 1997 and Feb. 11, 1997 to call authorities.
Investigators said they were “stymied” until March of 2006. DNA taken from Speck, who was soon to be released after serving time in Texas on a drug-related offense, was entered into the CODIS system. GBI crime lab scientists confirmed his DNA matched that of seminal fluid that had been taken from Swaney’s body during her autopsy.
A warrant charging Speck with Swaney’s murder was issued and he was extradited to Georgia. A Turner County grand jury indicted him this month on charges of murder, felony murder and concealing Swaney’s death. He currently is incarcerated at the Turner County Jail awaiting his murder trial.
Rothwell said those investigating the case delayed releasing information of Speck’s arrest, even after the DNA match, until they gathered additional evidence. The timing is now right, investigators believe, because in November 2007, GBI scientists determined that blood recovered from a tractor trailer in West Virginia that was once driven by Speck matched Swaney’s.
Swaney’s murder didn’t generate much publicity 11 years ago or since, but Rothwell said it was important for people to know of Speck’s arrest and the importance of DNA evidence in cases and in the CODIS system.
“This case would never have been solved if not for DNA,” Rothwell said. “Speck was off the chart and off the radar, so to speak.”
Rothwell said he’d leave it up to prosecutors during the murder trial to determine whether Speck raped Swaney or the two had consensual sex. He also said he would also “leave it to the trial” when asked if there was evidence that indicated Swaney was murdered in Turner County or somewhere else. He did explain that the trial could, by law, be held in Turner County since Swaney’s body was found there. Rothwell said Wednesday that Speck’s DNA had not matched DNA inquiries from additional criminal cases.
Kendrick said several cases that haven’t yet been solved in his county continue to be investigated.
Perhaps the most publicized and the one that still haunts his department and those with the GBI who are involved in the investigation is that of the March 22, 2002 murder of three members of the Wideman family. The bodies of Turner County tax assessor Tommy Joe Wideman, his wife, Deborah Wheeler Wideman, 48, and their daughter, Melissa Wideman, 20, who was seven months pregnant with Abbie Alexis Wideman, were found in their burned-out home off Ga. Highway 112, three miles west of Rebecca. The fire was ruled arson but the Wideman’s official cause of death was gunshots from a .38 caliber pistol.
Kendrick said Wednesday that agents newly-assigned to the Wideman case are “working a little more aggressively” to solve it.
“We hope that new technology will also help us solve this and other cases,” Kendrick said. “This case is still active and we will solve it.”
Anyone with any information in the Wideman case is urged to call the Turner County Sheriff’s Office at 567-2401 or the Perry GBI Office at 478-987-4545.
Turner County Sheriff Randy Kendrick says Wideman case is ongoing and not cold
By Angie Thompson
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