Pamela Cahanes was a 25-year-old U.S. Navy recruit at the Orlando Naval Training Center when she was beaten and strangled in 1984.
Now a 59-year-old Jacksonville man who was a military classmate of hers 34 years ago is in a county jail in Sanford, charged in her death, according to the Seminole County Sheriff's Office.
Thomas Lewis Garner was arrested early Wednesday outside his apartment in the 1300 block of Dunn Avenue on Jacksonville's Northside, then taken to Seminole County on a first-degree pre-meditated murder charge, according to authorities.
Standing next to a photograph of Cahanes in her uniform, Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma announced Garner's arrest, saying police fulfilled a promise to make sure families of murder victims get closure.
"If you think about this case and the amount of years that this family has had to wait for justice, it is extremely sad to know that our victim's mom had passed away and never had the opportunity to see this," Lemma said. "... But there are many brothers, sisters and family members, and I am convinced she is looking down from heaven right now knowing this is a day of release as this person is held accountable and responsible for what they have done."
Cahanes was born and raised in Minnesota then decided to enlist in the Navy, Lemma said. In the 1980s the Navy Training Center in Orlando was where basic training was conducted, and Cahanes graduated from that program Aug. 2, 1984. Her last day alive included a shopping trip at a mall near the training base early on Aug. 4. She was last seen about 8 p.m. that night with an unidentified man in front of the base, Lemma said.
Cahanes' body was discovered the next day in the side yard of a house in Sanford, beaten and strangled, the Sheriff's Office said.
"She appeared to have been been dumped there only wearing her undergarments, her Navy clothes close by, with a few other personal items that were found in the field," the sheriff said. "She was found there at 7 a.m. by somebody passing by. At the time it was a vacant home that was up for sale."
Investigator Bob James, now retired, worked on the case for 25 years, resubmitting case evidence each time DNA technology was improved, Lemma said. In 2000, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement re-examined DNA evidence from the dead woman's underwear, but it revealed no results since it only searched through the records of people who had been arrested, the sheriff said.
In 2005 the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory helped investigators by creating a DNA profile that gave them more information, the sheriff said. And in 2015 they worked with Identifinders, a forensic genealogical service, and found the DNA profile fit a black male.
Working with FDLE and other DNA experts in recent years, they later produced a full profile that was used to create a better idea of the suspect, the sheriff said. That led to an investigation of Garner, who served in the U.S. Navy at the same time as Cahanes.
"It was scientific confirmation that his DNA matched that of the person responsible for the brutal killing," Lemma said.
Two investigators arrested Garner at his home, then went to Minnesota to be with the Cahanes family as Lemma announced the arrest.
Garner, a dental hygienist in Jacksonville with "a relatively clean record," made no statement to investigators when arrested and is not cooperating with them, Lemma said. Garner faced a minor battery charge while in the Navy. But he has no arrests in Jacksonville, according to Duval County jail records.
"He's probably flown under the radar," Lemma said. "... It's extremely bizarre to think someone could commit a crime like this and go on and lead a normal life."
Investigators are also looking into similar cases, but there is no evidence that connects Garner to them, Lemma said.
Investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and FDLE helped in the investigation.
©2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.