Retired captain helps solve cold case murder

Fernandina Beach woman's rape, murder went unsolved for nearly 30 years

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. – For nearly 30 years, the murder of a Fernandina Beach woman remained unsolved.

Several investigators tried to crack the cold case over the years but were never able to devote the time to solve it.

But Fernandina Beach Police Chief James Hurley convinced former Fernandina Beach Police Capt. Jim Coe to come out of retirement and work the case -- and that move paid off.

Coe told News4Jax the man who murdered 56-year-old Janet Marie Robinson in 1987 was the police department's top suspect at the time of the killing, but a lack of DNA made it impossible to arrest him for the murder. His name was Jimmy Hall and Coe believes if he had been arrested for previous assaults before Robinson was found dead in her house, her murder could have been prevented.

Nassau County Sheriff's Office booking photo of James Lee Hall Jr.
Nassau County Sheriff's Office booking photo of James Lee Hall Jr.

"If individuals hadn't interfered with the process of the law, this woman could have been alive today, in my opinion," Coe said.

With Coe's investigative efforts, the FBPD convinced a judge there was enough probable cause to collect DNA from James Lee Hall Jr. (pictured).

"He had been skipping through the system, never having his DNA taken from him," Coe said.

Collecting Hall's DNA meant exhuming his body from its grave in Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado. Not long after Robinson's murder, Hall moved to Colorado and died of natural causes there in 2000.

The victim

Janet Robinson was born Janet Simmons, one of the first students at the new Peck School in 1936, which was closed at the end of segregation in Nassau County. Simmons (pictured) was part of Peck High School's last graduating class in 1949.

Her high school yearbook suggested that she was an accomplished singer and that she intended to pursue a career in Gospel music. She was voted "Most Popular" by her classmates, who included former Fernandina Beach Mayor Charles Albert.

Simmons met Jeremiah "Jerry" Mattox and the two were married in 1950 at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Fernandina Beach. Mattox lived on South 10th Street, directly across the street from where Janet Robinson was killed in 1987.

Deputy Jerry Mattox is buried at Bosque Bello. According to reports, Mattox's wife, Janet, who was later raped and killed in Fernandina Beach, witness Mattox being shot and killed in the line of duty in 1954.
Deputy Jerry Mattox is buried at Bosque Bello. According to reports, Mattox's wife, Janet, who was later raped and killed in Fernandina Beach, witness Mattox being shot and killed in the line of duty in 1954.

Mattox moved to Fernadina Beach from St. Marys, Georgia, in 1950 after Nassau County Sheriff H.J. Youngblood convinced him to become the first black deputy in Nassau County. Youngblood was reportedly looking for a "Jackie Robinson type" to patrol American Beach after a white deputy was attacked and severely injured at that location by two black men.

Four years later, Mattox became the first black officer killed in the line of duty in Nassau County. On March 13, 1954, Mattox responded to a domestic violence call on 8th Street in Fernandina Beach and was shot and killed by the man he was trying to arrest.

Janet and her friends were returning from the beach at that very moment and, according to reports, she witnessed her husband's death.

Janet remarried a few years later, but the married failed and she eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio. She returned to Fernandina Beach around 1984 and worked as a cook at the Sandbar Restaurant.

The murder

On May 15, 1987, Robinson was found brutally raped and strangled in her home on South 10th Street.

According to friends and neighbors, Robinson rarely allowed anyone in her home.

The killer came in the house, most likely uninvited, through an unlocked back door sometime late the night before or early the morning of Robinson's body being found, police said.

The position of Robinson's body and the condition of her clothes suggested a forceful assault in which the killer attempted to pin her to the floor while attacking her, police said.

During the assault, the killer suffocated Robinson in his attempt to overcome her resistance, police said.

"She gave him a fight he wasn't prepared for and it ultimately it ended in him killing her," Coe said.

DNA that wasn't Robinson's was found on her body but a match was not found in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

The arrests

According to police, Hall had been arrested in the past -- accused of sexually assaulting his mother's best friend who lived next door to them. Police said Hall's mother convinced the woman to go to police but eventually the charges were dropped. Coe believes that victim was coerced into dropping the charges by other family members. No DNA was taken for that crime.

"Had he had to answer for those charges, had there not be interference and not let the law do its job, Mrs. Robinson could be alive today," Coe said. "That's tragic."

About six months later, Robinson was found raped and murdered. Because of his history connected to assaulting older women and a witness who said she saw Hall running from the scene the night of the murder, Hall was the prime suspect.

But another man, Robert Way, came forward saying Octavian Troy Brewton committed the crime and that he was Brewton's lookout. On May 27, 1987, Way and Brewton were arrested and booked for Robinson's murder.

A day later, Way failed a polygraph exam and then admitted lying to police. He served six months in the Nassau County Jail for providing false information of a crime.

Brewton, the man Way accused, had an alibi -- he was committing burglary out of town the night of the murder. Brewton and Way were ruled out as the source of DNA found at the murder scene, and the murder charges were dropped.

The detectives originally investigating the case never turned their focus back to Hall, and he left Florida within months of Brewton having the charges dropped.

The cold case

When Coe reopened the case, he focused on Hall's statements at the time of the crime and his alibi. He found discrepancies in what Hall had told detectives about when he last saw Robinson, when and if he was ever at Robinson's house and what he was doing the night of the murder.

Hall told detectives he saw Robinson at a liquor store on May 15 about 5 p.m., which would have made him one of the last people to see her alive, other than the store clerks.

Hall's statements about what he did after seeing Robinson were not consistent with the statements of those he listed as alibi witnesses, Coe found.

Coe also re-interviewed a key witness in 2011 who said the night of the murder she saw Hall running from the scene about 3 or 4 a.m. Her story about seeing Hall run by her that night did not change.

The suspect

A records check led to Coe to what appeared to be a pattern of criminal activity involving Hall, which included trespassing, burglary, domestic battery and at least one prior sexual battery. The crimes spanned three states: Florida, Kansas and Colorado.

According to Coe, In Fernandina Beach, Hall's crimes followed a pattern. The victims were older women who lived alone and were friends of his mother, Coretha Hall. He lived with her at the time. The assaults or attempted assaults were near his home and happened late at night or early in the morning.

"He preyed on friends of his mother, so he would know them through his mother," Coe said "He would do odd jobs around the house for these people, and in (Robinson's) case, he befriended her, helped her out with some small projects around the house.
"I think that was part of what he utilized as his MO because he was convinced that because they were friends with his mother, they wouldn't tell on him. They wouldn't bring it up."

Despite his connection to crimes, police never obtained a DNA sample from Hall, so he was never entered into the DNA database for sexual offenders.

The resolution

After FBPD convinced a judge to issue a search and seizure warrant, investigators exhumed Hall's body in Colorado to collect a tissue sample that would contain DNA.

"It wasn't just to see if he was guilty," Coe said. "If he wasn't the suspect, it would also exonerate him."

The DNA was a match to what was found at the crime scene.

"I think there will be closure," Coe said. "In the long run, justice has been carried out. Mr. Hall has met his own fate and hopefully we don't find anymore victims."

Police said because of the serial nature of his crimes, Hall could have committed more assaults in Kansas and Colorado.

They hope adding Hall's DNA to CODIS could solve those cases, if they exist.