More than four decades after a young woman’s remains were discovered on a Florida property belonging to a serial killer, cutting-edge DNA technology has finally identified the victim as a missing teenager.
Sixteen-year-old Theresa Caroline Fillingim was identified as the third of four bodies discovered in April 1981 at the sprawling home neighbors referred to as a “house of horrors.”
The property belonged to convicted killer Billy Mansfield Jr., who is currently serving a life sentence in California.
Sheriff’s officials made the announcement last Wednesday.
It took weeks for excavators and deputies to unearth the four sets of human remains buried in the junkyard owned by Mansfield in Spring Hill, sheriff’s officials said in a news release. Only two of the female victims were quickly identified.
Fillingim had been reported missing by her sister, Margaret Johns, in Tampa on May 16, 1980. She was a week shy of her 17th birthday.
Fillingim’s remains were sent to numerous labs over the years, but investigators didn’t develop a DNA profile until 2020, sheriff’s officials said. The sample was sent to the University of North Texas seeking a match in a national database, without results.
They tried again this year, using Parabon’s “Snapshot DNA Phenotyping” service, which creates a description of the victim rather than searching for a genetic match, officials said.
“Using DNA evidence from this investigation, Snapshot produced trait predictions for the associated victim. Individual predictions were made for the victim’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape,” the news release said.
The profile gave investigators an opportunity to generate their own leads, and a DNA sample from Fillingim’s sister confirmed the identity, “finally bringing peace to the victim’s family,” the sheriff’s release said.
Mansfield had already been charged with crimes including battery, kidnapping and sexual assault when he met 30-year-old Rene Sailing at a California tavern on Dec. 6, 1980, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Her body was found the next morning in a drainage ditch, officials said. Mansfield was arrested days later and charged with first-degree murder. He was eventually convicted after a mistrial and an attempted prison escape, the Times reported.
Publicity from that case led an an anonymous tipster to ask Hernando County officials to search Mansfield’s home for Sandra Graham, a 21-year-old who went missing from Tampa on April 17, 1980.
On March 17, 1981, officials unearthed the first victim — a woman in her 20s who remains unidentified to this day.
A week later, they uncovered the remains of 15-year-old Elaine Zeigler, a tourist from Ohio who disappeared from a nearby campground on New Year’s Eve in 1975. The bodies of Fillingim and Graham were then uncovered.
Mansfield, now 66, pleaded guilty to killing all four women and to the attempted sexual battery of another. He’s been denied parole multiple times, according to California prison records.
Johns, Fillingim’s sister, told the station WFLA that the positive identification has given her some closure.
“It gives me peace because I know I didn’t lose her,” she said. “That she was taken.”
Johns added that she plans to cremate her sister’s remains and split the ashes with her brother.
“The sad part of it is my whole family never knew what happened to her,” Johns said. “My dad died without knowing, my mom died without knowing… my sister died without knowing.”