Mom digs for truth in daughter’s death

She says it was murder; authorities say it was a clear suicide

bburger@bradenton.comAugust 16, 2010 

BRADENTON BEACH — Kelly Osborn says she won’t be able to pay the bills next month.

She’s already drained her 401K.

And she’s not sure how she’s going to continue, but she just knows she has to.

Eighteen months ago, her 22-year-old daughter, Sheena Morris, was found dead, hanging by her pet Yorkie’s leash inside a Bradenton Beach hotel room. It was New Year’s Day 2009, a few hours after she had argued with her 45-year-old boyfriend.

Bradenton Beach Police closed out the case, ruling Morris’ death a suicide pending any new evidence. But Osborn believes her daughter’s death was a murder.

Osborn quit her job in real estate to investigate her daughter’s death on her own. That’s the cost of assuming the role of detective in your daughter’s death, she said.

In an interview with the Bradenton Herald last week, Osborn apologized for sounding so cold as she presented the details of her daughter’s case.

“I cry every night. I melt down every night, but I work this case just as a police officer should be working it,” said Osborn. “I can’t give up. I don’t care what it takes.”

Bradenton Beach detectives and the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office determined that all evidence showed Sheena Morris took her own life.

“The mom is very hung up that this was a murder,” Bradenton Beach Sgt. Lenard Diaz said. “I did a thorough investigation on this. To this day, I will tell you this was a suicide. I have nothing to say it isn’t a suicide.”

But Osborn believes police have mishandled her daughter’s death investigation.

Police waited several weeks before talking to Morris’ boyfriend in person. They never told Osborn how Morris died. She learned that later from the Medical Examiner’s Office. Some police reports lack details. Police checked to see if Morris had medications and looked through her cell phone, but reports never state what was found.

In the past month, Osborn and other family members raised funds to exhume Sheena’s body, buried in central New York where she lived as a child.

They hired a forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Baden, a host on HBO’s “Autopsy,” to perform another autopsy on Morris’s body. Baden has been called in as an expert in high-profile cases, including the O.J. Simpson criminal trial.

Baden is waiting for more information before he makes a determination, Osborn said.

“He’s not going to make any sort of conclusion yet,” she said.

Osborn has consulted several mediums.

“They all say the same thing,” she said. “Sheena is screaming, ‘I didn’t do this. Tell my mother.’ ”

Her family also began hanging fliers around Anna Maria Island a couple of weeks ago in hopes of finding information about her death.

“All I wanted was a fair investigation and to know the truth. Just like you need proof for a murder, I want proof this is a suicide by a more capable agency,” she said.

At 1:21 a.m. Jan. 1, 2009, police responded to the couple’s hotel room after nearby occupants at Bridge Walk Resort reported hearing an argument.

Morris was mostly calm, but cried when talking to police. Her boyfriend, Joseph Genoese, who was married to someone else, had left her there. She never said he hit her. She had a red mark on her neck that did not look consistent with someone grabbing her, according to reports.

The couple exchanged texts back and forth apparently arguing.

He tried reaching her later that day, he said.

Genoese texted her to tell her that hotel management wanted her out of the room at 12:22 p.m., according to Osborn’s records.

Police responded back to the hotel room after management called to say they wanted the occupants removed. As part of the hotel’s policy, employees don’t open rooms to remove guests, according to police.

Once police entered the room, they discovered Morris’ body in the shower. Her laptop was closed, sitting on the suitcase, and nothing appeared to be out of place, Diaz said. Manatee County Sheriff’s Office crime scene was called out to process the room.

Morris was pronounced dead by paramedics in the hotel room at 2:46 p.m. The Medical Examiner’s Office was contacted.

According to the autopsy report from the Medical Examiner’s Office, Morris appeared to have no defense wounds aside from the scratch on her neck and a scratch on one of her left fingers. She had no drugs in her system and had a ligature mark on her neck. Her alcohol level was found to be below the legal limit at 0.077. Her death was ruled a suicide by hanging, according to the report.

Genoese told police over the phone shortly after Morris was found dead that she had been depressed and that he had felt she might need to be committed under the Baker Act.

“I wish I knew,” said Genoese, who says he also believes she committed suicide. “She left our dogs here. I don’t have the answer. ... The mom has been relentless and accusing everyone — claiming I’m in the Mafia. They claim I murdered her. All indications show this was a clear-cut suicide. ... We were happily engaged. We were very much in love.”

Osborn said Genoese never brought any concerns of her daughter’s mental state to her family until no one heard from her New Year’s Day. She was contacted by Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputies who notified her Morris was dead.

According to police reports, Osborn told police her daughter was possibly bipolar and had attempted suicide once with pills many years ago. A couple weeks before her death, Morris had learned that a childhood friend had hanged himself.

Now, Osborn says her daughter was misdiagnosed as a child.

“She was the farthest thing from suicidal,” Osborn insisted as she laid pictures of smiling blonde vivacious girl on the table. “She was one feisty little thing. She was not shy. She was vibrant. She was absolutely incapable of hiding her feelings.”

Investigators didn’t interview Genoese in person until Jan. 22, according to reports.

Diaz said he pulled cell phone records at Osborn’s request to show pings off the cell phone towers. He said it showed Morris’ boyfriend never returned to the island and went back toward his Indian Rocks Beach residence.

But Diaz said he never wrote a report about the cell phone tower records he pulled to include in the file.

“I don’t suspect him of anything,” said Diaz, who noted he has let a detective from an outside agency look at the case, who also said the case appeared to be suicide.

While the case was initially ruled suspicious because of the 911 call, the autopsy showed it was suicide, Diaz said.

In the meantime, the case will remain closed unless new evidence emerges showing foul play.

“Is it possible she could have been murdered? Anything is possible,” Diaz said. “This could have been the perfect crime. ... Unless you have some facts, this points to a suicide.”

Osborn said she has pulled 111 suicide autopsy reports that have occurred in Manatee County over the past two years.

“Just to see how they compare to my daughter’s,” said Osborn. “I need other things to compare it to. I have to look at everything.”

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