A Connecticut sex offender will be returned to Florida to face a murder charge after being linked to the decade-old rape and drowning of an 11-year-old girl through a database of DNA from convicted sex offenders.
Robert Shelton Mitchell, 43, was being held on a $5 million bond after being arraigned Thursday as a fugitive from justice and waiving his right to fight extradition.
He will face first-degree murder and capital sexual battery charges in the death of Cherie Morrisette of Jacksonville, police said.
The Mandarin Middle School student's fully clothed body was found on Dec. 8, 1996, floating in the St. John's River near Orangedale, about 10 miles south of the Jacksonville apartment she shared with her mother and sister.
Her family initially thought she had run away when she disappeared six days earlier after an argument with her sister.
An autopsy determined that Cherie drowned shortly after her disappearance on Dec. 2, 1996, and was alive when she either fell into the river or was thrown in. Police labeled the death suspicious, and authorities found a small DNA sample on her underwear and body.
Recent technology allowed Florida scientists to create a full DNA profile from that tiny sample and check it against the national database, where it matched a sample taken from Mitchell after a Connecticut sex-abuse conviction, authorities said.
Mitchell lived in nearby Middleburg at the time of the girl's death, police said Thursday.
Mitchell later moved to Connecticut and was convicted in January 2003 of illegal sexual contact with a child in Windsor Locks, according to state records.
Connecticut placed a DNA sample from Mitchell on a national database, and the sample taken from the girl matched Mitchell's DNA when Florida authorities submitted it last December.
New Britain Police Chief William Gagliardi said city police have been monitoring Mitchell since the initial match to Cherie Morrisette's homicide came up in December. The samples were tested again to confirm that they matched, and Mitchell was arrested Wednesday.
"We're able to hopefully someday give this family some closure," said Robert O'Brien, a supervising criminalist at the Connecticut State Police forensic lab in Meriden.
Liz Walters, Cherie Morrisette's mother, said Thursday that she waited for almost 10 years to learn what really happened to her daughter, who she called her "little cuddle bug."
Walters said she often had nightmares about her daughter's death, watching cold case and forensic shows as she wondered what had happened. She believes her daughter would have grown up to work with animals or become a singer.
"There's no such thing as safe neighborhoods. Things happen everywhere," Walters said.
Authorities in Connecticut and Florida said Thursday that Mitchell had not been previously investigated in connection with the girl's death, and that there is no indication that Cherie or her family knew Mitchell.
"We believe it was a crime of opportunity," said Sgt. Chuck Mulligan of the St. John's County Sheriff's Office. "He wasn't on our radar screen until the DNA came through."
Connecticut started taking blood samples from convicted sex offenders in December 1994. Those samples are part of CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, launched by federal officials in 1992 and overseen by the FBI.
As of January, the federal database included more than 2.8 million DNA samples from convicted criminals nationwide, including more than 13,500 DNA profiles from Connecticut offenders.
Forensic expert Henry Lee, the state crime lab's chief emeritus, said Thursday that DNA matches have been made in 289 cases involving Connecticut through the national database, and that other potentially notable cases are under review.
"That's a lot of hits. A lot of unsolvable cold cases are being solved," he said.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who joined Lee and several other police and forensic science authorities at a news conference Thursday, said Mitchell's arrest illustrates the importance of emerging technology in solving rapes, murders and other cold cases.
This year, she has proposed global-positioning system tracking for sex offenders, lifetime mandatory address registration and mandatory minimum 25-year sentences for people convicted of certain sex crimes against children.
"This case gives us hope that more and more of the cold cases we hear about so often and read about so often will be solved," Rell said.