Half a century after her disappearance, human remains discovered in Florida have been identified as a murdered teenager.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBCSO) announced on Thursday that the remains, discovered in a Palm Beach mangrove, were those of Susan Gale Poole.
The 15-year-old, of Broward County, Florida, vanished just before Christmas in 1972.
Two years later remains, believed to be of a teen or young woman, was found tied up and dumped along Palm Beach County’s A1A highway.
The remains were discovered by a man and his sons looking for driftwood in a wooded area of Singer Island, known as Burnt Bridgers. They found nothing more than scattered remains and shreds of cloth.
Police opened an investigation but were unable to identify the body at the time, despite attempts to use dental records to find a match. The victim became known as “Singer Island Jane Doe“.
At the time of her disappearance Ms Poole was living at a Fort Lauderdale trailer park with her family but would occasionally stay at a friend’s apartment in the town of Wilton Manors, around three miles away.
“Nobody knew where she went,” Palm Beach County Detective Bill Springer said on Thursday. “Her clothes and pocketbook were still at a friend’s apartment.”
Her family went nearly half a century without knowing what happened to her.
In 2014, the remains of the unidentified girl were exhumed as cold case detectives tried to make a DNA match with FBI databases. The effort proved unsuccessful.
Five years later, Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office made a digital composite image of her face to assist with the investigation but yielded no results.
The break in the case came in December 2021 when officers began working with a private forensics laboratory, Othram, to futher explore genetic evidence.
Using cutting-edge DNA technology, the company returned potential leads in March. A DNA test of Ms Poole’s mother confirmed a match.
“I had always hoped she would come back. The search is finally over,” Ms Poole’s sister, Patti Poole, told WPLG.
“The way she died, he was very cruel,” she added.
Police had previously considered Susan Gale Poole a missing person but are now investigating her case as a murder.
Detective Springer said that a former police officer named Gerard Schaefer may be responsible for Ms Poole’s killing, though police do not posess any direct evidence so far.
Schaefer was a serial killer who was active in the area where Ms Poole lived. He had also once been a police officer in Wilton Manors, the town where Ms Poole visited.
In July 1972, a few months before the girl went missing, Schaefer kidnapped two teen hitchhikers on vacation, Nancy Ellen Trotter, 18, and Paula Sue Wells, 17, while on-duty as a Martin County sheriff’s deputy.
He falsely claimed to the girls that hitchhiking was illegal in the area and drove them back to where they were staying.
The next day, he returned to offer them a ride to their next destination, Jensen Beach. Instead, he took the teens to a dilapidated shed on Hutchinson Island, where he bound and handcuffed them.
Schaefer then hung both girls from a tree with nooses, the Palm Beach Post reported, forcing them stand on exposed roots, where one wrong step would kill them.
The police officer temporarily left the teens alone, and they managed to escape. A trucker driver picked up Ms Wells, and Ms Wells swam through a nearby waterway, with her hands still bound behind her back, until she reached a road and another Martin County deputy found her.
Schaefer admitted to his superior officers that he had kidnapped the girls but said it was to teach them a lesson about the dangers of hitchhiking.
“I’ve done something foolish,” he reportedly told his bosses. “You’re going to be mad at me.”
The officer was charged with aggravated assault and false imprisonment, but went free on $15,000 bail. He would eventually be convicted and given a short sentence but was still free at the time Ms Poole went missing.
In September 1972, teenagers Susan Place, 17, and Georgia Jessup, 16, went missing in Fort Lauderdale. Their bodies were found the following April on Hutchinson Island, close to where Ms Trotter and Ms Wells have been held.
Both Ms Place and Ms Jessup had been beheaded.
The day she vanished, Susan Place had told her mother Lucille that she was going to the beach with an older man, Gerry Shepherd. Suspicious, her mother took down the man’s license plate and reported it to police when she went missing. The plate belonged to a blue-green Datsun which was linked to Schaefer.
At the time their bodies were found, Schaefer was serving a six-month sentence for attacking Ms Trotter and Ms Wells. When police searched his home, they discovered drivers’ licenses, jewelry, and other items belonging to his victims.
He was subsequently convicted of the double murder and given a life sentence. Police suspect he may be linked to as many as 30 murders in the area, dating back to 1969.
Schaefer was killed in prison in the 1990s during a dispute with a fellow inmate about a cup of hot water.
Police are now searching for evidence that may link Schaefer to Ms Poole, and attempting to reach her close friends from the time to aid in their investigation.
Officials hope this “could help us find the missing piece and give her family closure,” the PBCSO wrote on Facebook on Friday.
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