This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
A pony-themed birthday party on May 25, 2002, was the last birthday Mary Futrill Petersen was able to spend with her 5-year-old daughter.
Three days later, her then 8-year-old son awoke around 7:30 a.m. to tell his mom he was hungry but when he went to rouse her, she wasn’t breathing. The frantic boy tried to call 911.
When he found the phone was not working, he dressed himself and his sister and went to a neighbor’s house to beg for help.
Police arrived shortly after at the Fort Caroline home, but were too late to save Petersen. Although her body had no marks, police determined her cause of death to be asphyxiation by strangulation.
There was no sign of forced entry into the home, and Petersen’s vehicle, a Dodge Intrepid, was found about a mile down the road from her home.
Then – and now – Petersen’s murder remains a mystery.
“She didn’t have a lifestyle that would have positioned her to be murdered,” said Freida McMillan, Petersen’s coworker of 17 years at Brooks Rehabilitation.
Petersen was in the midst of a divorce from her husband, Donald, when she was murdered.
It was the second night she’d stayed in the Fort Caroline home since filing for divorce. She and her children had previously been staying at her parents’ home in North Jacksonville.
Her husband had been staying at a friend’s house nearby. For a story written in 2009, Donald Petersen told a reporter he had been watching television and fell asleep in front of the TV the night of the murder, which was confirmed by family members.
The case was reopened in 2005 due to “retesting of possible or potential evidence,” according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Because of its active status, they declined to share other details.
What family and friends were willing to share, however, were their memories of Mary Petersen.
They were quick to recall her bubbly, sweet personality. She loved and cared for each person she met.
“I don’t know of anyone who ever said an ill thing about Mary,” Fran Futrill, Mary’s mother said.
For the 17 years before her murder, Petersen had worked at Brooks Rehabilitation as the corporate accounting manager. She was on the verge of being promoted, according to McMillan.
It was a career she seemed to have been born into.
Even as a child growing up in North Jacksonville, when she would go to the bank with her father, Bill Futrill, she would insist on being the one to hand the money to the teller. Her father began coaching his daughter how to be responsible with money at a young age.
When Petersen got older, around 10 or 11 years old, she began taking care of her own checkbook and ordering items through the mail.
“She could read the pamphlets that came in the mail, and she would send them a check and they would send her stuff!” her mother said.
Petersen was also a wonderful mother to her two children, her friends said.
She had enrolled her daughter in dance lessons two weekends before she was murdered. She had also signed her son up for baseball, which he continued to play through high school, according to Futrill.
After the murder, Donald Petersen received full custody of the children and moved to out of town.
Mary’s parents were able to see their grandchildren for some time following their daughter’s murder, but Donald Petersen stopped visitations in 2005 after Rachel’s eighth birthday.
The Futrills still do not have contact with their grandchildren.
Today, those who loved Mary Petersen are still looking for answers.
“It’d be one thing if there was justice … but right now it’s just unsolved,” said Sherry Daniel, Mary Petersen’s cousin. “They [Futrills] have no child and no grandchildren.”
“It’s just the two of them with their hearts breaking.”
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