The mysterious killing of DeLand High School student Laralee Spear in 1994 has left a community transfixed and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office puzzled. But new developments in technology, a big reward and renewed community interest all make detectives hopeful.
On the afternoon of Monday, April 25, 1994, 15-year-old Laralee Spear left DeLand High School and never made it home, even though friends saw her get off the school bus a short distance from her house.
Her mother, Barbara Spear, called police when Laralee didn’t arrive home as expected. Less than two hours later, her body was found outside an abandoned home not far from the Spear home on Deerfoot Road. Laralee had been shot to death.
No immediate suspect was identified, but in the months to follow, one individual was arrested — 20-year-old Bobby Allen Raleigh.
Raleigh was already facing murder charges for two other West Volusia killings, and his vehicle fit the description of one seen near where Spear’s body was found.
But Raleigh, like other high-profile suspects over the years, was found to have an alibi. According to detectives, after three years were spent investigating and building a case against Raleigh, the Sheriff’s Office was left with little to go on and a killing with seemingly no motive.
Now, 27 years later, it is still a mystery who killed Laralee Spear and why.
The Spear case has been investigated by more than 20 detectives over the years, retired Volusia Sheriff’s Deputy Ralph Henshaw told The Beacon. Henshaw was one of the original investigators.
Since 2013, Henshaw has been volunteering to continue to help investigate the case. Today, the investigation is being led by Detective Cordell Lemay.
Lemay, like the rest of the Sheriff’s Office, hopes improvements in technology and a fresh set of eyes will help bring this case to a close.
“It’s going to be a combination of technology and good old-fashioned detective work,” Lemay said. “That’s why Ralph’s here; he’s the good old-fashioned detective work, and I’m the new-technology guy.”
Assigned to the Spear case just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lemay’s key focus at this stage is digitizing decades of documentation.
The paperwork consists of biographical information about suspects and others involved with the case, as well as interviews, testimonies and other information.
For most cold cases, the detectives explained, this kind of documentation can fit in one banker’s box, about a foot long by a foot tall.
For the Spear case, there are more than 20 banker’s boxes, enough to fill an entire shelf in the department’s cold-case file room. The answer to who killed Laralee may be in there somewhere, somehow eluding deputies.
“I have read, I think, everything that anyone has said about this case,” Henshaw said. “I can assure you that is one pile of reading.”
Sifting through the old documentation and evidence is time-consuming, Lemay said, but this case is an important one for the Sheriff’s Office.
“This is probably the Sheriff’s Office’s most high-profile cold case, and it should be,” he said. “You have a 15-year-old girl who was just enjoying life; she wanted to be a doctor, she got straight A’s in school, she’s involved in her church, she gets off her bus doing no harm to nobody and this happens to her.”
These days, the Sheriff’s Office does not have a dedicated cold-case unit, but homicide detectives, like Lemay, work with unsolved cases. Lemay is working the case full time.
While the passage of time has made leads in the case go cold, it might also work in investigators’ favor. In the 1990s, detectives interviewed a lot of young teens, and sometimes their parents sat in. Now those individuals are adults, and may feel freer to share information that could be helpful.
Fresh ideas are needed. In the Laralee Spear case, investigators said, the known high-profile suspects have largely been ruled out.
None still feel the shock of Spear’s death more than her family. Spear left behind her sister, Ginny Bussell, who was 13 at the time of her sister’s death. Now 40, Bussell wants nothing more than to see the mystery of her sister’s killing solved.
“We were only two years apart, and at the time she was trying out for the cheerleading squad, so I was helping her with her cheerleading routines and her jumps, things like that,” Bussell said. “She never had a bad bone in her body. Everybody that she met, she always had a smile on her face and she would always befriend people. She never judged, so we just can’t understand why somebody would murder her.”
“She did what she was supposed to do. You could absolutely depend on her,” Barbara Spear, said of her daughter Laralee in a 2014 interview with The Beacon. “She kept her promises. She kept her friends’ confidences.:
With her parents getting older — Barbara and David Spear are both approaching 80 years old — Bussell hopes the family can get answers soon.
“We just need closure,” Bussell said. “If you know something, please just say something. Even if it’s the smallest piece of information, just say something. Any little bit of information can go a long way.”
Not only detectives have been hung up on solving the mystery of Laralee Spear’s killing. The seemingly random act of violence left the DeLand community in shock, and it continues to puzzle people years later.
When the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office announced a new $50,000 reward for information leading to a conviction, social media lit up with conversation.
“Speculation at the time was that it was one of the Ridgeway brothers who was deeply involved in drug sales,” one Facebook commenter wrote.
The Ridgeway brothers, Geoffrey and Ronald, are serving life sentences for murder, drug smuggling and racketeering cases.
“People just might have thought, they were young adults, and maybe they may have had some encounter with her,” Lemay said of the Ridgeways. “I’m not sure how much truth there is to that. Probably not a lot. That’s another one of those theories that have been floating around in the public consciousness.”
“Bobby Raleigh is who they speculated, because of what he said to another inmate,” another commenter wrote. “My honest opinion is I believe in my heart that he did have [a] connection.”
Raleigh produced evidence that he had been at a vehicle-repair shop at the time of Laralee’s killing.
Other commenters expressed their desire for true-crime podcasts and documentaries to be made about the suspected murder.
A community of amateur sleuths determined to see a resolution to the case is not enough to get the Sheriff’s Office to reveal everything they know, though.
In higher-profile cases such as the Laralee Spear killing, Detective Lemay explained, people will sometimes confess to the crime or claim to have information.
The only way detectives can learn whether these claims might be real is by determining whether the person actually has new information, or is just repeating what they read in news stories. That means detectives must keep certain facts of the case secret.
“There are certain details that only the person who did this will know,” Lemay said. “That’s why we like to keep all of the pertinent details close to the chest.”
Either way, bringing the case back into the public consciousness is always good, volunteer detective Henshaw explained.
“The public has an interest in this, and as long as they have an interest, we’re going to get information,” he said. “We’re going to get good information and bad information, but we’re going to look at it, good or bad.”
The case being back in the news has stirred up some people’s memories of their high-school days.
“It definitely brings back a lot of memories,” Sharla Mitchell Mercado told The Beacon.
Mercado graduated from DeLand High School in 1994, the year Spear was killed.
“I think, for a lot of us, you look back on your senior year and think, ‘Oh, it was such a great time,’ and yet, there is that shadow of this girl who was killed, and for no apparent reason.”
Others remembered how it affected the community, too.
“It certainly was a tremendous impact on the students on campus,” Al Bouie, DeLand High School principal at the time, said. “Once we found out, there was nothing to do but to try and stay connected as best we could with what was happening.”
Bouie praised the work done by guidance counselors at DeLand High School, who helped students through the difficult time.
Bob Vogel was Volusia County’s sheriff at the time, and the case has stuck with him.
“I can tell you, anybody that’s been involved in that case, it still affects them today,” Vogel said. “It’s one of those cases that stands out because she was such an innocent young girl, young lady.”
Sheriff Ben Johnson succeeded Vogel as the county sheriff in 2001.
“When I took over as sheriff, that was one of those murders that sat out there that really haunted me,” he said. “We put a lot of effort out to solve it. Even though I was, at the time [of the killing] just a lieutenant with the agency, we put a lot of effort into it.”
The bottom line? The family and the DeLand community are hungry for answers.
On April 25, the Volusia Sheriff’s Office announced it was attaching a $50,000 reward to information that could lead to a conviction for the killing of Laralee Spear.
Detective Lemay told The Beacon it was a recent tip that brought the case back to the front of the Sheriff’s Office’s attention.
“Something happened tipwise recently that was called in that really generated new interest in it,” he said. “Unfortunately, I can’t really talk about it, but a lot of stuff turned out to not be verifiable. But it got the wheels spinning again.”
With improvements in technology and a greater pool of resources at their disposal thanks to assistance from the FBI, Lemay has high hopes that the case can be solved.
“That’s how we’re really going to solve this thing, because there’s an expert in everything, you just have to find them,” he said. “The federal government has a lot wider reach than we do as a local government.”
The point Lemay and Henshaw wanted individuals to take away is that any bit of information, no matter how small, could put detectives on the right track.
“I want to know who was friends with Laralee. She was 15 years old, so she had 15-year-old friends, around that age range,” Lemay said. “Kids back then, when they were interviewed, may have been afraid to tell us everything they knew, regardless of how insignificant it may have been. We’re hoping now, those people who knew her and might have known more private details that are adults now might be willing to come forward.”
Red herrings and pet theories have led investigators down rabbit hole after rabbit hole for years.
“Frankly, in my time as a detective,” Detective Cordell Lemay told The Beacon, “I’ve never seen so many coincidences in a case that led to nothing.”
Bobby Allen Raleigh, at one point suspected to have commit the murder, owned a vehicle — a dark truck — like one that was seen near where Spear’s body was found.
Raleigh was also thought to have, according to then-State Attorney Steve Alexander, an obsession with members of the DeLand High School junior varsity cheerleading squad, of which Spear became a member shortly before she was killed.
Spear’s body was found less than two hours after her mother called the police. This was thanks to the Sheriff’s Office’s Air One helicopter, which was already up in the air when they received the call about Spear.
Other individuals who members of the public suspected may have been involved in Spear’s killing included the Ridgeway brothers, Ronald and Geoffrey, who were involved in other murders in West Volusia. The Ridgeways and Bobby Allen Raleigh all had ties to crimes involving Club Europe, a Downtown DeLand nightclub, formerly at 225 W. New York Ave.