ST. CLOUD — Thirty-three years ago, fingerprints tied Jay Bass to one of the most violent murders in this small town's history.
Now, an investigation by St. Cloud police has determined Bass could not have left his prints in Norma Page's car and may have been framed in her June 21, 1979, abduction and death.
At the time, Bass was a 22-year-old known for drinking, racing a souped-up Volkswagen and disdain for local cops. He had divorced his wife, accusing her of infidelity with members of the town's police force, records show.
The possibility of evidence tampering first arose last year, when Bass was exonerated after a violent sex offender, Steve Bronson Jr., confessed in late 2010 to killing the local minister's wife.
Police were determined to find out how they had been misled for decades.
"If you look at the ethics and actions of the investigators 33 years ago, they are very concerning to me," St. Cloud police Chief Pete Gauntlett said last week. "This validated the need to conclusively and completely reinvestigate this entire case. … I cannot rule out any unethical or corrupt behavior that may have existed."
A recent investigation conducted with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that the fingerprints — the only hard evidence against Bass — were planted, mistakenly identified or accidentally switched, records show.
"We needed to resolve this the right way and conclusively end speculation that Lester Jay Bass had any involvement in this horrible crime," Gauntlett said.
Were Jay Bass' prints planted at the scene of the crime?
One set of prints found on the car's interior rearview mirror were identified as Bass' by FDLE in 1979 and later cold-case investigations by St. Cloud police in the early 1990s and another by FDLE that lasted more than five years, records show.
Those prints did not belong to Bass after all, the most recent FDLE investigation found last summer.
But a second set of prints from the car's outside mirrors raised suspicions of corruption — or incompetence — in one of Osceola County's most intensively investigated crimes, according to interviews and recently released records.
That second set contained such perfect prints of Bass' left and right hands that the Orlando Crime Laboratory's top fingerprint expert concluded that neither could have come — as police believed since 1979 — from the mirrors' curved surfaces.
"The latent lifts [of fingerprints] are inconsistent with originating from the mirrors," FDLE Senior Crime Laboratory Analyst Kelly May wrote last summer.
It's still not clear how Bass' bogus prints became unquestioned evidence, but records in the recent investigation cast suspicion on the original case's two main investigators, former St. Cloud Police Sgts. William Grinnell and Dan Jolly.
Both were accused of dating or trying to date Bass' ex-wife, Sheila Albritton, before or during the murder investigation.
"I'll be perfectly honest with you … somebody tried to railroad the man. I'm not saying you. I'm not saying Grinnell," St. Cloud police Detective Christian Anderson told Jolly during a tape-recorded interview last fall. "When I go out and find out the whole Sheila Albritton thing living with Grinnell and you were allegedly dating her at one point … I'm thinking the whole thing [stinks]."
Last year, Anderson tracked down Albritton, who remarried years ago and moved away from St. Cloud. She told Anderson she never dated Jolly and said she lived with Grinnell in 1979 but it wasn't a sexual relationship, records show.
Investigators from the Sheriff's Office and Kissimmee police assigned to work with Grinnell on the case never knew about the relationship. They and other police officials say Grinnell's living arrangement should have gotten him removed or fired.
Transcripts of an Aug. 13, 1979, interview of Bass when Grinnell first accused him of murdering Page show the young man was stunned when told his fingerprints tied him to the crime.
"I'd like to try to remember if I did it," Bass said. "I can't remember nothing about any of this … it just don't ring no bells at all."
Police never disclosed that Bass agreed to speak without a lawyer present, offered to take a polygraph test that police declined and let them cut his hair to try to match to hairs found at the murder scene.
In other interviews in the old case file, St. Cloud residents told investigators Bass thought police were out to get him and that his ex-wife was "carrying on an affair with half of St. Cloud Police Dept. and even the head of the police dept."
Grinnell, now deceased, was in charge of the Page murder investigation from the start in June 1979. Jolly collected fingerprints from Page's car the night of the murder and gave the "print cards" to Grinnell, according to a tape-recorded interview last fall with St. Cloud police.
Jolly said he never saw the cards again after Grinnell gave them to a sheriff's analyst who identified them as Bass' prints. During the interview conducted in Georgia, where Jolly works for the Colquitt County Sheriff's Office, Jolly agreed to answer questions about Bass while taking a lie-detector test, which is not admissible in court.
According to Anderson's report, the test was administered with two relevant questions: "Did you frame Jay Bass?" and "Did you falsify any evidence?"
"Upon completion of the exam, initial examination of the charts indicated Deception was shown on both questions," Anderson wrote in a report.
Reached by phone in Georgia on Friday, Jolly said he would submit to any form of lie-detector test to lift suspicion about his role in the investigation.
"I have nothing whatsoever to hide," Jolly said.
How did Bass' prints get on Norma Page's car? That's still a mystery.
The only known set of his fingerprints at the time of Page's death were from a 1975 arrest, when an 18-year-old Bass stole a fully decorated Christmas tree to impress a girlfriend, records show. Those fingerprints, kept on file at the Osceola County Sheriff's Office, were used to identify the specimens that Grinnell gave to the sheriff's crime-scene supervisor during the 1979 investigation.
Police never arrested Bass, because then-State Attorney Robert Eagan refused to indict him based solely on the fingerprints from the car, sketchy circumstantial evidence and an eyewitness identification by Page's 4-year-old son, Adam.
In an interview after Bronson's arrest, Eagan said he never thought Bass was the killer after studying the crime-scene photos. The torture and stabbing of Page were the work of a seasoned offender, and nothing suggested Bass was capable of such behavior, he said.
Bronson, now 63, was the sort of suspect he had imagined, Eagan said. Convicted of a sex crime in California in the early 1970s, Bronson lived just miles from Page, jumped bail and fled Florida a month after her murder. Still, police never questioned him. A decade ago, he legally changed his name to Nancy Sue.
In late 2010, DNA matches from blood on Page's body pointed to Bronson. He was questioned and confessed to the murder. In June, a judge declared him incompetent to stand trial as a result of a stroke suffered in 2003.
Bass — long identified as the only suspect in the Page murder — gave up trying to clear his name by the early 1980s and left Osceola County. Wherever he moved, investigators showed up every 10 years to press him to confess.
St. Cloud police called Bass' family in July — on what would have been his 54th birthday — to say he had been cleared. He had died five months earlier of pancreatic cancer.
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