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Remains of Florida girl who went missing 20 years ago found, sheriff says

Florida detectives investigating a 20-year-old cold case discovered what they believe are the remains of Autumn Lane McClure, a 16-year-old who went missing in 2004, authorities said.

Detectives were able to recover 99.9% of the remains during the Wednesday excavation of the burial site, said Volusia Sheriff Michael J. Chitwood at a news conference on Thursday. The sheriff's office is expecting the official identification soon, and then hopes to find a cause of death for the teen, the sheriff said.

"There really never is a 'cold case,'" Chitwood said. "The men and women that are assigned to our Major Case Unit and all of our investigative units, that's what they understand."

Sheriff's office detectives had to secure search warrants, move out a newly built modular home and driveway and bring in heavy equipment to search for McClure, the sheriff said.

Volusia Sheriff's Office detectives said they had been investigating McClure's disappearance ever since she went missing in May 2004. The yearslong investigation included interviewing and re-interviewing friends and possible witnesses and collecting DNA from family members.

Volusia Sheriff's Department finds human remains believed to be those of a 16-year-old girl who disappeared two decades ago. Volusia Sheriff's Office

It all started with a phone call on May 10, 2004, when McClure's grandmother called the sheriff's office to report her missing. Detectives spoke to her then-boyfriend, who told them he had dropped McClure off at the Volusia Mall and didn't hear from her again.

The grandmother again called the sheriff's office several days later and told detectives, "Autumn has called me from a 312-area code" and said she received letters from McClure postmarked Melbourne, Florida, the sheriff said.

The case went quiet until a few months later, when the sheriff's office got evidence McClure was staying at a house with two people — Brian Donley and Jessica Freeman — both of whom said they were co-workers of McClure's at a Winn-Dixie supermarket. When detectives went to the couple's home, they said McClure had stayed with them for a few days and then left, the sheriff said. 

The case went cold until twelve years later when detectives again contacted the boyfriend, who admitted to investigators he had lied to them in his earlier interview. The boyfriend said he had actually dropped McClure off at the Seabreeze Bridge, not the mall, where she then got into a car with Freeman.

Autumn Lane McClure, 16 years old, in 2004 the last time she was seen. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

In 2018, detectives contacted Freeman, who was living in Nevada at the time, but she told detectives she had no idea what happened to McClure.

Then, in 2021, detectives received a tip from someone named Chris Miller, who said Freeman and Donley were involved in McClure's disappearance. Donley died the following year on May 26, 2022, almost 18 years to the day investigators believe McClure was killed, the sheriff said. 

That same year, Freeman got back in touch with the sheriff's office and asked for immunity in exchange for her answering questions about McClure's disappearance. 

She told detectives McClure didn't want to live with her grandmother, so Freeman and Donley let McClure live with them. McClure was also in a sexual relationship with the couple, Freeman said. Freeman claimed she saw Donley strangle McClure, but he threatened to hurt her if she said anything about the death. 

The final break in the case came in 2023, when Freeman told detectives McClure was buried in the Ormond Beach area, leading to Wednesday's discovery, the sheriff said.

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