By Brett Raynor
This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
It has been 37 long years since the brutal murder of Nancy Jo Canode, a mother of three, whose children are trying everything they can to bring their mother’s killer to justice.
Canode’s daughters have started a Facebook page, reached out to other organizations such as Project: Cold Case, and have sent letter after letter to the State Attorney’s office pleading for their day in court.
“We will never give up and we will bring the killer to justice,” said Canode’s daughter, Shuri Sheppard, “and until then we will keep moving forward, keep pushing on and keep praying.”
Right now they’re praying that someone in Jacksonville will call police with a piece of information that will finally lead to the person who took Canode’s life on March 3, 1981.
The first indication that something was wrong that day came when someone from Caonde’s Ponte Vedra Beach condominium, The Fountains near Sawgrass on Florida’s A1A, called the operator.
According to a memo at the State Attorney’s office, Loretta Brown, the Southern Bell operator who took the call, stated in an interview with detectives that the call was from a woman who sounded frightened, asking to be connected with the police. But before Brown could alert her supervisor the caller hung up.
It would be eight more hours before the horror that might have produced that phone call became clear.
That was when Canode’s then 15-year-old daughter, Suzanne Speight, was returning home to the Ponte Vedra Beach condo from Fletcher High School, where she was a sophomore. When she walked in and put her books down she began calling for her mother. Getting no response, she headed toward her mother’s bedroom.
“I walked up the stairs and I saw my mother’s feet just inside of her bedroom, along with a lot of blood,” Speight said. “I decided not to go in the room any further so I ran to the neighbor’s house to get help.”
St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office deputies found the 39-year-old woman with a rope tied tightly around her neck and stabbed numerous times with an ice pick and a steak knife. The steak knife that was taken from the kitchen downstairs and left placed on her back.
The detective at the time, Neil Perry, later told Sheppard that it was one of the most brutal murders he had ever seen. He told her there was definitely signs of a struggle, but no signs of a forced entry.
It was then that officials called Canode’s husband of two years, Kenneth Canode, who has since changed his name, that there was an emergency at his home in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Canode’s husband was traveling in Georgia on a business trip when he was notified of his wife’s death. He was given a police escort back to Jacksonville, deciding to drive himself and follow the officers rather than ride in their vehicle.
When he arrived, Mr. Canode was allowed to go view his wife’s body on two occasions.
According to the memo from the State Attorney’s office, Perry noted Canode’s reaction as being flat and emotionless both times. Sheppard, who was 19 at the time of her mother’s murder, agrees with Perry’s evaluation of Kenneth Canode’s emotions.
“I was at work when I got the call, and I remember driving what must have been 120 miles an hour the entire way to the condo, but when I got to the condo the one thing that really stuck with me was him (Kenneth Canode),” she said. “That man did not shed a single tear.”
Canode had taken out a life insurance policy on his wife, which paid double in case of a violent death. It eventually netted him nearly $160,000. He told the Florida Times-Union that he was an insurance salesman and it seemed like the right thing to do.
According to the state attorney’s office, Canode, who was last heard to be in Texas, used the payout from his wife’s insurance policy to rent a house for an ex-wife and her children.
State attorney’s documents also show that Canode’s ex-wife told investigators years after the murder that Kenneth had visited her about a week prior to Nancy’s murder, when he told his ex-wife how unhappy he was in his current marriage. He said he would do anything to get out of his marriage and asked his ex to tell their two children that he would be coming back to all of them, according to the memo.
On Feb. 6, 2015, the case was thrust into the national spotlight, when the TV show “Cold Justice” featured Nancy Canode’s murder. The show’s title was “Operator, Hurry,” alluding to the phone call someone made to the operator that day. The episode ends with detectives presenting their case to the State Attorney’s Office and returning with word that the prosecutors planned a thorough review of the case.
Despite the hard work of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office detectives and the help of the Cold Justice team, the State Attorney’s Office for the 7th Judicial Circuit declined to file charges against Kenneth Canode.
“To gather that much momentum towards getting a trial with the show and not be granted one was really discouraging,” Speight said, “but I just have to be able to move on and live my life as best as I can, which I think I’ve been able to do pretty well.”
The sisters’ hope for a trial was shared by Canode’s mother, Josephine Canter, who told the Times-Union in 2009 that she hoped the case would be solved before she died.
Canter passed away on September 18, 2015, never seeing justice for her daughter.
The two sisters have created a Facebook page to honor their late mother. The page, named “Justice for Nancy Jo Canode – We will not give up,” has over 1,800 likes.
“The love and support we get from the Facebook page means so much, and we try to give back by sharing other cold cases on our page,” Sheppard said. “We want people to know that they are not alone, and other people care about their loved one.”
And that keeps the two women going. It also gives them a way to reach out to others who are also suffering and dealing with unsolved murders of their loved ones.
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