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How Fla. cops hope a deck of cards will bring murderers to justice

The cards, which will be given to inmates statewide, will feature the faces of crime victims and information on how to report anonymous tips to Florida Crime Stoppers

By Brandon Kingdollar
Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA — The Florida Association of Crime Stoppers is doubling down on a tool that helped solve two murder cases that went cold in the state: playing cards.

The cards, which debuted Monday at a news conference at the Falkenburg Road Jail in Tampa, feature the faces and names of 45 homicide victims, two hit-and-run victims and six missing persons, as well as information on how to report anonymous tips to Florida Crime Stoppers.

More than 5,000 decks will be printed and shipped to over 100 jails and prisons across the state, according to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, putting them in front of more than 100,000 inmates. The decks will also be shown in a digital format across the state’s probation offices, which are visited by 1.2 million offenders each year.

Moody, whose office worked with Florida Crime Stoppers to release the decks, said that even one missing piece of information could be the key to solving one of these crimes.

“If you know something that can bring one of these perpetrators to justice, please speak up,” Moody said.

The Florida Sheriffs Association, Florida Department of Corrections and cold case nonprofit Season of Justice also collaborated on the initiative.

Three Tampa cold cases are included in the deck: the 2019 shooting of James William Earl, 32; the 2022 shooting of Willie Carraway, 45; and the 2023 shooting of Yitzian Torres-Garcia, 7.

“It’s going to be a year (since Torres-Garcia was killed) and we have no tips yet,” said Marisol Ayala Hernandez, Torres-Garcia’s grandmother. “Somebody has to talk about this, and we’ll catch the people.”

Torres-Garcia’s case is the most recent in the deck. The earliest case is the murder of Eileen King, 17, whose remains were found in the Withlacoochee River in 1979.

Tina Johnson-North, James Earl’s mother, said she hopes the initiative can bring justice and closure for her son’s death and to the other families who have lost loved ones.

“I feel very grateful,” she said. “Out of the thousands of people that have passed away, unsolved crimes, my son was chosen.”

The deck also includes the cases of Shirley Badger Trenner, 61, who was stabbed in Clearwater in 1985; Jill Marie Vanwormer, 19, who disappeared in Pinellas County in 1986 and whose remains were discovered four years later in a Hernando County forest; and Yvonne Davenport, a 23-year-old dancer in the Tampa - St. Petersburg area who was murdered in 1987.

In addition, there are cards for Lynette Campbell, 35, who disappeared in Tarpon Springs in 1996 and was found dead two weeks later; and Dominique Lewis, who disappeared in St. Petersburg in 2007 and was found dead in a Brooksville forest weeks later.

The cold case deck is a revival of a 2007 initiative between Florida Crime Stoppers, the Department of Corrections, the Attorney General’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That partnership led to the distribution of more than 200,000 decks of cold case playing cards across three editions.

“This isn’t just a hopeful experiment, it’s a proven concept,” said Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper , president of the Florida Sheriffs Association. “We are turning playing cards into a catalyst for justice.”

The previous sets of cards led to the resolution of two cold cases, according to Florida Department of Corrections Assistant Secretary of Community Corrections Joe Winkler: the Fort Myers murder of James Foote, 53, in November 2004, and the Bradenton murder of Ingrid Lugo, 34, in December 2004.

In Lugo’s case, authorities had been stumped after discovering her body in an East Manatee County retention pond, Florida Crime Stoppers president Frank Brunner said. Her ex-boyfriend, Bryan Curry, was a person of interest in the case, but police were unable to find a hole in his alibi, so they let him go.

Brunner said that after including Lugo’s case in the first deck of playing cards, Crime Stoppers received a tip from an inmate that Curry was “bragging about how he tricked the cops” while in jail on an unrelated charge. He was convicted in Lugo’s death in March 2008 and sentenced to life in prison.

Brunner said the playing cards are targeted to inmates in part because those who are incarcerated may have knowledge about cold cases that others may not, either because they have heard discussions about the crimes or because they were involved in some way.

The playing card initiative is the latest in a series of efforts by the Florida Attorney General’s Office to solve the state’s more than 20,000 cold cases.

In 2020, Moody’s office consolidated various Florida tip hotlines into a single statewide number, and in 2021, it nearly doubled the maximum reward amount for tips in murder cases from $5,000 to $9,500.

This February, Moody announced a dedicated cold case investigations unit to aid local law enforcement around the state in finding the culprits of unsolved murders.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister ceremonially received the first deck of the cold case cards.

“I’m grateful that the initiative is launched here,” Chronister said. “I am hopeful that this will help us solve just one crime, just one homicide, and bring closure to just one family member.”

Anyone with information on the cases can reach out through the statewide anonymous tip line at **TIPS (8477), the Florida Crime Stoppers website or the Florida Crime Stoppers app. Tipsters who give information leading to an arrest can receive up to $9,500.

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