Daniel Leonard Wells was found hanged in his cell at the Escambia County Jail just two weeks after he was arrested by the Pensacola Police Department in the 1985 cold case murder of Tonya Ethridge McKinley.
PENSACOLA —Two weeks after his arrest in a 35-year-old cold case murder, Daniel Leonard Wells was found hanged in his cell at the Escambia County Jail early Thursday morning, dead of an apparent suicide just days before he was scheduled to make a court appearance in the case.
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Wells, 57, was arrested by the Pensacola Police Department on March 18 for the 1985 murder of Tonya Ethridge McKinley. Wells was being charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual battery and was scheduled to be in court on April 8 for his first hearing in the case.
The Escambia County Sheriff's Office confirmed Wells had been found dead in his cell.
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McKinley was last seen alive around 1:30 a.m. at Darryl’s Bar & Grille in Pensacola, and in the early-morning hours of New Year’s Day her body was found in an empty lot at the corner of Peacock Drive and Creighton Road, just one block off Scenic Highway. She was half-nude, strangled to death and sexually assaulted.
Wells, who was living in Pensacola at the time of his arrest, was identified after Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company working with the Pensacola Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, ran a DNA sample obtained from the scene of the crime through an open-source genealogy database and identified several different people believed to be distant cousins of the suspect.
From there, the Pensacola Police Department, FDLE and Parabon constructed a family tree, starting with the distant relatives, that eventually led them to identify Wells as a suspect. Police surveillance teams then surreptitiously obtained his DNA from a discarded cigarette, which was tested and matched DNA found at the crime scene.
According to the arrest report, there is a less than 1 in 700 billion chance that the DNA from the crime scene is a match to anyone other than Wells. It is the oldest cold-case arrest in Pensacola history and the first time the familial DNA method has been used to solve a case in Northwest Florida.
"(Wells) is a coward ... he didn't even wait until the trial even started," said McKinley's son, Tim Davidson Jr., who was just 18 months old when his mother was murdered. "It's frustrating for our family on a lot of levels because we waited so long to get justice. Now, it seems like we just have a lot more unanswered questions."