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INSIDERS: Finding the Killer in One of Gadsden County's 18 Unsolved Murders

INSIDERS: Finding the Killer in One of Gadsden County's 18 Unsolved Murders
Posted at 11:30 AM, Feb 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-14 04:22:33-04

GADSDEN COUNTY, FL -- (WTXL) - January 2016 marked 30 years since anyone has seen 26-year-old Deborah Copeland alive. It's one of 18 unsolved murders in Gadsden County and law enforcement officials are not giving up.

The original investigator in the case has passed away, but now a team of retired Captains are using their knowledge and experience to try to solve Copeland's violent murder.

January 27, 1986, a passerby discovered the body of a black female badly beaten and crushed on the side of Silas Walker Road just off of Highway 269 in Gadsden County. Almost immediately a suspect by the name of James Lewis is identified in the homicide, but charges are never filed.

Fast forward 30 years later, a new team of investigators is searching for answers, trying to unlock what happened on that January night.

Copeland went missing on January 24, her body found less than a mile away from her 1980 blue Pontiac Phoenix. An autopsy report shows Copeland suffered several cuts, a broken arm and multiple crushed ribs. Investigators quickly turn to the people in Copeland's life for questioning. After interviewing friends and family they found out Copeland, a young black woman, was in a relationship with James Lewis, a successful white business owner.

Retired Captain John Franklin with the Gadsden County Sheriff's Office says, "At that time in 86 she was dating or seeing an owner of a prominent department store in Chattahoochee. During that venture Deborah Copeland indicated to the owner that she was pregnant."

And that's what investigators believe was the motive behind the murder. They believe Copeland asked James Lewis for money to help with the pregnancy. Captain Franklin who is part of the Gadsden County Cold Case Team says, at the time the investigator had arrest papers in hand but was stopped and advised not to proceed in the arrest of the suspect.

Franklin says, "We have interviewed several witnesses that have given us enough evidence to proceed with an arrest at this time."

But investigators have hit a roadblock. Those who may know something about the case are not willingly to come forward and speak to law enforcement. That, and two of the men who worked on the case, Sheriff William Albert Woodham and the original investigator David Ganious, are both dead.

Franklin says, "We were told unless we got the suspect to admit murdering Deborah Copeland this case would not be handled in this jurisdiction."

According to Captain Franklin, family members have been threatened not to speak to law enforcement. Despite the hurdles, Franklin and his team believe they will someday find closure for the Copeland family.

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