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Detective still seeking closure in murder

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

She seemed lost.

Before Steve Rotella was a detective and before Jennifer Lee Chambers was the victim of a violent murder, the Clayton County Police officer would see the petite teen on the streets at night.

He would say, "Hey sweetheart, what're you doing out here?" He would say, "You shouldn't be out here at night," or "Why aren't you home?"

Rotella knew the brown-haired girl was living a rough life, was mixed up with drugs, prostitution and older men, but he hoped he could say something to her. He hoped that when she wandered off into the dark, she would go home and things would be OK.

"Jennifer ... didn't seem to have that one person, that guide, that guardian angel," Rotella said. "Of course, that's every cop's fantasy, to be a guardian angel."

Six months ago, 17-year-old Chambers was found in the woods off Freeman Road. She had been brutally killed, her body dumped and badly burned. She was unidentifiable when she was found on Sept. 5 by a Clayton County Police officer who smelled decaying flesh and followed the scent into the woods. Her body had been mostly consumed by fire and left under a multi-colored poncho, near a sign that said "No Dumping."

The homicide case was assigned to Steve Rotella, one of the department's younger detectives.

It was, at first, a case consumed by questions. There were few leads and it was, Rotella said, the hardest case he'd ever seen and the hardest kind of case.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic examiners said the dead girl was wearing a red tank top and size-three jeans. They said she weighed about 100 pounds, was about five-feet, four-inches tall and had long, straight, brown hair.

Chambers' mother reported her missing nine days later, after seeing news reports describing what little was known about the murdered girl. Chambers' mother reported that the girl had a troubled past. The girl had dropped out of high school. She had been molested, had contracted HIV, had been involved in drugs and prostitution and had, recently, been living with an older, Mexican man in a trailer home.

A dental-records check confirmed the burned and brutalized body found off Freeman Road was the body of 17-year-old Jennifer Chambers. Rotella had to take the news to the girl's mother and grandmother.

At that point, Rotella said, he made a personal promise to see the case closed, to give the grieving family closure and bring the teen's killer to justice.

"No one deserves to die the way Jennifer died," Rotella said. "I made a promise to Jennifer's family that I would bring them some peace, closure, and apprehend the offender responsible for this murder ... My only concern is for justice to be served on behalf of Jennifer, regardless of her past."

The GBI's identification was a tipping point in the case, according to Rotella. When her name was listed in the news, he started getting phone calls and e-mails from her friends and from people who knew her. The pieces of the story started fitting together, and more and more information kept coming in.

"At no point has this gone cold," he said. "The calls did not stop. The e-mails did not stop. This case never lost teeth."

He's worked on it every day since she was identified. He's worked on off days, holidays and personal time, he said. Six months later, Rotella is still adding information to the investigative file, which is five volumes -- and growing.

He's hesitant to reveal any of the details he's discovered, for fear the case will be contaminated, but Rotella knows who Chambers was with, right before she died. He knows how she was killed and thinks he knows the motive behind her murder. He knows how she was living and who she was living with and, pretty much, he said, he has "just about everything answered."

But still, the case isn't closed.

He's looking for a friend of Chambers' who may know some important details -- a woman who popped up on an Internet discussion board, saying she was once in a treatment program with Chambers and knew some things, but who has since disappeared. He's also looking for Chambers' boyfriend, who disappeared, probably to Mexico, at about the same time the 17-year-old died.

"When I have somebody in custody, in court, then I'll be able to put this to rest," Rotella said. "It's draining, emotionally. I will feel, myself, accomplished, when this case is closed. Until then, I'll be losing sleep."

He would like to have the case closed by Chambers' birthday, in mid-December. That's a personal goal. He hopes he can bring justice and maybe, somehow, give the murdered girl the peace she couldn't find in life.

"I want to try to give Jennifer as much dignity as I can," he said. "I want to bring that killer to justice. It will not be a cold case. That's not going to happen. I won't let it."