Cigarette butt in dead man’s car leads to accused killer 35 years later, Florida cops say

A man beat another man to death with an ashtray and stole his car in Florida in 1988, authorities said.

A cigarette butt found in the dead man’s car led to his accused killer more than three decades later.

The case has now been closed, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office said in an April 22 news release.

‘Obvious victim of murder’

The evening of Nov. 26, 1988, 58-year-old Robert Hecht introduced his friends to a man named Ray, deputies said. Ray had a southern accent and told people he had a 14-year-old daughter, but Hecht’s friends and acquaintances had never seen him before, they told authorities.

Hecht and Ray were last seen at a Punta Gorda bar before they headed back to Hecht’s house, deputies said. That was the last time he was seen.

The next morning, Hecht missed his weekly phone call with his sister who lived out of state, and ultimately police were called to conduct a welfare check, deputies said in a news release.

He was “the obvious victim of murder,” according to investigators.

“The crime scene investigation revealed Robert had been struck in the head several times with a heavy glass ashtray while in a prone position on the living room couch,” deputies said.

And his new Lincoln car was gone, but it reappeared two days later in Lenoir, North Carolina, deputies said, roughly a 730-mile drive from Charlotte County.

Inside the car, they found a clue that would eventually lead to Ray’s identity: a cigarette butt.

Those who knew Hecht told investigators he didn’t allow people to smoke in his car. This led them to believe the person responsible for Hecht’s death dropped the cigarette butt in his car after he died, deputies said.

They found another cigarette butt in Hecht’s home that investigators believe fell from the ashtray as he was being beaten.

But detectives couldn’t identify Ray, and the case went cold.

DNA advances

In September 2021, detectives reopened the case. Advances in DNA technology allowed scientists to determine that DNA on the cigarettes in the home and the car belonged to the same person, investigators said.

No matches came up in a DNA database, but investigators searched for possible relatives using genealogical examinations, and they found a family in Tennessee.

Witnesses who met Ray said he told them he lived in Tennessee and Kentucky, according to detectives.

“Through the process of elimination, interviews and direct comparisons to family members (including the biological daughter who was fourteen years old at the time of this murder), the source of the cigarette butts’ DNA was identified as Kenneth Ray Miller,” deputies said.

Miller would have been 36 at the time of Hecht’s death.

Detectives showed photos of Miller to the witnesses from that night in 1988, and they said it was the same man who was with Hecht.

Investigators learned Miller died in 2007 of natural causes, so they closed the case.

“The technological advancements in the field today are critical to breaking these cases, but it still takes good old-fashioned detective work and a passion to connect those pieces,” Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell said.

Charlotte County is in southwest Florida, about a 25-mile drive north from downtown Fort Myers.

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