LAKELAND, Fla. — DNA technology helped Lakeland Police identify a suspect and make an arrest in a 38-year-old cold case earlier this month, the agency said Thursday. 

Investigators said if one of the suspect's family members had not submitted their DNA into a genealogy database, they probably wouldn’t have been able to solve the case.

  • Linda Patterson Slaten found dead in her bed on September 4, 1981
  • DNA submitted to genealogy database helped police identify suspect
  • More Polk County stories

On September 4, 1981, in the neighborhood then known as Bonnet Shores located off of Brunell Parkway, Linda Patterson Slaten, 31, was found dead on her bed, strangled to death with a hanger.

Her death haunted her two sons for 38 years, not knowing who raped and killed her while they were asleep.

"It's been a heck of a roller coaster,” said Tim Slaten, one of victim’s sons, while speaking to assembled media Thursday.

"I've lived my whole life not knowing who it is. I was scared to death I was friends with him,” said Jeff Slaten, the victim’s other son.

Detectives told Tim and Jeff in early December that it was, in fact, Tim's football coach, Joseph Clinton Mills, who murdered their mother.

Mills had dropped off Tim at the family's apartment hours before the murder.

"He was the last person on my brain I thought was going to do it," Tim said. "We had all these other suspects for years we thought was going to do it."

"Got to be this guy, got to be that guy and it wasn’t and when they told me the news last week ... I’ve been in shock ever since because I rode in the car with this guy months after the fact,” he added.

Jeff described his mother as a single mom who was friendly to everyone and doing her best to raise her children.

"We was living in government housing on food stamps and welfare, you know, and she was trying to do the best she could to take care of us and this monster, he took her away from us and I hope he burn in hell forever,” Jeff said.

Mills was questioned back in 1981 but was not implicated or charged. It wasn't until someone in his family submitted their DNA into a genealogy database that investigators identified Mills as a suspect.

They collected his DNA via his trash.

"We got the lead that’s all it was — good old fashioned police work,” said Mike Link, Lakeland’s Assistant Chief of Police.

Detectives said Mills eventually admitted to being there that night and implied the sex was consensual, but investigators said his account didn't match the victim's injuries.

Donna Wallace with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said this is the fifth cold case statewide they've been able to help solve using DNA from genealogy databases.

Lakeland's Police Chief Ruben Garcia said they have 28 other cold cases they're working to solve.