Kelly Osborn said her long journey isn’t over, but she has found some sense of peace after an Oct. 12 meeting with Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale.
Osborn is the mother of Sheena Morris, 25, found dead in a Bradenton Beach BridgeWalk Resort motel room on New Year’s Day 2009.
The case was initially ruled a suicide, but Osborn maintained her daughter was killed and in 2011 hired an independent forensic expert to review the case.
The hired expert, Dr. Michael Berkland, said the suicide scene may have been staged based on his review of the crime scene photos. That was enough to convince District 12 Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega to change his 2009 cause of death ruling from suicide to undetermined.
Berkland’s reputation has since been tarnished with the discovery of human organs in household containers in a Pensacola storage unit that he rented. Information also surfaced that Berkland has twice been fired from medical examiner duties, but Osborn continues to stand behind him.
She repeatedly has demanded a reopening of her daughter’s case. She received her wish — in part — on Oct. 12, when FDLE, which convened a “Smart Panel” last month to review the case, recommended that BBPD follow up with some areas of the investigation.
Speciale said he will act on the FDLE recommendations and “administratively reopen” the case. He said the case is not being reinvestigated but, rather, in order to address the recommendations, “the case has to be reopened.”
Osborn, in tears after the meeting, had mixed feelings.
“My understanding of what the chief has explained is that FDLE sent their recommendations and that he is going to follow up on them with FDLE assigning an agent to assist,” said Osborn.
She said she didn’t understand why the terminology of “administrative reopening” had to be applied. “In my eyes, I see it as reinvestigating and that gives me a peace of mind. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Speciale said the 15 or so FDLE recommendations were not “major things” and “some are administrative and some will require us to ask FDLE to do some investigating for us, as far as being able to use their services, such as their lab. But this is not reinvestigating the case. It’s an administrative reopening of the case.”
Osborn said the recommendations focus on many of her concerns, but said she cannot yet rest easy.
“I understand this FDLE panel didn’t find any fault with the Bradenton Beach Police Department’s investigation and that concerns me,” she said. “I think that sends the wrong message.”
She said she would prefer FDLE take over her daughter’s case, but FDLE will not reinvestigate.
Speciale said the purpose of the Smart Panel was to review the department’s investigation and not to reinvestigate the case.
When asked if the recommendations being followed lead back to a ruling of suicide would bring her closure, Osborn said she was not sure.
“I’m not sure yet if I could walk away from it,” she said. “I still have other experts saying this is wrong.”
She said what does feel good at this point is that Speciale reached out to include her in the FDLE meeting, and that her concerns are being addressed.
“It also feels good that this police department is learning some things through this process,” she said. “It was a very cordial meeting and I think he understands how I feel. I’ve put a lot of jabs out there that were directed at him, but I have been asking for this meeting for a long time.”
Osborn said she hopes to find closure one day.
“One day I would like to go back to being a wife. I can’t go back to being a mother,” said an emotional Osborn. “I have a great husband, who has been very supportive through all of this and I would like to pay it forward to him when the time comes.”
Speciale said the next step upon completing the recommendations is to return the case to FDLE for further review.
“Then it all gets turned over to the state attorney’s office,” he said. “They will either concur with our findings and tell us nothing further is needed or they will see something that requires further attention.”
Until then, he said, the status of the case has not changed. Vega’s cause of death ruling may have changed to undetermined, but Speciale stands by his department’s finding that there was no foul play.
BBPD and a FDLE agent began their work this week. Speciale said he doesn’t expect it to be a lengthy process, with the exception of waiting on lab results, in particular DNA testing on fingernail clippings taken at the scene from Morris.
Until then, Speciale said the case is technically open and no discussions will take place until it is closed.