An Estimated Account of the Events Surrounding the Identification of the Lake City John Doe and the Investigation of Ronnie Leon Hyde
MARCH 2017: THE CONCLUSION By Jason Futch NOTE: The following article holds information that may be disturbing to some readers. Also, be advised that information provided in this article are sourced by available documents at the time, news articles from the time periods, and interviews that were conducted (Red Parenthesis and words are side notes from the author)
Det. Jimmy Watson of the Columbia County Sheriffs Office would assume command of the Lake City John Doe Case and would help in concluding the case.
It was September 2015; just over twenty years after the Lake City John Doe was discovered by Rebecca Hunt as she was walking her dog. It was around this time Columbia County Sheriff Det. Jimmy Watson took a gamble on getting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) involved in the case.
Because the crime occurred twenty years ago at this point, there were far and few leads in the case. Each hot trail would always lead into a dead end for investigators and volunteers who researched the case through. Even with the bath mat and Camaro lead out there, there was still nothing to work with.
Then a tip came in. A woman from Nassau County, Florida came forward with information that the case on the NCMEC’s website could potentially be about her older younger brother Fred (Laster), who went missing in 1994 around the same time. Her and her other brother had initially tried to file a missing person’s report several times between 1994 and 1995; but were buffed off by the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office, saying that because their brother went missing in Duval County, it would be the Duval County Sheriff’s Office (now Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office) responsibility to file the report instead.
So they did. The DCSO took the information from the siblings of their missing brother. The siblings had also mentioned that the last person that he was with was with a man named Ronnie Leon Hyde; a white male in his 30’s who had befriended the family while he was a youth pastor at Strength for Living Church in Jacksonville. He lived in a bus behind the church and had a home in Jacksonville Beach. Later he would own two houses, the other one located in the Tallyrand neighborhood of Jacksonville.
Fred Paul Laster, affectionately known as 'Freddy', was identified as the Lake City John Doe on February 16th, 2016; 23 years after he was found.
THE IDENTIFICATION After speaking with the sister, Det. Watson spoke to Forensic Analyst Melody Josserand of the University of North Texas Human Identification Lab (UNT) in Houston. Det. Watson had inquired about possibly conducting a familial DNA test on the human remains to that of a potential family member. She in turned asked that a Family Reference Sample be submitted so as to compare the two DNA’s for a match.
In November 2015, the two sisters of Fred Laster submitted DNA tests via oral swabs and were submitted to UNT by Det. Watson.
Three months later, after a brief wait, Det. Watson received a critical update that would change the course of this case and crack it wide open. UNT submitted the final report on the DNA test between the Laster sisters and the unidentified remains. The report read “The genetic data obtained from the swabs ARE consistent with the unidentified human remains” originating from the Laster sisters. Understandably, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office was shaken with this unbelievable news. 22 years and a few sheriffs later, the mystery of the Lake City John Doe was officially over. The John Doe had a name: Fred Paul Laster.
On February 17th, 2016 Det. Watson met with the family of Fred Laster to deliver this devastating news. With shock and disbelief of the outcome, it was apparent they already knew who murdered their loved one; the man who they believe was last known to see Fred: Ronnie Hyde.
When Det. Watson delivered the news, it was under discreet circumstances. No news media was contacted, and all profiles of the Lake City John Doe remained up; as if the leads never happened. This was a tactic to potentially throw off the suspect of the case if he was watching.
DETECTIVE WATSON’S INTERVIEWS WITH FRED LASTER’S SIBLINGS
On April 29th, 2016, shortly after the revelations, Detective Watson interviewed two of Fred’s sisters; one of the being the twin sister of Fred Laster. she felt deeply that Ron Hyde was responsible for her brother’s disappearance. She could recount that there was one instance where her and Fred stayed with Hyde at his Jacksonville Beach home. They were to catch a bus to an unknown location the next day, in which that morning she saw Hyde trying to wake Fred up while completely naked. This would occur a year before Fred disappeared.
In addition to this, she also told investigators that Hyde would continuously retract his earlier statements about her brother’s disappearance. As she grilled him on the subject over the years, he would give continuous places where he last saw Fred, such as: Dropping him off at the Pecan Park area; Dropping him off on US Highway 17 going into Nassau County by the bridges; Dropping him off at his grandmother’s house in Yulee, FL; or in his yard, where Fred left a ballcap on one of his shrubs. Because of the continuous retractions, it became harder and harder to believe what Hyde was saying. Because of this (and other reasons not specified), the family cut ties with Ron Hyde in 2003.
When Det. Watson spoke to the other sister, she also had stated she knew that her brother was with Ron Hyde around the time of his disappearance. Before being picked up by Hyde, he was at her apartment on Eubanks Avenue in Jacksonville. He had just joined a band and he had asked her to come with him as a travel partner. She refused, citing several reasons why they couldn’t leave; one of them being that there was no way traveling and taking care of Fred’s niece would be feasible. Fred got upset by the news and wanted to leave the apartment, so he called Ron Hyde to pick him up. She tried to keep Fred from leaving by picking up his twin sister and returning so they could talk together; but when the two returned, Fred was gone. Later that evening, Fred had called the sister around 5am and confirmed with her that he was with Hyde. The phone conversation seemed to pick up a drafty sound; as if he had made the phone call from outside. The sister recounted how distant and emotional Fred had sounded when talking to her, and said that everything was going to be all right. This would be the last time she heard from him.
When she questioned Hyde about this, she said that he also gave her many explanations as to what happened; including a dramatic statement that Fred hap ‘jumped’ out of his car on US 17 the night of his disappearance.
As the interview was continuing, she had also told investigators that Hyde had preferred the company of young boys; especially if they had problems at home or elsewhere. He had also been known to take her brothers on extravagant trips and buy them gifts. As of this writing, the locations he may have taken them, as well as the gifts he purchased them are unknown.
NEW ORLEANS, LA; DECEMBER 21ST, 2016
Det. Watson and Special Agent Beccaccio of the FBI traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana to interview a brother of Fred Laster. This brother had happen to live with Ron Hyde for a few years prior to his living in New Orleans. When meeting the brother, they asked about Hyde’s association with the family and he gave them a similar story that the sisters had shared with investigators.
He was told by Hyde that Fred had threatened to jump out of his car if Hyde did not stop. Hyde had eventually pulled over on the side of US 17, roughly between Pecan Park Rd. and Joel Rd. Fred removed himself from the vehicle and walked. Hyde could not see Fred because of the darkness in the area; and believed he may have hopped into a black truck that pulled over to pick him up. Hyde had looked for him; but once again because of the pitch-black Florida night, he could not find him and left for home and reported for work the next day. As the interview continued, the topic of the red flannel shirt came up. During this portion, the brother could not verify that the shirt was Hyde’s per se; however he recalled that his father, Digby Hyde, would wear similar clothing. He also added that after his father’s death Ron Hyde inherited Digby’s belongings; often wearing his father’s clothing to perform yard work so he would not soil any of his own clothing.
During the interview, Detective Watson inquired to Fred’s brother what kind of knives Hyde kept in the kitchen. He explained that he kept sharp Ginsu-style knives; being so detailed that it made perfect sense that the knives in the kitchen were the same ones disposed of at the scene of the crime. It was mentioned that Ron Hyde had medical training; having pre-requisites for a nursing program; having detailed anatomical knowledge of the human body.
It was also during this interview that he mentioned Hyde was a suspect in sexually abusing him as a youth, as well as numerous other boys Hyde had in his company.
This plaid shirt was submitted for testing twice. The shirt was found at the crime scene and contained two different DNA profiles.
The Bath Mat found at the crime scene. Family members of Fred Laster would be able to identify this bathmat as the one that was similarly used in Ronnie Hyde's bathtub at his Jacksonville Beach home.
THE BATH MATS When the investigators continued to discuss the case with the brother, Det. Watson brought up the topic of the bath mats that were found at the dumpster. When shown the appliques, the brother was able to identify the mats as the one similar in Ron Hyde’s Jacksonville Beach home, but could not identify the color. He had also assumed that the staining in the tub of Ron Hyde’s was from iron buildup that came from the water system in the house.
During Detective Watson’s interview with one of the sisters, the sister had also remarked that the bathmats were identical to the ones that were in Ron Hyde’s tub at his Jacksonville Beach home. She could recall how cluttered his house was and that though he had more than one bathroom; one was only accessible and the flooring had a 1970’s-style design to it.
And as the interviews with Fred Laster’s family members continued, they would be able to identify the appliques as the same ones found in Ron Hyde’s house; part of the damning evidence that was to come. At this point in the investigation, Det. Watson needed concrete proof to have liable cause to arrest Ronnie Leon Hyde. Somehow, someway he was going to get the evidence he needed to apprehend Hyde.
A 1987 Chevrolet Camaro; similar to the one Ronnie Hyde owned.
THE CAMARO The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office had held a piece of evidence back that could have been beneficial to the initial investigation: The testing of tire tread marks found at the scene and identifying them as that of a Chevrolet Camaro or a Pontiac Firebird. William Gilbert, a Columbia County resident, had recalled seeing a Camaro at the scene of the crime as he was driving by roughly around 6:30-7am.
According to another brother of Fred Laster’s, he had seen the Websleuths forum regarding this leaked piece of information and brought it up to Det. Watson; who had apparently been in shock that Fred’s brother would know this. Though it wasn’t important where the information came from, what was important was that he knew someone who owned a 1987 Chevy Camaro: Ron Hyde.
Members of the Laster family that were interviewed had confirmed with investigators that Ron Hyde had owned a Camaro and that he had owned it for quite some time. This prompted Det. Watson to perform a record’s search to see if Ron Hyde had owned a car like that.
With that, a query was done on the Florida Driver and Vehicle and Information Database (DAVID). The results showed that Ron Hyde’s father Digby Hyde had owned a 1987 Camaro that was purchased in 1990. An additional search in Accurint revealed that Ronnie Hyde was operating the vehicle when he was involved in a traffic accident in 1993, near the campus of the University of North Florida. The first nine digits of the VIN were completely different from the ownership title Digby had received in 1990; however the last eight digits had completely matched the VIN that was reported in 1990. It was believed that whoever had written the report made a mistake in entering the VIN number during the traffic accident at UNF. An additional searched provided that a traffic accident had also occurred in the same vehicle in 1997, in which Ron Hyde was the driver.
At this time, investigators are looking for the same Camaro in hopes they can test the carpeting for blood.
RICHARD ROGERS, DNA RECOVERY AND THE GARBAGE PULL
In 2010, Det. Calvin Fenner (the original investigator assigned to the Lake City John Doe) sent the shirt to the FDLE crime lab once more to get a much more thorough analysis, considering DNA technology had come a long way since the beginning of the case. It took two months for the first report to come back.
The first DNA results came back based on test that had been conducted on portions of the shirt. A partial profile was created based on a red-brown stain found on the shirt that matched the victim’s DNA at 7 loci (or the position of a chromosome). Right after, another test had been done on the collar; but this time the test had omitted the victim as the original wearer of the shirt. Finally, a mixed test had been done on the underarms and came back positive as the victim’s DNA; but also found was the DNA of an unidentified profile, meaning that the DNA belonged to someone else.
It was also around this time when Det. Fenner began receiving communications from investigators with the New Jersey State Police. There was some speculation that the John Doe was a victim of a suspect from New Jersey by the name of Richard Rogers. Rogers was a serial killer known as "The Last Call Killer". Rogers was known to pick up middle aged men in the New York/New Jersey areas, lure them to his home, only for him to kill and dismember them.
The methods in which Rogers chose eerily matched with the methods used to kill the Lake City John Doe: The clean dismemberment cuts, the cleansing of the body, and the nature of how the body was dumped. Considering Rogers had been in the Florida area in 1994, he was considered a prime suspect. According to an email between Sheriff Bill Gootee and Fenner, things for "Mr. Rogers" weren't looking good for him.
A few years later, while Rogers was still being considered a suspect, another report was created while Det. Watson oversaw the investigation; confirming that the unknown wearer was the primary person who wore the shirt, based on added testing with more advanced DNA filters. The left underarm cutting came back positive for the unknown wearer’s DNA and the right came back mixed with two DNA’s; one being the unknown wearer and the other being the victim’s. When the red-brown stain was tested again, it matched the victim’s DNA by 8 loci this time.
When Det. Watson obtained this report, he entered the unknown wearer’s DNA into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. When he did this, there was no match found in the system because no one with the same DNA profile contributed DNA into the system. The chances were that whoever the unknown wearer was, they more than likely had no criminal background.
Now possessing the DNA of a possible suspect, Det. Watson continued the process of investigating Ronnie Hyde further; which would include peering into his garbage.
On April 16th, 2016; shortly after the identification of Fred Laster as being the Lake City John Doe, Det. Watson surveyed the neighborhood Hyde lived at in Jacksonville Beach. Making sure that no one was looking, Det. Watson took two bags of trash from Hyde’s property and returned to Lake City, hoping to find Hyde’s DNA in the trash bags. Because the trash was located on the side of the road and not on Hyde’s property, a warrant was not needed.
When Det. Watson searched through the first bag of trash, the first thing he came across was a piece of mail addressed to Ronnie Hyde. It was of no importance so Det. Watson pushed it to the side.
The next thing he came across would be beneficial to the case: a red solo cup with Zicam nasal swabs. These swabs were likely to have Hyde’s DNA on them, due to the fact that Hyde was the only person living at that address. This was known because of regular surveillance that was done at the Jacksonville Beach home.
With the Zicam swabs in his possession, it was time to take action. Det. Watson turned over the swabs to FDLE’s crime lab in Tallahassee for testing against the Unknown Wearer DNA profile found on the red shirt. It would take a month before Det. Watson would hear back from the crime lab.
But when Det. Watson did hear back from FDLE, the results came back: Ron Hyde’s DNA from the swabs came back matching the DNA found on the shirt. Reasonable enough evidence to prove that Ron Hyde was the wearer of the shirt and that he was at the scene in Lake City. The DNA had matched the with the Unknown Wearer DNA at 12 loci; an occurrence that is rarer than 1 in 700 billion. Bingo.
At this moment, Richard Rogers was absolved of this crime 100%.
A recent photo of Ronnie Hyde, the person of interest at the time of the investigation into Fred Laster's death.
RON HYDE’S ACTIVITIES DURING THE INVESTIGATION As Det. Watson was receiving more and more evidence against Ron Hyde, Hyde was living a life of freedom; But prior to that, it could be debatable. He was having problems with the IRS between 2003 and 2004; owing $13,000 in back taxes. Additionally, at some point before the investigation, he was brought up as a person of interest in a child exploitation investigation conducted by the FBI known as Operation Spade; a Toronto-based investigation against Aroz Videos. Aroz had produced numerous child pornography titles and had sold to many clients around the world.
What was also revealing was that at the time of the investigation, Hyde was a certified counselor working for the Crosswater Community Church in Nocatee; miles from Ponte Vedra Beach and Jacksonville Beach. He had been working there since at least early 2016, providing services for the church on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. It should be noted that this service was provided by Hyde under the “Let’s Talk” therapy business he owned.
Hyde was also employed as a counselor for Centurion; a Mental Health Services contractor for the Florida Department of Corrections. It was also revealed that Hyde had provided services to a few mental health programs over a span of a few years based on his LinkedIn account; an online resume service.
Based on information, it was noted that in addition to Hyde’s work in mental health services, he also traveled to different parts of the world and was known to be in the Bahamas around Thanksgiving. When he had posted the information to his Facebook page, it geotagged him in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. But when observing the comments section of the post, he clarified that he was not in Canada and that he had never been there in his life.
It’s also noted that Hyde was also a member of a band, and that he was performing at a show in Ocala, FL around November.
While he was continuing everyday life, what he didn’t know was that he had eyes on him the whole time. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, FBI and a number of law enforcement agencies were zeroing in on him as the probable suspect in the murder investigation of Fred Laster.
Though he appeared to be a nice man in person, deep down inside he was hiding something deep inside that no one knew. At least until the morning of March 7th, 2017.
Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter addresses the media announcing the arrest of Ronnie Leon Hyde and the identity of the Lake City John Doe as 16-year-old Fred Paul Laster on March 7th, 2017.
Ronnie Hyde was booked into the Duval County Jail on charges of second degree murder. Additional Child Porn charges would be added later.
“AN ARREST HAS BEEN MADE”
On the morning of March 7th, 2017, news stations in the local area delivered breaking news that an arrest had been made in connection to a cold case in Lake City. Erring to the side of caution and not jumping to conclusions, the news stations withheld which case it was until Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter held a press conference. The press conference was held in Lake City at the Sheriffs Headquarters.
Sheriff Hunter announced the arrest of 60-year-old Ronnie Leon Hyde in connection with the murder of Fred Laster; the John Doe that was found in 1994 at the BP Gas Station north of Lake City. The press conference was attended by members of the news media, the State Attorney’s Office, and the FBI. Questions were fielded to Sheriff Hunter before he turned it over to his public relations officer.
When the arrest occurred, Hyde was driving when he was stopped by a law enforcement officer near his home. After his arrest, he was booked into the Duval County Jail placed under protective custody. While he was in jail, the FBI and FDLE conducted a thorough search of Hyde’s homes in Jacksonville Beach, as well as the home on Thelma Street in Jacksonville. The yard was dug in throughout the property, the houses both were ransacked and searched looking for property that could be of use to law enforcement in their conviction of Ron Hyde.
Though the FBI would not comment on the search, it was evident that they were looking for electronics and possible clues to lead investigators to the rest of Fred Laster’s remains. It was also possible to them that Hyde may have buried Fred’s arms, legs and head somewhere on the property.
Throughout the course of the news media’s report on the case, many tidbits of information about both the victim and the suspect came to light. Though some of Laster’s family members came forward to share their experiences on Hyde and how ‘Freddy’ was a well-rounded good boy, members of the immediate family refused news interviews; instead releasing a statement that read:
“We, the immediate family of Fred Paul Laster, have gathered together at this time to support each other as we experience the intense emotions caused by the heartbreaking loss of “Freddy” and the arrest of his killer. We appreciate the thoughts and prayers of the community, and wish to thank our law enforcement personnel and support agencies for their diligence and perseverance in this case. Although some extended family has chosen to make statements to the media, we, his father and siblings, decline to be interviewed at this time. We request privacy as we grieve and focus on laying Freddy to rest. Thank you for your understanding.”
It took Law Enforcement a few days to wrap up their investigations at the Hyde homes. When they completed the investigation, numerous items were removed from the residences. U-Hauls had to be rented to accommodate for all the evidence gathered and windows had to be boarded up prior to leaving so that way murderabilia poachers wouldn’t come by and vandalize the home seeking other valuables that were not taken from the scene.
It was also discovered by local news reporters that Hyde’s Jacksonville Beach home had numerous code violations and that code enforcement threated to fine him until the violations were corrected. Among the problems that were discovered, there was no running water in the house; Hyde was using his tub as a toilet; mold and mildew covered the walls and rodent droppings were found. There was also mention that a foul odor could be smelled throughout the neighborhood. Hyde received a notice from jail that the violations needed to be corrected or face the possibility of his home being condemned.
It was also mentioned in a prior news report that Hyde had owned two greyhound dogs.
The FBI's Official Poster seeking information from the public about Ronnie Hyde in response to a child sex exploitation case that he was named in.
Hyde during his arraignment hearing; April 11th, 2017 in Jacksonville, FL
THE FBI’S WARNING AND HYDE’S COURT APPEARANCE
Considering Hyde’s past and being named as a person of interest in the child exploitation case in the past; it reinvigorated the FBI to continue their investigation of him. They have reopened their probe, and as of this writing, continue to unveil new things.
Right after the arrest, the FBI asked that anyone who may have encountered Hyde and were possible victims of sexual assault or harassment by him should come forward. They rented billboard space on Florida highways and posted an informational poster on the FBI’s website. This poster asked that people with information about the murder or had been sexually abused by Hyde should come forward and that if information is given, certain services could be provided to victims under federal law.
What's more was that Ron Hyde would also be charged with twelve counts of possessing child pornography, each count meaning that there were more than ten images and videos depicting children in sexual situations. According to the court records, many of the titles of the evidence collected were a jumble of letters and numbers; however three contained names of a Cindy, Steven and Paul. Where the porn was found could not be mentioned, but the FBI was clear that they were seeking charges. If convicted of both second-degree murder and the child porn charges, Hyde faces life with no possibility of parole plus 180 years in prison.
On March 8th, Hyde made his first appearance before a judge. No bond was set and he was set for a pretrial hearing in May. He was arraigned on April 12th, where he pleaded not guilty. Prior to the arraignment, he hired Ann Finnell, a high-profile defense attorney who represented Casey Anthony in her case for murder. Finnell has publicly stated that Hyde maintains his innocence and that he had nothing to do with the murder of Fred Laster.
A question arose as to how Hyde was going to pay for his services considering his financial status. Though it is unknown, a rumor has surfaced that it was possible he was going to sell both homes so that he can pay for her services.
In May of 2017, it was announced that Anne Finell, former Casey Anthony lawyer would represent Hyde in the upcoming murder trial.
As of late, attempts to separate the murder and child porn charges have been futile, and the family of Fred Laster has now made attempts to reclaim his body. On October 31st, Fred Laster was finally laid to rest, surrounded by family and friends.
In August of 2017, revelations in court documents showed that Hyde had sexually victimized two other people while serving as youth pastor at the Strength for Living Church. There was evidence found at the 4th Avenue Home that showed Hyde may have produced child porn involving these two victims Furthermore, another victim came forward in December 2017 detailing the sexual abuse he experienced from Ron Hyde between 1992-1994. This victim is currently serving time in prison at a center in Tennessee on drug possession charges.
In April of 2018, new documents revealed tons of information about Ronnie Hyde, Fred Laster and his siblings. From sexual abuse by Hyde towards a member of the Laster's to Hyde using the Laster siblings as tax write offs, the documents painted a very chilling portrait of Hyde.
Additionally, many documents from the Lake City John Doe investigation were made public for the first time, despite years of request from many people over the years. inside the files contained crime scene photos, notes from detectives, latent prints imaging via help from Toronto Police Services, and attempts to use mainstream media to publicize this case.
As of this writing, Hyde is due to face a grand jury on December 3rd, 2018.
CONCLUSION: THE FUTURE
Right now, the trial is set to go before a grand jury. For now, the main focus is how the wheels of justice are going to turn. It looks as though this case could take some time before the law books close on it.
It was recently revealed that in early 1994, Digby Hyde had moved from the Jacksonville Beach home that he owned at the time and relocated with other relatives at the time. Ron Hyde would eventually inherit the Jacksonville Beach home after Digby’s passing in 1997. There is no clear reasoning why Digby Hyde left; but based on exclusive information, Digby’s health had not been the best. We believe that it is possible he had no confidence in Ron Hyde to take proper care of him alone and went to Georgia to receive more thorough care from more than one family member.
As of this writing, Jimmy Watson nor the immediate family of Fred Laster has accepted any interviews from news stations. Watson is expected to play a key role in the prosecution and is currently not accepting interviews on those grounds. The family of Fred Laster is still grieving over this tragic turn of events, and have continued to request privacy from the media.
Det. Calvin Fenner served with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office until around 2010, when he retired. He worked effortlessly on the case and never gave up on it. He served as a liaison for Det. Watson during his portion of the investigation. He was featured in a news interview for First Coast News, and also was interviewed for a Jacksonville newspaper covering the case. He is expected to serve a key role in the prosecution as well, but has stayed mum in regard to how.
With technology improving over time, it is safe to say cold cases are beginning to get warmer. Over time, many unsolved homicides have been solved and older unidentified persons cases have been solved due in part to sleuthing efforts by freelance investigators, as well as the artistry of anthropologists and forensic artists to give a face to what was once skeletal remains. As people continue to explore the field of criminology, more ways of solving crimes will be found. From the evolution of fingerprint technology to the evolution of DNA testing, one can only wonder what is next. For now, we can only hope for a brighter future; a future where violent crime can come down and the world becomes a safe place. THE END
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