A parade of friends and family of the late Sheena Morris filed into Bradenton Beach City Hall Aug. 2 to ask commissioners to demand the city invite the FBI to look into the 2009 death of the 25-year-old Tampa woman, and to ask for disciplinary action against Police Chief Sam Speciale.
Morris died at the BridgeWalk Resort, 100 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach sometime during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day.
Morris’ mother, Kelly Osborn told reporters after the meeting, “We’re not talking suicide anymore. Sheena was murdered.”
Although first ruled a suicide by law enforcement and the medical examiner, the family disputes that conclusion and has repeatedly asked for the case to be reopened, saying they have new evidence.
Speciale — interviewed before the Aug. 2 meeting — said the Morris family has presented no new evidence.
“I have said from the start, if any credible evidence came up, I would reopen the case,” said Speciale. “The mother of Sheena told us she has evidence of a person who has knowledge of the case, but would not give that information to us.”
Speciale said Osborn stated she would only give the information to the FBI.
“I spoke to the FBI and they said they would take the information, and she has never produced it,” he said.
Osborn told commissioners she wants the FBI involved, but Speciale told The Islander that even if the case was reclassified a homicide, the FBI would not investigate it.
“They will not investigate a homicide under these conditions,” he said. “I asked them if they would investigate it, and they told me no.”
In 2011, Morris’ family hired a forensic expert and had her body exhumed. No new evidence was discovered on the body, but the medical examiner changed the cause of death from suicide to undetermined.
Speciale said the decision to change the cause of death was based on the opinion “that the crime scene appeared too clean. So, it was (a second medical examiner’s) opinion that it was staged.”
One medical examiner’s opinion doesn’t override the original medical examiner’s decision, the BBPD investigation and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office’s determination, he said.
“It wasn’t our department that ruled it a suicide,” said Speciale. “My detective’s responsibility in that case was to determine if there was any evidence of foul play and none was found. The sheriff’s office processed the crime scene and they reached the same conclusion, as did the original medical examiner.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has agreed to review the case, and Speciale said FDLE will send cold case specialists to the city to review the case.
“They will either concur with our findings or offer us suggestions on what to do next and, if need be, offer us assistance,” said Speciale, who noted if the investigator finds credible reason to reopen the case, he would do so.
Speciale said FDLE has already reviewed the case file once and reached the same conclusion. He said he is confident that his department did its job.
“They did everything they were supposed to do,” he said. “With the evidence that we had, there was only one conclusion, and it was the same conclusion as other agencies reached. I don’t have the luxury of dealing with opinion or emotion. I have to deal with facts, and the facts of this case show it as a suicide. If the facts change from the FDLE review, I will reopen this case and we will go from there.”
At the meeting, Osborn expressed disappointment in having FDLE review the file, which is partly why she is demanding FBI involvement.
“Reviewing the file is not reopening the case,” she said.
Osborn insists she did try to present BBPD with new evidence, but that they wouldn’t do anything with it.
“I don’t care about (BBPD) trying to convince you of their investigation,” Osborn told commissioners. “The fact of the matter is, they are inept to handle Sheena’s case. When I brought them more evidence, they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Osborn told reporters “Sheena was murdered,” after she left the meeting room.
She said she has spent years trying to get to the truth.
“That’s all we wanted,” she said. “We wanted an investigation and we wanted the truth. We’re looking for justice.”
When asked what justice meant to her, Osborn said, “Getting a murderer off the street.”
The Sheena Morris case
It was New Year’s Eve when BPPD received a call to the BridgeWalk Resort in reference to a woman yelling.
A couple staying in a nearby room heard the woman yelling, “and a man’s voice speaking back to her in a calm voice,” said Speciale.
The officers were dispatched to the scene. As they were climbing the stairs to Morris’ room, the officers passed a man walking calmly down the stairs.
Osborn claims BBPD should have arrested Morris’ boyfriend for domestic violence and it would have saved her daughter’s life that night. Speciale said the call was never in relation to domestic violence.
“It was a disturbance call,” he said. “When the officers got to the room, Miss Morris came to the door and invited the officers in. They had a discussion with her, at which time Miss Morris said she had no way home.”
Speciale said the officers asked Morris if she had family she could call, but Morris said that her father lived out of state and she hadn’t talked to her mother in years.
“She was asked if she had been hit and she said no,” said Speciale. “By the end of their conversation, he had simply left the premises. The next day we got a call to get people out of a room at the resort. As it turned out, we found Miss Morris deceased in the bathroom, hanging from a dog leash from the shower.”
Speciale said MCSO and a medical examiner were called to the scene.
“The boyfriend wasn’t a suspect because it was not a violent disturbance we responded to,” he said. “We subpoenaed phone records and found out they were texting one another until 4 a.m., so she died sometime between then and when we responded later that morning.”
Speciale said he understands how the family is feeling.
“I have a daughter,” he said. “I can’t imagine what they are going through, but you just can’t walk into a police department and want a case reopened without evidence and we just don’t have that. I just think they don’t believe any of the information because they don’t want to believe their daughter would do this.”
Speciale said there is plenty of evidence suggesting the death of Morris was not a murder.
“If people in the resort could hear them arguing, I would think someone would hear something breaking and people fighting,” he said. “I would hope she would have fought for her life. There is some suggestion that she could have been drugged, but there were no drugs in her system.”
Speciale said there was no evidence on the body that a physical altercation had occurred “and no marks on her feet that she had been dragged across the floor and into the bathroom.”
Speciale said Morris and her boyfriend were apparently on the island to plan their wedding. An argument of some kind caused the boyfriend to leave and after trying to contact him all night via cell phone, “she was in a mind frame to do what she did.”