Caleb McBreen was only 3 when his father heard four horrible words from him after making a long-distance phone call home on Sept. 21, 1992.
“I can’t wake Mommy,” the child said, then hung up on his father, out of town on a U.S. Navy training program in Colorado.
The alarmed father called Jacksonville police, who responded to the home on Crescent Street to find the 3-year-old boy unharmed but 22-year-old Renee McBreen beaten to death, police said. She was two months pregnant.
Almost 30 years later, despite updated investigations as late as 10 years ago, no killer has been found.
Homicide cold case detective Ray Reeves is giving this investigation a fresh look after a lifelong family friend of the dead woman called police urging to revive their work. Teaming up with a Florida Department of Law Enforcement researcher, Reeves said DNA technology that didn’t exist in 1992 is being used to dive deeper into old evidence.
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“There’s some items that had been tested previously, but we are at a new place in technology so that could be retested,” Reeves said. “… She [the FDLE researcher] also found several items that had never been tested before because there was no technology to do it, that we could submit those items, hoping that we get something back, either a match, the best option, or maybe something that leads us to the genetic genealogy side of things.”
For Caleb McBreen, who said he went into foster care after his mother’s death and now goes by the last name Flanagan, there is excitement that renewed DNA testing is being done on the evidence.
“We never got justice for her, but to get the how come, to understand why I had to endure the childhood I had, it would be life-changing to understand,” said Flanagan, now 33 with a wife and children in Texas. “The hardest part for me the last 30 years has been never understanding why. I ended up having some really rough spots after she died.”
‘Someone knew her that was in that house’
Renee McBreen was a dance club waitress and had thrown her 3-year-old son a birthday party the night before at their Murray Hill home. The attack occurred sometime between 10 p.m. that night and late the next morning when Caleb answered his father’s phone call and found her on the sofa, Reeves said. The child also may have witnessed something but doesn’t remember, he said.
Officers found the front and back doors locked, then opened a window that had not been touched in a while to find McBreen dead inside, Reeves said. Nothing was stolen, and there was no evidence of forced entry.
“The back door had a twist button on it, meaning you could turn it and lock the door behind you as you went out,” the detective said. “We know it’s not a break-in. Someone knew her that was in that house.”
With the 1992 evidence now being tested or retested, including a partial palm print found in the evidence file, Reeves said they are hoping to get something back to track a suspect.
“That’s not only to solve the case but to help a little boy who has grown up without his mom all his life,” the detective said.
New technology revives old cases
The case is one of hundreds on the Project Cold Case website, started by Ryan Backmann after his father, Cliff Backmann, was killed during an Oct. 10, 2009, robbery on Bonneval Road in Jacksonville. It now has more than 1,000 unsolved homicides from 50 Florida counties, 46 U.S. states and three international countries.
Flanagan said he thanks Reeves and Backmann for their efforts now and in the past.
“I am really excited for all this, but I don’t want any of them to feel that they will make or break my life based off this,” Flanagan said. “I am glad to see my mom get the attention she deserves. I think that case went stale very fast in 1992. She was an amazing woman and she deserves some answers.”
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As for all the cold case homicide investigations that the Sheriff’s Office revives and publicizes every few months to seek new leads, Reeves said new DNA tests and fingerprint analysis are helping them close in on possible suspects.
“We have had several that are very close,” he said. In some they know who the person is but are waiting on the evidence or something from the genealogy side.
Anyone with information on this or other criminal cases can contact the Sheriff’s Office at (904) 630-0500 or First Coast Crime Stoppers at (866) 845-8477 (845-TIPS) to remain anonymous and be eligible for rewards. Or email JSOCrimeTips@jaxsheriff.org or email@example.com.
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