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

John Henry Wolfe went to the Pembroke Pines police station every Wednesday evening for its Police Explorer program. He took courses and shadowed detectives on the job to prepare for a career in law enforcement. By July 9, 2003, when he was 19 years old, he had attained the highest rank of explorer major.

The young man — tall and thin with glasses and his father's loping gait — lived with his mother and grandmother in Hollywood and spoke little of his father. He had learned that asking questions about the man, whom he had not seen since he was 4, did not result in satisfying replies.

As he later recalled in a deposition, that night he went into the community affairs office to put away some documents. A few detectives kept their desks there. Before he got to the filing cabinet, he noticed a foldout display board covered with images of a missing person: David Churchill Jackson. From a photograph, a young man with a rough mullet and a wide smile stared back. Wolfe froze. He recognized "a tattoo and other stuff I remembered from the past."

An officer in the room noticed. "Hey, can you help me find that guy?" he joked.

"I can't help you find him, but I do know about him," said John.

"How do you know him?" asked the officer.

"He's my father."

"Get out of here."

"No," replied John. "I'm dead serious."

The officer, stunned, shooed away the other Explorers and began to question Wolfe. Later that night, he called Detective Donna Velazquez at home. "You're not going to believe this," he said when she picked up the phone.

Velazquez was a blond, motherly woman closing in on middle age. A few months earlier, she had been taken off a patrol unit and promoted. In addition to her everyday caseload, her supervisors made her the lead detective on the department's oldest unsolved missing-persons case, that of Jackson.

Determined to break open the cold case, Velazquez pored through files that had been compiled when Jackson went missing in 1988. She had created the display board to visually organize the information that would help her imagine Jackson's life.

"I was the lead detective," she says now, "so it was going to be up to me. I had to put something together, reconstructing it in a way I could understand."

At this point, she knew very little: that Jackson had been married and was involved in a custody dispute over his young son in the months before he disappeared forever on a summer night.

Velazquez never imagined that the son — who now had the last name of another man — was filing documents in her own office on Wednesday evenings: "I had been looking for John Henry Jackson, not John Henry Wolfe. He had never told anyone at the station about his father. It was a shock to me; it was a shock to everyone."

The unexpected meeting of a boy searching for his past and a detective on a quest for justice would ultimately lead to one murder conviction and, now, another trial on the horizon. For young John Wolfe, the cloud of doubt would shift from the father he had hardly known to the mother who had always kept him close.

Barbara Britton, John's mother, moved around as a child because of her father's career in the Army. She spent time in Germany and Oregon before her family moved to Hollywood, Florida, according to statements she gave to police. In 1982, when Britton was 17, she took a job at a Burger King in Pembroke Pines to earn money while attending McArthur High School.

She was pretty and petite, with wavy brown hair, dark features, and high cheekbones. People who knew her say she lived under the protective control of her father, who gave orders like a drill sergeant.

David Jackson, two years her senior, was her boss at the restaurant. Jackson's stepfather worked in the Burger King corporate offices and had gotten him a job as an assistant manager. Jackson graduated from Hollywood Hills High School but didn't have the money to pay for college. Instead, he worked for a wage and led a fun-loving life: hunting, fixing trucks, listening to country music on cassettes, and drinking whiskey straight. He had blond hair and sparkling eyes, his height occasionally accentuated by a pair of cowboy boots.

Jackson's close friend Bill Brown, now a union carpenter in Wisconsin, also worked at Burger King in those early days. He saw that Britton was eyeing Jackson during their shifts together.

"You know, Barbara's pretty into you," Brown remembers telling Jackson one day.

"Yeah, I know," Jackson replied. At first, Brown recalls, Jackson was nervous about flirting with a subordinate on the job. But Britton had set her sights on him, and soon they were together.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph