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UNSOLVED: The 1989 disappearance, gruesome murder of Darlene Messer

Angela Tenney says her mother was a good person and she wants this case closed so people can remember her mother as a person and not just a murder victim.

LAKE CITY, Fla. — On a small bridge, over the shallow Swift Creek, Darlene Messer’s life came a violent end.

Her body found crumpled in the water below, her face was beaten beyond recognition.

It’s a bridge Messer’s daughter, Angela Tenney, has visited.

"You look around and wonder, 'well how would I have gotten away? Which way did she run?" tells Angela Teney as tears fill her eyes, "Then you remember that it doesn’t matter, it is just a bridge."

The year was 1989. Messer had moved from Canada and married Charles Messer. A prison inmate, at that time, on death row in Raiford for murder. Though investigators don’t believe he had anything to do with her murder.

On Sep.18 of 1989, Messer was working the overnight shift at the Suwannee Swifty, a convenience store along SR-100 in Lake City.

Lt. Todd Lussier with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office says the last people to see Messer alive was a Georgia couple that stopped to get coffee and snacks at the store around 12:38 a.m.  He says the couple hung out on the tailgate of their truck for around 15 minutes, then went to leave.

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"As they were leaving, they remember this vehicle specifically and vividly because they almost struck it...they describe it as a Pontiac Grand Prix, in their words a 'Heinz 57 color' vehicle," tells Lussier. 

Within minutes the silent alarm would go off in the store alerting local authorities. But when they arrived, they found a store in disarray.  Money and items from the counter were strewn on the ground. Messer was gone.

Ominously, a man’s belt was left at the scene, looped through at the end.

"As if it was used to hold somebody down," explains Lussier. 

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Also, Messer's purse that contained her handgun still sat on a crate by the counter, untouched.

Her body would be found two days later, 13 miles down SR-100 underneath the Swift Creek Bridge. Blood droplets were seen on the ground and side of the bridge along with a large oil stain from a vehicle.

Messer’s body in the water below, with severe injuries to her head.

"Like a ball-peen hammer kind of look to her skull, that was kind of crushed, and she had some claw marks that were indicative of a hammer," says Lussier. 

Investigators in 1989 began looking into a suspect who had committed a robbery in Starke around the same time. They had a tip that someone had seen a blue car in the area with a woman screaming inside. Their suspect had a blue car and a violent history.

"That is where investigators spent a lot of time," explains Lussier. 

But as technology progressed, technicians at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were able to take the blood found on the bridge and isolate two DNA samples - Messer’s DNA and the DNA of someone else. The belt at the Suwannee Swifty also had DNA, but neither sample matched the suspect in the blue car.

But there are others.

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"I am just going to call them Roger and Robert," says Lussier, "They were arrested 10 days prior [to the robbery] at the Suwannee Swifty in a Heinz color Pontiac Grand Prix."

A strikingly similar description to the car the Georgia couple described. In the arrest report for the incident 10 days prior to the robbery, Lussier says the sergeant wrote he believed the two were going to rob the Suwannee Swifty.

The report also notes that when a deputy went to speak to them, one of the men was under a Pontiac Grand Prix fixing what appeared to be a leak.

"The vehicle that abducted her [Teney] and took off, had some type of major oil leak. So yeah, it throws up a lot of red flags," tells Lussier.

But a crucial piece of evidence doesn’t match. Lussier took DNA samples from Roger and Robert and neither match the DNA found in the blood or on the belt.

"Is it possible there is a third person with them and he was the one? That is why I need the public’s help. Who were these other two running with?" asks Lussier.

He says before Teney worked at the Suwannee Swifty, she, Roger and Robert all worked at a restaurant in Middleburg called the Oyster Shack.

He wants to speak with people have may have known or worked with the three of them during that time.

For Angela Teney, it gives her hope that Lussier is still working on her mother’s case. She says her mother was a free-spirit and good person and she wants this case closed so people can remember Darlene Messer as a person, not just a murder victim.

"It is easy to forget all that when this trauma is in the forefront," tells Angela, "You know, somebody has got to stick up for her. She was larger than life to me and my uncles miss her… we all think about her. She wasn’t just a nobody."

If you know anything about the murder of Darlene Messer, contact the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office detective division at 386-758-1095.

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