Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee — an enduring murder mystery after 50 years

Found slain in Florida in 1971, victim has never been identified nor her killer brought to justice

Who was Miss Lake Panasoffkee?

The woman found dead in a Central Florida lake 50 years ago today remains one of the most enduring unsolved murder mysteries of the 20th century.

What is now an infamous cold case began by chance along a rural stretch of Interstate 75, a route that many Georgians take on the way to the sunny beaches of South Florida.

That’s where the body of a petite young woman was discovered on Feb. 19, 1971, under the Lake Panasoffkee Bridge in Sumter County, about an hour north of Tampa.

It was a Friday.

According to reports, two hitchhikers on their way to Mardi Gras were crossing the bridge when they looked down from the overpass and saw what they believed to be a human figure in the shallow water.

They waved down a passing state trooper, and an hour later investigators were on the scene.

About the victim

Initial reports said the victim was Caucasian and between 17 and 24 years old.

She was small in stature. Reports said she was no taller than 5 feet, 5 inches and would have weighed about 115 pounds.

Her body was so badly decomposed that investigators were unable to collect any fingerprints.

She had dark hair, and based on her other features, investigators presumed she had brown eyes.

She had been under the bridge in a murky grave for at least a month, said authorities, adding that they believed she was killed elsewhere then dumped on the side of the highway.

She had been strangled to death. A man’s belt was still coiled around her neck, but authorities didn’t believe it was a sexual crime.

Reports said the victim was fully dressed and wearing several items of jewelry, including a watch and gold chain, suggesting that robbery was not the motive for her death, either.

She also wore a ring on her left hand, leading investigators to believe she may have been engaged or married.

There was no identification found with the body, but the woman’s teeth showed she had received extensive dental work, including numerous crowns, caps and silver fillings.

The teeth were later forensically compared against a national database of dental records, but no matches were ever found.

Subsequent investigations revealed the victim was dressed in green plaid pants, a matching green shirt and a green floral-pattern poncho at the time of her death.

And that is about all that is known about the woman found dead in the lake.

An obscure case

Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee was a relatively obscure case before being featured on the investigative television show “Unsolved Mysteries” on Oct. 14, 1992.

Other accounts of the woman’s death can be easily found on the internet and in the archives of many Central Florida newspapers.

There’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to the mystery.

Despite almost five decades of international media attention, multiple investigations, an exhumation of the body and numerous forensic analyses, the woman has never been positively identified nor her killer brought to justice.

Six months after being found, the woman’s body was interred at Oak Grove Cemetery in Wildwood, Florida, with a nondescript metal marker reading: “Jane Doe — 1971.”

No next of kin ever came forward to claim the woman’s body.

Body exhumed in 1986

The case gained renewed attention in the mid-1980s after then-Sumter County Sheriff Jamie Adam reopened the case and obtained a court order to exhume the body 15 years after her death.

Miss Lake Panasoffkee was exhumed on Feb. 18, 1986.

By that time, investigators had developed new techniques in facial reconstruction that they hoped would help them identify the woman and potentially solve the case.

Betty Pat Gatliff, a foremost medical illustrator and consultant for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, agreed to assist the investigation and was given the task of reconstructing the woman’s face to show how she would look in current times.

Gatliff first made forensic drawings based on the dimensions of the skull and then plotted a clay model to the same scale, reports show.

In 1988, Linda Galeener, a forensic artist with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tallahassee, also made a sketch of the woman as she would have appeared when she was killed, according to reports.

Galeener also made sketches of the victim as she would have appeared at age 12 and age 6, a process known as age regression, which was a pioneering forensic technique at the time.

Galeener consulted with anthropologists and other forensic experts to create several haunting sketches of the girl, some she depicted with a 1960s hairstyle.

The drawings are varied, and some appear to depict women of different physical features and backgrounds.

Investigators had hoped that one of the woman’s childhood friends or neighbors or teachers would recognize her after distributing the drawings to law enforcement agencies around the country.

But those leads never turned out, either.

New clues

The new investigation, however, wasn’t entirely fruitless.

Miss Panasoffkee’s exhumation revealed several new unexpected clues about the victim that were overlooked in the initial 1971 autopsy.

William Maples, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida, who examined the body the second time around, found that the young woman was likely of Indian descent, had undergone a recent Watson Jones orthopedic ligament reconstruction surgery on her right ankle, and that she may have also given birth to two children.

In 1989, then-Sumter County Sheriff Adams told the Ocala Star-Banner that “I firmly believe this case is going to be solved in the media... I’m a father and it would bother me if I had a child who was missing. Somewhere, somebody knows this kid.”

Early suspect vanishes

Undeterred, Sheriff Adams went as far as hiring a private investigator to look into the murder alongside police investigators.

The independent probe initially focused on a suspect who had been arrested in the same vicinity as the woman’s body, but in the weeks before the gruesome discovery.

According to a report in the Star-Banner, that suspect was nearly run over one night by a sheriff’s patrol car while crossing the median of I-75 within a mile of where the body was eventually found. A police report said the man had a pistol in his possession at the time of his arrest.

According to reports, the independent investigator said he believed the man’s arrest fit the timeline, but authorities didn’t immediately make the connection, and the man was never seen again nor questioned about the body in Lake Panasoffkee.

Other theories emerge

Through the years, many theories have emerged about the case.

Another exhumation and examination of the remains was conducted in 2012, and established that Miss Panasoffkee was of European descent.

Further analysis of the woman’s hair determined that she may have arrived in the United States from between a year and two months before her death, according to news reports.

Based on the new evidence, renderings were updated to include new facial features and depictions of the clothing she had been wearing.

Next, George Kamenov, a scientist at the University of Florida, examined the remains and determined the teeth carried unique traits distinct to people from Lavrion, a small fishing port southeast of Athens.

One theory floated was that she had possibly traveled to the United States to attend a Greek Orthodox celebration known as Epiphany — which annually attracts thousands to the coastal community of Tarpon Springs.

Detectives in Sumter County speculated whether the killer could have been a member of the sprawling Greek community in nearby Clearwater, Tarpon Springs or New Port Richey, according to reports. But this lead, too, led to another dead end.

A girl named Konstantina

Other accounts say the woman may have been in the United States as part of a student work exchange program.

A woman came forward on a Greek crime show more than 41 years after the crime, claiming that one of the younger sketches of the murdered woman resembled a girl she knew in childhood as Konstantina.

The woman said she and Konstantina attended prep school together in Greece. After graduation, she said, they entered the exchange program and were required to work abroad to fulfill a two-year obligation for their education. The program was sponsored by the International Organization for Migration.

The woman said she was sent to Australia, and that Konstantina had been sent to America. The friend said she lost touch with Konstantina around the same time that the body was found in Lake Panasoffkee in 1971.

As of this report, authorities have not been able to confirm the woman’s story as they cannot locate any of Konstantina’s relatives, if they exist at all.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has a profile of Miss Panasoffkee, under the heading of Jane Doe 1971.

Today, the case appears no closer to being solved.

ArLuther Lee writes national and world news for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida and has worked for newspapers for more than 24 years. He joined the AJC staff as the front page designer in 2003.

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