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Florida Police Say Suspected Serial Killer Responsible For 1985 Cold Case Strangulation Of New Mother

Denise Marie Stafford was found strangled to death in her Florida home on October 12, 1985. Police in Sarasota have said that DNA evidence points to her husband's colleague, Joseph Magaletti, Jr., as her killer.

By Kevin Dolak
Denise Stafford Joseph Magaletti Jr Pd

Police in Florida announced this week that DNA evidence implicates a now-deceased suspected serial killer in the 1985 cold case murder of a Florida woman.

Denise Marie Stafford, 28, was found strangled to death in her Sarasota home on October 12, 1985, according to police. The case had gone unsolved until detectives were able to connect Joseph Magaletti, Jr., a bouncer at the local bar where her husband worked, in her decades-old slaying. Detectives discovered Magaletti's connection to the crime scene via re-testing of forensic evidence from her home, including the pants she was wearing at the time of her death. 

“We have identified the individual who perpetrated this horrendous crime,” Johnathan Todd, captain of the Criminal Investigations Division of the Sarasota Police Department, said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Magaletti was serving a life sentence for an unrelated 1995 murder at the time of his death. He had been named as a person of interest in the case in 1985 but was never a suspect.

Jeff Birdwell, who is cited by Sarasota police as the detective who decided in March 2020 to retest the pants found at the crime scene for a DNA match, said at the news conference that Frank Stafford, was working an overnight shift at the bar when Magaletti, who he described as a drug abuser with a sporadic employment record, killed his wife, Denise, in their home with their infant daughter nearby. 

Over a year after the DNA was submitted, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement contacted Birdwell to notify detectives that Magaletti was a match. On Wednesday, Birdwell described further evidence that led investigators to determine that Magaletti was the killer, including the fact that the two knew each other from when she obtained a pair of seat covers from him. Magaletti had also been at Stafford’s home on at least one occasion for a meeting regarding unemployment. Birdwell did not address whether the DNA could have been transferred by the car seats, Law & Crime’s Aaron Keller noted

At the news conference, Birdwell also outlined some of what detectives say they believe happened in the deadly attack 36 years ago. 

“There was evidence that Denise was attacked while standing up,” he told reporters. “That evidence told us that, somehow, from the initial attack, she ended up in her final resting place, which was on a bed and on her back.  She was also spun around on the bed. [In] other words, her head was at the foot of the bed, which is totally uncommon for any of us. So, she had to be placed there.”

Magaletti was convicted in June 2001 of the 1995 killing of his former neighbor, Kathleen Leonard, Florida Department of Corrections records indicate. In that investigation, DNA from a single hair linked Magaletti to the slaying. He was also suspected, but never charged, in the murder of 19-year-old Elizabeth Zea in January 1987, who was found beaten to death in downtown Sarasota, according to the Southwest Florida Herald-Tribune

Magaletti is also suspected of killing others. Birdwell said he suspected Magaletti killed to fund his drug habit. 

“You’re dealing with, by definition, a serial killer,” he told reporters.