Kern messaged teen through fake Instagram account before her murder, police testified

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Robert Kern removes his face mask so a witness can identify him during his trial for the 2018 killing of 16-year-old Justis Marie Garrett, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in the Volusia County Courthouse in DeLand.
Robert Kern removes his face mask so a witness can identify him during his trial for the 2018 killing of 16-year-old Justis Marie Garrett, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in the Volusia County Courthouse in DeLand.

Robert Kern, who is accused of killing his girlfriend’s 16-year-old daughter, set up a fake Instagram account in which he pretended to be a muscular young man and sent the girl messages, according to testimony.

Kern used the Instagram account under another name to message Justis Marie Garrett, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Agent Daryl McCormick.

The messages were extracted from a phone belonging to Kern which he had stopped using on March 1, 2018. The phone contained other data indicating it was Kern's phone.

Garrett did not respond to the messages, McCormick stated in court.

“You are a cutie. How old are you?” read a message on Feb. 10, 2018, from the Instagram account linked to Kern, McCormick testified.

"You got a BF," meaning boyfriend, on Feb. 10, 2018, McCormick read in the courtroom.

“Talk to me beautiful,” read another message from the Instagram-account linked to Kern on Feb. 11, 2018, to Garrett.

“You don’t like guys?” the Kern-linked account messaged on Feb. 11, 2018.

"I love your cover photo. God, you're sexy as (expletive)," read another message.

McCormick also testified that Kern's old phone revealed internet searches having to do with porn and drugs in the months leading up to the killing.

Assistant State Attorney Megan Upchurch, who is prosecuting Kern along with Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis, questioned McCormick about the messages and searches.

Kern's old cellphone had been used to search for information on GHB, a date-rape drug, on Feb. 26, 2018.

Kern's phone showed searches for “knock out drugs" and the best drugs to make someone unconscious.

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The phone showed a search for chloroform and having sex with a girl.

He searched for several sites in those months with titles about fathers having sex with daughters.

The phone also showed a search on Feb. 22, 2018, for a sexy brunette being forced to have sex in the woods.

Suspect was dating the victim's mother

Kern, 43, is charged with first-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence in Garrett's death.

Circuit Judge Dawn Nichols is presiding over the case at the Volusia County Courthouse in DeLand.

At the time of homicide, Kern was dating Garrett’s mother, Danielle Pratt. Garrett had been attending New Smyrna Beach High School until the family moved to Sorrento in Lake County several months before she was killed.

Garrett had missed her school bus to Mount Dora High School on April 13, 2018, so Pratt suggested Kern drive her to school, according to testimony.

But instead of driving her to school, Kern drove her east to DeLand, said Upchurch.

Kern raped and killed Garrett and left her body in a heavily wooded area in DeLand, Upchurch said.

Expert: Plant material in picture of girl's body was sand oak leaves

The body of the 16-year-old was found among muscadine grapes, southern live oaks and sand oaks in a heavily wooded area in DeLand.

And a botanist testified on Friday that leaves from those plants and trees were found in the Ford SUV belonging to Kern, who is on trial charged with killing the teenager.

Botanist Christopher Hardy testified that the "community" of plants found at the site matched to a large extent the plants found by investigators in Kern's SUV.

The body was discovered on April 18, 2018, in the woods off Service and Gasline roads by a man who was part of a tracking club.

Hardy, the botanist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, received evidence bags of plant material from the scene to examine. He also reviewed pictures of the scene as well as pictures of the body and of plants found in Kern's SUV.

He pointed out oaks and muscadine grapes in a photo of where the victim’s body was found.

Hardy pointed out that a muscadine grape was within inches of the teen’s body in one of the photos.

He said the muscadine grape found in the SUV’s trunk was an intact dry leaf which had not fallen apart. That means it had only been there weeks, not months, because it was still whole despite being dry, Hardy said.

Kern’s SUV was seized by FDLE on April 30, 2018.

Hardy also pointed out the plant material in a picture of the teen girl’s body at the morgue. Hardy said the plant material included leaves from a sand oak. There was also sand oak material in the SUV.

There were also leaves from southern live oaks and sand live oaks in the vehicle, Hardy testified. Those were also present where the body was found.

Assistant Public Defenders Adam Dala and Cameron Brown are representing Kern.

Dala asked Hardy whether muscadine grapes were “pretty wide spread” in Florida. Hardy said they were in rural areas but not in urban areas and were becoming less prevalent due to development.

In response to Dala, Hardy agreed that live oaks were pretty wide spread in Florida. But Hardy also said that the live oak leaves at the site were also “unique” in that the width of their leaves were at the narrow end of the range.

Dala said that Hardy had not been able to sample all the live oaks in Central Florida to come up with that range.

But Hardy said he had, because he had a book on the flora of North America in which another researcher had compiled such information.

The trial continues Monday.

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: DeLand murder trial: Kern set up fake Instagram account, police said