After Linda Slaten was murdered in 1981, her sons Jeff and Tim spent almost 40 years hoping their mother's case would get solved. Take a look inside the investigation.
On the morning of Sept. 4, 1981, the Lakeland, Florida, police were called to an apartment complex where they found the body of 31-year-old Linda Slaten. She had been raped and strangled with a wire coat hanger while her two sons Jeff, 15, and Tim, 12, slept in the other rooms. The killer had entered through her bedroom window.
Tim's haunting memory
Tim Slaten says he will never forget that morning after police woke him and his older brother, Jeff, up. As Tim walked past his mother's bedroom, an officer swung the door open. "I saw the whole crime scene," Tim says. "I saw my mom's bloody body with a coat hanger around her neck … And I still see it."
A crucial print
When former Sergeant Edgar Pickett — who led the crime scene unit — arrived at the crime scene, he dusted most of Linda's bedroom for prints.
A crucial print
Sergeant Pickett also dusted the bedroom windowsill where he recovered a palm print — a piece of evidence that would later play a crucial role in the investigation.
During the autopsy, swabs were collected from Linda Slaten that contained semen. Investigators carefully preserved the contents of the rape kit for years to come.
Forensic DNA analysis didn't exist until 1984. Later, it would prove key to solving this case.
The brothers' new reality
The Slaten brothers immediately moved in with their grandparents. They had to face a new reality of life without their mom. A few weeks after their mom's funeral, the brothers returned to school and familiar activities.
"Being with friends and just started living life again, I guess," says Tim. "You know, going back to football."
The supportive coach
Tim says his teammates and coach were always very supportive. When he didn't have a ride, "Coach Joe," as the kids called him, would take Tim to and from football practice and continued to do so after his mom was killed.
This team photo was taken a month after Linda's murder. Tim hung it on his bedroom wall as a reminder, he says, of something his mom taught him: to keep moving forward and never give up.
Persons of interest
As detectives searched for the killer, Linda's ex-husband, Frank Slaten, became a person of interest due to his history of abuse towards her. Before their divorce, Jeff says his dad was "a violent alcoholic." But investigators eventually seemed satisfied that Frank was home in Alabama on the night of the murder. At the time of her death, Linda had a boyfriend who was also a person of interest, but he had an alibi as well.
Investigators focused their attention on Linda's older son, Jeff. As a 15-year-old, Jeff had plenty of typical teen conflicts with his mom, which he was open about with detectives. But investigators seemed most interested in the argument Jeff had with his mom on the last day of her life.
"They used to take me out of school and they was always interrogating me all the time," Jeff says. But after he took two polygraph tests and passed, police cleared him.
The case loses momentum
Lakeland, Florida, detectives looked at other people as well, but no one was ever charged. And without any new leads, the case eventually ground to a halt.
Guilt and grief
In the following years, Jeff went on to have two kids. But he's always lived with guilt for not hearing anything on the night of his mom's murder. "I (would have) died that night trying to save my mom," Jeff says. "But I didn't hear nothing. And it's so hard to live with that."
"We're still here"
Tim got married and started a family, too. The Slaten brothers had built lives for themselves, but they made sure to frequently check in with the Lakeland investigators to see what kind of progress was being made on their mom's case.
"No matter how many detectives we had to go through over here, we was going to let them know, 'we're still here. And we wanna know who killed our mom,'" says Tim.
A new detective
In 1998, Detective Brad Grice took over the Slaten case and immediately got to work. He sent the unidentified DNA from the Slaten rape kit to the state's major crime lab at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — the FDLE. A year later, the FDLE had developed a full DNA profile of Linda Slaten's anonymous killer. Detective Grice then took DNA samples from prior persons of interest and submitted them to the FDLE for comparison. None were a match.
Old friends reunite
Around the 20th anniversary in 2001, Detective Grice called the Slaten brothers to arrange a meeting at the Lakeland Police Department. "Soon as Jeff and Tim walked in the door, I realized I had known Jeff for years, since I was in my 20s," Grice says, "through bowling."
Grice's search continued
Detective Grice took DNA samples from the brothers and cleared them again.
Even Frank Slaten, who had stopped drinking and apologized to his sons for past abuses, volunteered a sample of his DNA and Grice was able to clear him, too. Here they are pictured together in 2005. That's Jeff on the left, Tim in the middle and their dad on the right.
17 years of dedication
In 2005, Detective Grice sent the unknown DNA profile from the Slaten rape kit to the FBI's national DNA database where it was continuously compared against new DNA submissions. Through the course of his investigation, Grice says he eliminated dozens of suspects through DNA evidence. But after 17 years of working the Slaten case, he retired in 2015.
Detectives Tammy Hathcock and Russell Hurley were the new generation of investigators working the Slaten case. In 2018, Detective Hathcock received a call from the FDLE about a groundbreaking new DNA technology called investigative genetic genealogy that law enforcement agencies were using.
The FDLE explained that the detectives could submit the unidentified DNA from the Slaten case to be examined by genetic genealogist CeCe Moore. "If you have that DNA, there is no reason you cannot solve that mystery," Moore says.
Pieces of a genetic family tree
CeCe Moore uploaded the anonymous DNA from the Slaten rape kit to a public genealogy website called "GEDMatch," which generated a list of people who shared DNA with the unknown killer. From there, she constructed a genetic family tree with the help of birth certificates, marriage licenses, obituaries, and social media.
In the end, Moore developed three branches of the killer's family tree that led her to the one person who was most likely responsible for Linda Slaten's murder.
Linda's killer revealed
According to CeCe Moore, that person was Joseph Clinton Mills - the same man Tim Slaten knew back in 1981 as "Coach Joe." Tim's team football photo, which used to make him feel proud, sickens him today because standing directly behind him is the man he once trusted. "I've been carrying the killer's picture in my house this table whole time and never had a clue," Tim says.
In plain sight
Back in 1981, Joseph Mills – then 20 years old – was interviewed by police just one day after the murder, but it was conducted over the phone. During the brief call, Mills told investigators that he'd dropped Tim off after football practice on Sept. 3, 1981, the night before the murder - but police never considered him a suspect
The palm print
After learning Joseph Mills' name, Detectives Hathcock and Hurley discovered that in 1984, Mills had been convicted of grand theft for forging a will. He never went to jail, but police collected fingerprints and palm prints from him.
In the summer of 2019, investigators compared Mills' palm print from 1984 to the palm print that was lifted off Linda Slaten's windowsill in 1981 and they were a match.
Digging through trash for DNA
Despite CeCe Moore's findings and the palm print match, the detectives still needed to compare a fresh DNA sample from Mills to the DNA from the Slaten rape kit. So Detectives Hathcock and Hurley covertly took trash bags from Mills' home and went through them at the police department.
They recovered a piece of medical adhesive tape in one of the bags that they sent to the crime lab for testing.
A look into Joseph Mills' life
While they awaited the DNA results, the detectives dug further into Mills' personal life. He was 58 at that time and had lived in Kathleen, Florida, for most of his life, which was just 30 minutes away from the crime scene. He was also married with children and grandchildren.
A spot-on match
Almost two weeks later, the crime lab's results revealed that Mills' DNA on the medical adhesive tape and the unknown DNA recovered from the rape kit were a spot-on match. In December 2019, detectives arrested Mills and brought him in for questioning.
The interview room
During his interrogation, Mills told detectives that Linda Slaten invited him over for consensual sex, which investigators knew was a lie. "I think it's pretty evident that he targeted her," Det. Russell Hurley says. The detectives believe that after Mills dropped Tim off on Sept. 3, 1981, he returned later that night and broke in through Linda's bedroom window while no one was home. He then hid in her closet and waited for her to go to bed. That's when he raped and strangled Linda with a wire hanger from her closet.
Joseph Mills pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and sexual battery. At his sentencing, Linda Slaten's family took turns confronting him and asked him why he killed Linda. And while they didn't get an answer – or an apology – from Mills, he told the court, "I am a good person."
The judge sentenced Mills to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A small measure of justice
Although the Slaten brothers feel some solace in knowing that Mills will never leave prison alive, it angers them that he had all those years of freedom while they lived most of their life without their mom. "I just wonder what life could have been like to have her," Jeff says.
The Slaten brothers today
Tim and Jeff remain extremely close. They visit their mother's grave often and Jeff lights a candle every year on the anniversary of her death. Despite everything they've been through, they always continued to live life to the fullest for their mom.
"My mom, she's looking down on us and would want us to live our lives and do good," Jeff says, "I want to make her proud."