Fernandina Beach Homicide Case solved after Exhumation
For the past three years the Fernandina Beach Police Department has been actively working an open unsolved homicide case from 1987 and recently learned that the primary suspect, James Lee Hall, Jr., has been positively connected to the heinous crime through DNA identification.
The news came after an arduous process of evidence retrieval which involved uncooperative family members, legal reviews, search warrants, military process, and exhumation orders issued to authorities in Colorado to remove Hall’s body from a military cemetery for the collection of specific tissue containing DNA samples for comparison to that collected at the murder scene almost twenty-eight years ago. Hall left Amelia Island a short time after the murder of Janet Marie Robinson and died of natural causes in 2000.
Janet Robinson, formerly Simmons, 56 years of age, was brutally assaulted and murdered in her home at 722 South 10th Street, Fernandina Beach, on May 15, 1987. Jimmy Hall was an early suspect after being observed running from the scene, and he also had a history of similar assaults of older women in the neighborhood. Remarkably, Hall was dismissed by investigators after another man, Robert Way, insinuated he and another into the investigation by claiming responsibility. Both men were arrested for the murder, and then later released when an alibi emerged for the second man and Way then failed a polygraph examination, before recanting the confession altogether.
The case remained unsolved for many years. It was reopened three years ago and initial steps were taken to further the investigation. Department members always felt that this case “fell through the cracks,” and after Captain Jim Coe retired in 2011 it appeared that the case may end up back in a drawer. However, Coe agreed to come back to work as a part-time investigator, to review new cases, mentor young detectives, and most importantly, to renew focus on the Robinson homicide for the very same reason as fictional Homicide Detective Harry Bosch. Michael Connelly’s famous character is colorblind, often stating that in the pursuit of justice “everybody counts or nobody counts.” In fact, every dedicated police officer burns with a desire to see that nobody gets away with serious crime, especially murder, and Jim Coe always knew that modern technology and forensic science might one day afford us the opportunity to see justice served for the Robinson family. To close this case during Black History Month is also gratifying, considering the historical connections to the old Peck High School, and more significantly, to Robinson’s first husband, Jeremiah Mattox.
Janet Simmons was one of the first students at the new Peck School in 1936, and was one of only a few students to spend her entire time there, graduating in 1949, which was the last graduating class at Peck High School. Her high school yearbook suggested that she was an accomplished singer and that she intended to pursue a career in Gospel music. She was voted “Most Popular” by her classmates, which include former Fernandina Beach Mayor Charles Albert.
She met Jeremiah “Jerry” Mattox and the two were married in 1950 at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Fernandina Beach. Mattox resided at 717 South 10th Street, which is directly across the street from where Janet was killed in 1987. Mattox had previously resided in St. Mary’s, Georgia, but was coaxed to Nassau County by Sheriff H. J. Youngblood in 1950 to become the first black deputy in Nassau County. Youngblood was reportedly looking for a “Jackie Robinson type” to patrol American Beach after a white deputy was attacked and severely injured at that location by two black men.
On March 13, 1954 Deputy Jerry Mattox responded to a domestic violence call on 8th Street in Fernandina Beach and was shot and killed by the man he was trying to arrest, becoming the first black law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Nassau County. Janet and her friends were returning from the beach at that very moment and actually witnessed her husband’s death, according to reports. Janet remarried a few years later, but the marriage failed and, at some point, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio. She returned to Fernandina Beach around 1984 and worked as a cook at the Sandbar Restaurant.
On May 15, 1987, the body of Janet Marie Robinson, 56 years of age, was found in her residence at 722 S. 10th Street, Fernandina Beach, Florida. Investigation revealed that she had been sexually assaulted and murdered. An autopsy was conducted on May 16, at 11:00 AM in Jacksonville, Florida. The Medical Examiner estimated the time of death at 24 to 36 hours from the time of autopsy and confirmed a sexual assault. The Medical Examiner identified the cause of death as asphyxia due to strangulation.
Early investigation into the homicide by Lieutenant Dana Davis of the Fernandina Beach Police Department appears to have initially identified the suspect as James Lee Hall, Jr. However, upon declaration of a purported eyewitness, Robert Jerome Way, the detectives investigating the crime abandoned Hall as the suspect and ultimately arrested Octavian Troy Brewton. Robert Way identified Brewton as the perpetrator of the murder and sexual assault and incriminated himself as the lookout. On May 27, 1987, both men were arrested and booked for the homicide.
The following day, on May 28th, Robert Way submitted to a polygraph examination administered by Woodley Polygraph Service of Jacksonville. After failing the polygraph, Way admitted to lying to the police about his statements and about his knowledge of the crime to the police. Way was adjudicated guilty of providing false information of a crime and was sentenced to six months in the Nassau County Jail. The State Attorney’s Office entered a nolle prosequi of the charges filed against Brewton, but Brewton remained in custody for a burglary that he had committed on the very night of the homicide, outside the city limits of Fernandina Beach.
The only significant physical evidence of the homicide found by law enforcement was located on the body of the victim. Biological evidence from the sexual assault kit enabled the crime lab to construct a DNA profile. The constructed DNA profile was foreign to the victim. The foreign DNA profile was determined to be consistent with originating from a male individual. Both Octavian Brewton and Robert Way were eliminated as the source of this foreign profile. The unknown subject linked to the recovered DNA has not been identified through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
Fernandina Beach Police Department detectives investigating the crime never refocused their interest and investigation back to the original suspect, James Lee Hall, Jr. Hall appears to have left Florida to move to Colorado within months of Brewton having the charges against him dropped.
Pictured: James Lee Hall, Jr. (1986)
Upon reopening this case, Detective Jim Coe focused on the statements and the alibi of James Lee Hall, Jr. as documented in the reports and notes of the original detectives (Davis, Carter and Thompson). Detective Coe noted significant discrepancies in Hall’s statements to the investigators with regard to: (1) when he last saw the victim, (2) when and if he was ever at her residence, and (3) his activities on the night of the homicide.
The discrepancies are illuminated by statements provided to Lieutenant Davis on May 16, 1987 at 1:15 AM and again at 5:15 PM by James Lee Hall, Jr. Lt. Davis documented in his notes his follow up of those initial statements and of the alibi witnesses provided by Hall.
Initially, Hall described the victim as a friend of his mother’s that he saw only when she visited. At first he stated he had never been to her residence. He later made a statement indicating that he had been to the victim’s residence to help her hang some blinds and to have lunch. It appears from the notes taken by Lt. Davis that the lunch he talks about took place the Tuesday before Ms. Robinson’s death. Hall said that he was supposed to build Ms. Robinson a dog house the week before, but had never gotten around to it. Hall told detectives that he saw the victim at the liquor store on Thursday, May 15th about 5:00 PM. That would have made him one of the last persons to see the victim alive, other than the liquor store clerks.
Hall told Lt. Davis that after seeing the victim at the liquor store he went home and stayed there all evening. He then added that he went to a neighbor’s house to help paint at about 6 or 7:00 PM. He did not know the neighbor’s name at first and then he identified him as “Allen.” He said he stayed at Allen’s place until about 10 or 11:00 PM. He left there and went to Miss Katy’s Place, 326 South 9th Street. Miss Katy’s at the time was a local drinking and dancing establishment. Hall said in his statement to detectives that he stayed there until about 1:00 AM (May 15th) and then went home and went to bed.
Lt. Davis interviewed Allen Melton who verified Hall came to his house to paint his kitchen. Melton said Hall left after dark, but he did not remember the exact time. Melton claims to have met up with Hall later at Star Reathea Perkins’s house. He said that he and others including Hall stayed “’til way after daylight.” When interviewed by detectives, Hall never mentioned anything about going to his friend Star’s residence.
According to Lt. Davis’s interview notes, Star Reathea Perkins confirmed that Hall came to her home that evening just before dark. Ms. Perkins said that she wanted Hall to stay with her and watch the HBO special “Hitchhiker” that came on about 11:00 PM. Perkins said that Hall told her he did not want to be walking the roads all hours of the night because the police might stop him. She said Hall left stating that he was going home. Perkins stated that she did not see Allen Melton that night.
Investigators were able to corroborate Star’s statement in reference to her recollection of the times she gave. The investigators reviewed the television guide for the evening of May 14th and found that the program “Hitchhiker” showed at 11:15 PM.
Google Maps indicates that Hall lives just a short three minute walk from Ms. Perkins and yet he does not put himself home until 1:00 AM. It should be noted that his route home would pass directly by the victim’s residence or 722 South 10th Street.
Lt. Davis contacted Anthony L. Johnson. Anthony Johnson is apparently the “Anthony” that Hall used as an alibi witness to attest to his presence at Miss Katy’s. Johnson gave a brief statement indicating that he was at Miss Katy’s about closing time when he saw Jimmy Hall (James Lee Hall, Jr.) come in. Johnson said that Hall arrived at about 1:20 AM and left about 1:40 AM to go home. Anthony Johnson does not make any reference to leaving with Hall, which again contradicts the statement Hall gave to detectives.
Another witness, Theadessa Hamilton, told Lt. Davis and Detective Carter that she was having trouble sleeping and went for a walk. Ms. Hamilton, whose address was 828 S. 11th Street, was walking on S. 11th Street in the 700 block. She told detectives that she heard a tripping noise and a dog barking coming from the area of the victim’s residence. The noise made her turn and look in that direction and she observed Jimmy (James Lee Hall, Jr.) coming from that area running across (Tyler’s) backyard. Ms. Hamilton said she asked him for a cigarette. He slowed down a bit and said he did not have one and kept going. Ms. Hamilton said she heard noises behind his house which sounded like he went in a back door. Ms. Hamilton thought the time to be about 3:00 or 4:00 AM. She said she was sure it was Hall because she has known him for 20 years. Ms. Hamilton provided a written statement describing the event.
In a follow up interview conducted by in October of 2011 with Theadessa Hamilton (now Williams) she recalled the evening that she saw Jimmy Hall (James Lee Hall, Jr.) coming from the area behind the victim’s residence. Ms. Williams said she was walking north on S. 11th Street headed back to the Island Bar. Her recollection was that Jimmy appeared to be running from something and that he was sweating profusely. Ms. Williams said that she does not remember him having a shirt on at the time. She had not mentioned Hall being shirtless in her original statement, but did say he was running and in a hurry. She indicated that her family and the Hall family had all grown up together and lived in the same area for years. Ms. Williams said that at the time she really did not think much of the encounter. It was not until after the news of the murder was on the streets that she realized the significance of having seen Hall that night. Ms. Williams said that the word on the street was that Jimmy (James Lee Hall, Jr.) was responsible for the homicide. She said that after the other two guys were arrested all that talk died down.
Through a records check Coe discovered what appears to be a pattern of criminal activity involving James Lee Hall, Jr., which was extensive and included among other crimes: trespassing, burglary, domestic battery and at least one prior sexual battery. These crimes span at least three states: Florida, Kansas and Colorado.
Several of the criminal cases which occurred in Fernandina Beach, Florida, displayed a consistent pattern. The victims were friends of his mother, Coretha Hall, with whom James Lee Hall, Jr. lived with at the time. They were older females who lived alone. The assaults or attempted assaults were in close proximity to his residence and they occurred in the late evening or early morning hours.
Ms. Corona Jones, age 65, reported James Lee Hall, Jr. in her bedroom asleep on the floor. He entered her bedroom from a window over her bed in the early morning hours.
Ms. Beatrice Davis, age 70, lives next door to her friend, Coretha Hall. She reported that James Lee Hall, Jr. came into her residence uninvited and sexually assaulted her. The assault was interrupted by family members returning to the residence. Ms. Davis confided to Coretha Hall that James had also attempted to rape her a few years earlier, but she was able to fight him off.
The sexual assault that Ms. Davis describes in her written statement provided to Fernandina Beach Police Officer Missinne on November 29, 1986, is strikingly similar to the assault on the victim of this homicide, Ms. Robinson. Ms. Robinson, according to friends and neighbors, rarely allowed anyone in her home. The entry in this case was through an unlocked back door and was most likely uninvited. The position of the body and the clothing of the victim suggest a forceful assault wherein the suspect attempted to pin the victim to the floor while pulling down her bra and underclothes. This was exactly the same scenario as the assault on Ms. Davis which occurred barely six months prior. Ms. Davis decided not to pursue prosecution against James Lee Hall, Jr., and the charges were dropped, leaving Hall free from prosecution.
Law enforcement never obtained a DNA sample from James Lee Hall, Jr., so he was never entered into the DNA database for sexual offenders. Hall left Florida and moved to Colorado. It follows that because of the serial nature of his offenses, Colorado and other states may have open cases of sexual assaults or homicides that could be resolved by a submission of Hall’s DNA to CODIS, the national database. That submission should occur within the week.
Based on the information obtained from the original case files, the obvious false and misleading statements provided by the suspect and the apparent proclivity for violence towards women, there is probable cause to believe James Lee Hall, Jr. entered the home of Janet Marie Robinson on or about the night of May 14, 1987 or the early morning hours of May 15, 1987, and committed a sexual assault. During the course of the brutal sexual assault, James Lee Hall Jr., in his attempt to overcome the victim’s resistance suffocated her, causing her death.
After all these years, the only physical evidence to prove or disprove James Lee Hall, Jr. murdered Janet Robinson is a DNA sample from James Lee Hall, Jr. A Search and Seizure Warrant was granted and the body was exhumed at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado and evidence collected. The case has now been closed with the DNA identification of Hall. Whether Jimmy Hall remains interred at Fort Logan remains to be seen, as the military may elect to evict him from his honorable resting place.