After nearly three decades, investigators have identified the first of five bodies found in a 1990s serial killer case that has ties to Lee and Collier counties.
On Wednesday, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office identified a body, originally listed as John Doe 1, found along what was known as the “hog trail” in northern Charlotte County, as that of Gerald “Jerry” Lombard.
Lombard’s remains were in a decomposing state and unable to be identified when found February 1, 1994.
The Sheriff’s Office said Lombard was born in Massachusetts on Aug. 30, 1962 and lived in Lowell, Massachusetts. According to his family, Lombard had been a bit of a drifter and it was common for him to disappear for long periods.
Investigators found more bodies in the general area of Lombard’s remains in April 1996, one just a few days dead.
At that time Charlotte County Sheriff’s detectives discovered male body parts that were obviously dissected and decomposed. One body showed signs it had been there for about a day. Marks on the body indicated he was bound with rope or similar items and strangled.
The decomposed body was eventually identified as Kenneth Smith of Fort Myers and Naples. The more recent body was identified as Richard Montgomery of Punta Gorda, with the county medical examiner ruling both were homicide victims.
The Sheriff’s Office said the bodies were about a half-mile apart.
After the discovery of John Doe #1 and before the discovery of Smith and Montgomery, officials found two other bodies in North Port wooded areas — five bodies in all.
The cases were similar in many ways, investigators said.
The discoveries led to the formation of an investigative task force including the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, North Port Police Department, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, State Attorney 20th and 12th Circuit, and Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Eventually, they identified a suspect in the killings, Daniel O. Conahan.
Conahan, 42 at the time, was arrested July 3, 1996, two months after officials found Montgomery’s body.
More than 500 pages of documents from the task force identified Conahan, an unemployed Punta Gorda resident, as the prime suspect. He was not convicted in Lombard’s death.
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A Fort Myers drifter told investigators he was tied to a tree in a remote area, after he agreed to be photographed naked in August 1994. The details linked Conahan to the other deaths and launched the probe.
According to published reports in The News-Press in 1996, the picture of Conahan that emerged from the investigative reports was that of an unemployed male nurse, who spent a lot of time cruising parks and the byways of Port Charlotte in search of friendly vagrants.
Two undercover Charlotte County detectives put themselves in Conahan’s path, pretending to be drifters and hanging around where he was known to frequent.
Detectives served a search warrant on Conahan’s car and the Punta Gorda Isles condo he shared with his parents.
After his July 1996 arrest, he was held without bond in Lee County Jail.
Conahan was tried and convicted for the murder of Richard Montgomery, sentenced to death and remains on death row in the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. In 2003, the Florida Supreme Court upheld his death sentence.
Due to the case’s publicity, Conahan asked that the sentencing phase of his trial be moved because news coverage would have made finding an impartial jury difficult in Charlotte.
Collier County Judge William Blackwell, then chief judge of the 20th Judicial Circuit, agreed to hear the case and a jury from a pool of Collier County residents formed.
The Charlotte Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Team decided to use the available genealogy resources after all attempts over the years to identify John Doe #1 failed.
In June 2013, Heather Walsh-Haney, forensic anthropologist at Florida Gulf Coast University, who was working with the Cold Case Team, submitted a tooth from John Doe #1 to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for development of DNA and entry into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons and the Combined DNA Index System.
Further study of the remains at the Biomolecular Engineering Department Laboratory at the University of California Santa Cruz found sufficient data, which scientists sent to Fulgent Labs, a genetics testing facility in California.
After processing in February, further investigation involving the FBI and DNA database services began looking into potential relatives of John Doe #1.
The Cold Case Team received the likely family name and potential relatives of John Doe #1. After contacting the family, they learned that this was a large family of 17 siblings and one of the brothers, Gerald (Jerry) Lombard had not been seen or heard from since about 1991 or 1992.
The Cold Case Team also learned that a niece in the family had submitted her DNA to Ancestry.com a few years ago, which is likely how the genetic genealogy match was made.
The DNA confirmed John Doe #1’s remains as those of Jerry Lombard
In April, the Cold Case Team obtained DNA samples from a sister, a brother, and a son of Jerry Lombard.
The DNA sample of the son was submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Laboratory in Fort Myers in May and in June FDLE reported that the DNA sample from the son was a positive match to the DNA of John Doe #1, verifying the identity as Lombard.
The Cold Case Team is now asking anyone who knew Lombard or anyone who may have seen him with Conahan to call them at 941-639-2101.