Twenty years have come and gone since the body of Laurie “Kim” Ball was found floating in a small pool of water in a marshy area off County Road 393 in Walton County.
Fishermen came upon her corpse Saturday, June 12, 1999. Ball had been reported missing only the day before, though she’d last been seen about 1 p.m. on Thursday, June 10, at a Destin home at which she was working as a housekeeper.
Her death, coupled with the fact that a killer has never been brought to justice, has torn a family apart. Kathy and Larry Clement, Ball’s parents, say they not only lost a beloved child in 1999, but a grandchild as well.
“We’d love to see our grandchild, ,” said Larry Clement. “If they’d have made an arrest in the beginning, it would have meant everything in the world. It would have meant we’d get to see our grandson.”
Austin Ball, the grandson, was 6 at the time of Kim Ball’s murder. Clement said he has been unable to locate Austin, who would be in his 20's now, for years.
Todd Ball, whose divorce from Kim after a lengthy separation became final just days before she disappeared, has long been considered the primary suspect in her killing. Attempts to contact him and/or members of his family —through former Ball attorney Harry Harper — were unsuccessful.
Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office records indicate that in June of 1999 Todd and Kim Ball were squabbling over custody issues and child support, which Todd Ball had been ordered to begin paying at least five months prior to the divorce becoming final.
Although Kim Ball was found only two days after she went missing, wearing the same clothing she was last seen in, heat and a saltwater environment fueled rapid decomposition of her body.
Investigators reported almost immediately that they suspected her death was a homicide, but it took weeks to confirm that suspicion. The cause of death was listed as "undetermined homicidal violence." Sheriff's Office documents reviewed recently also list asphyxiation as a contributing factor.
In 2006, then lead investigator Tom Bowman was reviewing video footage taken between 1 and 2 p.m. on June 10, 1999 at a Happy Store convenience store at the intersection of U.S. Highway 98 and County Road 30A. He discovered what he believed to be Todd Ball's truck.
“This vehicle was a 1997 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck with an extended wheel base (green in color) with a homemade wooden platform in the bed of the truck used for transporting marble counter tops,” Bowman said in a letter to the FBI. “Due to the fact that the wooden aperture was homemade, it is unique.”
The letter, urging the FBI to do what it could to enhance the obtained video, states that Todd Ball had told investigators he had spent the entire day his wife disappeared working at an Okaloosa Island job site.
"If this vehicle can be identified, it will prove crucial in the circumstantial case which has developed against Todd Ball,” the letter said. "If this vehicle can be identified as the suspect vehicle we will proceed with a grand jury and have Todd Ball indicted in this case. "
Sheriff’s Office records indicate that two people interviewed in the days after Kim Ball’s disappearance said they saw a green truck parked in front of the home at which she was working.
In 2009, the First Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office obtained a grand jury indictment and charged Ball with first degree murder. But the charges were dropped in 2011 after the video evidence was resubmitted to the FBI and determined insufficient to stand up in court.
“We tried to enhance the video using different techniques. We really tried to focus on that piece of evidence. In the end we were unable to do so,” State Attorney Bill Eddins said last week.
The focus of the Sheriff's Office investigation into Kim Ball's death remains unchanged, according to agency spokeswoman Michele Nicholson, and last week the agency revealed it has sent the same video and photographic evidence it provided the FBI for analysis 10 years ago to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“Due to technological advances in forensic imaging, I re-submitted the original Happy Store VHS video tape and 35mm slide negatives in April to the FDLE Forensic Imaging Lab in Orlando. I’m hoping for a definitive analysis,” Alan Vafides, the current lead investigator in the Ball case, said in an email.
Though the murder case is now 20 years old, the memory of Kim Ball, and bitter feelings created by her death and the extended, frustrating investigation, still resonates.
With the 20th anniversary of her death at hand, a cousin of Kim Ball contacted the Northwest Florida Daily News to request a story be written that might reinvigorate the investigation of the murder.
And last week, a man who refused to identify himself dropped by the Daily News to turn in a hand-written letter to the editor. It was titled “Justice Sleeps with the Fishes” and signed “I still know what you did that summer.”
The letter chides Eddins, the state attorney, along with Assistant State Attorney Russ Edgar, who headed the prosecution team in 2009.
It speaks of “parents without their daughter, a son without a mom and a forever grieving ex-husband.”
Given the circumstances surrounding the case, particularly the fact that Ball had been killed and dumped into a swampy canal off Choctawhatchee Bay, the title of the letter, which could not be printed anonymously, seemed to hold some irony. It also harkened back to a comment made by Todd Ball after Kim had disappeared but before her body was found.
According to a document titled “conflicting accounts” found stored among seven boxes of case evidence at the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, is a statement provided by Kathy Clements, Kim Ball’s mother. In it she related a telephone conversation with Todd Ball on June 11, 1999 in which Kim Ball’s disappearance was discussed.
“(Kathy) Clements said Todd told her ‘don’t worry, she will resurface in a few days,’ ” the document states.
Larry Clements said his wife hasn’t forgotten that long ago comment.
“It bugged her quite a bit,” he said. “But it did all of us.”