Hernando County deputies say they are stepping up efforts to solve one of the Tampa Bay area's most notable missing child cases.
Feb. 19 marks the 20-year anniversary of the disappearance of Jennifer Odom, who was last seen getting off a school bus near her Dade City home.
On Tuesday, Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis said deputies will take a "fresh and focused look" at the cold case, including assigning a full-time major-case detective to the investigation exclusively for the next year.
Nienhuis said more than 1,000 investigators have been involved in trying to solve the high-profile case, and the sheriff's office will utilize federal forfeiture funds to dedicate the additional manpower.
"My administration has decided to put additional and exclusive resources into investigating the Jennifer Odom homicide," Nienhuis said. "This has been a very heart-wrenching case for the entire Tampa Bay area community for two decades. The fact is that this case may never be solved."
Nienhuis said the decision to add resources is not a sign that the case is closer to being solved.
"It is important to note that we are not doing this because we have a new or hot lead; we are not, in other words, necessarily, any closer to solving the case," Nienhuis said. "It is just the right thing to do, to take a fresh and focused look at everything in this case, in hopes of solving this two-decade-old mystery."
Because of the volume of documents and false leads they have received, Nienhuis said it could take at least a year to review the reports, interviews and evidence.
"We also have to be considerate of the family," Nienhuis said. "They have endured 20 years of agony and, although we desperately want to solve this case, we also want to be mindful of the wounds this crime has caused. It is for this reason that, although this is the 20th anniversary of this terrible crime, we are staying focused on the case itself."
Hernando Today previously reported Odom's friends and classmates saw a white and blue pickup truck that Friday afternoon nearby when she got off the bus — maybe a General Motors model, almost certainly made in the U.S. According to news reports, the license plate was damaged and the vehicle in general was faded, dirty and in ill repair. The pickup had a trailer hitch, two side-view mirrors and might have been missing a rear wheel hubcap.
Search parties scoured eastern Pasco County until Odom's body was found on a horse trail in Spring Lake. Some news reports said Odom died from a blow to the head.
Odom's mother and stepfather, Clark and Renee Converse, identified their daughter by the jewelry she was wearing in photographs — two rings and a gold charm necklace.
The community responded emotionally, with grief counselors staffed in Pasco and Hernando County schools. Parents pulled their children off the school bus, opting instead for after-school care.
Two years later, Odom's clarinet case and backpack was found by an individual collecting scrap metal in Weeki Wachee, about 18 miles from the site where her body was found and about 30 miles from her Pasco County bus stop.
A fingerprint that was neither Odom's nor her family's was found on the backpack, but it didn't match any fingerprints in the national database.
A DNA sample from the clarinet case was sent to an FBI lab as recently as 2009, according to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.