Arrest warrant details how detectives cracked 26-year-old Cape Coral double homicide

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FORT MYERS, Fla. – A man facing murder and sexual assault charges in one of Cape Coral’s oldest cold cases claims he doesn’t remember the victims and denied being at the crime scene, but investigators believe DNA evidence, jailhouse letters and recorded phone conversations prove otherwise, according to an arrest warrant.

It was DNA that linked Joseph Adam Zieler, 54, to the 1990 murders of Robin Cornell, 11, and Lisa Story, 32. Zieler, of 314 Byron Ave. in North Fort Myers, faces two counts of first-degree murder, sexual battery with a child less than 12 years of age, sexual battery with deadly weapon or great force and burglary of an occupied structure.

Zieler, after facing a judge in his first court appearance on Thursday, remained in the Lee County jail under no bond. He has been assigned a public defender.

Gruesome discovery

Story moved into the SE 12th Avenue home that Robin and her mother, Jan Cornell, lived in on May 9, 1990.

Story was to spend her first – and last – night at the residence.

Jan Cornell helped Story move in, then went to her boyfriend’s house to watch basketball.

“This was an impromptu decision, and she let Lisa and Robin know that she’d be back shortly,” the warrant said.

Jan fell asleep at her boyfriend’s. She woke up at 4 a.m. and rushed home to get ready for work.

The front door was locked when she arrived.

She knocked.

Footsteps were heard but no one answered.

Jan walked around the residence and was able to enter through opened sliding glass doors.

“Jan entered the apartment via those sliding glass doors and found four photographs in frames laying on an opened ironing board,” the warrant said.

Three pictures were of Robin, the fourth was of Jan’s older daughter, who was 19 at the time.

The photos were normally on top of the living room stereo cabinet.

“Very concerned for the unsettling circumstances, Jan quickly went upstairs to check on her daughter,” the warrant said.

Robin was found face down on the floor inside the master bedroom.

There was evidence implying of a sexual assault.

Jan performed CPR while notifying emergency dispatchers.

Arriving officers found more evidence of a sexual assault.

Authorities then went into Story’s bedroom. She was found in the fetal position on the right side of the bed with a pillow covering most of her head. A blood smear was on her left hip and her body was cold to the touch, the warrant said.

An autopsy determined Robin and Story were suffocated and sexually assaulted.

DNA hit

DNA evidence was found on a sheet and pillow. It was entered into a DNA database.

“The case has continually been investigated over the past 26 years, by multiple investigators,” the warrant said. “DNA tips and leads have all been tracked and followed up,with no DNA match to the suspect (More than 100 subjects have provided DNA samples).”

The DNA database received a hit from evidence found at the scene on Sept. 19.

Zieler was arrested for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon on Aug. 27. He allegedly shot his 25-year-old son in the chest with a pellet rifle following an argument.

The pellet nicked his son’s heart, the warrant said.

Following the DNA hit, Zieler was brought to Cape Coral police headquarters, where he was questioned about the cold case.

“Zieler stated that he is disabled due to a brain injury caused when he was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle in 1998,” the warrant said. “Zieler claimed that he had no memory prior to that day, and could only recall things that he deals with on a daily basis.”

When shown photographs of Robin and Story, Zieler said he did not know them and didn’t believe he had ever seen them before. He also didn’t recall the home where they were found when shown pictures of the dwelling.

“Zieler never asked what happened to them,” the warrant said.

Investigators obtained fingerprints and further DNA from Zieler, then brought him back to the Lee County jail.

Zieler’s fingerprints did not match those found at the crime scene, the warrant said.

Claims debunked

Zieler claimed to have short-term memory due to his accident, but investigators pointed to recorded jail phone calls he had with his girlfriend that were “very specific and concise, and has a clear memory of the past.”

Zieler instructed her to state that he’s not a flight risk, to make financial decisions for him while he’s in jail, to lie for him and to make sure their son does not show up for court so the assault charge is dropped, the warrant said.

“Now listen, back in 1990 I did go through this before and nothing bit me in the ass, so there’s a very good chance it won’t, so we aren’t going to discuss it any further,” Zieler said in one of his calls, according to the warrant.

Cape Coral detectives interviewed his girlfriend, Bonnie Kniceley, on Sept. 22.

“Bonnie admitted that their recorded conversation sounds like she knows exactly what he is concerned about, but she claimed that she was just agreeing with him to ‘shut him up,'” the warrant said. “Bonnie stated that she was alarmed when Zieler called her frantically that morning and thought his poor health was the reason he needed to get out of jail.”

When told about the DNA match to the killings, Kniceley “expressed anger towards Zieler, and sadness for the victims,” the warrant said.

Kniceley provided detectives with letters Zieler sent her from jail.

In parts, the letters contained the following statements, according to the arrest warrant:

  • “There’s a good chance I’m going to prison for the rest of my life because of where the things crept.”
  • “I’ve hid in that room afraid of things for the last 20 years, and now that this has happened there will be no more chance to hide. If it happens it’s what is to be. I’ll turn myself in and won’t run off.”
  • “I can’t help what transpired before I met you, I can only say it stopped. It stopped because of you, if I lose you now I’ll slip away back into what I once was. I don’t want to face that type of existence again. I’ll lose my mind completely. I don’t want this thing to creep back in and become violent again.”
  • “I go to just roll with the fact that I went thru this in 90, though they weren’t quite as thorough back then as I remember it.”
  • “It’s just a gamble not knowing when and if the hammers gonna drop on the other things. It’s the first time I’ve seriously decided to clean my soul and make and honest heart felt conversation to a priest. He let me do an all-inclusive statement covering my life from 1975 on.”

Kniceley, in a subsequent phone conversation with Zieler, confronted him about the DNA.

“Zieler could not explain why his DNA was found at the crime scene, and he told Bonnie that he was being framed,” the warrant said.

On Monday, investigators received further DNA confirmation tying Zieler to the crime scene, including DNA found in one of the victims, the warrant said.

The arrest warrant was signed on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Cape Coral police announced Zieler’s arrest in a news conference attended by current and former law enforcement involved in the case as well as relatives of Robin and Story.

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