The five-year quest to decide whether a 22-year-old Tampa woman took her own life in a Bradenton Beach motel room or whether she was murdered has been put to rest.
On Nov. 21, at around 4 p.m., Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale received a phone call from the Florida State Attorney’s Office informing him that there was no evidence of homicide in the death of Sheena Morris.
Morris was found dead on New Year’s Day 2009 in a Bridgewalk Resort motel room, 100 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach. She was discovered in the bathroom, hanging by a blue dog leash from the showerhead.
Assistant State Attorney Art Brown has been reviewing the case file since the conclusion of hundreds of hours of Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation on a case reopened by Speciale, on FDLE’s recommendation.
The recommendation to administratively reopen the case came after a three-year public campaign by Morris’ mother, Kelly Osborn, who insisted that her daughter was murdered. She challenged the 2009 suicide ruling from 12th District Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega.
Vega’s conclusion was based on the fact that there was no evidence of foul play, according to Bradenton Beach Police Lt. Lenard Diaz, as well as crime scene investigators from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
After devoting substantial resources to an investigation, the case has come full circle to the original findings — no foul play.
“They found no evidence of a homicide and no charges will be filed in this case,” said Speciale.
“There were no surprises stemming from the investigation,” he said. “Most of the information found by FDLE was initially generated by our investigation when the incident occurred.”
Morris has had harsh words for the BBPD investigation, Speciale and Diaz, often using social media to allege the department’s inept investigation capabilities.
The conclusion stands up to what Speciale and Diaz have maintained all along, but Speciale said this is not a situation to celebrate the effectiveness of his department’s investigative abilities.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘vindicated,’” said Speciale. “I have been asked that a lot and that’s not the right sentiment. This was a terrible tragedy. A young woman took her own life and nothing is going to change that. So, do I feel vindicated? No. I do feel relieved that this will be behind us.”
Osborn publicly pushed for three years for her daughter’s case to be reopened, insisting Joe Genoese, her daughter’s fiance, was directly involved with her death.
Osborn then hired Dr. Michael Berkland, a former medical examiner working in private practice, to review the case file.
Berkland concluded from photos that the crime scene was likely staged. Berkland convinced Vega the cause of death was questionable and he changed it from suicide to undetermined.
Osborn appealed to Speciale to reopen the case, but Speciale insisted the investigation was closed.
The producers from the “Dr. Phil” TV program called Genoese, who agreed to go on the show with Osborn and to take a lie detector test, and the results of the test by the hired examiner were not conclusive, but the show’s polygraph examiner implied Genoese was lying.
However, documents now show that Genoese agreed to a second polygraph sometime during the FDLE investigation and that he “was not deceptive in any answers.”
Osborn also repeatedly stated she was in possession of the proverbial smoking gun that could prove Morris was murdered. Police repeatedly requested her evidence, but never received it.
In 2012, Berkland was discredited after being arrested for illegally storing human organs in household containers inside a Pensacola storage facility.
Information then surfaced that Berkland was twice fired from medical examiner duties for improper filing of autopsy reports.
Morris stood by Berkland and told The Islander that it was no different from a businessman bringing home paperwork.
In September 2012, FDLE conducted a SMART panel to review the BBPD investigation. They found nothing wrong with Diaz’s investigation, but recommended further research into the case, and Speciale agreed to follow up on the recommendations with help from FDLE special agents.
In a 44-page report filed by FDLE Special Agents Carl Shedlock and Chris Seimers, the case is relived from the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, when Morris was found dead.
The ensuing criminal investigation performed by BBPD, MCSO and the medical examiner found no physical evidence that Morris had been involved in a physical struggle prior to her death.
Toxicology reports showed Morris had been drinking, but had not taken any illegal drugs. Following her death, police were told by her mother that Morris was bi-polar, had experienced a prior drug overdose and suffered “mental issues due to friends committing suicide in the past.”
Morris had attended a funeral of a close friend who died of suicide only a week before her death.
The investigation also revealed that one of Morris’ male friends had committed suicide two months prior — by hanging himself with a blue dog leash.
Osborn told police that Morris had previously attempted suicide and that her daughter “needed help.”
She later denied making those statements and called Diaz’s report an “utter fabrication.”
The report also states that Berkland was not the first pathologist hired by Osborn.
In July 2010, Osborn requested New York pathologist Dr. Michael Baden perform a second autopsy. Morris was exhumed and Baden’s report showed no new information.
The report states that Genoese said the couple were at the Bridgewalk as a getaway because Morris was depressed. Genoese called his children to wish them a happy New Year shortly after midnight, which allegedly started an argument with Morris.
Genoese said he was leaving with or without Morris, who opted to stay and police were able to use cellphone records to track Genoese all the way back to Indian Rocks Beach in Pinellas County, as the couple continued to talk and text as he drove home.
Morris’ friends speak out
Rebecca Anaya was interviewed in October 2012, claiming to be friends with Morris and Genoese. Anaya and Morris met while working as exotic dancers.
Anaya told FDLE agents that Morris confided in her that she suffered from depression and would often help her get through those moments that Anaya called Morris’ “dark place.”
A few weeks before Morris’ death, Anaya said her friend began giving her some of her possessions, such as shoes and dresses and hid a $100 check in Anaya’s purse. Morris gave her a key to her apartment, saying it was “just in case anything ever happens.”
Anaya told the agents she believes Morris killed herself due to a “deepening spiral of depression.” She said she was no longer on speaking terms with Osborn because she partly blames her for Morris’ death. Morris told Anaya that her mother often “meddled in her relationship” with Genoese.
Another friend, Lee Ann Blackshear, said the 2008 suicide of Morris’ former boyfriend affected her deeply and friend Ashlie Knisley confirmed what Anaya had told authorities about Osborn’s mental impact on Morris by “inserting herself” into her daughter’s life.
In June 2013, FDLE retained Dr. John Super, a licensed and board certified forensic psychologist to conduct a psychological autopsy, a procedure to assess the facts of the case and determine Morris’ suicide risk.
Super concluded that Morris’ risk of suicide was higher than her self-protected state of mind.
He also reviewed the case and determined that reports in other media outlets about there being no sand in the room and that the shower had been wiped clean were inaccurate.
Those statements were initially made by Berkland to convince some that the crime scene was staged, but Super reports that enlarged photos clearly show sand on the shower floor, near Morris’ feet and on the threshold leading into the shower.
Conspiracy theorists, both private and working in the media, made false conclusions that the sand had been vacuumed in an attempt to “clean” the crime scene.
Water droplets also were apparent, showing nothing had been wiped down in the shower, as implied.
The report discredits some consultants hired by the Osborn family as “recognized experts.”
The report further states that other media outlets made claims that conflicted with the facts of the case.
Some of the erroneous reports in other media outlets included unattributed statements, such as Morris having unexplained bruising, that she was unhappy in her relationship with Genoese and that her pant cuffs were in a position consistent with a person being dragged.
The investigation concluded that Genoese was not in Manatee County at the time of Morris’ death and that Morris did not suffer any injuries unrelated to the hanging.
The issues raised by Berkland regarding the staged crime scene suspicion “were shown not to be consistent with the facts shown in the investigation.”
In fact, the investigation concludes that there were multiple photos that contradicted any theory that the crime scene was staged.
Speciale said his confidence in the outcome of the investigation never swayed.
“I’ve always been confident in the abilities of detective Diaz,” he said. “I have appreciated all of the support and assistance from MCSO’s crime scene technicians and the FDLE agents who spent countless hours assisting us, and for the state attorney’s office for taking time to review the evidence and coming to this conclusion.”
Osborn was interviewed by broadcast news stations following the public release of information regarding the FDLE and state attorney’s office conclusions.
She initially told reporters that she would accept the state’s decision and continue to help other families who have gone through similar experiences.
She does not believe Morris committed suicide.
In later interviews, Osborn has claimed that the FDLE investigation is flawed.