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Cold case cracked: Discarded cigarette leads to arrest in mother’s 1985 sexual assault & murder

On Wednesday, police in Florida arrested a man for allegedly sexually assaulting and killing a woman in 1985.

The Northwest Florida Daily News reported that investigators in Pensacola used familial DNA to identify Daniel Wells, 57, as a suspect in Tonya Ethridge McKinley’s murder. A family walking their sick dog to an all-night clinic discovered McKinley’s partially-nude body in Pensacola the morning of New Year’s Day, hours after she was last seen at a local bar and grill.

Citing investigators, WEAR-TV reported that McKinley, 23, was strangled and sexually assaulted. Investigators collected semen and hair from her body. At the time, they determined that the DNA samples belonged to the same person but they couldn’t locate a match in the database, according to the Daily News.

Pensacola police reportedly zeroed-in on Wells after acquiring a relative’s DNA. It isn’t immediately known how authorities obtained the DNA.

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Pensacola police, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Parabon NanoLabs created a family tree that ultimately led them to Wells. Authorities surveilled Wells and ultimately obtained his DNA from a discarded cigarette, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

Court records stated that Wells has a 1987 arrest in Pensacola for battery and witness tampering, though the witness tampering charge was dropped after he pleaded guilty to battery. The following year, he was arrested in Pensacola for solicitation of prostitution. The outcome of that case isn’t immediately clear.

Wells is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual battery. He remains jailed without bond.

“My mom, she never got to raise me, never got to be a part of my life. (Wells) got to live his life the last 35 years. He got to have a family. He got to be around his children,” Timothy Davidson Jr., who was 18-months-old when his mother was killed, told the News Journal.

“Nothing could ever make up for losing my mom, but at least now we know what happened to her.”

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[Featured image: Daniel Wells/Escambia County Jail; Tonya McKinley/Pensacola Police Department]