ST. CLOUD — Thirty-three years ago, fingerprints tied Jay Bass to one of the most violent murders in this small town's history.
Now, an investigation by St. Cloud police has determined Bass could not have left his prints in Norma Page's car and may have been framed in her June 21, 1979, abduction and death.
At the time, Bass was a 22-year-old known for drinking, racing a souped-up Volkswagen and disdain for local cops. He had divorced his wife, accusing her of infidelity with members of the town's police force, records show.
The possibility of evidence tampering first arose last year, when Bass was exonerated after a violent sex offender, Steve Bronson Jr., confessed in late 2010 to killing the local minister's wife.
Police were determined to find out how they had been misled for decades.
"If you look at the ethics and actions of the investigators 33 years ago, they are very concerning to me," St. Cloud police Chief Pete Gauntlett said last week. "This validated the need to conclusively and completely reinvestigate this entire case. … I cannot rule out any unethical or corrupt behavior that may have existed."
A recent investigation conducted with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that the fingerprints — the only hard evidence against Bass — were planted, mistakenly identified or accidentally switched, records show.
"We needed to resolve this the right way and conclusively end speculation that Lester Jay Bass had any involvement in this horrible crime," Gauntlett said.
Were Jay Bass' prints planted at the scene of the crime?
One set of prints found on the car's interior rearview mirror were identified as Bass' by FDLE in 1979 and later cold-case investigations by St. Cloud police in the early 1990s and another by FDLE that lasted more than five years, records show.
Those prints did not belong to Bass after all, the most recent FDLE investigation found last summer.
But a second set of prints from the car's outside mirrors raised suspicions of corruption — or incompetence — in one of Osceola County's most intensively investigated crimes, according to interviews and recently released records.
That second set contained such perfect prints of Bass' left and right hands that the Orlando Crime Laboratory's top fingerprint expert concluded that neither could have come — as police believed since 1979 — from the mirrors' curved surfaces.
"The latent lifts [of fingerprints] are inconsistent with originating from the mirrors," FDLE Senior Crime Laboratory Analyst Kelly May wrote last summer.
It's still not clear how Bass' bogus prints became unquestioned evidence, but records in the recent investigation cast suspicion on the original case's two main investigators, former St. Cloud Police Sgts. William Grinnell and Dan Jolly.
Both were accused of dating or trying to date Bass' ex-wife, Sheila Albritton, before or during the murder investigation.
"I'll be perfectly honest with you … somebody tried to railroad the man. I'm not saying you. I'm not saying Grinnell," St. Cloud police Detective Christian Anderson told Jolly during a tape-recorded interview last fall. "When I go out and find out the whole Sheila Albritton thing living with Grinnell and you were allegedly dating her at one point … I'm thinking the whole thing [stinks]."
Last year, Anderson tracked down Albritton, who remarried years ago and moved away from St. Cloud. She told Anderson she never dated Jolly and said she lived with Grinnell in 1979 but it wasn't a sexual relationship, records show.
Was original suspect framed in 1979 St. Cloud murder of Norma Page?
Jay Bass was a suspect in the brutal 1979 murder of Norma Page. He later was cleared. Were Bass' prints planted at the scene of the crime?