JACKSONVILLE, Fla — This September will mark 30 years since a young mother was murdered in her Jacksonville home. The murderer left Renee McBreen’s three-year-old son locked inside the home with his mother’s body for hours.
The cruelty of her case is hard to fathom, but it's one cold case detectives at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office are taking another look at, and what they've found is promising.
It was Sept. 20, 1992.
McBreen was celebrating her son, Caleb, turning three with a birthday party, followed by a trip to the Dunkin' Donuts near their home on Crescent Street in Murray Hill. Family told police in 1992 that McBreen and Caleb left the Dunkin' at 9:30 p.m. and were heading back home.
Around 10 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 21, 1992, Caleb answered the house phone when his father called from Colorado. He was crying and said that 'Mommy won't wake up.'
Police responded and found a terrible scene. McBreen was dead.
"There’s blunt force trauma, and she is laying on the living room floor by the couch," describes Detective Ray Reeves with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Cold Case Unit.
Caleb was unharmed, the three-year-old was interviewed about what he had seen.
"He makes statements about ‘big man’ and he motions as if there was an argument," tells Det. Reeves," So that is all the detectives had to go on."
Neighbors told the Florida Times Union in 1992 they’d heard arguing earlier that night and the day before. One neighbor told police she saw a man with possibly a beard at the house, but that didn’t give officers much of a suspect description.
In reviewing the case, Det. Reeves believes McBreen knew her attacker because the areas around the windows were undisturbed and all the doors were locked. Her key was also found inside.
"So whoever it was, she knew, and they were already inside and when they left, our thoughts are, because of the deadbolts in the front [door] they just turned that knob and closed the [back] door behind them," explains Det. Reeves.
Det. Reeves says officers ruled out McBreen’s husband, Caleb’s father, Bill McBreen. Though married, the couple was separated, with Bill in the Navy stationed in Colorado.
He flew back to Jacksonville after learning of McBreen's murder.
McBreen supported herself and her son as a waitress and was also around two months pregnant. A man told investigators in 1992 that he was the father of the unborn child, and Det. Reeves says that man was investigated and cleared.
Friends and coworkers were interviewed, but in time, the case went cold.
Now an adult, Caleb McBreen says speaking with cold case detectives as they reopen his mother’s case has helped him connect the dots in some memories. Like his mother being under a sheet.
"I always believed there had been a sheet pulled over my mom after she had been murdered, and I brought that up, and they said well actually you had woken up that morning, and we believe went out there and put a pillow under her head and a sheet over her to make her comfortable, being so young and not really understanding what was going on," he says.
His happy life with his mom was shattered, sending him down a difficult path. He says he lived for a time with his father, but ended up in foster care.
At times, he was homeless in his childhood, before being adopted as a teenager by a loving couple.
Now as a husband and father himself, he wishes his mother could see the man he has become.
"I think the hardest thing when you lose somebody at that age, I always wonder what advice she would have given me today," says Caleb McBreen. "What she hoped I would be... who she hoped I would be."
What gives him hope is seeing that people still care.
Renee McBreen's sister and close friends still hang up flyers in the Murray Hill neighborhood, dedicated to finding out who took the life of their beloved sister and friend all those years ago.
Caleb says their dedication through the decades is a testament to the kind of person his mother was and how much she meant to those close to her.
Det. Reeves says he does feel hopeful with this case. With the advances in DNA technology they can now submit evidence never before tested, and they are re-running a palm print found at the scene through local and federal databases.
"Now where we are technology-wise it may very well be that someone we have already spoken to, we will get a hit or a pop on," tells Det. Reeves.
While that could lead to an arrest in the case, Caleb says it won’t bring back his mom or change the years he struggled as a child without her. What he wants is an understanding of why it happened and to get that, he needs to know who killed her.
"You know she was known for the friend she was and the love she gave, and she was known for being the happiest person in the room," tells Caleb."I just want to know why."
If you know anything about the murder of Renee McBreen, contact the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office at 904-630--500 or Crime Stoppers at 1-866-845-TIPS(8477).
For more resources if you are the family of homicide victims whose case has gone cold or to look at the cold case database, visit: www.ProjectColdCase.org