BB-FDLE death investigation nears finish line

The death investigation of Sheena Morris, 22, who died New Year’s Day 2009 in a Bradenton Beach motel room, is close to a conclusion.

Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale said Aug. 15 that rumors the case was closed were untrue, but that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has concluded its interviews and turned over specific information to the 12th Judicial Circuit state attorney’s office in Manatee County.

“FDLE has finished their interviews, but they still have other things to do,” said Speciale. “As of right now, the case is not closed.”

Assistant State Attorney Art Brown does have part of the case, but not all of it.

Speciale would not speculate when Brown will have the entire case file, at which time the state attorney’s office will review the FDLE and BBPD findings and make a determination as to whether Morris’ initial ruling of suicide was correct.

Morris was found dead in her BridgeWalk Resort motel room on Bridge Street, hanging from the shower head by a dog leash.

BBPD Lt. Lenard Diaz is the lead investigator on the case and found no evidence of foul play. A Manatee County Sheriff’s Office crime scene investigation unit came to the same conclusion, and 12th District medical examiner, Dr. Russell Vega, ruled the death a suicide.

Morris’ mother, Kelly Osborn, has never agreed with that ruling and hired forensic specialist Dr. Michael Berkland in 2011 to review the case file. Based on his opinion that the crime scene photos may have been staged, Berkland convinced Vega to change the cause of death to undetermined.

Berkland was discredited in 2012 when he was arrested for illegally storing human organs in a Pensacola storage shed. During the course of that investigation, information surfaced that Berkland was twice fired from medical examiner duties.

In September 2012, FDLE conducted a SMART panel review of the BBPD investigation after months of Osborn’s public campaign to have her daughter’s case reopened.

While FDLE found no wrongdoing in Diaz’s investigation, the panel came up with 15 recommendations to follow up on and offered BBPD assistance.

Speciale administratively reopened the case and Diaz and the FDLE agents have been following through on the SMART panel recommendations, which include further interviews and a review of Morris’ computer and medical records.

The case stalled in November 2012 when Osborn refused to release her daughter’s computer and medical records, but relented in December at the behest of FDLE Special Agent in Charge John Burke, who wrote a letter to Osborn outlining the importance of her cooperation.

The forensic investigation into Morris’ computer has been attributed to the long delay in closing the case, which was expected to be completed earlier this year.

Speciale would not comment on the investigation, as it is still active, but has consistently maintained confidence in Diaz’s conclusions. He stands behind the initial ruling of suicide.

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