New technologies help identify Boca Raton teen found dead in the Keys 28 years ago

           

Stephanie Sempell, 15 years old when she disappeared from home in 1976.
Her body was found on Grassy Key later that same year, but remained unidientified until recently.

Grassy Key – The bones of a young woman, found on Grassy Key in December of 1976, have finally been identified. Investigators from the Sheriff’s Office, working with the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation say the bones are those of 15 year old Stephanie Sempell, last seen alive in March of 1976 by her mother, Dorothy Appel of Boca Raton, Florida. Also assisting in the identification were the Boca Raton Police Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“New technologies, better networking between law enforcement databases and a caring family have allowed us to finally identify this body as that of Stephanie Sempell,” said Sheriff Rick Roth, who was the original investigating detective on the case in 1976. “This investigation is still active, and now that we have an identification, we hope we can go on to find out why Stephanie was found dead on Grassy Key 28 years ago.”

On December 30, 1976, then Detective Richard Roth responded to investigate reports of human remains found on Grassy Key, near an area commonly called the “rock pit” at the 55.5 mile marker of highway U.S. One. The bones were found scattered in a heavily wooded area grown wild with Spanish Bayonet. They were partially covered by Spanish moss, leafy debris and vines and they were judged to have been there for months if not longer. The only clothing found at the site was a black T-shirt. It was knotted in such a way that Detective Roth said he believed it had been tied around the victim’s head for some unknown reason, perhaps as a blindfold. Hair was found tangled in the knot. On the t-shirt was a colorful depiction of a tiffany lamp. Investigations revealed thousands of t-shirts with the same print had been sold nationwide.

The remains were reported by a camper from Lake Worth, Florida who said he and a friend had recently stayed in the area. He said while they were there they were approached by a “hippie type” man who offered to show them a human skeleton for a quarter. The camper described where the body was and offered to return to the Keys to show officers where he’d seen the remains. Using the camper’s description of the area, detectives found the bones near a place called Gaines Rock Pit.

After the bones were photographed in place, they were collected for further examination. The Medical Examiner at the time, Dr. A. J. Fernandez, found that the bones showed no signs of violent death – no gun shot injuries, no knife marks and no breaks consistent with injury. The cause of death was classified as an unknown, but because of the t-shirt, Detective Roth suspected foul play. The bones were believed to belong to a white female, 15 to 16 years old who was between five foot three and five foot five inches tall and approximately 105 – 115 pounds in weight. The hair recovered at the scene was reddish brown in color.

Dental records were used to compare the body to law enforcement reports of missing women from across the country. None of those comparisons were positive, and the victim was never identified. Two separate reconstructions were done in an attempt to get an idea of what she may have looked like alive, a clay reconstruction done by the University of Colorado and a computer generated reconstruction done by the University of Florida. Those reconstructions confirmed the description originally given by the medical examiner, but drawings derived from those reconstructions did not result in identification either.

The information on the case was reported to the Florida Crime Information Center (FCIC) and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) where it was entered into those statewide and nationwide law enforcement databases. There were no hits from those databases, and detectives judged they had done all they could to identify the bones.

Such unresolved cases are never closed, but due to lack of manpower and an overabundance of other active cases, they are often filed away to be taken out and reexamined when time allows, or leads crop up. Currently, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office has a list of 85 such cases: “cold cases” comprised of missing persons never found, unexplained deaths or unidentified bodies.

The case came to the attention of investigators in the Sheriff’s Office Homicide Division again in November of 2001 when the mother of a girl who went missing in 1974 became convinced the bones belonged to her daughter. At her insistence, detectives, assisted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, compared mitochondrial DNA (a DNA sequence extracted from the mother) to DNA extracted from the bones found on Grassy Key. The comparison concluded the bones did not belong to the missing child in question. However, the test allowed the DNA extracted from the Grassy Key bones to be entered into the FBI’s relatively new Mitochondrial DNA Missing Person Database, Unit II, based in Quantico, Virginia in the hopes that sometime in the future, the database would in some way assist in identifying the victim. (For more information on the FBI DNA database, visit their web site at http://www.fbi.gov/hq/lab/org/dnau.htm).

Despite all the work, the identification of the victim would not have been possible had her family not followed up with a simple phone call. In 1997, Kim Quinn of New York, the sister of a Boca Raton girl missing since 1976, began looking into the status of her sister’s case. Her younger sister, Stephanie Sempell, was a chronic runaway who was last seen in March of 1976. At the time of her disappearance, she told her mother she was going to the Keys with friends. She never returned. The family says they reported her missing, but for some unknown reason, there is no record of that report. Because there was apparently no official report that she was missing, her name and description was never entered into any database where a comparison with this case would have been possible. When the sister began making inquiries, she discovered that because there was no official missing person’s report in existence, her missing sister was not in the nationwide missing child database. As a result of Quinn’s inquiries, Sempell was finally entered into the database. Eventually, the NCMEC matched that missing person report with the Keys case from 1976 as a possible hit.

“Gerry Nance from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children called Detective James Norman in December of 2003 and said he had a possible hit on the Grassy Key case. We already had the DNA from the bones entered in the FBI DNA database. At that point, the mother of Stephanie Sempell was contacted for a sample of her DNA for comparison,” said Detective Sgt. Patricia Dally, who heads up the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Homicide Division.

“Jim Giumenta, the Cold Case Detective for Palm Beach County, and FBI Agent Chuck Wilcox helped us with obtaining the DNA from the mother. The DNA analysis indicated a match. That, along with the description of Stephanie, which closely matched the description attributed to the bones, convinced detectives they had at long last identified the bones found on Grassy Key. Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Hunter is now doing his own examination to make sure there are no signs which would indicate a cause of death. He will be making a cause of death ruling following that examination.

What now? Detectives hope that someone somewhere will see the picture of Stephanie, hear the story of where and how she was found, and will call them with information about the case. To date, no one who has been questioned in this case can definitively say who she was traveling to the Keys with and detectives would like to know that so they can talk to her traveling companions. They would also like her friends, who might know who she hung out with, to come forward if they remember anything that might be significant.

“Somebody knows her and knows what happened to her back in 1976,” Detective Sgt. Dally said. “We want that person, or those people, to call us. A young girl lost her life, and both she and her family deserve to have some type of explanation for that. We’d like to give it to them.”

Families who have missing children or missing adults should also consider having mitochondrial DNA entered into the FBI DNA database. The process is simple – the mother of the missing person, or another related female should visit their local FBI office. The DNA test in question is a simple and painless mouth swab or a skin prick for blood.