Daniel Leonard Wells, 57, was arrested on Wednesday by the Pensacola Police Department for the murder of Tonya Ethridge McKinley on Jan. 1, 1985.
PENSACOLA — Tonya Ethridge McKinley was 23 years old and had an 18-month-old son waiting for her at home when she was killed in the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, 1985, in Pensacola.
She was last seen alive around 1:30 a.m. at Darryl’s Bar & Grille in Pensacola, and in the early-morning hours of New Year’s Day her body was found in an empty lot at the corner of Peacock Drive and Creighton Road, just one block off Scenic Highway. She was half-nude, strangled to death and sexually assaulted.
On Wednesday, 35 years later, Pensacola police made an arrest in the case: Daniel Leonard Wells, 57, is facing charges of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual battery.
Wells was identified after Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company working with the Pensacola Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, ran a DNA sample obtained from the scene of the crime through an open-source genealogy database and identified several different people believed to be distant cousins of the suspect.
From there, the Pensacola police, FDLE and Parabon constructed a family tree, starting with the distant relatives, that eventually led them to identify Wells as a suspect. Police surveillance teams then surreptitiously obtained his DNA from a discarded cigarette, which was tested and matched DNA found at the crime scene.
"This was a case that spanned three generations of detectives," said Captain Chuck Mallett, who led the investigation. "I know it took a long time, but it was one of those cases we never gave up on."
According to the arrest report, there is a less than 1 in 700 billion chance that the DNA from the crime scene is a match to anyone other than Wells. It is the oldest cold-case arrest in Pensacola history and the first time the familial DNA method has been used to solve a case in Northwest Florida.
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Detectives in California used the same method to identify and arrest Joseph James DeAngelo, a suspect in the Golden State Killer cases, in April 2018. Orlando police used the method in November 2018 to identify a suspect in the 2001 murder of Christine Franke and arrested Benjamin Holmes for first-degree murder.
Wells is being held without bond at Escambia County Jail and will make his first court appearance Thursday morning.
According to court records, Wells was arrested in Pensacola in 1987 for battery and witness tampering, but the witness tampering charge was dropped after he pled no contest to the battery charge. In 1988, he was arrested for solicitation of prostitution in Pensacola. Court records did not indicate the outcome of that case.
Tonya's body was found shortly before 5 a.m. on New Year's Day by a family living on Peacock Drive who were taking their sick dog to an all-night veterinarian clinic.
Investigators collected semen, head hair and pubic from Tonya's body and the crime scene. Years later, thanks to advances in DNA testing, all of the evidence was identified as being from the same person, but no matches were ever found in the national DNA database.
Tonya's older sister, Renee Ethridge, has run the "Tonya Ethridge McKinley Memorial" page on Facebook since 2012 in hopes of keeping her sister's case in the public eye.
"(Tonya) would fight hard for me ... she would fight for me and I've gotta fight for her," Renee told WKRG in a 2008 interview. "There are people out there who know (what happened). I'm positive of that."
Tonya and Renee's father, Joe, died in April 2000. Their mother, Laverne, lives in Jay with Renee.
"(Tonya) can rest now," Renee said after being told of Wells' arrest. "She can finally rest."
Renee said Tonya loved Rod Stewart and KISS and was trying to make a better life for herself when she was killed. More than anything, Renee said, Tonya loved her then-18-month-old son, Timothy Davidson Jr., who family members affectionately referred to as "Timbo" when he was a child.
"My mom, she never got to raise me, never got to be a part of my life," Davidson said after the arrest. "(Wells) got to live his life the last 35 years. He got to have a family. He got to be around his children ... and all those years he was out there, knowing what he did. He was carrying it around with him and he was never going to tell anyone what he did. He wasn't going to ever just say what he did on his own."
"Nothing could ever make up for losing my mom, but at least now we know what happened to her."