DNA helps Florida investigators ID victim 41 years later

SPRING HILL, Fla. (AP) — Investigators have confirmed that remains unearthed in a Florida junk yard 41 years ago match a missing teenager, the victim of a serial killer now imprisoned for life in California, sheriff’s officials said.

Hernando County Sheriff’s investigators, with an assist from the University of North Texas and Virginia-based DNA technology company Parabon Nano Labs, identified Theresa Caroline Fillingim as the third of four bodies uncovered in April 1981 from what neighbors referred to as a “house of horrors.”

Sheriff’s officials made the announcement on Wednesday.

It took weeks for excavators and deputies to find the four bodies in a sprawling junkyard on the property of Billy Mansfield Jr. in Spring Hill, sheriff’s officials said. Only two of the female victims were quickly identified.

Fillingim had been reported missing by her sister in Tampa nearly a year before that, on May 16, 1980. She was a week from her 17th birthday.

The teen’s remains were sent to numerous labs over the years, but investigators didn’t develop a DNA profile until 2020, sheriff’s officials said. The sample was sent to the University of North Texas seeking a match in a national database, without results.

They tried again this year, using Parabon’s “Snapshot DNA Phenotyping” service, which creates a description of the victim rather than searching for a genetic match, officials said.

“Using DNA evidence from this investigation, Snapshot produced trait predictions for the associated victim. Individual predictions were made for the victim’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape,” a news release said.

The profile gave investigators an opportunity to generate their own leads, and a DNA sample from Fillingim’s sister confirmed the identity, “finally bringing peace to the victim’s family,” the sheriff’s release said.

Mansfield had already been charged with crimes including battery, kidnapping and sexual assault when he met 30-year-old Rene Sailing at a California tavern on Dec. 6, 1980, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Her body was found the next morning in a drainage ditch, officials said. Mansfield was arrested days later and charged with first-degree murder. He was eventually convicted after a mistrial and an attempted prison escape, the Times reported.

Publicity from that case led an an anonymous tipster to ask Hernando County officials to search Mansfield’s home for Sandra Graham, a 21-year-old who went missing from Tampa on April 17, 1980.

On March 17, 1981, officials unearthed the first victim — a woman in her 20s who remains unidentified. A week later they uncovered the remains of 15-year-old Elaine Zeigler, a tourist from Ohio who disappeared from a nearby campground on New Year’s Eve in 1975. The bodies of Fillingim and Graham were then uncovered.

Mansfield, now 66, pleaded guilty to killing all four women and to the attempted sexual battery of another. He’s been denied parole multiple times, according to California prison records.

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