He was found shot in the head and tied up. Who killed the school librarian?

A bus bench facing pleading for information about Pat Mullins’ death.
A bus bench facing pleading for information about Pat Mullins’ death. hemorse@bradenton.com

“Who killed PHS librarian Pat Mullins, boating on Sunday, Jan 27, 2013?”

Mud was splattered and caked over words on the bus stop bench that asked someone, anyone, to help solve a four-year mystery.

The bench, at MCAT bus stop No. 1316 on eastbound Sixth Avenue West, faces oncoming traffic; Jill Mullins makes sure of it. There are four others like it across town. A photo of her late husband, Pat, shows him wearing a straw hat, glasses and an olive green T-shirt.

“The body, tied in anchor rope and shot in head, was found off Emerson Pt,” the message continues.

Logos for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, Crime Stoppers and the Gold Star Club are printed on the bottom. At the top, an enticing reward for as much as $20,000.

His boat was found on Jan. 28, 2013.

His body was found eight days later.

Four years have passed and neither Jill Mullins nor the sheriff’s office have gotten any answers.

A normal day

“It was a beautiful day in January,” Jill said at her home recently.

That Sunday morning in 2013, she was headed to her aunt’s house in Sarasota to rummage through family memorabilia since her mother had passed away three months before. She had to be back at the house in the early afternoon to give some old furniture to a co-worker.

Before Jill left for the day, Pat had kissed her on the forehead and told her he’d help her with gathering the furniture.

She didn’t know he was planning on taking their Stumpknocker boat out to test the motor, later learning he had told his brother and a friend. When she returned to their house, on a tributary of the Braden River, around 6 p.m., he wasn’t there. His truck was parked in the driveway, so she thought he could have been at a neighbor’s.

Jill didn’t think anything of it at first, but as the minutes passed she checked for Pat around the backyard. The boat was gone.

She picked up the phone and started making calls — to his mullet fishing friend, to his brothers. It was 10 p.m. and she didn’t know how to report a missing person, thinking the police only really cared about missing children.

But the sheriff’s office came.

College sweethearts

“Pat was a wonderful person,” Jill said on an afternoon nearing the four-year anniversary of his disappearance. “He was able in many ways and just really enjoyed helping people.”

They were college sweethearts; he was from Manatee County, and she was from Sarasota. But they never crossed paths until she became roommates with his brother’s girlfriend at the University of Florida.

“His brother thought we’d be a good pair,” she said.

They’d come back to teach in Manatee County and have two children, Mason and Miles. They’d earn master’s degrees at the University of South Florida, eventually becoming high school media specialists, she at Lakewood Ranch and he at Palmetto High School.

As they neared their 30th wedding anniversary, Pat had picked out a hotel in Fort Myers and planned to make reservations.

His favorite author was Alistair MacLean, a Scottish novelist who wrote thrillers and adventure stories, and would croon jazz like Louis Armstrong. Pat would fix projectors in classrooms at school and argue the value of media centers.

“His one demon was that he wanted to be such a good school librarian,” Jill said.

His impact on his students was apparent during a standing-room only memorial service at Palmetto High School two days after his body was found.

The search begins

“The moon was full on the 26th of January and was bright on the first night of the search for Mr. Mullins,” read one of many reports logged in Pat’s case.

Many boats were out on the Manatee River that day in 2013, Jill later learned, because the weather had been so nice. She also would learn that the Suncoast Gun Show in Palmetto was at the Bradenton Area Convention Center that same weekend, seven miles from where his body was found.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the sheriff’s office marine unit had worked together to scan the coasts.

That night, it was 62 degrees and the water was calm. Jill remembered that her front door had been open, as cool air and deputies alike breezed through her living room.

She’d get questions, and often the same questions, over and over, she said, like what the identification information for his boat was.

All she could think about is how Pat would find a way home no matter what. He’s a good swimmer, she said.

Then they found his boat, nine miles west of Egmont Key. The boat’s green Bimini top was down and the motor was still running. But Pat wasn’t there.

Found with no explanation

“I was ... I was disturbed,” Jill said. “Finding it hard to concentrate, finding it hard to sleep. It was difficult.”

Her son Mason was serving in Afghanistan when his father disappeared, but he was able to get home with help from the Red Cross.

“He was on the boat with his uncle when I got the call that Pat’s body — a body was found, and it was probably Pat’s,” Jill said.

Boaters saw his body floating a half mile from the tip of Emerson Point, eight days after authorities found his boat.

The District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office reported that Pat Mullins died of a shotgun wound on the right side of his head. Dr. Russell Vega, the district’s chief medical examiner, added that based on the pattern of injury he was killed by a buckshot shell, which contains eight to 10 marble-sized pellets.

The autopsy report also stated that Pat’s body was weighed down by a 25-pound anchor tied to a three-quarter-inch rope, which wrapped both horizontally and vertically around his body, according to Vega.

The medical examiner’s office couldn’t decisively conclude whether the gunshot wound was inflicted or self-inflicted, explaining why the case remains an open death investigation.

The sheriff’s office never found a weapon, neither in the boat nor in the water. The Manatee River’s current is strong, and it’s possible a weapon was whisked away.

It gets more and more difficult to solve a case when the person has been missing over time, as potential witnesses could leave or forget, and even more so when the body is found in water, as decomposition speeds up and potential evidence can be washed away.

The skull was sent to a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida but because of the damage and loss of bone, it couldn’t be excluded definitely that there was another bullet path, although Vega said there was only one point of entry.

That would mean there would have to be two missing weapons, which Vega said added a level of complexity in a way that makes that possibility less likely.

Cold cases

“I have five detectives,” said sheriff’s office homicide unit Sgt. Karen DeVries. She took over Mullins’ cold case on March 30, 2016. “All of them are assigned different cold cases to work, depending on leads, information we get.”

Each detective is assigned between two and four cold cases to keep track of, and DeVries said some of them were her own from when she was a detective.

Incident reports, Crime Stoppers tips, lab results on evidence, search warrants, fingerprints reports, medical examiner’s reports, subpoenas, photos and newspaper articles – all related to Pat – fill the thick black binder that sits behind DeVries at her desk. But only when there’s down time in the homicide unit can she pay attention to open death investigations.

But one thing that can be definitively said about the case: It’s bizarre, said sheriff’s office spokesman Dave Bristow.

“If you’re going to test something (like the motor), you’re going to go out for a few rounds on the Braden River,” Bristow said. “But he got way down.”

“In that little boat,” DeVries added.

“The only person that can really tell us is him,” Bristow said.

The most recent step DeVries took in the case was in June when she sent a seat cushion from Mullins’ boat to be analyzed by a fiber specialist. Other than that, she keeps in touch with Jill, but cold cases rely on fresh tips.

An arrest was recently made in the Samuel Edwards’ cold case from 2014, DeVries said. That wouldn’t have happened had someone in prison not written to the sheriff’s office to give them information.

Rick Wells was the Palmetto police chief when Mullins went missing. Now, he heads the sheriff’s office.

Wells has been in law enforcement for 32 years, but said he has never handled a case like this.

“It’s frustrating when there’s information out there that’s not being passed along to law enforcement,” he said.

The sheriff’s office will follow any leads it has on the case, and Wells said it’s critical that if anyone has information on this case, or any case, they should contact them.

“There’s not even information that would make us lean,” Bristow said of Pat’s manner of death. “That would be comforting a little bit, I would think. I think that’s the worst thing to a family.”

Letting go

“I’m happy,” Jill said, while sitting on her pool deck on a recent afternoon.

As the anniversaries of Pat’s death come and go, Jill is marching forward, both in her life and her search for the truth.

She put her house up on the market a month ago, the home she and Pat shared and their children grew up in, but she plans to stay in the area. Jill had said someone told her not to make rash decisions immediately after such a tragedy, but now is the time.

“This is a mission to find the truth and I can’t change what happened, so I can’t be angry with the world,” she said. “I just have this purpose always in the background and sometimes it haunts me when I want to go to sleep.”

Jill is recently engaged to a retired man named Mike, who she met 18 months ago. When she thought the relationship might turn into something serious, she said she immediately told him about Pat because it could have been a deal-breaker.

“It’s not like we were divorced and had negative feelings or anything,” Jill said. “A death is different – especially a death that’s unexplained.”

Her fiance is supportive and understanding of her efforts to find out what happened.

“He’s gone out and helped me put the signs up,” she said.

Her son Miles’ wedding in June is another thing to look forward to.

But she still has her benches, she still has her Pat Mullins Memorial Fund and she still has her hope.

“Definitely we’ll continue pursuing this until there’s an answer,” Jill said. “That’s a part of life, but that’s not all of life.”

Anyone who has information on the Pat Mullins case, or any Manatee County case, can contact the sheriff’s office at 941-747-3011. Manatee County Crime Stoppers can also be reached by calling 941-866-8477 or going online at www.manateecrimestoppers.com.

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse