MARIANNA, Fla. (AP) — A cold, dry, dawn fell on the rural pastures of Graceville the morning of Jan. 29, 1989.

As the sunlight burned through an overcast sky that Sunday, two neighborhood children ventured to what locals coined "the McRae mansion" only to find two ski masks in the backyard, sending a clear message something was amiss at the prominent family's property. The blue and brown, knit ski masks would be the first pieces of evidence discovered in a double murder that would intrigue national and local law enforcement for decades.

"There are literally hundreds and hundreds of persons of interest," former Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen said in a recent interview with The News Herald. "This case is like a movie. It just moves and kind of has a life all its own. I couldn't tear myself away."

As that 1989 morning turned to afternoon, the blue and white Graceville patrol cars amassed out front of the sprawling brick façade of the home belonging to Robert McRae, 72, and his wife, Kathryn, 70. Inside, police would find the couple in the kitchen. Kathryn had been thumb-cuffed with her hands behind her back. She and Robert had each been shot once in the back of the head.

Despite the couple having many valuables in the home, officers could only place the money from Robert's wallet and a ring from Kathryn's hand as missing. Robbery soon was ruled out as the primary motive as the homicide investigation that continues to this day was set in motion.

'No cop really retires'

From an office nook at the back of his home, McKeithen has been volunteering his time to pore over thousands of investigative notes from the years since what is now notoriously known as "the McRae murders." The addition of the office was a gift from his deputies when McKeithen abruptly announced in July 2016 he would be retiring by Aug. 1. Top-tier investigators — on the federal, state and local levels — have taken a crack at the case over the years, but recent developments have some optimistic a resolution is near.

McKeithen said after retiring that he didn't think it would be only a matter of months before he returned. But after being asked by Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts in January to assist with the McRae case, McKeithen said he couldn't sit idly by while the family still awaited justice.

"Every day, I think about how important it is to get closure for them," he said. "Every time I stop working on the case, I think about that. ... It's something you can't describe. When you've got it, you've got it pretty bad."

McKeithen has a hard drive containing almost all the case's physical documents, which BCSO assisted in scanning into digital form years earlier. He often makes the trip to the Jackson County Sheriff's Office (JCSO) in Marianna, where the stacks of files overflow from cabinets and boxes, filling an entire office.

In January, as the 28th anniversary of the slayings approached, Roberts and McKeithen announced at JCSO the case would be submitted to the Florida Sheriff's Association for a fresh look by that organization's Cold Case Advisory Commission, which consists of law enforcement and scientists alike. Roberts said with advances in technology, his optimism has grown recently that the case could see closure sometime soon.

"It opens it up for more eyes to attack it from different angles," Roberts said. "We just need that one break. You never know; it could be today."

Conspiracy theories arise

Rumors churned in the small town shortly after the McRaes' deaths that the two had been victims of an execution-style slaying. Despite officials initially trying to dispel the rumor, the theory persisted.

One theory that arose over the almost 30 years since the McRae murders, McKeithen said, is that the killers sought something highly valuable. By bounding Kathryn and not Robert, the scenario suggests the killers were using her as leverage to demand something from him. But perhaps they were cut short by someone driving up through the mansion's roundabout, which was a common practice for locals to do with visitors, and rushed from the scene, leaving behind their masks.

Several different theories have been explored over the years, including a broad conspiracy theory involving Gulf Power, the multibillion-dollar subsidiary of the Southern Co.

Robert McRae was a former director of Gulf Power. He had been summoned to testify before a federal grand jury at the time of his death in connection with allegations the company had been involved in a multimillion-dollar tax fraud scheme and making illegal political donations. The theory intensified after April 1989, when a plane containing two pilots and the director of Gulf Power's government affairs, Jacob F. Horton, caught fire and crashed after it took off from Pensacola en route to Southern Co.'s headquarters in Atlanta to discuss the grand jury investigation.

After the crash, which killed all three passengers, an anonymous call came in to the Escambia County Sheriff's Office switchboards.

"Yeah, you can stop investigating Gulf Power now," the gravelly voice relayed over the line. "We took care of that for them today."

Some considered the order of events an indication someone wanted the men silenced to keep them from testifying. It also could have been an accident, with the phone call planting the appearance of sabotage to cast a shadow on Gulf Power.

Neither theory has been publicly proven or dispelled.

A second murder

Two hundred miles north and months after the McRae murders and the plane crash, volunteer firefighters arrived Oct. 15, 1989, to a fully involved house fire in McCalla, Alabama. After dousing the fire, officials found inside the wealthy Worthy couple, Acie, 67, and Carolyn, 54. It wasn't until the autopsy the next day that authorities learned the two had each been shot in the head with a 9-mm handgun before the fire ever started.

On the evening of their murder, the Worthys had just returned home from a Sunday church service. Investigators believe they were ambushed in their own driveway, shot and then dragged inside the home, which was then set on fire to destroy any evidence.

The flames ravaged most of the evidence, and officers were unable to determine if anything other than jewels and cash was taken.

The investigation took an initial twist about a month after the Worthys' deaths. That's when Jackson County law enforcement approached Alabama investigators to explain the similarities between the McRae murders and that of the Worthys. Officers first noticed the apparent similarities — both couples were older, wealthy people killed at their homes in similar fashions — but what solidified the link between the murders was what is now known as "the mystery bullet."

While the McRaes both had died from gunshot wounds from a .25-caliber firearm, an officer gathering evidence outside their home found a fired but almost undamaged 9-mm projectile in the driveway. As they are fired, all bullets are left with unique markings from the gun barrel from which they came. The markings from the mystery bullet and those recovered from the bodies of the Worthys were identical, McKeithen said.

"That bullet has been checked numerous times," he said. "From that we started looking at who of the people of interest could have been at both places."

The mystery bullet has only taken investigators so far, though. And any other connections between the McRaes and the Worthys are tenuous at best.

McKeithen said one man who was a self-proclaimed contract killer emerged as a front-runner in the suspect pool. He, however, died in the early 1990s. His inability to defend himself against the charge, coupled with suspicions that law enforcement were in on a cover-up for Gulf Power, has presented investigators with an additional obstacle in the case.

"We're not sure enough to bring this to a close," McKeithen said. "You have to be absolute. We're not trying to clear the case. We're trying to solve the case."

Cold Case Commission

In June, McKeithen and Roberts got the chance to bring the case before the Cold Case Advisory Commission, which is vice-chaired by Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford. He was asked to take the position after succeeding McKeithen as sheriff. Ford is among the numerous officers to investigate the McRae case as part of a team when he worked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"To see that effort continuing is good," he said. "I'd love to see it solved."

The Cold Case commission is made up of cold case specialists, law enforcement, judges, forensic anthropologists and DNA scientists. The goal of the group, which has been around a little more than two years, is to put together specialists from different investigative arenas to discuss possible avenues that could lead to solving a murder.

The McRae case and one other unsolved Jackson County homicide were the first from the area to be considered by the commission. Roberts, who was one of the sheriffs to sit on the board that created the commission, said the fresh eyes on the case gives hope it can be resolved. And while time is unfriendly to DNA evidence, he's hoping the exposure will open new leads to a resolution.

"We have to think outside the box and be aggressive," Roberts said. "A law enforcement officer is all about holding people responsible and accountable. This is a new tool to help us with that."

Some of the advancements in DNA technology can be significantly costly for agencies already strapped for resources. Ford said in the commission's future he hopes to go after funding to set aside for law enforcement agencies to afford those tests.

"It's important for justice of the victims and closure for the families," Ford said. "With cold cases, there is also the possibility a violent criminal remains on the street that we need to remove."

So far, existing DNA science has not been able to confirm the identity of either person who donned the ski masks left behind so long ago in the cold dawn that rose over the McRae mansion.

"I don't know how soon we will get a resolution. I'm optimistic there will be a resolution," McKeithen said, noting 95 percent of cold cases are solved with DNA advances. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that we're going to get these guys."

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Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, http://www.newsherald.com