Luke Fleming was arrested for the murder of Sarasota accountant Deborah Dalzell in 2018, 19 years after it took place. His former fiance says she never had a clue.
The handoff point was a bank parking lot, with a strip mall on the periphery, and she pulled her car up next to his. She really thought she knew him — they were engaged once, after all — but this is where the secret spilled.
It was a Sunday night, which meant the weekend was over, which meant it was time for Luke Fleming to return Kieran to his mother, Britney Meisch. She took her young son, strapped him in the child seat and watched as Fleming began to drive away.
The undercover detectives came from nowhere, so many, so fast. They surrounded Fleming before he could reach the exit, pulled him out and cuffed him.
Her hands shook on the steering wheel as she watched. She tried to yell, but all she could manage were whispers.
"What did you do?" she said. "What did you do?"
Think you know your spouse? Your children? Your parents? Your siblings? Are you sure about that? Really sure? Certain there are no secrets? No monsters in the closet covered by decades of dust and deceit?
What if you had lived with someone for five years, were engaged to be married to that person, had a child together, and then found out they might have committed a murder 19 years ago and you never had a clue?
"Five years of my life were a lie," Meisch said. "They were just a lie."
Luke Fleming and Britney Meisch met in a hot tub at an apartment complex in Sarasota in the spring of 2012. She was 23. He was 10 years older and everything she wanted. Funny, charming, accomplished and smart. He had a psychology degree from USF. Their first date was at the Melting Pot restaurant. She was enamored. Soon she was pregnant.
She’ll never forget the day they were at the Strawberry Festival in Plant City and he wanted a caricature portrait of them together. Strange, she thought, but OK. She had no idea Fleming had told the artist to write "Will you marry me?" on it. Of course she said yes, and the picture hung on their wall.
It didn’t matter a date was never set, she began looking at dresses anyway and consulted with Pier 22 in Bradenton about the reception. Marriage, she said, was important to him.
They moved to Tennessee, where they lived for a few years. He took a new job, one that involved a lot of travel during the week, but he was always home on weekends. There were good times, more good than bad, she remembers, like trips to Chicago, even Hawaii. He was there when Kieran was born, too, and for his first steps. A great father, she said.
And yet ...
"Something would happen with his eyes when he got angry," she said. "Something was not right. He wasn’t like a normal person. It seemed almost dark."
Looking back there were red flags she missed — "so many I don’t know where to start," she said. She remembers his apartment when they first met. It had only a TV, couch, computer and mattress on the floor. He was always bleaching the walls, she said, so often that she jokingly called him Dexter after the forensic analyst character from television who was a vigilante serial killer, hunting down murderers who had escaped justice.
Fleming liked to destroy things that were important to her, she said, like the antique camera he threw across the room. He was like an actor and never relaxed. He could be as cruel as he was charming, and he never showed remorse. She remembers thinking: "This is not normal. I am not with a normal person."
By the fall of 2016 they were back in Manatee County. She spent a month planning to leave him. Everything had to be in order because "I was afraid of the hell he would bring down on me if he found out."
She took her son and left. He followed her, she said, and tried to run her off the road. She called the police. Nothing was done. She filed for a restraining order and moved in with her grandmother in Palmetto. He went to live in St. Petersburg.
One day she was contacted by detectives. Had she ever heard of Deborah Dalzell, the Sarasota accountant who was murdered in 1999? DNA, in the form of semen, had been discovered during her autopsy. Samples were entered into a database, and in 2016 a genetic profile was created.
She said she was told that Fleming’s late father Joseph could be the killer, not Luke, and that a DNA swab from Kieran was needed. She swabbed her son herself.
She said she had no clue Luke Fleming was a suspect, but some of the questions she was asked aroused suspicion.
"One detective asked, ‘Are you sure he is Kieran’s father?’" she said. "I said, ‘Yes, why are you asking me that?’"
On Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, she received a text from a detective asking if Fleming was still going to drop off Kieran at the SunTrust bank parking lot in Ellenton. And that’s when it hit her.
"Oh my god, they think it’s him."
Panic set in. If Fleming had any idea that the detectives were on to him he could take Kieran and not show up. She raced to the bank and pulled into the parking lot, right next to his car. She saw the arrest. Kieran, in his car seat, did not.
Shaking and with tears in her eyes, she sped home to Palmetto and found her aunt, who lived across the street, mowing the lawn. Meisch frantically waved her hands. The mower stopped.
"Oh my god," she shouted. "It was Luke! It was Luke!"
Soon family members were standing in a circle in the middle of the street, blindsided. A detective came by that night to explain what happened.
A press conference was held on Sept. 19, 2018, with Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight touting the massive amount of work that went into the arrest for murder and sexual assault, and the advanced forensic tools that were used.
"What led to his arrest was unlike anything you have heard in the state of Florida," Knight said.
Fleming’s trial is scheduled for next month. Meisch is trying to keep an open mind and hopes it is fair, all the evidence properly presented. She agreed to talk, but wanted several things clear: She harbors no animosity towards Fleming, she is not seeking publicity for sharing her story, and she had no idea she was living with an alleged murderer. He never mentioned Dalzell’s name once and nothing ever slipped.
She has dreams sometimes — "He just shows up here and I’m scared. I don’t know why he’s here or why he got out."
In another dream it’s a normal day. They are at the pool. At the family house. Everyone is laughing. He is laughing.
"Then I wake up and ‘Oh, he’s in jail for murder,’" she said. "It’s a dream."
She is back in Tennessee now, her life on hold until after the trial. She is optimistic about the future, and excited about watching her son grow. Still, things are tough. Dating, she said, has not gone well. She fears clouds of suspicions will always bring storms.
"If I could be with someone for five years and not see this," she said, "how am I supposed to know who someone truly is?
"The answer is, you don’t."
Contact columnist Chris Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.