Deceased Florida deputy named suspect in 1983 rape, murder of 11-year-old girl

(Photos: St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office)

A deceased former sheriff's deputy in Florida is the only probable suspect in the rape and killing of an 11-year-old girl in 1983, state authorities said Thursday in announcing the case finally closed.

Lora Ann Huizar disappeared in November 1983 while walking home from a gas station in a rural part of St. Lucie County. Her body was recovered nearby three days later.

Both the gas station and the site where the body was found were in the area patrolled by then-St. Lucie Sheriff's deputy James Howard Harrison, St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Brian Hester said at a news conference Thursday. He said witnesses reported seeing a uniformed deputy who was later confirmed to be Harrison in the area around the time of Huizar’s disappearance.

RELATED: Car of Tampa woman missing since 2019 discovered in Alabama woods

Hester said detectives had "established probable cause" to identify Harrison as the person who abducted, raped and killed Huizar. He said Harrison "later altered the crime scene by placing the victim in a drainage ditch in an attempt to destroy physical evidence." Harrison died of cancer in 2008 at age 73.

Detectives originally assigned to the case were unable to link Harrison to the slaying or identify any viable suspects, officials said. But people familiar with the original investigation confirmed that Harrison had instructed two witnesses to leave the scene approximately 20 minutes before additional law enforcement personnel arrived, Hester said. Cold case detectives also learned that the location and position of Huizar’s body documented by initial crime scene investigators and detectives differed from initial witness accounts, he said.

Detective Paul Taylor, who oversees cold cases in St. Lucie County, said solving the case was one of the best and worst days of his career.

RELATED: Florida mom finds 2-year-old daughter locked inside South Florida day care

"Nobody dislikes a bad cop more than a good cop, and it felt bittersweet to finally provide the victim’s family with some long-awaited answers," Taylor said.

Harrison worked for 10 separate law enforcement agencies in Florida over several decades and exhibited a pattern of inappropriate behavior involving juvenile females, officials said. Detectives believe Harrison may be responsible for other sexual assault cases across the state.