Cold Case

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Nuavia Stewart

The Corsair

Traveling along Scenic Highway, drivers can observe the picturesque scenes of wealth and prestige sitting back from the road on high hills and well-manicured lawns of St. Augustine grass. The water of the bay is the backdrop for the serene community.

As the sun set on 1984 and the moon rose on 1985, prestigious well manicured neighborhood of Scenic Highway unveiled a ghastly scene of murder by strangulation. Twenty-three-year-old Tonya McKinley’s death brought in the New Year for the Escambia County Criminal Investigation Division. McKinley’s body was found dumped at the corner of Peacock Road near the intersection of Creighton and Scenic Highway.

It has been 28 years since McKinley’s body was laid to rest.  The case of Tonya McKinley is just one of many cold cases on the desk of Administrative Captain Paul Kelly of the Pensacola Police Department. Kelly continues to dedicate himself to the unsolved cold case in addition to his administrative duties with the department.

His office is a telltale clue as to the workload of an administrative captain. Yellow Post-It notes decorate his desk, and the paperwork appears to be never ending. He displays his patriotic pride with American flags and U.S. memorabilia just above his desk.

He reaches down to pick up two cardboard boxes sitting on the floor.

“This is the McKinley case,” Kelly said.

“There are some things in the McKinley case file that have never been released to the public. The reason for that is there is information in these files only the perpetrator knows.”

Although the McKinley case has gone unsolved and many of the leads have been exhausted, still the decorated officer diligently continues the hunt for McKinley’s perpetrator.

“Our goal is to keep these cases in the media,” Kelly said. “Someone someday may say ‘I’m ready to talk about that.’”

With new DNA evidence the long silence becomes a still small voice from the grave, and after 23 years the cold case begins to heat up.

“When the deceased can’t speak for themselves, it is the criminal investigator’s job to piece together the clues the murderer leaves behind,” Kelly said. He explained that an investigator brings all his skills when he goes to a crime scene. His attention to detail must come as second nature; he knows that there is always something exchanged between a murderer and his victim that will help solve the case and it’s up to him to find it. It might be hair, fibers, blood, semen, saliva that may bring the killer to justice.   Kelly explained that to a homicide investigator, DNA evidence is the silent voice of the deceased that reveals the secrets to the living and holds the answer to the killer’s identity.


“The physical evidence is huge,” Kelly said. “Physical evidence is more reliable than a witness. Witnesses can make mistakes. If you have DNA at the scene and the bad guy’s saying he was never there , you know that’s his DNA; you know he was there.”

Kelly has been with the Pensacola Police Department for 26 years. He worked as a criminal investigator for six years.

“Identifying the suspect within the first 48 hours I would say is extremely important,” Kelly said. “Recovering physical evidence, we’re probably looking more at like 96 hours.”

A homicide detective’s agenda involves a lot of grunt work not seen on the reality shows, tying up leads that may lead to nowhere, and tracking down witnesses while the narrative is still fresh in their minds or before the suspect tries to tie up his own loose ends and witnesses become victims.

“I don’t hold any credence in the first 48 hours in making the arrest because sometimes the police know exactly who committed the crime;  they’re just still gathering enough evidence so the person doesn’t get off,” Kelly said. “It’s not what you know; it’s what you can prove.”

A criminal investigator has to be methodical and persistent when tracking a suspect. Although time is of the essence, an ironclad conviction may take years and even decades to achieve.

“There are homicides that are still open to this day,” Kelly said. ”We know who did it; it’s proving it. It’s more frustrating to me to know who committed the crime and not be able to charge them.”

It’s a very thin line that separates investigators’ personal lives from work. Criminal investigators see death and survive the chaos we don’t normally see every day. Kelly said he brings it home despite his best efforts not to. He fears for his own children, his family and his partner.

“Not every detective is cut out for homicide,” Kelly said.