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Crime News Cold Cases

DNA From “Illicit” Family Affair Links Nurse’s Unsolved 1986 Killing to Dead Florida Neighbor, Authorities Say

Forensic genetic genealogy ultimately led authorities to Donald Douglas, who detectives identified as the now-deceased killer of Florida nurse Teresa Lee Scalf.

By Dorian Geiger
Police handouts of Teresa Lee Scalf and Donald Douglas

Warning: This story contains graphic content.

Investigators have unmasked the suspected killer behind the 1986 cold case slaying of a Florida nurse using DNA.

Donald Douglas was identified as the murderer of Teresa Lee Scalf, whose throat was slashed in her home almost 37 years ago, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office announced on Oct. 16. Douglas, who was a neighbor of Scalf, died of natural causes in 2008 at the age of 54. 

How did Teresa Lee Scalf die?

On Oct. 27, 1986, Scalf’s mother found her mutilated body at her Lakeland apartment, Orlando NBC affiliate WESH reported. Scalf had been “brutally” attacked; her throat had been slit so deep, she’d nearly been decapitated, authorities said. Scalf had also sustained multiple defensive wounds in the attack.

“It was violent, and it was horrible,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said this week, per The Miami Herald.

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“We believe it was a sexual rejection,” Judd said. “We saw a lot of defensive wounds. She never had a relationship with him. So we believe that he was angry and upset because she wouldn’t have a relationship with him.”

At the time, Scalf was a 29-year-old nurse at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center. 

Douglas, who was then 33, was interviewed by authorities in the aftermath of Scalf’s killing, but there had been no concrete evidence tying him to the murder. Investigators said Douglas had no past criminal record and was also cremated after his death, which made connecting him to the killing all the more difficult. 

Some blood, which didn’t belong to Scalf, and which investigators speculated was left by her killer, was found at the crime scene. It was ultimately entered into a local, state, and national database that contained forensic profiles of known convicted criminals, as well as unsolved crime scene evidence, and other missing persons cases. 

For decades, however, it wasn’t matched to anyone, and Scalf’s case went cold.

How was Donald Douglas linked to Teresa Scalf's murder?

In 2022, as a part of renewed efforts to identify a suspect in the case, Polk County cold case investigators enlisted the help of Texas-based private DNA lab Othram Inc. to analyze the blood found at the crime scene. After creating a genetic profile, detectives traced the sample back to relatives of its owner. One hit landed on a third cousin of Douglas who had conceived a baby outside of marriage in 1949, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, per The Miami Herald. 

What Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd described as the “illicit affair” ultimately exposed a new family tree branch, which ultimately led law enforcement to Douglas’ surviving son. Further genetic analysis confirmed a match between Douglas’ son and blood found at the scene of Scalf’s slaying. 

“When we were able to work the genealogy up into the modern era, [a detective] met with Donald Douglas’ son and said, ‘We’d like a blood sample; we’re working a murder investigation,'” Judd added per WESH. “The son, to Donald Douglas, was totally cooperative and was in horrible shock. His dad, and here’s the key to it, had never ever ever been arrested. Ever.”

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Prosecutors for the State Attorney’s Office 10th Judicial Circuit have concluded the case status should be updated to solved due to Douglas’ death. 

Scalf’s family welcomed the news that a killer had been identified in the case.

“Teresa was a wonderful person, the most loving person,” Scalf’s sister, Pam Shade said at a press conference. “She didn’t deserve this. My family didn’t deserve this.”

Her other sister, Lynn Scalf, said Teresa shared that she had some uncomfortable experiences with a neighbor, but didn't fully describe him, offering that up as a cautionary tale for present-day stalking victims.

“Teresa had told us about some creepy neighbor that had showed up at her house with what looked like he had yanked a flower up out of the ground and slapped it into a pot,” Lynn said during the news conference, according to the Miami Herald. “He was sort of stalkerish, and she had told us about him, but she never described him. So anybody, but especially ladies, if someone’s being creepy, don’t just tell your sisters, tell them what he looks like.”

According to her family, Scalf was murdered roughly a month after becoming a registered nurse. 

“I’ve been a nurse [for] 38 years now,” Shade added. “My brother is a trauma nurse, my sister works in mental health, my mother worked at the hospital for 25 years, all due to her. It was all due to her.”

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