JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It may have come as a surprise to some when Johnie Lewis Miller was allowed to go free Wednesday after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the 1974 shooting death of a Jacksonville convenience store owner.
That wasn't the case for Detectives Margaret Rhatigan and Glenn Warkentien, whose work helped secure an arrest in the decades-long cold case killing of Freddie Farah. They learned earlier this year the state's case had hit a snag.
Their key witness, whose testimony was essential to connecting Miller to the crime, abruptly died in January. The statements she provided were no longer any use to prosecutors, who could not introduce them in court.
Despite the turn of events, Rhatigan and Warkentien were not disappointed with the outcome. After all, Rhatigan noted, Miller's admission meant a conviction plus some important answers for Farah's family after four decades of uncertainty.
"So long as they got what they want out of it, it's never for nothing," said Warkentien.
The cold case detectives currently share the distinction of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office's 2018 Police Officer of the Year. They were recognized for their tireless efforts in tracking down Farah's killer 43 years after the fact.
"He was identified through latent prints. We had evidence at the scene. There were prints taken back in 1974. Most of the items I re-submitted tested again with today's current technology," Rhatigan said.
Finger and palm prints were pulled from several groceries left behind on the counter at the Grand Park Food Market in 1974. At the time, investigators could not find a match. That was the case too when the prints were entered into a federal database in 1998.
But the detectives got a hit on Miller when they resubmitted the prints in December 2016. They then endeavored to track down Annette Bryant Williams, the lone surviving witness to the killing. Astonishingly, she recalled the events that day and the shooter's description in vivid detail.
Those pieces of evidence led them to reach out to their counterparts in New Orleans, who recognized Miller as a popular street performer. "So Glenn and I left, we spent the day looking for the Statue of Liberty in the French Quarter," Rhatigan said.
Their year-long investigation led to the arrest of Miller, 61, in New Orleans in May 2017. He was returned to Jacksonville in July and indicted by a Duval County grand jury a month later. The case appeared strong until Williams died.
Without Williams, prosecutors no longer had anyone who could tie the prints from the scene to the man who gunned down Farah. The loss of her testimony led prosecutors to strike a deal with Miller requiring him to plead guilty and explain himself to Farah's family.
He was sentenced Wednesday to 344 days in jail and given credit for time served. He was released from custody several hours later. But while he was all smiles walking out of the Duval County jail, Miller had nothing to say to news cameras as he left.
While that result may not be the one everyone else expected, the detectives were gratified their work provided some sense of closure for Farah's family.
"We got a conviction out of it and he admitted that he did it," Rhatigan said.
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