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Playing cards target Manatee cold cases

MANATEE — The brutality of the crime shocked the community: A 42-year-old woman was shot to death in front of her 13-year-old daughter, who the gunman then pistol-whipped.

Machelle Brinson’s Nov. 19, 2007, killing during a home invasion in Palmetto remains unsolved — a source of great frustration for Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives. There is very little forensic evidence and no cooperation from the public on the case, Manatee Sheriff’s Brad Steube said.

Now Steube is hoping that Brinson’s case profile — included in a new deck of playing cards outlining details on cold cases across Florida — will lead to tips in the case.

On Friday, the Florida Association of Crimestoppers announced a fourth edition of the cards, which will be sold to inmates in Florida’s prisons in an effort to generate leads on 52 missing persons and homicide cases.

The deck also includes a double fatal shooting more than three years ago in Oneco.

Sheriff’s detectives are still searching for whoever shot two men sitting in a GMC Yukon parked outside the Tia Oli Restaurant, at 6320 15th St. E., on Jan. 21, 2007.

Brinson is the three of diamonds; Fortino Hernandez-Ramirez and Jose Bautista-Guzman share the four of clubs.

“It only takes the smallest piece of information sometimes that we can verify that can crack a case,” said Steube.

All of the 52 cards feature a profile of the victim, and most have a picture of the person unless they are juveniles.

FAC president Steve Rowland led the news conference at the Manatee County jail attended by Steube, officials with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and family members of victims on the cards. Rowland explained that inmates often have the most knowledge of crimes that occur on the street, including who committed them. Criminals also tend to discuss their crimes with other inmates, he said.

“This puts these cases in front of that knowledgeable criminal base that may provide crucial information,” Rowland said.

The search for information is not only sought by law enforcement. Behind the faces on the playing cards are family members desperate for clues about their loved ones, according to Drew Kesse, whose 24-year-old daughter is the seven of diamonds.

Kesse’s daughter, Jennifer, has been missing since Jan. 24, 2006, from her condominium in Orlando. Over the years, numerous leads on her disappearance have dried up, but hope has not faded for the Kesse family, who live in Bradenton.

“Our love for Jennifer will always keep us going. This is just another tool in the war chest to try to get any information we can use. Maybe the lucky number seven will get something,” Kesse said, staring at the card holding his daughter’s picture.

Like Kesse’s case, the disappearance of 17-year-old Brittanee Drexel has made national news with the first anniversary of her disappearance coming up April 25.

Drexel left her home in Rochester, N.Y,, last April and traveled to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she was last seen near a hotel where she was staying. Drexel’s grandfather John, of Ellenton, and aunt Keri, of Bradenton, attended the press conference Friday. Brittanee Drexel is the two of clubs.

“Her father lives in Tampa, so she has ties to Florida,” Keri Drexel said. “These cards are just another thing that gives us hope to find her. Awareness is power.”

That power has already been successful in Manatee, as a deck issued to inmates in 2007 led to the conviction of Brian Curry, who is now serving a life sentence for killing his ex-girlfriend Ingrid Lugo in Manatee.

Curry had been in prison on another offense and told two other inmates he killed Lugo. They called Crimestoppers after seeing her card in the deck, according to Rowland.

“We know it works,” he said.

The cards will be sold in prison commissaries in the coming days, and inmates are eligible for rewards for information, or can call anonymously. The public can also report information on crimes to Crimestoppers locally by calling (866) 634-TIPS.

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