A 32-year-old man in Florida has been arrested for allegedly killing, dismembering and burning the body of a 44-year-old woman who has been missing since February. Daniel Loren Stearns was taken into custody on Thursday and charged with one count each of second-degree murder, abuse of a dead human body and tampering with evidence in a criminal proceeding in the slaying of Nancy Howery, authorities announced.
According to a press release from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), the investigation began when Howery was reported missing to the Indian Harbour Beach Police Department on Feb. 18, after she did not show up to pick her children up from school.
Howery, who was reported missing by her ex-husband and two children, had last been seen alive on Feb. 15, authorities said at a Friday press conference on the case.
Detectives with the Indian Harbour Beach Police opened a new investigation into Howery’s apparent disappearance, but soon uncovered evidence that she was likely a “victim of foul play.” Additionally, police said they found evidence indicating that the incident involving Howery took place in Brevard County, outside of their jurisdiction, and turned the case over to the sheriff’s office.
BCSO detectives continued the investigation into Howery’s disappearance and quickly identified Stearns as a person of interest after a witness told detectives that he saw Howery on Feb. 15 and she said she was going to meet Stearns in Palm Bay.
Authorities said they learned Stearns and Howery had first met through a dating app and began a relationship. It was additionally learned that on Feb. 15, the couple had gotten into a heated argument.
BCSO’s Game Over Task Force and Fugitive and Aviation Unit soon began conducting surveillance on Stearns.
“During the early morning hours of March 9, 2023, Stearns was observed leaving his residence and traveling into an undeveloped wooded area in Palm Bay commonly referred to as ‘The Compound,’” the release states. “While in the area, Stearns was observed attempting to dispose of evidence. He was then detained by members of the Game Over Task Force.”
Homicide detectives and crime scene investigators responded to “The Compound,” and searched the area where authorities say they recovered human remains which authorities say they believe to be Howery, though additional forensic tests will be needed to make a final determination.
Investigators said that during the Feb. 15 argument between the couple, Stearns fatally shot Howery, then tried to get rid of the evidence.
“During the argument Stearns allegedly shot Howery which resulted in her death,” the release states. “Over the next few days Stearns allegedly dismembered and burned the body, burying the remains in several different locations.”
During Friday’s press conference, Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said there were actually five separate crime scenes within “The Compound.” He also noted that investigators with the Palm Bay Police Department and BCSO had both interviewed Stearns prior to setting up the surveillance teams.
“In both of those interviews, [Stearns] showed significant areas of deception and truly identified himself as a prime suspect in the case,” Ivey said.
Following his arrest, Stearns “not only confessed to the murder, but also to trying to destroy the body by burning it,” Ivey said, adding, “This is a horrific individual.”