Suwannee Valley Unsolved: Event to highlight 3 cold cases in Suwannee, Columbia County

Presentation aims to shine light on cold cases, encourage people to come forward

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Fla. – Family members and investigators — both former and current — are holding an event Monday to put a spotlight on three separate cold cases that took place in Suwannee County and Columbia County.

The event will be hosted by a group called Suwannee Valley Unsolved and will be held at Hatch Park Community Center in Branford, Florida.

Jason Futch, the group’s founder, said he was a young criminal justice student when he learned of the disappearance of 16-year-old Fred Laster. Laster’s story is what motivated him to help spread awareness about unsolved cases in his community.

Futch’s hope is to get the public not only interested in cold cases — but involved.

Related: Family, Lake City police seek information in 2001 killing of 19-year-old | Jurors hear grim evidence, testimony in trial of Jacksonville Beach man accused of killing, dismembering teen in 1994

When a jury found Ronnie Hyde guilty of the 1994 murder of Fred Laster in 2022, it marked the final chapter in a long obsession for Jason Futch. Futch still remembers the day the case was solved.

“I got a phone call from a friend of mine who said, ‘you might want to watch the news because something big just happened,” Futch said. ″I see the live feed and there’s Sheriff Hunter and Melissa Nelson, and all the others who were involved standing up there and talking about this cold case being solved.”

Now, with his group Suwannee Valley Unsolved, Futch aims to help shed light on other cold cases.

At Monday’s presentation, the community will hear about Darlene Messer’s case. She was abducted from the Suwannee Swifty Convenience Store in 1989. Her body was later found in Union County. And Deborah Howard, who disappeared in 1976.

Then there’s the case of John Robert Thomas. News4JAX covered his story last year, which marked two decades since he was shot and killed in Lake City. Thomas’ aunt will be there Monday to share who he was.

“People can now understand just exactly the pain the families go through, the hard work that the investigators do to try to solve these cases. And the fight for justice for these individuals,” Futch said.

For Futch, Fred Laster’s case is proof there can be hope for others.

“I have really good hope that Darlene’s case can be solved. Deborah Howard’s could be solved just by confession. John Robert Thomas, his case can be solved if the right people come forward. Having a group like that really helps these families because at least they know that their voice is actually being heard.”

Futch told News4JAX some of the original detectives who investigated those three cases when they happened would be there to be part of the presentation.

The event is Monday night in Branford and the public is encouraged to be there. The doors will open at Hatch Park Community Center (403 SE Craven Avenue, Branford, FL) at 5:30 p.m. and the event will begin at 6 p.m. and continue until 8 p.m. Seating will be first come first served

The hope is that someone may come forward with information that could be helpful to investigators.

More information on the cold cases will be presented on Monday:

  • Darlene Messer was murdered on September 18th, 1989. She was initially abducted from the Suwannee Swifty Convenience Store on the corner of SR-100 and Price Creek Rd. Her body was located underneath the Swift Creek Bridge in Union County. Her death was the result of blunt force trauma. The case will be presented by Randy Roberts, retired Detective Sergeant from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and Jason Futch of Suwannee Valley Unsolved.
  • Deborah Howard went missing in July of 1976. She had not been heard from for years prior to the family finally reporting her missing in 2015. Since the opening of the investigation, a person of interest was identified, and the case remains open. The case will be presented by Retired Investigator Jake Brooks, assisted by Wayne Kelly of the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office.
  • John Robert Thomas was murdered on December 9th, 2001. He had been found deceased at the intersection of NE Washington and Broadway Avenue in downtown Lake City. A woman was arrested for the murder in 2002 but was released after a grand jury could not come to an agreement in prosecuting her. She remains a person of interest and the Lake City Police Department believes there are people knowledgeable about the murder that have yet to come forward. The case and family impact statement will be presented by Heather Landacre, Thomas’ aunt and cold case advocate.

About the Author:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.