Man reacts with disbelief after DNA links him to decades-old killing of Navy boot camp grad
By MICHAEL WILLIAMS | Orlando Sentinel | Published: July 8, 2019
ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) -- In March, Thomas Lewis Garner said he was trying to kick an old smoking habit, mourning the loss of his mother and preparing to ask the woman he loved to marry him.
He lived an ordinary life, he told Seminole County Sheriff's Office Investigator Jennifer Spears and Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Bill Elflein, going to work as a dental hygienist and returning home every day. The investigators told Garner they just wanted to make "small talk," asking him to recall names of people he served with in the Navy more than 30 years earlier.
Garner would soon discover the investigators weren't there for small talk. They arrested him for the 1984 murder of 25-year-old Pamela Cahanes, who was found strangled in an overgrown Seminole County lot just days after she graduated from Navy boot camp in Orlando.
"I don't know how that could be possible," Garner said when he was told his semen was found on Cahanes' underwear. "I mean this is, this is bizarre. This is almost like the Twilight Zone."
Records released Monday by the Seminole-Brevard State Attorney's Office included interviews with Garner and hundreds of pages of files from the 34-year-old killing. Pictures of Cahanes while she was alive and of her bloodied and battered body were also included in the records.
Authorities said they tied Garner to the killing after a distant family member submitted a genetic profile to an ancestry website. That profile was used to complete a "family tree" that investigators used to hone in on Garner. Spears later fished Garner's trash out of the dumpster at his Jacksonville apartment complex and got a DNA sample that matched evidence found on Cahanes.
Garner's arrest was one of two made this year by the Seminole County Sheriff's Office newly minted cold-case squad, consisting of Spears and a group of about 10 retired career detectives who volunteer their time to solve some of the county's 56 unsolved cases involving murdered and missing people.
During two interviews, Garner claimed to have memory problems. He said he did not remember Cahanes and wouldn't have dated her because she was a recruit.
Despite being confronted with the DNA evidence, Garner said he was going to "maintain my innocence," adding that he couldn't "remember anything like that happening" or "see myself being in a scenario like that." Investigators later showed Garner images of the injuries to Cahanes' throat, pleading with him to talk, so that her family could finally know what happened to her.
"I don't know how many times I'm gonna tell you the same thing," Garner said. "I have no idea what you're talking about."