DNA links remains found in Keys in 1976 to Boca teen

August 26, 2004
By: By Neil Santaniello-Staff Writer
Sun Sentinel

DNA helped solve the mystery, said Sheriff Rick Roth, in a prepared release.

"New technologies, better networking between law enforcement databases and a caring family have allowed us to finally identify this body as that of Stephanie Sempell," said Roth, who was the original investigating detective on the case. "This investigation is still active, and now that we have an identification, we hope we can go on to find out why Stephanie was found dead on Grassy Key 28 years ago."

Here's what Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the Monroe Sheriff's Office, said happened in December 1976:

Then-Detective Roth was dispatched to investigate reports of human remains found on Grassy Key, near an area called the "rock pit" at the 55.5 Mile Marker on U.S. 1.

He found the bones scattered in a heavily wooded area. The remains were partially covered by Spanish moss, leafy debris and vines, and were judged to have been there for months.

The only clothing found at the site was a black T-shirt. It was knotted in such a way that Detective Roth believed it had been tied around the victim's head for some unknown reason, perhaps as a blindfold. Hair was found tangled in the knot. On the T-shirt was a colorful depiction of a Tiffany lamp.

The remains had been reported by a camper from Lake Worth, who said he and a friend had recently stayed in the area. He told deputies they were approached by a "hippie-type" man who offered to show them a human skeleton for a quarter. The camper described where the body was. Using the camper's directions, detectives quickly found the bones near Gaines Rock Pit.

The bones were photographed in place, then collected. The medical examiner at the time, Dr. A. J. Fernandez, found no signs of violent death and the cause of death was classified as unknown.

But Detective Roth, remembering the knotted T-shirt, said he always suspected foul play.

Dental records tried to compare the body to law enforcement reports of missing women from across the country, but failed and for the next two decades the bones sat untouched.

In November of 2001, they became news again. The mother of a girl who went missing in 1974 in the Keys became convinced the bones belonged to her daughter.

At her insistence, detectives took DNA samples from the mother and tried to match them with DNA extracted from the bones found on Grassy Key. The tests failed.

Still, the Grassy Key DNA test was entered into the FBI's Mitochondrial DNA Missing Person Database, Unit II, in Quantico, Va., in the hopes that sometime in the future the database would help identify the victim.

The identification of the victim would not have been possible had her family not followed up with a simple phone call.

In 1997, Kim Quinn, of New York, the sister of a Boca Raton girl missing since 1976, began looking into the status of her sister's case. Her younger sister, Stephanie Sempell, was a chronic runaway who was last seen in March 1976. She had told her mother she was going to the Keys with friends. She never returned.

The family says they reported her missing, but for some unknown reason, there is no record of that report. Because there was no official missing person report, her name and description was never entered into a database where a comparisonwould have been possible.

As a result of Quinn's inquiries, Sempell's data was finally entered into the system. Eventually, the database matched that missing person report with the Keys case from 1976.

"Gerry Nance from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children called Detective James Norman in December of 2003 and said he had a possible hit on the Grassy Key case. We already had the DNA from the bones entered in the FBI DNA database. At that point, the mother of Stephanie Sempell was contacted for a sample of her DNA for comparison," recalled Detective Sgt. Patricia Dally, who heads up MSO's Homicide Division.

Jim Giumenta, the Cold Case detective for Palm Beach County and FBI Agent Chuck Wilcox helped obtain the DNA from the mother.

An analysis quickly concluded the Grassy Key bones were the remains of Stephanie Sempell.

What now?

Detectives hope that someone somewhere will see the picture of Stephanie, hear the story and call with information about the case. To date, no one who has been questioned in the case can definitively say who she was traveling with. Detectives would like to talk to those mysterious traveling companions. They are also hoping friends may remember something significant.

"Somebody knows her and knows what happened to her back in 1976," Detective Sgt. Dally said. "We want that person, or those people, to call us. A young girl lost her life, and both she and her family deserve to have some type of explanation for that. We'd like to give it to them."