Questions About a Father’s Disappearance Led to Answers That Were Far Too Close to Home

Detective Velazquez believes that Jackson made a stop at a Mobil station for cigarettes and a six-pack of Heineken. Back in the driver's seat of his black 1976 Celica, he might have opened one of the beers to drink on the road, as he cruised past houses and farmland, headed eastward. Five unopened beers and a receipt from the gas station would later be found in his car.

Velazquez and prosecutors say that he then drove toward the beach, passing the jai-alai fronton on Dania Beach Boulevard, and turned into the parking lot of an isolated motel (now a Motel 6), where he expected to meet Britton.

The day after the Explorers' meeting, Velazquez met with John Wolfe in her office, beneath the images of his father. Now she and the boy were like two reunited friends, desperate to fill in the past.

Britton's ex-husband Michael Wolfe was already convicted of the murder.
Broward Sheriff's Office
Britton's ex-husband Michael Wolfe was already convicted of the murder.
Jackson as a young man.
Photo courtesy of Judy Carlson
Jackson as a young man.

"It was like a fact-finding mission for both of us," remembers Velazquez. "Face to face, we went back and forth."

According to her, John was happy to learn that police had reopened the case. "I've always wanted to know what happened to my father," she remembers him saying. His mom had never given him a straight answer. Sometimes she would say she hoped he was alive. Other times, when upset or angry, she would snap, saying that he was dead. Two years earlier, he had recruited a friend's father, who worked in law enforcement, to look for leads. Nothing surfaced.

John's recollections of his father were vague, and he couldn't tell if they had been poisoned by his mother's input. He struggled to sift out his independent memories from Britton's allegations of his father abusing him — forcing him to eat or burning him with a cigarette.

"I do remember happy memories [with my father]," he would later say in a deposition. "I had two [Cheez Doodles] in my mouth like a walrus... and I remember running around [a] glass table just making noise. And I remember falling... I remember crying."

But did his father then put him on the phone with Britton, as she claims, hitting him to make him cry louder so she could hear? In a deposition last year, John could not remember. "Honestly... my mom is very, very paranoid," he said.

Britton's new husband, Michael Wolfe, adopted the boy when he was 5 years old, and the couple changed the boy's last name to Wolfe. But Britton began to distance herself from this husband too, according to people who knew them.

By 1990, she and 7-year-old John were back in Florida living with Britton's parents. Michael Wolfe faded out of their lives.

Britton went to work at a new Walmart that was opening in Miramar, at Pembroke Road and University Avenue. It was just across the airport grounds from the Burger King where she and Jackson had met as teenagers.

It was also built almost directly on top of the scene of a grisly discovery.

A year earlier, a construction crew had been clearing land near the site of the new Walmart. An 18-year-old worker found a skeletal hand, wrapped around a vine, on the surface of the excavated dirt. Then he found more bones. He called police. The bones, enough to form a partial skeleton, were not identified. The medical examiner's staff stored them on a shelf, where they would sit for 15 years.

After Velazquez and John had exchanged all they could about family history, the detective set about her work with a renewed focus.

She dug up old police reports and found an instance of a call for service from the Brittons, claiming that Jackson had "kidnapped" John.

She checked the Florida Unidentified Decedent Database, a public repository that lists unidentified remains from around the state. She entered Jackson's basic characteristics and date of disappearance and got about 50 results. Methodically, she sorted through them one by one until she found a likely match: the bones from the Walmart site. She ordered a report from a forensic anthropologist and brought in David's mother, Judy Carlson, to see if her DNA matched the bones.

The results were positive. Velazquez reclassified Jackson's case from a disappearance to a homicide.

"At times, the case felt overwhelming," Velazquez recalls. "It kind of took on a life of its own, but I wasn't intimidated. I let it speak to me. I followed it."

She was motivated in part by sympathy for Jackson's mother. Velazquez and Carlson were becoming friends, and Velazquez related to "just needing to know where your child is."

And John proved a tremendous resource in her investigation. From the boy's description of his stepfather, Velazquez tracked down Michael Wolfe. He was living with a new wife in Kettering, Ohio. Velazquez found it odd that he had married Britton so quickly after meeting her, just a few months before Jackson disappeared.

Velazquez spent a year directing a flurry of phone calls, subpoenas, and interviews. In June 2004, detectives turned up the heat on Wolfe. Velazquez's partner met him in Ohio on June 17, and he began to talk.

That same day, in Florida, Velazquez went to visit John.

"What your mom has told you has not been the truth," she said, according to a transcript. "I didn't want to be the one to tell you. But as a man, you need to hear this... I wholeheartedly believe that your father was murdered. And I wholeheartedly believe that your mother has firsthand knowledge of it... Your father was murdered because of his love for you over child custody issues. Your mother never wanted to share you with him."

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