Detectives named a former Florida deputy as the only probable suspect in the cold case rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1983, authorities announced Thursday. The St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office said it is unable to pursue charges against the perpetrator because he died in 2008. 

Lora Ann Huizar, 11, and former deputy James Howard Harrison. 

St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office

Witnesses originally reported that a uniformed patrol deputy watched Lora Ann Huizar walking toward her home from a local gas station on November 6, 1983, which was around the same the time of her disappearance. The deputy was later confirmed to be James Howard Harrison. 

Authorities recovered the young girl’s body three days later. Both the location where witnesses saw Huizar walking and where her body was found were within the boundaries of Harrison’s patrol duties at the time, officials said. 

However, detectives originally assigned to the case were not able to link the deputy to the murder or identify any suspects. 

Decades later, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office established a cold case squad to reopen closed crime cases. Police chose Huizar’s murder to re-investigate because of the victim’s young age, Sheriff Ken J. Mascara said Thursday at a press briefing

In 2021, analysts at a private DNA lab were able to recover DNA of an unknown male from the victim’s sexual assault kit, police said. With the new finding, detectives obtained a warrant to exhume Harrison’s body, but they were unable to compare his DNA due to its degradation over time. 

Detectives did confirm that on the day Huizar’s body was found, Harrison instructed two witnesses to leave the scene before other authorities arrived to assist with the case. Once the other officials arrived, Huizar’s body was in a different location and position than witness’ accounts.

“We have established probable cause to determine that Harrison abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered the juvenile victim and later altered the crime scene by placing the victim in a drainage ditch in an attempt to destroy physical evidence,” chief deputy Brian Hester said. 

Over the span of his career, Harrison worked for 10 different law enforcement agencies throughout Florida, where he “exhibited a pattern of inappropriate behavior involving juvenile females,” the St Lucie County Sheriff’s Office said. 

Mascara, who recalled working with Harrison in the late 1970s and 1980s, said he had reported the former deputy’s inappropriate relationships with young women. Mascara said his supervisor defended Harrison at the time, saying that Harrison used his status as a church preacher to mentor troubled kids.

“In my mind I wonder if he was using his authority as a deputy sheriff and his standing as a preacher in the community to go ahead and violate children during the entire course of his life,” Mascara said. “This is a very very concerning case because of that.”

Harrison could have been responsible for other sexual assault cases across the state, police said. The sheriff’s office urged the community to contact the St. Lucie County Criminal Investigation Division should anyone have information about any possible criminal cases involving Harrison.