Friday, August 15, 2008

Arrest in Coralrose Fullwood murder

North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis announces Tuesday that a suspect has been arrested in the rape and killing of Coralrose Fullwood.

By John Davis

Published: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 12:57 p.m.

NORTH PORT - Nearly two years after 6-year-old Coralrose Fullwood disappeared from her bed in the middle of the night, detectives have charged a state prison inmate with her murder.

Patrick Dewane Murphy, 27, who lived two miles away from Coralrose's North Port home when she was killed in September 2006, was also charged Tuesday with her kidnapping and rape.

Murphy had been in Avon Park state prison since February after being convicted of grand theft and burglary. While he was in prison, authorities took his DNA sample and police say they learned about two weeks ago that it matched that of DNA found on Coralrose's body.

Detectives said they still believe there are other people who were involved in the crime.

And they have not dispelled suspicion of Coralrose's father, Dale Fullwood, who is in prison on a probation violation charge related to child pornography found on his computer during the investigation.

Murphy has declined to speak with detectives, said North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis, who added that Tuesday's publicity led to a handful of tips about him that warrant "immediate follow-up."

Lewis also said officers have found no connection between Murphy and Coralrose or her family, but detectives do not think the crime was random.

"We're still looking very aggressively at a connection between Murphy and someone else," Lewis said.

Coralrose's mother, Ellen-Beth Fullwood, said the arrest came as a relief.

"I'm grateful that we've gotten to this point, finally," she told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.

Lewis gave scant details Tuesday, and a judge has sealed the affidavit in which officers outline the evidence they have against Murphy.

Since Murphy was connected to Coralrose's body by a state-operated DNA database on July 26, detectives have redoubled their efforts in the case, Lewis said.

"Investigators want to learn a lot more about what Mr. Murphy was doing in September 2006."

On Sept. 16, Dale Fullwood worked a late shift as bartender at a North Fort Myers bar. He said he saw her at 2 a.m. when he arrived home from work.

Sleeping in the three-bedroom house that night were Dale Fullwood, Coralrose's mother Ellen-Beth, and five children. Other rooms in the house had been converted into bedrooms, so each child could have his or her own room.

Family members noticed Coralrose was missing about 7 a.m., when they awoke to celebrate the birthday of her sister, September Fullwood.

She was found by a neighbor about noon, wrapped in a comforter at a vacant lot a few blocks from the Fullwoods' North Port home.

The DNA link between Murphy and Coralrose was made in late July by analysts in a lab operated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Like all felons in Florida, Murphy had a DNA sample taken after his conviction.

Though he lived near the Fullwoods, Murphy was not one of the hundreds of people who submitted to DNA testing by police so they could be eliminated as suspects in the girl's death, police said.

Before Murphy's arrest Tuesday morning, investigators spent about two weeks gathering information about Murphy and his whereabouts at the time of the murder.

"There really was no need to rush it," said E.J. Picolo, FDLE special agent in charge. "We knew where he was."

Murphy was then transferred to the Hardee Correctional Institution, where he met with investigators on Friday.

Murphy refused to speak with investigators about the Coralrose case and was transferred to the Sarasota County Jail on Monday night.

In his order to seal the documents, Circuit Judge Robert Bennett wrote that releasing the record would jeopardize the ongoing investigation.

Investigators from North Port, FDLE, Sarasota and Charlotte counties will continue to work the case, and have ramped up the investigation based on the DNA evidence and Murphy's arrest, Lewis said.

Investigators credited the state policy of gathering DNA information on all felons as key in breaking this and other cases.

"It just multiplies the potential for you to be able to solve any crime," said Picolo, who added that the number of cases being cleared by DNA "is literally exploding before our eyes."

Dennis Nales, the 12th Judicial Circuit chief assistant state attorney, said it was too early for prosecutors to decide whether they would pursue the death penalty.

"We haven't even seen the reports, we have to review the case and review his criminal history before we make that decision," Nales said.

Dale Fullwood is in the Jackson Correctional Institution. He served a year in jail after pleading no contest last year to possessing child pornography, a felony. The pornography was found on Dale Fullwood's computer.

Police Chief Lewis has said that the images on Fullwood's computer were not related to the murder investigation.

Ellen-Beth Fullwood and Dale Fullwood separated soon after Coralrose's death.

The day after his release from jail in February, Dale Fullwood went to a relative's house to pick up some of his possessions.

While there, he reportedly touched his grand-niece on the hand, which a judge found to be a violation of his sex offender probation.

He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Staff writers Anthony Cormier, Todd Ruger and Kate Spinner contributed to this report.

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