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Solved: How Jacksonville detectives cracked a 21-year-old cold case

Det. Margo Rhatigan says when the genetic genealogy results came back in 2020, the cold case team was shocked and then angry.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — To solve a crime, it can take time.

Time for technology to catch up with the evidence available. Detective Margo Rhatigan was a part of the cold case unit at the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the lead detective on the Saad Kawaf murder case. She says the DNA evidence in the 1999 murder was always strong, but initially didn’t lead anywhere.

"Profiles that were identified back in 2003, the known profiles, they just weren’t linked to anybody. Technology and science were finally coming into play," Rhatigan says.

Genetic genealogy was the gamechanger in technology that investigators needed. In 2018, the cold case unit at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office resubmitted the DNA samples for genetic genealogy tracing with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The results came back in 2020, and pointed to a former detective with JSO, William Baer.

"I was shocked at first and then I became angry," Rhatigan says. "Yeah, I was mad."

She says when she began working at JSO in 1999, William Baer was a name she had heard, but they had never met.

"I remember him being a detective in intelligence. I didn’t recognize a picture of him when we saw it, but then we started putting everything together (and) I remembered the name. Nobody in my immediate office at the time knew him. Same thing -- heard of him, but didn’t know him," she explains. "Some people, other people that I had worked with that had retired on, knew him."

Recordings of the first interview with Baer show him as defiant, saying he had no idea why he was being questioned about the murder.

"I couldn’t gauge whether he was expecting that day to come. He was living a normal life, he was out golfing every day. There was no looking over his shoulder for him," Rhatigan says.

But Baer's ex-wife, Melissa Jo Schafer, confessed quickly in her interrogation with Rhatigan and Detective Glenn Warkentien. They discovered that while a part of the intelligence division of JSO, Baer had investigated Kawaf and learned about large cash deposits he made. Kawaf was the owner of a convenience store and no criminal activity was ever discovered. But once Baer knew the day Kawaf was likely to deposit a large amount of money, Baer and Schafer attacked Kawaf and his wife at their Deerwood home. Saad Kawaf was stabbed to death. His wife was tied up in the home and survived the attack.

Both Baer and Schafer have since pleaded guilty to charges related to Kawaf's murder.

Rhatigan, now an agent for FDLE, says she is thankful to have worked this case to see firsthand the science behind genetic genealogy and to have brought justice to the Kawaf family.

"You never know who your suspect is going to be. You don’t know the background, and I was really surprised and then angry about it," she says. "You just never know with these cases."