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Search for Little Miss Panasoffkee's real name and killer continues, even after 50 years


The Sumter County Sheriff's Office recently put out another call for information in the unsolved case of Little Miss Panasoffkee.

Her body was found 50 years ago last month beside Interstate 75 in the shallow waters of the lake for which she is named.

Some of her secrets have come to light over the years as forensic scientists applied new techniques.

But the big questions -- Who was she? And who killed her? -- remain unanswered. And those questions have haunted the sheriffs of Sumter County and their detectives for decades.

[caption id="attachment_175182" align="alignleft" width="276"]

A composite sketch of Little Miss Panasoffkee. Credit: USF[/caption]

Here’s what we know so far. Little Miss Panasoffkee was a 17- to 24-year-old white woman with dark hair and brown eyes. She was maybe 5-foot-5 and weighed about 110 pounds.

She was probably from southeastern Europe, possibly Greece, and came to the U.S. in the previous year.

She had had surgery to stabilize her right ankle and lots of dental work.

When she died, Little Miss Panasoffkee was wearing plaid green pants, a green shirt and a green-and-yellow shawl. She was still wearing jewelry, too, a gold ring with a clear stone on her ring finger, a Baylor watch and a thin gold chain.

She had been strangled and was found with a man's belt, size 36, around her neck.

Sumter County Sheriff Bill Farmer worked as a homicide detective on the case. He says two hitchhikers spotted her on February 19, 1971.

"She was wrapped in a blanket, like a house rug, and dropped over the Panasoffkee bridge," Farmer says. "And the reason these guys saw her, she had one hand that was draped over a root coming out of the water."

She had been there for weeks.

No one claimed her, and Little Miss Panasoffkee was buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Wildwood under a metal marker saying "Jane Doe 1971."

But she was not forgotten. In the 1980s, Jamie Adams became sheriff and got a court order to exhume the body.

Farmer was there.

"We knew that she had parents and loved ones that probably would love to know what happened to her," he says. "And this is what Sheriff Adams -- his drive behind this -- was, trying to identify her."

Forensic anthropologist William R. Maples at the University of Florida found the evidence of ankle surgery.

A sketch artist drew the first reconstruction of her face. She attempted age-regression, sketching how Little Miss Panasoffkee might have looked as a child.

Sheriff Adams sent bulletins with those images to law enforcement throughout the country.

In 1992, the case appeared on "Unsolved Mysteries” with Robert Stack.

[caption id="attachment_175183" align="alignleft" width="172"]

A full-length composite drawing of Little Miss Panasoffkee showing the clothing she was wearing. Credit: USF[/caption]

Twenty years later, Farmer, who was now sheriff, brought in forensic anthropologists with the University of South Florida.  They exhumed the remains andmade new sketches.

One of them reached out to UF geologist George Kamenov. In studying archaeological remains, researchers were looking at the isotopes of certain elements -- the mix of heavier and lighter atoms -- to learn what ancient humans ate and where they traveled.

Kamenov applied that technique to this case, looking especially at Little Miss Panasoffkee's teeth and hair.

"It's not definitive," Kamenov says. "It's not like DNA. When you do DNA, you can match the DNA to a living relative and you can say, OK, this person was the brother or son or daughter or something of this and this person. This is more like regional, geographic region, and diet, depending on which isotopes do you use.

The evidence pointed to southeastern Europe.

And the shifting carbon isotopes in her hair showed a grain-based European diet at the tips and a corn-based American diet near the roots. So she had probably moved here in the previous 10 months.

Would that information or the new sketches turn up leads? Not so far. No leads have led to DNA matches or dental or surgical records.

"And that's played on all the sheriffs' minds down through the years, trying to identify Little Miss Panasoffkee," Farmer says.


Joe Byrnes came to Central Florida Public Media from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.