SARASOTA — Weeks before a woman was beaten and raped in her Sarasota beach condominium and Kathleen Briles was beaten to death in her Terra Ceia home, detectives tried to track down a Crimestoppers tip that eventually led to a search for Delmer Smith III.
They could not track him down — and a check against the federal DNA database showed nothing because Smith’s DNA was buried in thousands of backlogged cases.
Until now, Sarasota sheriff’s officials have said Smith’s name first came on their radar after an Aug. 14 Venice bar fight, which led to a match of DNA found in four Sarasota attacks.
His name came up much sooner, documents obtained by the Bradenton Herald show.
“I was assigned this tip on 4/23/09 as a lead and attempted to make contact with Smith at the time, but was unable to locate,” a sheriff’s detective wrote, according to court documents released Wednesday.
The tip came amid a sweeping investigation of at least 10 violent home invasion attacks of women in their Sarasota and Manatee homes. On April 21, a tipster reported seeing someone suspicious as news reports on the home invasions ramped up.
The tipster gave a license tag, and a description of the man as thin and short, with thick brown hair, according to Sarasota sheriff’s spokeswoman Wendy Rose.
A computer check by detectives showed the registration in Smith’s name, but he did not match the description given by the tipster, as he is bald and muscular. Rose said the tag was also assigned to a car that did not match the tipster’s description of the vehicle.
Detectives looked for Smith, and discovered he was a convicted federal felon for a 1995 bank robbery and had just been released on probation. Smith could not be found, but went on a list of possible persons of interest, according to Rose.
“With due diligence, we looked for him, but he did not surface until the bar fight, and that is when everything began to add up,” Rose said. “Of course, hindsight is now crystal clear.”
Smith now has been charged with three of the attacks in Sarasota. He also has been charged in the May 26 condo rape and robbery, as well as the Aug. 3 slaying of Briles, who he is accused of bludgeoning with a sewing machine in her living room.
After the bar fight, Smith’s probation for the bank robbery was revoked and a search of property from a storage unit under his control revealed several items stolen from the four Sarasota home invasion attacks and Briles’ home.
Investigation further revealed that the FBI had Smith’s DNA taken while he was in prison, but due to a backlog it had not been entered into federal databases used by local law enforcement agencies. Smith’s DNA was put in the system after detectives made a special request to the FBI, leading to a match.
The DNA from the four home invasions in Sarasota had been run seeking a match as the attacks were occurring, Rose said. When Crimestoppers received the tip, Smith’s name was entered — without a hit, as his data was stuck in the backlog.
Law enforcement in both Manatee and Sarasota have said if the DNA had been entered, an arrest would most likely have occurred sooner.
Instead, in the months after the unmatched submissions and the tip, authorities say Smith attacked the woman in her condo and killed Briles, according to sheriff’s reports from Sarasota and Manatee.
The victim in the condo attack, in the 200 block of Whispering Sands Drive, recalled to detectives her torturous encounter with a man she found in her living room, according to the court documents.
She had gotten into her bed late that night, but heard a noise from her living room that startled her. She went to look and sensed someone in the room with her.
“I said, ‘Who is it?,’ real loud and strong,” she told the detectives.
“He yelled police and attacked me like a bull,” she said.
The man threw the victim against a wall, then dragged her into her bedroom, throwing her face down on the bed. He put a gun to her head and bound her with electrical cord, she told detectives.
“I will blow your brains out if you don’t do exactly what I say,” he told her.
He began to drag the woman around her condo by the hair, taking her into the kitchen, throwing a bottle of soap at her, documents state. The woman said he wanted her to pull her rings off using the soap, and threatened to cut her fingers off if she couldn’t.
During the attack, she told investigators, he raped her with a bottle before taking her to a safe in the condo, where he forced her take off her nightgown and open the safe.
The terror continued as he held the woman over a balcony on her 12th floor condo, threatening to drop her, according to court documents.
“I’m gonna gag you and I’m gonna drop you. You ready to meet your maker?” the woman said the man told her before hanging her over the railing.
The man then pulled her back inside and hit her over the head with the gun.
“He whacked me with the gun and I saw like a kind of gold light and everything kind of went, and I just thought, the thought went through my mind that I’m dead,” she said.
The woman said she remained conscious, but acted like she had blacked out and the man left. Just before 1 a.m., Sarasota deputies responded to a 911 call. The victim came to the condo building’s front door, naked and hands still bound, with a gaping wound on her head — apparently from the gun’s blow, investigators said.
Deputies wrapped her in a blanket and placed her in an ambulance. She later told detectives that, during the entire attack, the man called her by her first and last name, described her car and a watch she often wore.
Upon Smith’s arrest, detectives said they believe he may have watched his victims for some time before attacking.
“Is this the Twilight Zone. How does he know that?” the woman said she thought as he attacked her. “How did he know about the gold watch? I very seldom wear it.”