Columbia Co. Sheriff recounts how a small department broke a big cold case

Getting to the bottom of the Fred Laster murder case

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Fla. -- Sheriff Mark Hunter began his law enforcement career the same year Fred Laster's body was found in that dumpster outside a Lake City BP gas station in 1994.

Now he sits in the biggest office at the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.

RELATED | Jax Beach man arrested for dismemberment, murder of 16-year-old boy in 1994

They were the agency to break the Laster murder case. With a calm demeanor of a man who has been in law enforcement for 20 years, Hunter said that his agency broke the case, but it was a group effort. 

It has been one week and two days since Ronnie Hyde was arrested and charged for the 1994 murder of 16-year-old Fred Laster. Laster was decapitated and missing his hands, legs and buttocks. The body could not be positively identified at the time.

Hunter wasn't involved in the case, but he said he has lived in the Lake City area all his life and remembers when the murder made headlines. "It was a big case, sensationalized back then. It's a pretty significant deal when you find a mutilated body, it affects your community."

It took 23 years and significant technological advances for police to charge Hyde. 

When Hunter became sheriff, he said he made a commitment to look at cold cases. The Columbia County Sheriff's Office has 15 in total. 

Though the sheriff's office is small and allocating resources to cold cases is often difficult, Hunter said he is proud of his team.

"We don't have all the bells and whistles and all the funding that these larger agencies have. In a way, we have opportunities to be more successful," said Hunter. "It's not just another number for us, it hits home."

Other agencies may have more assets, Hunter said, but he would stack his people up against any other agency. "They may out do us with money or assets but as far as heart goes, I know the guys that worked on this case and the detective that worked on this case, he really poured his heart into this."

The question is: Why now? Why after 23 years has there finally been a break in this cold case?

The answer is that delving into cold cases is laborious: it takes time. 

“It happened when it happened, I’m glad it did happened when it did because we had a successful resolution."

Hunter said that every cold case has a book filled with information. Records and leads and tips - whether they ran dry or not - are documented and kept together in a book. In 2012, when Sgt. Jimmy Watson began working on the Laster case, he had to go through the case and relive it from the beginning without the aid of the newfangled computer systems that are in place now.

"We called it hand jamming," said Hunter. Watson had to go through every handwritten page, tip, and cold lead. 

“Law enforcement in general, when they get on something, they tenacious, they’re bulldogs, what’s neat to me, just like any other profession, you have individuals who have a niche for certain things,“ said Hunter.

Watson's niche was searching for what the sheriff calls rabbit holes. In 2012, Watson was able to find the right rabbit hole.

But without the work of of the officers before him, Watson and the sheriff's office, FBI, ATF and Florida Department of Law Enforcement wouldn't be where they are now.

"I have to give credit to this agency and the investigators way back when," said Hunter. "Even though they don’t have the technologies we do now, the evidence preservation that they did, the collecting of the evidence and working that crime scene, they did an outstanding job, because all of that stuff was preserved and in this case it was really really helpful."

After Watson contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Laster family contacted the sheriff's office and told them about Laster. After testing their DNA and comparing it to Laster's the match was considered "high familiar." When this case began as a John Doe murder case in 1994, DNA wasn't something that was used.

"There was your spark," said Hunter. "We said, 'Okay, we've somewhat identified the victim.'"

Hunter said he feels a sense of accomplishment in getting someone off of the streets that was hurting people, "But it's bittersweet, because when you have to go and deliver a death notification and you see the people - you know, their hearts are heavy, it's pretty emotional."

As a self-described "country boy" Hunter said, "I love country logic." He was given some advice by a mentor: "If you can get your hands around this, you'll be successful in law enforcement: our job is to help people. All the other stuff is busy work. Sometimes you help people by taken them to jail and that's to keep them from hurting themselves or hurting someone else, or it's to help protect our society and sometimes it's nothing more than just sitting an listening to people."

The Laster murder case, though 23 years old, is far from over. In fact, it is still unclear whether Laster was Hyde's only victim.

"The potential is pretty high," Hunter said when asked if there could be other victims. "I'll just say that. This was pretty horrific. This crime was a very horrific crime."


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