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Suspect found in 1991 killing

DNA leads to inmate on Arkansas' death row

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

By Mike Bucsko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Every time Roberta B. Szyjko heard an old homicide case had been solved during the past few years, she thought the same thing.

"When is it going to be us? When are we going to hear something?" Szyjko said.

Szyjko's younger sister, Lorraine Anne Barrett, a 1977 graduate of South Fayette High School, was raped and murdered nearly a dozen years ago, hours after she arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a vacation. The case was never solved.

Until last week.

That's when Fort Lauderdale police Detective John Curcio learned that a national DNA database came up with a match to a sample in the Barrett case which he had submitted last year.

The sample matched the DNA of Jack H. Jones Jr., a convicted murderer on Arkansas' death row.

Barrett's father, John, called Szyjko at work Friday, shortly after he heard the news from Curcio.

"It's the news you always wanted to hear and always hoped to hear, but to hear it from out of the blue -- it was overwhelming because it was so unexpected," she said.

Barrett, called Lori by her family, was last seen socializing in a Fort Lauderdale bar and in a motel elevator with a man who was heavily tattooed. Her body was found by a cleaning woman about 12:20 a.m. on June 1, 1991, in a motel room about a half-block from the Elbo Room bar.

Barrett, 32, who lived in Bridgeville and was a customer service representative for Bell of Pennsylvania in Washington, Pa., had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Immediately after the killing, Fort Lauderdale police distributed a composite sketch of the suspect, complete with descriptions of his tattoos. Nothing solid occurred in the case, though detectives continued to revisit the evidence from time to time, said Detective Mike Reed, spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale police department.

Last year, a detective who had handled the case for years retired and Curcio reviewed the evidence. He was able to submit semen samples gathered by forensic detectives from Barrett's body and the crime scene to databases that did not exist in the early 1990s

The evidence first went to the Broward County sheriff's department and Florida Department of Law Enforcement labs for examination and a possible match. Coming up empty there, Curcio submitted the evidence to the National DNA Indexing System with a request that it be submitted to individual states to cross-reference with their databases.

"It's basically getting that needle in the haystack and making the haystack a little smaller," Reed said.

The DNA evidence from the Barrett case matched DNA on file in Arkansas for Jones, who was sentenced to death by lethal injection for the June 1995 murder of a woman who worked in a tax accounting office. The match was confirmed by a second test at the state crime lab in Arkansas.

As it turned out, tattoos of barbed wire and hearts with names inside that were on Jones' arms and wrists are similar to tattoos witnesses told Fort Lauderdale police belonged to the suspect last seen with Barrett, Reed said.

In addition, Jones' features, albeit with shorter hair, closely resemble the composite in the Barrett case that was distributed in South Florida years ago, he said.

Police served a fugitive warrant on Jones at the maximum security prison in Tucker, Ark., starting the process to bring him back to Fort Lauderdale to face charges of first-degree murder and sexual battery filed last week by the state attorney in Broward County, Reed said.

Jones' tattoos were also part of the evidence that led to his conviction in Arkansas.

Four years and six days after Barrett's body was found, Jones murdered and raped Mary Phillips, 35, and beat and left for dead Phillips' then-11-year-old daughter, Lacy, in Bald Knob, a small town about 50 miles northeast of Little Rock. Testimony from Lacy Phillips about Jones' tattoos helped identify him as the person who killed her mother and beat her in the head with a BB gun at the tax accounting office where her mother worked.

Jones, who has lost two appeals, is appealing his conviction for the third time. Jones' attorney will not let police talk with him until the legal process in the appeal is completed, but Reed indicated that Curcio has already had a preliminary discussion with the suspect.

"[Jones] has not been formally interviewed and I think that's the key word here," Reed said.

Szyjko commended the persistence of the Fort Lauderdale detectives and said they had kept in regular contact with her family over the years. Police held off a public announcement of the DNA match until Monday to give the Barrett family a chance over the weekend to deal with the information.

Now Szyjko and her family, which includes another sister and a brother in the area, have to grapple with the emotional challenge of the news that Barrett's murderer has been caught.

"She was an innocent bystander and it's just hard now that it's out," Szyjko said. "It's just hard to call someone and tell them what happened. It's also opening that old wound of, 'Oh my God, now we have to go through all this again.' "

Mike Bucsko can be reached at mbucsko @post-gazette.com or 412-263-1732.

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