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On the morning of Sept. 4, 1981, a maintenance man in Lakeland, Florida was rattled by blood-curdling screams.
They came from Judy Butler. She had arrived at her sister Linda Slaten’s home for coffee but nobody was coming to the front door.
Then she noticed the screen to her sister’s bedroom window was missing, so she investigated. Through the glass she could see her sister’s body, lying on a bed with a coat hanger lodged around her neck.
Authorities rushed to the home and when they arrived, they determined that the single mom had been sexually assaulted and died of strangulation, according to the affidavit reviewed by Oxygen.com.
The case went cold until this year when, aided by DNA evidence, authorities were able to make an arrest. On Dec. 12, 58-year-old Joseph Mills was charged with Slaten’s murder, as well as burglary and sexual battery –– and his innocent-seeming connection to the victim's family was revealed.
“He was my football coach,” Linda's youngest son, Timothy Slaten, said on Thursday during a press conference, flanked by his brother Jeffrey.
Besides working at a dairy warehouse, Mills had coached the Lakeland Volunteer’s football team and had even dropped Timothy off at the Slatens' home after practice the day before Linda was found dead, authorities said.
Timothy said that he learned just last week that Mills was the prime suspect in his mother’s murder.
“This is somebody I trusted and for him to do something like this to my family,” he said, choking up. “I saw the crime scene when I was young. It’s still fresh in my brain today. I saw it firsthand what he has done. He's a monster.”
Timothy was just 12 and Jeffrey 15 when their mother was killed. Jeffrey remembered last seeing his mother alive at around 11 p.m. on Sept. 3, after he'd just finished watching television; she was busy washing the dishes.
Timothy remembered being dropped off by Mills, whom he knew as "Joe," earlier in the day; Timothy joined his mother to play cards with neighbors before they returned home and went to bed.
Neither son heard anything that night, according to the affidavit.
Slaten's cold case was reopened two years ago, authorities said, and cracked by dogged police work and the use of forensic genealogy, which directed their focus on Mills. Over the summer, Lakeland Police detectives, working with Florida Department of Law Enforcement or FDLE, collected DNA evidence from Mills’ trash at his Bailey Road home. They also found latent fingerprints and sent the evidence, along with samples from a preserved rape kit taken from Slaten’s body, to the Virginia-based Parabon Nanolabs.
The findings led authorities to zero in on Mills as the homicide suspect.
“Joseph should be strongly considered due to the fact genetic connections were found to both sides of his family tree, and he was living in close proximity to the scene of the crime in 1981,” according to an excerpt from the lab's report that was included in the court documents.
Mills had been interviewed multiple times by detectives soon after Slaten's death and twice more this year.
The first of the recent interviews appears to have taken place on Dec. 4, during which Mills allegedly told investigators “he did not know anything” about Slaten’s homicide.
His memory was apparently jogged after seeing few photographs of Slaten and her sons and he told authorities he remembered Slaten's murder, but “did not know” her personally.
Detectives noted that he did recall that Timothy was on his football team and he would pick up and drop him off at the Slatens' home located on N. Brunelle Parkway.
Eight days later, detectives returned to Mills' home and he was taken into custody on two counts of perjury, according to the documents.
After being read his Miranda rights, Mills allegedly offered more details of that fateful night.
Mills said he dropped Timothy off at home like he had before, but claimed Linda offered him an open invitation for a “good time,” the affidavit states.
He then allegedly admitted to returning to the Slatens' home shortly afterward. He told investigators he'd entered through her “unlocked bedroom window” and described Linda lying on the bed, with a wire hanger “around her neck,” according to the affidavit.
Linda, he allegedly claimed, asked him to have “wild” sex.
“Mills stated he twisted the wire hanger around her neck tighter and tighter while engaging in sexual intercourse with Linda Slaten until she lost consciousness,” investigators wrote.
After finishing, Mills told authorities he left through the same bedroom window that he entered.
“Mills admitted that Linda Slaten never regained consciousness prior to him leaving through the window,” the affidavit states.
Police concluded that there was enough evidence to establish that Mills had unlawfully broken into Slaten’s home and “committed a sexual battery upon Linda Slaten and utilized a wire hanger to kill Linda Slaten.”
Mills appeared in court on Tuesday and is scheduled to be arraigned on Jan. 21, records show.
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