Suspect in 1983 cold case died decades ago. Victim’s family and police still seek answers.

Gayla Ann McNeil was hitchhiking in South Florida on the last days of her life. That has been known for decades. But her sister still doesn’t know, 40 years later, where she was going and up until recently still did not know who could have murdered her.

McNeil, 30, of Cocoa Beach, was found brutally murdered in western Palm Beach County in the early evening of Oct. 21, 1983. A man who was fishing in a pond near the area of U.S. 441 and Acme Dairy Road found her body, the Boca Raton News reported days after the discovery.

McNeil’s body had been in the canal for between 12 and 24 hours by the time she was found, Violent Crimes Division Capt. Laurence Poston said at a news conference Tuesday. She was identified quickly by fingerprints, which were documented when she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, her sister Colleen Fenton told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Within the last year, the Sheriff’s Office identified a suspect after sending evidence to Othram, a company based in Texas that performs forensic genetic genealogy and DNA sequencing for law enforcement. The killer is now believed to be James Vincent Henderson, of West Palm Beach, who had a “small” criminal record and died by suicide in 1987, Poston said.

“While we will never be able to question him as to the extent of his involvement in this, we have a very strong belief that he is possibly the person who took Gayla’s life,” Poston said.

Othram scientists conducted Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing, a more advanced type of testing, to create a complete genetic profile from the evidence collected, which led detectives to relatives, the company said in a news release. DNA comparisons confirmed Henderson as the suspect.

Despite Henderson being long dead, Det. Bill Springer told the South Florida Sun Sentinel he still hopes anyone who knew Henderson may come forward with information about who he was.

“It’s nice to know who did it, but it would be nice to be able to find out maybe why he did it, what type his personality was, if he was domestically violent or not,” Springer said.

Fenton said her sister had been discharged from the military for her sexuality. It was a devastating change in McNeil’s life, whose goal since she was young was to be in the military as her father was, her sister said.

The discharge “changed the direction of her life because that’s where she was thriving. She wanted to serve her country,” Fenton said. Without having served in the military and her fingerprints registered, her sister would have been a “Jane Doe” after she was found, she said.

Springer, then a homicide detective when McNeil’s body was found, said it was the “very first” murder he had been assigned to investigate and was the lead detective. Soon after, he reached an impasse in the investigation.

Where McNeil’s body was found was not where she was murdered, Springer said. Investigators walked throughout Acme Dairy Road and other areas but were never able to find to where she was killed. They checked hotels from Lake Worth, where she was last seen, to West Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach and found no leads, Springer said.

At the time, Springer said their only “viable suspect” was serial killer Bobby Joe Long, who was on death row for 34 years until he was executed by lethal injection in 2019.

The Associated Press reported that Long murdered 10 women in the Tampa Bay area in an eight-month span in 1984 before he was arrested later that year. Some of the victims’ throats were cut, some were bludgeoned and most were strangled.

The blue jeans and beige flannel shirt McNeil had last been seen wearing were gone. She was found naked with a belt tied around her neck and her throat cut, according to the Sheriff’s Office. She also had been sexually assaulted.

“(Long) was a primary suspect,” Springer said, but would eventually be eliminated through DNA testing.

Investigators discovered early on that McNeil was walking from Brevard County to somewhere in South Florida in the days before her murder, according to a news release from Othram. She was stopped by police in Stuart on Oct. 19 and was seen again the next day in Lake Worth Beach, flagging down cars on U.S. 1. She told an officer who questioned her that she was heading to Fort Lauderdale, the release said.

DNA evidence was collected from McNeil’s body during the autopsy, Poston said, and kept in evidence over the years as technology developed. The DNA information collected was entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, in 2000, which contains DNA from convicted criminals and others, but no matches were returned, according to Othram.

The Sheriff’s Office partnered with Othram on the case in January 2023, the company said in the release, finally leading to the suspect’s name. Othram has worked with the Sheriff’s Office on multiple cold cases in recent years.

Fenton still struggles to talk about her sister’s murder. It’s something not many people know about her family history, she said, because of the pain it causes to talk about.

“Her life mattered, and I think I wanted that to be known. Her family cared,” she said.