Decades-Long Mystery Solved: Identity of 1997 Intracoastal Waterway Murder Victim Revealed

Breakthrough Unveiled in Cold Case Conference

After a painstaking investigation spanning 26 years, the unidentified murder victim discovered floating in Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway in September 1997 has been identified as Robert Bruce McPhail. Originally from the Kenora-Winnipeg area of Manitoba, Canada, McPhail had relocated to South Florida during the mid-1990s.

The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s Cold Case Unit, in collaboration with Othram, a cutting-edge forensic sequencing laboratory, has successfully cracked the case, marking a significant advancement in solving a long-standing mystery.

Detective Sarah Scalia, heading the Cold Case Unit, unveiled the remarkable breakthrough during the Florida Sheriffs Association Cold Case Advisory Commission training session, hosted by the Flagler Sheriff’s Office this week. The case, previously a cold one, has now been reactivated as an active murder investigation, though it remains possible that the perpetrators responsible for McPhail’s demise are deceased.

The Chilling Discovery

The chain of events began on the morning of September 10, 1997, when employees from Sea Ray were testing a boat in the Intracoastal Waterway. Amidst their routine, they stumbled upon a grim sight: a body submerged in the water, initially mistaken for boat fenders. This shocking find marked the inception of an extensive investigation.

The victim, found naked and tied to weights, had succumbed to a gunshot wound to the head. The investigation, led by multiple agencies including the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, yielded a partial handprint but no recoverable fingerprints or dental records. An autopsy revealed that the body had been in the water for an estimated two to three days before discovery.

Piecing Together the Puzzle

McPhail’s killing marked the county’s first homicide in three years, igniting a complex investigation into his tragic demise. Suspecting potential links to boat traffic crossing into Flagler waters, investigators delved into the activities around High Bridge during the four days preceding the discovery of the body.

With 54 boats traversing in that period, the search for clues was extensive. McPhail’s non-local status added an extra layer of complexity, leaving open the possibility that he may have been killed elsewhere and disposed of in local waters.

A Cold Case Resolved

Over the years, the case endured through multiple sheriff administrations, until Sheriff Rick Staly established the Cold Case Unit in 2020. In 2021, Detective Scalia turned to Othram, a forensic genetics company known for its breakthroughs in resolving cold cases, to analyze the victim’s bones. This decision led to a pivotal breakthrough, allowing McPhail to be identified and bringing new hope to the investigation.

Sheriff Staly expressed his gratitude for the collaborative effort that led to this breakthrough, acknowledging the complexity of cold cases and the critical role of forensic genetic genealogy. With McPhail’s identity revealed, the focus now shifts to pursuing justice for him and his family by identifying his killer or killers.

Seeking Closure

Authorities are urging anyone with information about McPhail’s life or his murder to come forward. Tips can be submitted through email to TIPS@flaglersheriff.com or directly to Cold Case Detective Sarah Scalia at SScalia@flaglersheriff.com.

Alternatively, individuals wishing to remain anonymous can provide tips to Crime Stoppers of Northeast Florida by calling 1-888-277-TIPS (8477), with a reward of up to $9,500 potentially available for valuable information.

The successful resolution of the Robert Bruce McPhail case stands as a testament to the persistence of law enforcement and the power of modern forensic techniques to unravel even the most enduring mysteries.

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