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Crime News Cold Cases

Cold Case Of 89-Year-Old Florida Woman's Murder, Sexual Assault Solved Nearly Three Decades Later

DNA evidence on Lillian DeCloe's nightgown recently led Broward Sheriff's Office detectives to a Vietnam War veteran, who was DeCloe's neighbor in the 1990s.

By Caitlin Schunn
How To Use DNA To Crack A Case

A series of breakthroughs after breakthroughs — DNA evidence leading to forensic profiling, leading to possible suspects — all nearly three decades after an 89-year-old woman was sexually assaulted, beat and strangled in her Florida home.

“She had contusions everywhere — her wrists, her ribs were fractured,” Detective David Towsley from the Broward Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday. “Her nose was fractured.”

Lillian DeCloe was killed on April 29, 1994, and for 28 years her family waited for answers — until the Broward Sheriff’s Office finally identified her murderer in August.

“My first thought was, who did this?” June Nicholas, DeCloe’s niece, said in an interview shared to the Broward Sheriff’s Office YouTube page on Tuesday. “She took care of most of us.”

Nicholas helped care for her aunt as she experienced health issues, including memory loss. Nicholas was the one to discover the gruesome murder of her aunt in the late afternoon of April 29.

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“You know, I called, ‘Auntie, where are you?’” Nicholas recalled to the sheriff’s office. “I checked the first bedroom, which she normally would take her naps in, and finally I went down to the end of the hall, and as I looked right, I saw her on the floor.”

Nicholas said the violence against her aunt deeply affected her.

“I took a whole year off of work, just to cope,” Nicholas said in an interview with the sheriff’s office. “I had someone take care of my kids for a couple of months because I couldn’t cope. It was that bad. I would lay in my bed and I would see her on the floor.”

Cold Case victim Lillian DeCloe

Police found the attacker likely entered through a bedroom window, with investigators finding signs of a struggle and DeCloe’s Pompano Beach home ransacked.

“There was never any indication she was specifically targeted for any reason,” said Towsley. “She didn’t have any enemies. It just appeared to be a burglary gone bad.”

The Broward Sheriff’s Office took over policing for Pompano Beach in 2004, and DeCloe’s nightgown was re-tested for DNA, resulting in the discovery of semen samples. The semen was run through the national criminal database, but detectives didn’t get any hits.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office’s Cold Case Homicide Unit then reopened her case in 2019, using old case files and DNA databases to try and figure out what happened to the former teacher and nurse.

The office says their work eventually led them to the grave of a former United States Marine who once lived a few houses away from DeCloe.

“When I first got this case in 2019, I never thought it would result in anything like this,” Jennifer Parker, BSO criminalist, said in an interview with the sheriff’s office.

The cold case unit crime lab developed a suspect profile using the DNA from DeCloe’s nightgown. 

Then, in 2021, the unit asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to do a familial search of its State of Florida qualifying offender DNA database. The sheriff’s office said this technique uses the forensic DNA profile to search for possible close male relatives, like a parent, child or full sibling. Detectives said this testing identified a man who had spent time in Florida prison. This man was the biological son of the man whom detectives suspected left DNA on DeCloe’s nightgown — Johnny Mack Brown.

A police handout of Johnny Mack Brown

“They concluded that there was pretty much only one possible answer, and it was most likely the father that was responsible for this,” Parker said an in interview with the sheriff’s office.

Broward detectives say Brown lived a few houses away from DeCloe in the 1990’s and was a Vietnam War veteran. His family told detectives he struggled with PTSD and drug addiction and had been homeless for several years. He died of natural causes in 2010. 

In August of this year, detectives got a court order to exhume Brown’s body from the South Florida National Cemetery in Palm Beach county. Testing by the BSO’s crime lab showed that Brown’s DNA was consistent with the DNA left on DeCloe’s nightgown. The DNA results were actually 66.8 trillion times more likely that they came from Brown and DeCloe than if they came from DeCloe and another person, according to the sheriff’s office.

“We knew 100 percent that we had the right guy at that time,” Towsley said in an interview with the sheriff’s department.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office agrees with the findings that Brown was involved in DeCloe’s sexual assault and murder and considers DeCloe’s murder solved — bringing closure to the DeCloe family all these years later.

“I know that wherever she is, she can sleep in peace,” Nicholas told the sheriff’s office. “We are glad that it’s closed. We can move on. We can die in peace, because we know that it wasn’t a murder that was unsolved.”

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