A woman and her dog were the first to find the headless torso.
The duo stumbled upon the remains in a gas station dumpster in Jacksonville, Florida, on a Sunday morning in June 1994. The body’s head, legs, and hands were missing. Two bloodstained kitchen knives were wrapped in nearby plastic bags. A mattress topper, rubber gloves, bath mats, and a bloodied flannel shirt were also inside.
It was a “mannequin or something, but looks like a real person,” the dog-walker told the station mechanic, he later recalled. Another witness who had visited the gas station earlier told police that he had seen a shiny sports car backed up to the dumpster, with its trunk open.
The body was fresh, investigators found, and had been washed of blood and fingerprints, and while the lower extremities had been cut away with a knife, the male genitals were intact. Forensics experts ruled the death a homicide and said the victim was likely between 14 and 17 years old.
Meanwhile, a family living an hour away was looking for their missing brother.
Fred Laster, 16, was last seen with local youth pastor Ron Hyde several days earlier. Laster hitched a ride with Hyde after a family argument, according to his sister. Laster and his five siblings were living with their elderly grandparents at the time, after their mom died from cancer four years earlier.
When Laster called his twin sister later, the boy “sounded distant, emotional,” she told police.
She asked Laster if he was alright and he said he was with Hyde. It was the last she ever heard from him.
Meanwhile, Hyde has worked as a youth pastor for the past 23 years. In that time, authorities and a local mother believe he may have preyed on other boys like Laster.
It was unusual for Laster to remain out of touch for very long, and the siblings grew worried. They sought clues from Hyde, the last man they knew him to be with, Laster’s siblings told police. The family met Hyde through their church in the 1980s, when he was living in a bus on the grounds. In the course of his duties, the youth pastor supposedly took a keen interest in the church’s young men.
“Ron was always taking her brothers off with him, and he was always spending time with young male boys,” Laster’s sister later told police. “She stated Ron always wanted to take up his time with young male boys with problems.”
Once Hyde moved into a house, he allegedly invited some of the Laster children to sleep over. When one of the girls woke in the morning, she found Hyde naked and attempting to quietly wake her brother, she later told police.
So when Laster disappeared after accepting a ride from Hyde, the siblings went to the youth pastor with questions.
Hyde’s answers were as troubling as they were inconsistent. First, he was said to have told Laster’s sister that he had dropped off the teenager near Jacksonville’s Pecan Park neighborhood. Confronted a second time, Hyde allegedly claimed Laster had jumped out of the car while on a bridge. Another time, Hyde allegedly named a different bridge. Then Hyde allegedly claimed to have dropped Laster at his grandmother’s house, before finally claiming that he had taken Laster to his house.
The siblings told police that they believed Hyde had information about their brother’s disappearance. But two decades later, Jacksonville police said in an affidavit there’s no evidence the Nassau or Duval County police ever followed up on the tip. Yet police at the time never linked the missing 16-year-old from Duval County to the teenage torso found a month after his disappearance, just two counties over.
In 2015, Laster’s sister saw a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children web posting about a decades-old unidentified body found in nearby Columbia County belonging to an adolescent male. She contacted police to say it might be her missing brother.
Police met with some of the siblings who said the unidentified body matched their brother’s description, and that the siblings had spent years wondering whether Hyde might have been involved in his disappearance.
DNA testing was limited in 1994, and the body had been scrubbed of fingerprints, which police might have used to identify the victim. But by 2015, new technology offered a new chance at identifying the body. That November, police sent in two of Laster’s sisters’ DNA for genetic testing against the unidentified body. In February, the results came back: a match.
The torso had been Fred.
The family found their brother, but not his killer.
Finally, after decades, police turned their focus on Hyde. Just months after identifying Laster’s remains, police followed up on the siblings’ tip about Ron Hyde and sent officers to comb through trash outside his house. They recovered a Solo cup filled with Hyde’s used nasal swabs in April 2016.
They ran the DNA against the second sample found on the shirt, and it was a match, as was Hyde’s old car, which was described as similar to the sports car spotted next to the gas station dumpster the morning Laster’s body was discovered. One of Laster’s brothers told police that the shirt looked like one belonging to Hyde’s dead father, which Hyde allegedly kept and wore when doing dirty work around the house.
Police also learned that Hyde had taken qualification courses for nursing program, which they say would have equipped him with enough knowledge to dissect a body.
On Tuesday, nearly 23 years after Laster’s slaying, police arrested Hyde for the 1994 murder.
“Sad but relieved at the same time, Freddy we miss and love you,” one of Laster’s brothers posted on Facebook. “Prayers for the family greatly appreciated.”
60 years old at the time of his arrest, Hyde still worked as a faith-based mental health counselor. In his decades of freedom, the accused murderer has been in frequent contact with children. The FBI said Hyde had been a suspect in at least one previous child exploitation case.
“He’s travelled frequently throughout the United States and abroad. During the course of this homicide investigation, we determined that Hyde was a named subject in a previous international child exploitation case,” Charles Spencer, an FBI spokesperson said in a statement to press. “We’ve also learned that through his various positions and jobs in the Jacksonville area, he had the potential for additional child victims, because he had access to children in multiple positions he held throughout the area.”
An FBI spokesperson said they did not expect to release information about the previous child exploitation case while Hyde was still being investigated for murder.
But outwardly, Hyde presented himself as a defender of children. On his Facebook, the alleged killer appeared fixated with child abuse, posting multiple images of crying children, overlaid with text condemning abusive parents.
“It shouldn’t hurt to be a child. Let’s end child abuse and domestic violence,” Hyde captioned a picture of crying boy, which was overlaid with the words “hey ronnie lump lump where’d you get those bump bumps?”
As a mental health counselor at Crosswater Community Church, Hyde advertised classes on “standing up to bullies,” as well as addiction counseling for “sex, pornography and relationships,” he wrote on his professional page. “If you’re ready to make a change, I can show you how.
The church where Hyde worked says they are cooperating with law enforcement.
“We are working and cooperating fully with the FBI in their investigation of Ron Hyde,” Pastor Jack Millwood of Crosswater Community Church told a local NBC affiliate. “I am personally not aware of any victims of Ron Hyde that involve anyone associated with Crosswater. If any person or persons has any information regarding potential victims of Ron Hyde, please contact the local FBI office.”
At least one local woman believes Hyde used his counseling practice to target her children after her daughter was murdered. Shelby Farah was 20 when she was shot and killed during a 2015 robbery at the store where she worked. Afterward, her mother Darlene made national headlines campaigning against the death penalty for Shelby’s killer. The national spotlight led to a wave of Facebook messages and friend requests, all of which Darlene accepted.
One of the messages came from Hyde.
“He just reached out and offered free counseling for the family originally,” Darlene told The Daily Beast. “Then he said he was focused on kids, saying he works with kids dealing with issues, and that he can help the family with what they’re going through… And then it went from my kids to my son.”
Her son had been 16 at the time of Hyde’s messages. “That’s what’s creeped me out. He was the same age as the other boy,” Darlene said. Although she usually politely declined people offering help after her daughter’s killing, she did not answer Hyde. She’s not entirely sure why. “He was really persistent. That might have been something that turned me away,” she said.
When Hyde’s arrest was announced on Tuesday, Darlene was not watching the news. Her daughter’s killer had just been sentenced five days earlier in an emotional court appearance during which he pleaded guilty and avoided the death penalty. Darlene did not make the connection to Hyde until a reporter with Action News Jax, who had been covering Shelby’s murder, noticed that Darlene was Facebook friends with Hyde. When the reporter contacted her about the connection, Darlene said she was sickened by what might have been.
“It’s creepy. My stomach’s nauseated,” she said. Her family thanked God they hadn’t answered Hyde’s messages.
“But I was never the type to trust anyone anyway,” Darlene said. “I’ve always said there’s nothing for free; it’s always going to end up costing.”