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43-year-old High Springs cold case reopened after body is identified

Ralph Tufano with hjis daughter, Maria. (Courtesy Alachua County Sheriff's Office)
Ralph Tufano with hjis daughter, Maria. (Courtesy Alachua County Sheriff's Office)

Although investigators finally have a name to go with the remains of a man found more than 40 years ago, they have plenty of questions about how Ralph Tufano’s body ended up in the woods near High Springs.

In the winter of 1979, James Prince, a Florida Division of Forestry employee, found a skeleton off County Road 236 in High Springs while conducting a controlled burn.

Due to the limited technology at the time, the body remained nameless for decades as the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office continued the investigation to identify the victim. 

Kevin Allen, the cold case detective for the sheriff’s department, decided in 2021 to try methods that had been used to identify the Golden State Killer. Allen sent the unidentified remains to a Texas forensic lab which was able to use genome sequencing to build a comprehensive DNA profile for a genealogical database search through sites like Ancestry and 23andme.

“Someone had a great idea. Maybe we could find relatives of the person that was responsible for those sexual batteries and homicides,” said Allen, referring to the California case. “They were the first ones to break (the Golden State Killer) case. I remember seeing that on the national news and my first thought that came to mind was, ‘Wow, I could use that for our unidentified remains cases.' And that’s exactly what we did with our 1979 John Doe case.”

Allen said he sent the DNA samples to Othram, a lab in Texas, which was able to find the best possible genetic sequencing. With the help of volunteer genealogy expert Misty Nall and Alachua County Sheriff’s Capt. Kaley Behl, a connection was made between the DNA and a distant relative of Tufano. 

Behl served as the liaison between the sheriff’s department and Tufano’s family in New York and made the original call to Tufano’s sister and Tufano’s two daughters that their missing family member had been identified in Alachua County. 

Both Allen and Behl said that their priority with this case, and other cases, is to keep open communication and be as transparent as possible. 

“You put yourself in their shoes and you think, ‘Can you imagine going 43 years and not knowing whatever happened to your dad, or your brother?'” Behl said. “I can’t imagine having that unknown for so long.” 

Tufano’s sister, Theresa Tufano Narbut, said she was very appreciative of how much effort was being put into solving this case over the years.

“They’ve been keeping us in touch in every way, every step of the way,” she said. “Every doubt, every positive. They’ve been amazing. We’re ever so grateful.” 

She and the family thought at first that a random call from a sheriff’s department in Florida, telling them they had found her missing brother, was sure to be a hoax. 

“We were just shocked,” she said. “It was very surreal.” 

Now that Tufano has been identified, the sheriff’s department is trying to figure out what brought him to Gainesville. 

Tufano was a successful accountant with a family, but he struggled with his mental health, Tufano’s family said. He had no connection to Alachua County.

The sheriff’s department and the Tufano family are asking anyone with information about Ralph Tufano’s last whereabouts to contact the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. 

“If you know anything, of his being there, of why he was there, who he was with, could you please come forward?” Narbut pleaded. “To have a little bit more closure would be even better for the family.” 

Anyone with information about Ralph Tufano is asked to contact Cold Case Examiner Kevin Allen at kallen@alachuasheriff.org or call (352) 384-3323.

Ivey is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.