Florida cold case victim identified 26 years after being found floating in Intracoastal Waterway


Flagler County, Florida, law enforcement officials, after 26 years, were able to attach a name to a body found floating in the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), using advancements in DNA forensics.

On Sept. 10, 1997, deputies from the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office responded to reports of a body floating in the ICW in Flagler Beach, and when they arrived, they recovered the body of an unknown man who appeared to be a victim of a homicide.

The recovered body appeared to have been bound, shot and stabbed several times before being dumped in the water.

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Robert Bruce McPhail

There are no known photos of Robert Bruce McPhail, but a facial approximation of him was created by Betty Pat Gatliff of Skullpture Inc. in 1997. (Flagler County Sheriffs Office)

Following a forensic anthropology exam, the sheriff’s office and Medical Examiner’s Office estimated the victim to be between 30 and 50 years old, about 5-foot-8, and 170 pounds.

The victim has been unidentifiable since 1997, but with help from the private forensic genetic genealogy company Othram, Cold Case Unit Detective Sarah Scalia was able to determine the victim to be Robert Bruce McPhail.

The Cold Case Unit, which was established by Sheriff Rick Staly in 2020, sent McPhail’s bones to Othram in 2021, and the company’s genetic genealogy team assisted Scalia to identify the victim.

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DNA test

Scalia said she learned during the investigation that McPhail, who was originally from Kenora/Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, was 58 when he died.

He moved to Florida in the mid-1990s, had a passion for boats and went by his middle name, “Bruce.”

The sheriff’s office said there are no known photos of McPhail, but a facial approximation of the victim was created by Betty Pat Gatliff of Skullpture Inc. in 1997.

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“Cold cases, especially with unidentified victims, and forensic genetic genealogy is a time-consuming process to identify and solve,” Staly said. “This case required a lot of outside-the-box research and the cooperation of multiple agencies to give the victim a name. 

“Now that we have identified the victim as Robert Bruce McPhail, our Cold Case Unit can work on finding who murdered him and why to bring justice for him and his family.”

The sheriff’s office encourages anyone with information about McPhail’s life or murder to submit a tip to tips@flaglersheriff.com or to Scalia at sscalia@flaglersheriff.com

Tips can also be submitted by calling 386-313-4911 or Crime Stoppers at 1-888-277-TIPS (8477).



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