The body of Annie Ernest was found in an open area of Springfield on Market Street in 1985.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office later determined Ernest had been murdered. Investigators back then had a good idea of who may have been responsible for her death, but the suspected killer slipped away. For nearly four decades, the case remained unsolved — until now.
JSO said the man accused in her death, would face murder charges today, but he has been dead since 1988.
Soon after Ernest was found murdered, JSO identified a man, Robert Vance, as a person of interest.
Detectives interviewed Vance and he said he socialized with Ernest but he denied being involved in her death. At the time, Vance agreed to take a lie detector test, but he didn’t show up the next day when he said he would.
When JSO went to his apartment to look for him, it was abandoned.
But it turns out his name wasn’t even Robert Vance, it was Robert Richard Van Pelt.
After finding the apartment empty, JSO tried to track down Van Pelt to bring him in but he was gone and the case was suspended.
In 2008, JSO Cold Case detectives revisited the case and tried again to find Van Pelt but it couldn’t.
Then in 2023, the case got a break.
In July, a family member of Ernest contacted JSO Cold Case detectives and requested an update on the case.
Using modern technology and databases, along with current investigative techniques, JSO said detectives learned that Van Pelt had fled to Tampa immediately following the murder of Ernest and assumed another name, “John Leroy Harris.”
With the new name in hand, JSO learned that the Tampa Police Department believed Harris shot a woman in 1988. The woman survived, but police said Harris took his own life after the shooting.
After an extensive review of all available evidence from both incidents in the separate cities, applicable state and local records and an in-depth fingerprint analysis, JSO said it was determined that “Robert Vance,” “John Leroy Harris,” and “Robert Richard Van Pelt” were all the same person.
Members of JSO’s Cold Case Unit presented the findings to the State Attorney’s Office and it determined that if Van Pelt were still alive, he would be charged with the murder of Ernest.
JSO cleared the case in December.
“This brings the nearly four-decade case to a final resolution for Annie Mae, and closure to her surviving family members,” JSO said in a news release.