Remains found in Florida hurricane cleanup may solve 28-year-old mystery, cops say

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Human remains found during a river cleanup in north Florida following Hurricane Idalia may belong to an Alabama man who went missing 28 years ago, news outlets report.

Salvage crews in Dixie County were working in the Steinhatchee River to help remove debris on Sept. 27 when they stumbled upon pieces of a vehicle, according to a Sept. 28 Facebook post from the Dixie County Sheriff’s Office.

The cleanup began about two weeks ago by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, WCJB reported, in the Steinhatchee, area canals and Horseshoe Beach after the area was hit nearly head-on by category 3 hurricane Idalia.

The crew was moving a section of dock at the Jena boat ramp when they saw parts of the vehicle, Dixie County deputies said.

In the vehicle were what looked like human remains, according to the sheriff’s office.

Dive teams searched the area the rest of the day and into the next before they found more parts of the car and more human remains, according to the post.

The sheriff’s office said the pieces looked like they had been in the water for “an extended period of time,” and the vehicle was lifted from the river.

Houston County, Alabama, Sheriff Donald Valenza told WTVY the vehicle was a Chevrolet Cavalier, and inside was a credit card and a Sam’s Club membership card belonging to a man named James Aaron Toole.

The Alabama sheriff said a credit card and Sam’s Club card were found in the vehicle with the remains, news outlets report. James Aaron Toole - Missing Person via Facebook

The Alabama sheriff said a credit card and Sam’s Club card were found in the vehicle with the remains, news outlets report. James Aaron Toole – Missing Person via Facebook

Toole, 72, told family members he was going to drive down to Florida to visit a sick relative on May 15, 1995, WTVY reported.

He arrived at his job at a convenience store to work the night shift that night, but left his shift early to go to his granddaughter’s house and speak with his wife, according to a November 2022 post from the Alabama Cold Case Advocacy.

He left his hometown of Pansey, Alabama in his Chrevrolet Cavalier headed to Florida, WTVY reported. His family told the outlet he never arrived.

The Steinhatchee River is about 180 miles southeast of Pansey, Alabama.

A Facebook page dedicated to information on his case said Toole’s wallet was found at a gas station in Bainbridge, Georgia, in 2020, but no leads have been found since.

In June, Toole’s case was featured in a missing persons podcast called “Unforgotten” with members of the Alabama Cold Case Advocacy group.

Valenza told WDHN Houston County deputies were made aware of the find from local law enforcement and traveled to Dixie County to assist in the investigation.

Houston County sent DNA from the remains to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for identity confirmation, the outlet reported, but Toole’s family has been notified.

McClatchy News reached out to both the Dixie County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston County Sheriff’s Office for more information.

Dixie County is about 160 miles northwest of Tampa.

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