Counselor, former youth pastor accused of killing teen in 1994

FBI began search of man's Jacksonville Beach home Tuesday morning

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter, Jim Piggott - Reporter, Vic Micolucci - Reporter, anchor, Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter, Heather Leigh - Reporter, Francesca Amiker - Reporter, Erik Avanier - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. - Investigators announced Tuesday that a dismembered body found at a Lake City gas station 23 years ago was identified last year as a 16-year-old Nassau County boy who had been reported missing from Jacksonville and that they had arrested a Jacksonville Beach man in connection with his death.

Ronnie Leon Hyde, 60, is charged with the 1994 murder of Fred Laster, and the FBI and Jacksonville Sheriff's Office began exhaustive searches Tuesday of Hyde's homes on Fourth Street in Jacksonville Beach and Thelma Street in Jacksonville's Talleyrand neighborhood.

Columbia County investigators have worked the case since the body of a young man was found outside a dumpster at a BP gas station at the U.S. 441 exit of Interstate 10. Using DNA technology, the remains were identified last February as those of the teenager.

IMAGES: Arrest made in 1994 cold case murder

Fred Laster's family may have jump-started the investigation. Years after the teen disappeared, one of his cousins said she started searching cold cases online and, in 2015, she spotted the cold case poster and showed it to his siblings, who recognized the photos on the flier.

The family contacted investigators, who then conducted DNA tests on the siblings to confirm a match with the human remains that were found. The test came back positive and for the first time, Fred Laster’s family had confirmation that he was dead. 

The arrest affidavit obtained by News4Jax shows that Hyde was reported to be the last person to see Fred Laster and the victim's sister told officers last year she thought Hyde had something to do with his disappearance.

The report said DNA taken from Hyde's trash last year matched DNA found on a flannel shirt found in the dumpster near the body.

Investigators believe Fred Laster was killed in Hyde's Jacksonville Beach home and dismembered there using kitchen knives, two of which were found with the boy's torso at the Lake City gas station. The report noted that Hyde had taken nursing courses and had knowledge on how to dismember a body. 

According to the arrest affidavit, what remained of the body had recently been washed, leading investigators to believe the victim was killed elsewhere.

Detectives believe Hyde drove his elderly father's Chevrolet Camaro to dump the body, and committed the crime while wearing his father's flannel shirt -- one of the only clues early on in the case. The report said the shirt was left in the dumpster by the body, along with bath mats and outdated bath appliques. 

Laster's siblings told detectives that they matched the bath decor in Hyde's father's house in Jacksonville Beach, which Hyde later moved into. 

Last year, the arrest affidavit said, police took trash from outside of that home and obtained Hyde's DNA from it then compared it to blood on the flannel shirt, saying it was a match -- the odds of it being anyone but the killer's was 700 billion to one. It is believed that the rest of Fred Laster's body has never been found.

"The dedication and professionalism of the initial team of investigators all the way through the present team has enabled the family to have some closure," Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter said. “Fred's immediate surviving family has been notified of this arrest, and they are in our thoughts and prayers."

The FBI said that as a counselor, Hyde likely had "extensive access" to other children over the years and asked anyone who might have been victimized by Hyde to call 904-248-7000.

"This is a reminder that justice has no expiration date, and my office intends to continue the hard work of our law enforcement partners to deliver long-delayed justice," said State Attorney Melissa Nelson, whose office will prosecute Hyde.

Hyde, who has lived in Jacksonville most of his life and has traveled frequently in the U.S. and abroad, was named a subject in a previous international child exploitation case several years ago.

FROM THE ARCHIVE:
1994 WJXT report on body discovered

Hyde is expected to appear in court Wednesday afternoon for a first appearance hearing, according to jail records.

Family concerned about suspect for years

Hyde met the Laster family sometime in the 1980s, according to the arrest affidavit. Fred's sister told investigators that Hyde was youth pastor at Strength for Living Church, which the family attended, and that he lived in a bus behind the church at the time.

She also said she and one of her siblings stayed the night with Hyde at his Jacksonville Beach home in 1993, during which she woke up to find Hyde nude, trying to wake someone up, the court document said.

On the day Fred Laster was last seen, the report said, he was at his sister's apartment in Jacksonville and he was upset, trying to get her to go away with him. When she said no, he told her that Ron Hyde was coming to pick him up, according to investigators.

Later when they last spoke over the phone, Fred Laster said he was with Hyde, the report said. Fred Laster's sister said her brother "sounded distant, emotional," so much so that she asked him if he was OK, according to the arrest affidavit.

The I-TEAM has also confirmed that a brother of Fred Laster lived at Hyde's Jacksonville Beach home in 2002, nearly eight years after the teen was murdered.

One of the siblings also told police that Hyde "always wanted to take up his time with young male boys with problems," the report said.

Two of Fred Laser's cousins -- Samuel Laster and Lorrie Woodard -- told News4Jax that they had long suspected Hyde to be involved. 

"We thought all along he was the person. Through the siblings, talking to them and information we found out, it all matches. The state attorney, I think they got all they need to prove the case," Samuel Laster said. "It seems like he preyed on these kids. It was easy bait because my aunt had passed, my uncle wasn’t around and Ron preyed on their grandmother. And I think he took advantage of her by seeing an opportunity to manipulate these children through a church event or whatever it was.”

Woodard -- who spotted the cold case poster online -- said suspicions about Hyde grew stronger after a conversation she had with other relatives about a phone call just prior to her cousin's disappearance.

“They told me he called at 5 a.m. and they asked him if he was with Ron, and he said yes. They said, 'Do you want me to come and get you?' and he said no. He said, 'I just called to tell Pumpkin that I love her,'" Woodard said.

Family members said another red flag arose last April when they started searching Hyde's Facebook page, finding a post that reads, in part: "I had a dream this morning two of my dear friends returned from the dead."

Samuel Laster said he believes one of the friends that he was referring to was Fred Laster.

“Why would you make a statement about two people coming back to life? I don’t know if there is any match to that but it is certainly kind of odd," Samuel Laster said.

The cousins said Hyde's arrest provides closures after more than two decades of suffering. 

“It’s like a dream because it’s been going on for 23 years. I’m kind of happy in a way but it’s kind of like a bittersweet situation," Woodard said.

Digging for answers at home

Hyde's Jacksonville Beach and Talleyrand properties were both subject to an intense, all-day search Tuesday.

Agents and police blocked off the Jacksonville Beach neighborhood at 7 a.m. Tuesday to begin the search. Investigators were processing the scene, some wearing hazardous material suits. A backhoe was seen digging in the backyard of the home.

Because only Fred Laster's torso was found 23 years ago, it's possible investigators are searching for other body parts at Hyde's two homes.

Former FBI agent Toni Chrabot said the search team will be meticulous, even when using heavy equipment.

"Heavy machinery is just that; it's going to turn some dirt up. It is meticulous. You can be off by a few inches," Chrabot said. "Also, here is a somber situation. You are digging for a body. You are digging for a body that has been buried for years."

FBI Special Agent Charles Spencer asked neighbors for patience as the search may continue for several days.

"The search operations are extensive. They began shortly after he was taken into custody," Spencer said. “No stone will be left unturned, you can rest assured."

Tuesday afternoon, police and the FBI began searching a second home owned by Hyde that is on Thelma Street, near 11th Street.

Just before 6:30 p.m., an FBI spokesperson said search operations had been suspended for the evening, and the FBI Jacksonville Evidence Response Team will resume researches at both homes Wednesday morning. 

Neighbors said Hyde used the home as a rental and only came by to check on the home and take care of the yard.

Neighbors react to arrest, search

One neighbor thought the home had been vacant for at least a year, but another said that is not true. The woman who lives next door said Hyde boarded up the property and did not take care of it, which is why it appeared to be abandoned. She said he was seen only late at night and would say only, "Hi neighbor."

Brandon Hannon said he’s lived for 22 years just doors away from Hyde and is shocked by all of this.

“It’s crazy to think there might be a body that’s been there my whole life," Hannon said.

Other neighbors assumed no one lived in the house due to the overgrown yard and bushes.

“Pretty much all day we’ve seen people in hazmat suits," Joey Edwards said after watching the activity down his street. "We saw a guitar case being brought out, a wheel barrow and tractor. They are bringing out evidence left and right.”

Another neighbor described Hyde as caring and said he had offered them counseling for free. He said Hyde is the farthest thing from a criminal.

"I just hope this gets cleared up soon," Andrew Sturm said. "I pray for him. I pray for the family of whatever happened."

Who is Ronnie Hyde?

News4Jax learned that Hyde is a licensed mental health counselor in Florida and has owned the Jacksonville Beach home since 1993.  On his Facebook page, Hyde wrote that he works at Crosswater Community Church in Nocatee.

Crosswater's Pastor, Jack Millwood, said he has spoken with the FBI about Hyde and the church is fully cooperating with the investigation. 

“I am personally not aware of any victims of Ron Hyde that involve anyone associated with Crosswater," Millwood said in a video released by the church. "Our main concern, as always, is to help people and victims in our area. Our thoughts and prayers go out to any potential victims of any crimes committed."

Hyde graduated from Fletcher High School and became a mental health counselor in 2001. He was working as a contract employee for a health services provider for the Department of Corrections. A state DOC spokeswoman said the department was cooperating fully with the FBI, "and will deploy any available resource needed to ensure this individual is held accountable."

Hyde had been on the federal government's radar in 2003 and 2004 for not paying $13,000 in business taxes.

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