Was a rancher murdered by his missing girlfriend?
Larry Costine was a southern cowboy. Just before the turn of the century, his great-great-grandfather had homesteaded a stretch of harsh land in Central Florida, near the city of Lakeland. Larry took his ranching heritage seriously. According to his uncle, Earlow Costine, Larry had spent his entire 31 years working with horses and cattle:
Earlow Costine was the barn manager for the local livestock auction. One of Earlow’s employees was Melissa Jo Sermons, whom everyone called Jo. Unbeknownst even to Earlow, Jo and Larry were romantically involved. They kept their relationship a secret because Larry had just split up with his wife, and Jo, with her boyfriend. The boyfriend often worked at the Auction Market, too. According to Melissa Jo’s mother, June Freeman, the boyfriend wasn’t taking the breakup well:
On Saturday, May 2, 1992, Larry and Jo were in Dade City, Florida, for the weekly rodeo. The events got underway around 10 PM. Larry was one of the local stars, and his favorite event was team roping. That night, Jo stuck by Larry’s side, right up to the minute he and his partner were called into the box. Larry and his partner won the competition that night and split a $350 purse. The rodeo finished late. Around 2 AM, Larry and Jo went to breakfast with a friend. It is believed they arrived back at his trailer around 4:15 Sunday morning. No one knows exactly what happened after that.
When Jo didn’t come home that night, her mother called Earlow Costine. For the first time, he learned of Jo and Larry’s relationship. Earlow called Larry’s trailer, but Larry didn’t answer. The next morning, when Jo didn’t show up for work, Earlow drove to Larry’s trailer. He found Larry’s truck in the driveway and heard a radio on inside the trailer. Earlow’s frantic knocks at the door went unanswered:
Larry Costine was found nude on his bedroom floor. He had been shot four times with a handgun—twice in the head. His bed had not been slept in. One of Larry’s guns was missing, however there was no sign of a struggle or robbery. There was also no sign of Melissa Jo Sermons. The Polk County Sheriff’s Department launched an all-out investigation. According to Detective Bob Ore, at first, suspicion focused on Jo’s ex-boyfriend:
Soon Jo herself became a suspect. But Earlow Costine was convinced that Jo Sermons did not murder his nephew:
The authorities believed Jo Sermons may be the only person who could’ve gotten close enough to Larry Costine to kill him without a struggle. Is it possible that something happened in the trailer that night? Something that provoked Jo to violence? Detective Ore was convinced Jo was involved in Larry’s murder:
Ever since the night Larry Costine was murdered, there have been sightings of Melissa Jo Sermons at truck stops in Florida, Texas, and Kansas. Two witnesses have claimed they saw her behind the wheel of a big-rig, hauling livestock. The authorities believed the sightings were reliable. Earlow Costine, however, did not:
Melissa Jo Sermons is five feet ten inches tall, blonde and blue-eyed. When last seen, she was muscular and weighed 175 pounds.
Danny Wayne Cerezo, a former boyfriend of Melissa Jo’s, has been arrested for allegedly lying to a grand jury about the murder of Larry Costine and the disappearance of Melissa Jo Sermons. Keep checking back for the latest information.