High tech DNA test solves 30 year old murder of 89-year-old woman

June Nicholas, the niece of Lillian DeCloe, gives BSO Det. Dave Towsley a hug. [BSO]

By Christiana Lilly | New Pelican Writer

Pompano Beach – Thanks to new DNA technology, the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s Cold Case Unit was able to solve the 1994 murder of 89-year-old Lillian DeCloe – and her family can finally rest.

“Lillian just had such a sweet family,” said BSO Det. Dave Towsley, who worked the case. “We really wanted to give them some closure on this case and we’re just so happy to be able to do that for them.”

Lillian Decloe was 89 when she was found murdered in her Pompano Beach home in 1994. [BSO]

DeCloe was a teacher and a nurse during her life, but as she grew older she needed more help from family. Her niece, June Nicholas, served as her caretaker and would visit her at her Pompano Beach home on a regular basis. But on April 29, 1994, Nicholas found her aunt dead on the floor. DeCloe had been beaten and sexually assaulted by someone who came in through her bedroom window — a scene her niece would never forget.

“I took a whole year off from work just to cope. I had to have someone take care of my kids for a couple of months because I couldn’t cope,” Nicholas said in a video made with the Broward Sheriff’s Office. “I would lay in my bed and I would see her on the floor.”

The then-Pompano Beach Police Department handled the case, but it soon grew cold. In 2004, a semen sample from DeCloe’s nightgown was run through CODIS, the FBI’s national DNA database. Unfortunately, it was not a match with anything the agency had on file. In 2019, the Broward Sheriff’s Office formed a three-person cold case unit and Towsley looked through the case files with a fresh set of eyes. 

Then, in August 2022, Towsley and the cold case unit was able to run the DNA once again, but this time through a familial search of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s offender database. There was a hit — a known offender matched as the son of the person the semen came from. It led the team to a man named Johnny Mack Brown, who lived a few doors down from DeCloe at the time of her murder.

A Vietnam veteran who allegedly suffered from PTSD, Brown’s body was exhumed from the national cemetery in Lake Worth. Using bone marrow extracted from his rib, law enforcement was able to confirm that it was 66.8 trillion times more likely that the DNA sample found on DeCloe came from her and Brown than any other person. In solving the case, Towsley also worked with Brown’s family to ensure that there were no surprises when the news came out — he said they were “cooperative and appreciative.” Police don’t believe that DeCloe was specifically targeted.

DNA was found on the nightgown of Lillian DeCloe, which led to finding her murderer almost 30 years later. [BSO]

While DeCloe’s murder is finally solved, Towsley and the cold case unit are now turning to the hundreds of crime files waiting for them to reinvestigate. Some date as far back as the 1960s. Recently, Towsley shared with The New Pelican and other news outlets the work that he is doing on the 1985 Pompano Beach murder of Jerri Emken, which elicited calls from the public with tips.

“We’ve got hundreds of cases that are sitting there that haven’t really been looked at and we’re pulling them out and going through them,” Towsley said. “These old cases have been sitting way too long.”

Anyone with information pertaining to a cold case is asked to call Det. Towsley at 954-321-4210. To remain anonymous, contact Broward Crime Stoppers at 954-493-TIPS (8477), browardcrimestoppers.org or dial **TIPS (8477).

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