Angels & Demons
On June 4, 1989, the bodies of Jo, Michelle and Christe were found floating in Tampa Bay. This is the story of the murders, their aftermath, and the handful of people who kept faith amid the unthinkable.
Chapter 1: Sunset
One year had gone by since the murders, and then another, and now the investigators were deep into a third. They were working day and night, working weekends, putting off vacations, losing weight, gaining weight, growing pale and pasty and haggard, waking at 3 a.m. with a jolt and scratching notes on pads kept beside their beds.
Their sergeant did not know if they would ever find the answer. As far as he was concerned, the case was not even in their hands.
Ultimately, he believed, it was up to God whether they made an arrest.
A born-again Christian, the sergeant carried a Bible in his briefcase. He had no doubt that both heaven and hell were real. He saw good and evil not as theoretical or philosophical concepts, but as absolute realities walking upright through the world. He believed in the forces of light and darkness. He believed in demonic possession. He took it as a matter of fact that Satan and his cohorts currently reigned over the Earth.
“I believe there are demons all around us,” he would say, “just as I believe there are angels all around us.”
And when he looked at the evidence from the case before them now, studied the photos of the bodies and the ropes and the concrete blocks, the sergeant had no doubt that he and the other investigators were pursuing someone driven by Satanic forces.
Of course demons were real. They were hunting one now.
They were on their way to the Magic Kingdom.
The highways were filled with them. Couples in subcompacts, debating the wisdom of stopping at Stuckey’s for a pecan log. Tour groups in tour buses, fleecing their companions at gin rummy and keeping an eye on their driver in case he nodded off. Myriad configurations of moms and dads and stepmoms and stepdads and napping toddlers and whining third-graders and sprawling teenagers in full sulk and mothers-in-law with pursed lips and embittered outlooks, all struggling for peaceful coexistence inside the air-conditioned confines of their minivans.
They were pilgrims, embarked on the same passage so many millions had made before. From every corner of the country they came, descending through the lengths of Alabama and Georgia until at last they reached the threshold of their destination.
Even then, they were not merely crossing state lines. They were slipping over to the other side, entering the isle of eternal youth, dominion of the sun, temple of the mouse who devoured the world, paradise of glistening beaches and murmuring waves and hallucinatory sunsets and oranges dripping with ambrosia and alligators smiling jagged smiles and snowy-haired seniors who play shuffleboard as they wait cheerfully for their collect call from God and intrepid astronauts who climb aboard gleaming spaceships, launched with a roar into a heavenly blue sky.
The ’86 Oldsmobile Calais, pointed south on Interstate 75, was the color of that sky.
Inside the car, Jo Rogers and her daughters were making their escape. They were leaving the farm, leaving the sheriff’s deputies and the counselors and the lawyers, searching for someplace warm and safe where they could hide and forget and find a way back to themselves.
They had one week.
“We’ll be back,” Jo had told her husband.
It’s easy to picture her and the girls that first day. To see their two-door sedan climbing into the hills of southern Ohio, to hear the drone of the tires on the pavement, to sink into the quilted dark blue fabric of their bucket seats and gaze down the highway to the edge of the Earth, dropping off over the horizon.
Jo, tired as usual but glad to finally be off, was at the wheel, at least in the beginning; this much has been confirmed. Michelle, 17, the quiet one with the constellation of rings on her left hand, was probably up front as well, in the passenger seat. Christe, 14, the baby of the family, her father’s favorite, the cheerleader, the one with the mane of mall hair and the trio of friendship bracelets on her wrist, most likely would have been in the back.
They had a road atlas, and as they drove, they must have studied it closely, plotting their path straight through the heart of the country. They had a long way to go.
It was the afternoon of Friday, May 26, 1989. A few hours earlier, Jo and the girls had started out from their 300-acre dairy farm in Van Wert County, in the northwestern corner of Ohio. The night before, Jo had worked her usual midnight shift — she drove a forklift and worked the assembly line at Peyton’s Northern, a distribution center for health and beauty products on the other side of the Indiana state line — and had come home around dawn to their double-wide mobile home and grabbed a few hours of sleep while Michelle and Christe finished packing. Finally, around 1 p.m., the three of them got into the Calais, and Jo backed it up to the milk house to say goodbye to her husband.
Hal Rogers was outside, unloading corn gluten feed, when Jo backed around. He stopped for a moment, and Jo leaned through the window and gave him a kiss.
“Have a good time,” he said.
Hal had wanted to go with his wife and daughters. But the spring rains had been late that year, and there was still corn and wheat and soybeans that needed planting and 80 Holsteins waiting to be milked every day at 5:30 a.m. and again at 3 p.m., no exceptions. Somebody had to stay and keep it all going.
Jo and Michelle and Christe were determined to make the best of it, even without Hal. They had been buzzing about this trip for weeks, debating which theme parks to hit and which to avoid, logging sessions at a local tanning salon so they would have a good base of bronze to build on under the southern sun. They had good reason to be excited. This was the first family trip of their lives, the first time they had managed to free themselves from the daily rigors of the farm and get away together. Most years, the best they could hope for was a few days at the Van Wert County Fair.
“When you run a dairy farm,” explains Colleen Etzler, Jo’s sister-in-law, ”you don’t get a vacation.”
Early on, when they were planning the trip, Jo and the girls had talked about visiting Gatlinburg or Gettysburg. But in the end they had decided to be more adventurous and make the thousand-mile journey to Florida. The three of them wanted what every other tourist wants from the Sunshine State. They wanted to lie on the beach and shake Mickey’s hand and throw away a few dollars on overpriced souvenirs. They wanted to let go, to be renewed, to lose themselves inside the myth.
So off they went. That afternoon, after saying goodbye to Hal, they turned left out of the driveway and drove into the village of Willshire, a mile or so away from the farm, where they stopped at the bank for some money. Then they were truly on their way.
Headed for the interstate, they turned down two-lane county roads that stretched as straight as a ruler for miles and miles. They drove past fields crowded with rows of young stalks – the corn was only up to their ankles at that point – past windmills and silos jutting into the Midwestern sky, past farms that had been owned by the same families for more than a century. They went past the Riverside Cemetery and its big, black wrought-iron gate and past the Tastee Twirl and past the grain elevator in the little town of Rockford, with its one and only stoplight, and through the even smaller towns of Mercer and Neptune until finally, almost 50 miles after they left the farm, they reached the broad ribbon of I-75.
From there, it was a straight shot all the way to Florida.
Despite the late start, they made good time that first day. Jo almost certainly did most of the driving – Michelle, who had got her license just a few months before, was intimidated by highways – and Jo was not known for her strict adherence to speed limits. “I want to get there,” Jo would tell her friends. Either way, by the time they stopped for the night, they’d made it clear through Kentucky and Tennessee and were just across the Georgia border.
The next day they rode I-75 all the way through Georgia and into Florida, then cut east on I-10 over to Jacksonville. They stayed there for the evening, then checked out of their motel the next morning and headed for the Jacksonville Zoo, apparently their first bona fide tourist destination.
There at the zoo, they gazed up into the face of a giraffe, saw monkeys hanging by their tails, watched lions napping in the sun. These facts and others would eventually be learned from rolls of film recovered with the family’s belongings. They had a camera, a Nikon One-Touch, and as they moved through these days – days that, in retrospect, would become imbued with the intensity of a dream – they took frame after frame, leaving behind a series of snapshots that investigators would eventually pore over, study, burn into memory.
After finishing at the zoo, they left Jacksonville and turned south again until they reached the attraction at Silver Springs, where they took one of the famed glass-bottom boat tours. A great deal of investigation would eventually be devoted to the question of how little experience the Rogers women had with boats and water. For the girls, at least, the ride at Silver Springs was one of the few times – in Christe’s case, perhaps the very first time – they had ever set foot on a boat. Neither girl was a confident swimmer, especially in water over their heads, and their mother could not swim at all. In fact, Jo was terrified of her face being covered by water or anything else.
“Just pull the covers over her head,” says Hal, “and you got a hell of a fight.”
So what went through their minds that afternoon as they climbed into the glass-bottom boat? Were they nervous? Did one of them ask the guide if there were life jackets on board?
Or maybe they were calm. Maybe they surrendered to the hushed beauty of Silver Springs and to the realization that at long last they were truly on vacation. They were far away from everything and everyone who had hurt them. There was nothing in this place to be afraid of. Nothing for them to do at all, but sit in the boat and cast their eyes to the window at their feet and stare down through the clear, pale blue water to the thick carpet of grass, swaying hypnotically on the bottom.
First, and always first, was that farm.
Before you can understand anything about the Rogers family, start there. Start, if you can, by imagining what it would be like to get up on a black winter morning, hours before sunrise, when the wind is blowing and the thermometer is stuck somewhere south of zero and the Holsteins are waiting in the barn to be milked and fed and cleaned up after.
Picture crawling out from under the covers on a morning like that. Picture throwing something on, heading outside into the dark and the cold and trudging down the driveway, hands jammed in pockets, to put in another shift at the milking parlor. Located next to the barn, the milking parlor is not a parlor at all, but a concrete box of a room with one tiny window and a fluorescent light and a claustrophobic little rectangular pit cut into the center of the floor. For the next two or three hours, this pit will be your home. You will stand inside it so you can work the milking machines at eye-level with the udders. The cows will be above you, of course, clopping over from the barn to their stations on both sides of the pit, and while you work, hurrying from one end of the pit to the other, checking the flow of their milk into the milkers and dipping their teats in iodine and rubbing peppermint oil onto their skin, they will moo and complain and unceremoniously deposit manure onto the floor around you.
When you’re finally done milking and cleaning the equipment and hosing out the pit and the floor above the pit, you walk outside into the first glow of dawn. By this point your arms and legs are aching, and cow smell has settled in your hair and on your skin, and the manure has splattered all over your boots and clothes. You want to hurry back up to the house and take a shower. But before you do, have a good long look at the landscape around you. Gaze out over the fields, acres of brown, brown and more brown, stretching in every direction like a giant, mud-soaked quilt, and at the scattered stands of black and naked trees, and up into the low-hanging bowl of gray that is the sky.
As you soak all this in, remind yourself that you’ll have to go back into the pit, back with the cows and the smell and the manure, not just tomorrow morning but every morning and also every afternoon of every day of every year for as long as you can take it.
Now imagine what a week in Florida would look like from inside that kind of life.
Understand that, and you’ll understand a little about Jo and Michelle and Christe.
“They were hard-working people, I’ll tell you,” says Ginny Etzler, Jo’s mother. “They’d do what they had to do, and that was it.”
It would be wrong to suggest that there were no rewards on the Rogers farm. Hal and Jo made a decent living and were proud of their self-sufficiency and of the care they showed the animals.
“You don’t take no milk from ‘em,” Hal would say. “They give it to you, plain and simple.”
Michelle and Christe did their best to make things as fun as possible, or as fun as things could be when nearly every surface in sight tended to be draped in manure. The girls loved the cows – they loved animals, period – and knew their personalities and quirks. They had names for them all. There was Sage, Michelle’s favorite, and Rosie and Betty and Grandpa and April and May and June; Hal, who usually stuck with calling them by number, was inspired one day to give one the moniker of Crazy.
Christe thought of the cows as her pets. Sometimes, when she was working on her cheerleading routines, she would practice beside the barn, using the Holsteins as her audience. Hal would see her out there, jumping up and down and waving her arms for a bunch of cows, and he would smile. As long as the cows didn’t run away, he’d say, she must be doing something right.
Still, the grind of the farm was overwhelming. On top of the milkings and feedings, Hal and the rest of the family had to contend with a mountain of other tasks. There was the breeding — they’d owned a bull for a while, but switched to artificial insemination when he started chasing Jo and the girls — and delivering the calves and cleaning the barn every day and cleaning the milking parlor every day and keeping the machinery and equipment in good repair. They had to plow the fields and plant the crops and harvest the crops; sometimes, during harvest, Hal would go for three days straight without sleeping. And like the rest of us, they had to cook and do laundry and keep track of the bills and keep up with the usual chores of life.
They all pushed themselves. But none pushed harder than Jo.
“She could work me under the table,” says Hal.
Today, those close to Jo tend to describe her in generalities. They say she was fun. They say she was happy. But they struggle with details. Looking back, sorting through all the years, it’s difficult to know which bits and pieces are worth sharing, which are the ones that would sum her up and set her apart. What are the moments that define any of us? The odds and ends that make us real?
Her given name was Joan, but almost no one called her that. She was thin, with brown hair that she curled sometimes and sometimes wore straight. Like her husband, she wore shaded glasses that partially hid her eyes. Unlike her husband, she had an outgoing nature and could talk to anyone. Hal liked to say that she was his personality.
“She never knew a stranger,” remembers Jane Dietrich, a close friend who lived on a neighboring farm.
When she was little, growing up on a farm in the same county, Jo used to dress the family cat in baby clothes and walk it in a stroller. She led a sheltered childhood. She’d dated Hal in high school and married him a few months after graduation, when she was pregnant with Michelle. Though their wedding was held inside a church, her parents were so embarrassed by the pregnancy that they did not allow Jo to wear a wedding gown or to invite her friends to the reception. For their honeymoon, she and Hal were granted a weekend in nearby Fort Wayne, where they stayed at a Hospitality Inn.
Somehow Jo made the best of things. She had a ringing laugh. She loved country music, loved to dance, made a fantastic potato soup. She and Hal owned a motorcycle, a Honda Goldwing, and she liked to ride behind him, the wind in her face. She was independent and strong-willed and not afraid to stand up to Hal; she listened to him and respected his opinion, but if he said something stupid, she could silence him with a look. She used to make him take her out to dinner, just so they could get away from the farm and talk about something other than the corn and the cows. She liked to tease Hal and would make fun of his woeful attempts at singing. She wrote him cards, telling him she loved him. She was a tough woman — tougher than her slender frame would have led a stranger to believe — but underneath the toughness, friends saw an enduring glow, a persistently optimistic outlook that had survived all her struggles. In the months before she left for Florida, she talked about wanting to have another baby.
“You would have liked Jo,” says Vance Krick, a family friend who lived down the road. “You really would have.”
For all her spirit, though, the years had knocked something out of Jo. She had once been beautiful — you can see it in her high school senior photo — but by May of 1989 she carried with her an unmistakable air of depletion, a sense that her life had been far too hard for far too long. You could see it in the circles beneath her eyes, her gaunt cheeks, the tight line of her mouth. She was 36, but looked 10 years older.
And no wonder. It wasn’t just the demands of the farm or the job at Peyton’s Northern. It wasn’t just her migraines, either, or the stress of raising two teenagers, ferrying the girls to church and softball practice and cheerleading camp.
It was everything. She seemed to exist in a state of permanent exhaustion. She worked the midnight shift at Peyton’s — the night trick, some people called it — to supplement the income from the farm and to qualify her and the rest of the family for health insurance benefits. Early in the morning, she’d drive home from the job, and help finish with the first milking and the chores. She’d get the girls off to school, and then ride with Hal into Willshire for breakfast, and then go back home and catch whatever sleep she could before the girls came home from school and it was time for the mid-afternoon milking and for her to make dinner. In the evenings, she would try to nap again before leaving for the next midnight shift. But it was never enough. She would fall asleep while driving. Sometimes, when she was on her lunch break at Peyton’s, she would sit in the din of the break room and nod off in front of her co-workers.
“You’re killing yourself,” Rosemary Krick, Vance’s wife, would tell her. ”You’re killing me, just watching you.”
Another strain, a strain that would have broken almost anyone, was the problem with Hal’s younger brother. John Rogers was Hal’s partner. They owned the farm together, and John lived in a trailer beside the house and worked the farm along with the rest of the family.
People around Van Wert had always thought John was a little off — he liked to wear Army fatigues and often talked about taking on missions for the Secret Service and the CIA — but no one knew how deep the problems went until one day in March 1988, when sheriff’s deputies showed up at the farm and arrested him, charging him in the sexual assault of a woman who lived in his trailer.
The woman had once dated John, but now they were just sharing space. She told police that one evening she had come back to the trailer and been attacked by a man in a mask who handcuffed and blindfolded her and threatened her with a knife. When she reported the assault, the woman told detectives that she thought her attacker was John – she’d heard his voice — and that the rape had been videotaped. The detectives got a warrant and searched the trailer and found, inside a briefcase, a video of the rape.
Disturbing as this was, the worst was yet to come. Shortly after John was taken to jail, the detectives summoned Hal and Jo to the sheriff’s department and sat them down. They had something to tell them.
“We think Michelle’s been assaulted,” one of the detectives said.
The briefcase in the trailer had not just contained the video of the woman’s assault. It also contained pictures of Michelle, some of which showed her undressed and blindfolded. Searching the rest of the trailer and John’s car, the detectives had also found audiotapes on which a girl who proved to be Michelle could be heard screaming and pleading with John to leave her alone.
When the detectives asked her about the photos and the tapes, Michelle confirmed the worst. Her uncle, she said, had raped her repeatedly over the previous two years, starting when she was 14. Michelle said John had taken advantage of the times when Hal and Jo were away from the farm, off on weekend trips or other business. She said he had tied her hands and forced himself on her, threatening to kill her if she told anyone.
All of this had occurred under Hal’s and Jo’s noses. Both of them had noticed that Michelle seemed irritable and even nervous around John, that she didn’t like to be alone with him in the milking parlor. Jo had tried to get Michelle to tell her what was wrong, but Michelle wouldn’t say. Hal had written it off as a personality clash.
“If I’d known what it was,” says Hal, “I’d have killed the son of a bitch to start with.”
John Rogers denied everything. He said he was being framed.
The accusations and denials ripped the family apart. Irene Rogers, Hal’s and John’s mother, choose to believe her son and not her granddaughter. Michelle was lying, she told people. Stunned that his mother would chose to disregard the evidence, Hal cut off contact with his parents.
Caught in the middle of it all was Michelle. Now that John was off the farm, she wished the whole thing would just go away. She didn’t want to talk about it with her parents, wasn’t particularly interested in counseling, and had no interest in testifying against her uncle. At one point, she even suggested she would leave town if the case came to trial.
For his part, Hal sank into a depression in the months after the allegations came to light. He would retreat to the trailer John had lived in and lock himself inside, sometimes hiding there for days. Jo would come to the door of the trailer, trying to get her husband to open up.
“Let me in,” she’d say. “Talk to me.”
But Hal didn’t know how to talk about what had happened.
In the end, the whole thing went away and Michelle was not asked to appear in court. John Rogers eventually pleaded no contest to the rape of the first woman and was sentenced to a prison term of 7 to 25 years. Given Michelle’s reluctance to proceed further, the charges involving her were dropped.
All these years later, these terrible events still cast a shadow over any attempt to understand Michelle. It’s hard to separate the darkness from everything else, hard to remember that she had a life completely apart from whatever happened with her uncle. But she did. It was not an easy life, but it was hers, and by the time she left for Florida, she was well on her way to reclaiming it.
Most people, seeing Michelle for the first time, would have said she was pretty. Many would have described her as beautiful. She had wavy brown hair that fell just past her shoulders, a cautious smile, dark eyes that were somehow both playful and haunting. Like so many teenage girls, she was a shape-shifter. Sometimes, when she hadn’t put on all her makeup, she could pass for a middle school student; at other moments, when she was dressed up or when she tilted her head a certain way, she looked like a woman in her early 20s. Yet in both incarnations, there was something removed about her, a sense that an essential piece was kept in another room somewhere, under glass. The events of the past two years were in that wariness; they were there, too, in the lines already forming around her eyes.
At Crestview High, where she had just finished her junior year, Michelle was an average student known for being both a little shy and a little wild. She could be withdrawn around people she did not know, but could also drop into a boy’s lap and flirt outrageously. She smoked occasionally. At parties, when others were drinking beer, she preferred wine coolers. On the way to school, she sat at the back of the bus with the guys from the agricultural club and listened to their off-color jokes and laughed when they grabbed for her rear.
The brazen exterior left Michelle with a bit of a reputation. In keeping with the age-old traditions of high school, other students spread whispered stories about her. Michelle knew she was a fixture of school gossip — she talked about it with her girlfriends — but she did not particularly care. Or at least she pretended not to care. The truth was, beneath the surface, there was a bruised sweetness to Michelle, a painful vulnerability more complex than either her reputation or the facade she presented to others.
Publicly she may have shrugged off the gossip. But privately she scribbled notes to friends, saying she was lonely. Sometimes, she talked about going to college and becoming a veterinarian, swearing she would never allow herself to wind up on a farm, staring at cows for the rest of her life. Other days, she said she wanted to get married and raise a family on a farm. She had a schoolgirl’s fascination with rings, wearing four of them — two gold and two silver — on her left hand, one on each finger. Her bedroom was decorated with pictures of unicorns. She belonged to the 4-H Club and to the Future Farmers of America. She chewed Bazooka bubble gum. She listened to Guns N’Roses, U2, Madonna. On weekend nights, she liked to cruise up and down Main Street in Van Wert. If she was going to a school dance, she made a point of stopping by her maternal grandparents’ house first so they could see her dress. She sometimes wore wide, pink-rimmed glasses, not to correct her eyesight but because she thought them stylish. During the summer, when she showed cows and sheep at the Van Wert County Fair, she would sleep in the barn with the animals.
“She was a tomboy,” remembers Jeff Feasby, the boy she was seeing when she left for Florida. “A typical farm girl.”
Michelle and Jeff had gotten together a month before the end of school, at a party after the prom. Neither had a date that night, and so they’d been free to pursue each other; they’d talked until the sun came up, by which point they were a couple. Although they’d dated only a few weeks, Michelle was already growing close to Jeff and had accepted his class ring as proof that they were going steady. The ring was adorned with a stone of cubic zirconium and a carving of a knight atop a horse — in honor of the Crestview High Knights — and Michelle was terrified of losing it while working in the barn. Instead of wearing it on one of her available fingers, she kept the ring in her purse.
The two of them were a good couple. They’d known each other since seventh grade and thought of each other first as friends. Between them there was true affection and respect. Jeff had heard the talk over the past year or so about something bad happening with Michelle and her uncle. But Jeff sensed that she did not want to talk about it and left the subject alone.
“Didn’t think it was any of my business,” he says.
The night before Michelle and her sister and mother began their trip, Jeff came out to the house. The two of them stood in the laundry room and kissed goodbye. Michelle got emotional, saying how much she’d miss him. To others, a week’s vacation to Florida would have been nothing extraordinary. To Michelle, it must have seemed like she was headed for the far side of the moon. She was excited about the trip and could not wait to get started. But that night, in her boyfriend’s arms, Michelle’s eyes filled with tears.
Christe Rogers did not have a boyfriend.
Only 14, she was officially not allowed to date for two more years. It was the story of her life: Christe had always been and would forever remain the little sister.
She was so much younger than Michelle, younger in ways that could not be chalked up solely to the three-year difference in their ages. There was an openness to her that had been squeezed out of Michelle. Christe was more outgoing, more carefree. Though the family’s ordeals had clearly affected her, she seemed to have emerged relatively intact. On the outside at least, she continued to present herself as the beaming cheerleader.
At the time of the Florida trip, Christe had just finished eighth grade at Crestview Junior High. Her school was on the same campus as the high school, which meant that she and her sister rode the same bus. While Michelle sat with the guys, Christe stayed toward the front with the other cheerleaders. She did not tolerate rude comments directed her way, did not allow boys to touch her suggestively. Morning after morning, she made it clear that she was not her older sister, that she had a different set of expectations for how her life was to unfold. Somewhere along the way she had been designated, or had designated herself, as the good girl of the Rogers family.
Christe fulfilled every requirement of the part. She rode a motorscooter, liked to roller skate, played catcher for her softball team, owned an unbelievable number of teddy bears. The word used most often to describe her was “bubbly.” She wore three friendship bracelets, braided and woven and marked with pink, green and white stripes, on her left wrist. She was sensitive about her height — she was 5-foot-1, at best — and deployed untold quantities of gel and spray in the task of making her bangs rise straight up in an astonishing 4-inch plume, just so she would appear taller. On the softball diamond, playing catch behind home plate, she was so fearless that the umpire had to continually tell her to back away from the batter.
“A little ball of fire,” remembers Jeff Feasby.
She had a round birthmark, about the size of a silver dollar, at the top of her right leg. She played the saxophone. She chewed her fingernails. Early every morning, when it was time for the first shift with the cows, she was the last one to wake up.
“Chris, you couldn’t have got her out of bed with a damn stick of dynamite,” says Hal.
She had always been especially close to her father. Before she was old enough to go to school, she used to follow Hal everywhere. When he was out plowing, she’d plop down under a nearby tree with a coloring book and some crayons. When he was working the combine, she’d ride with him in the cab, sitting on the heater, singing her little songs for him. Even after she grew older, the two of them remained best friends. Hal called both daughters his ”princesses,” but Michelle was shy, like he was, and Christe was warm and friendly and had such an easy charm that their dad was drawn to her. He loved and respected Michelle, but he felt a special bond with Christe and made little effort to hide it.
“There ain’t nothing about it,” says Hal. “That’s just my little girl.”
As with so many siblings, Christe waged an ongoing rivalry with Michelle, the two of them arguing over the chores and what to watch on TV and who had borrowed whose outfit last and not returned it. For her part, Michelle could not help feeling jealous of all the attention showered on Christe. It was hard enough that she was more popular at school; even more painful was the way she so clearly won out in the affections of their father. Michelle was not blind. She saw the signs, felt the sting.
Through it all, though, she remained protective of Christe.
This is the single most telling fact about Michelle Lee Rogers of Van Wert County, Ohio, the quiet girl who had just completed the 11th grade and would never make it to the 12th, who had chosen a seat at the back of the bus and would never find her way up front, who longed for an acceptance that would never be hers. This is the proof that, despite all she had endured and was yet to endure, the light within her had not yet been snuffed out:
During the worst of those years on the farm, before the allegations about her uncle surfaced and before anyone understood what she was going through, Michelle somehow had the strength and the presence of mind to guard Christe. She checked on her, paid attention to her whereabouts, tried not to leave her alone with John. Repeatedly she fought to make sure that Christe stayed safe.
Think of Michelle, then, and remember. When she was trapped and frightened and most alone, she kept watch over her little sister.
They did not have much time.
Due back in Ohio at the end of the week, they were determined to see everything, do everything, set foot inside the gates of as many theme parks as humanly possible.
That Sunday night, after they left Silver Springs, Jo and the girls drove to Titusville, near Cape Canaveral, and stayed at a Quality Inn. The next day, Jo wrote a postcard to Hal, telling him how the girls were dragging her everywhere. Michelle, meanwhile, wrote a postcard to Jeff Feasby. Jeff’s birthday was coming up in a couple of days, and Michelle wanted to send him something. She chose a card adorned with one of the Sunshine State’s most popular icons: the immortal, tacky image of a young woman in a bikini, on all fours in the sand, laughing provocatively despite the fact that a big bull gator is standing right behind her, its jaws open wide. FUN TIMES IN FLORIDA, it said beneath the photo.
On the back of the card, Michelle wrote:
Hi! How is everything with you? I’m doing great. Yesterday we went to the Zoo in Jacksonville. I was visiting my relatives and we found Geoffrey (you). Later we went to Silver Springs and rode on a glass bottom boat. Today we are going to a beach and then to Sea World. You have fun at work and behave yourself. Have a great birthday. I’ll be thinking of you! I miss you!
It was Monday, May 29. The pace of the trip, already relentless, was about to kick into overdrive. The Rogers women were in the heart of vacationland now, poised to begin their run through the massive tourist attractions sprawled across the middle of the state. They began that day, as Michelle had said they would, with a trip to Sea World. Then the next day they went to Epcot, and then the day after that they went to Disney’s MGM Studios. Then they returned to their hotel, a Gateway Inn, and presumably collapsed.
The next day was Thursday, June 1. They left the Gateway Inn that morning shortly after 10 a.m. and turned the Calais back onto I-4 and headed for Tampa, where they were thinking of seeing Busch Gardens and perhaps lying on the gulf beaches.
They reached their hotel, the Days Inn at Rocky Point, just before 12:30 p.m. They checked in, picked up a brochure on Busch Gardens and went to their room, which was on the second floor, facing the shoreline of Tampa Bay. Room 251 was generic, cheerfully anonymous, drenched in teal: dark teal carpet, chairs with teal cushions, curtains made from a floral pattern set in teal, two double beds covered with teal quilts of a similar pattern.
Shortly after they went up to the room — phone records put the time at 12:37 p.m. — Michelle placed a long-distance call to Jeff Feasby at the Union 76 station where he worked in Van Wert. It was Jeff’s birthday, and Michelle had arranged to have flowers and balloons sent to the gas station that morning.
“Did you get the flowers?” she asked, laughing because she knew it would embarrass him to receive such a romantic gift at work, in front of the other guys.
“Yeah,” said Jeff, who was indeed embarrassed. The flowers were on display atop the station’s cigarette machine, but he was already planning to move them into the back room to get them out of sight.
Michelle and her boyfriend talked for close to 10 minutes that day. Questioned later about the conversation, Jeff would say he did not remember many of the exact words that passed between them — he was busy working the register when the phone rang — but he believes Michelle told him that the vacation was going well and they were having fun. He could hear Michelle’s mother, saying hi to him in the background, and Jeff said hi back, and Michelle talked about how she and Christe wanted to go to the beach but their mom wouldn’t let them near deep water. Then she said goodbye.
A few minutes later, at 12:57, another call was placed from the room phone, this time to the information line at Busch Gardens. It appears unlikely that the Rogers women actually made it to the theme park that day; the rolls of film recovered with their belongings contained no snapshots from Busch Gardens, and no receipts or souvenirs from Busch Gardens were found either. How the Rogers women spent that afternoon after checking into the motel remains a mystery.
There is a picture of Michelle from that last day, though, sitting on the floor of the motel room. She is wearing a blue bikini top, white shorts and sandals; draped over her right arm is a peach-colored blouse that she is either putting on or taking off. On her left hand, her collection of rings shines in the light. Her hair appears to be slightly wet, as though she has just taken a shower or been swimming. Her throat and neck are red with sunburn. Her face is tilted upward, staring directly into the camera.
She is not smiling. She is not frowning. If anything, her expression is matter of fact, with a touch of impatience. Photographed while changing her clothes, she is obviously in transition. She has somewhere to go, something to do, and she is ready to get on with it.
They were seen that night at dinner.
A businessman from Houston, staying at the Days Inn for a conference, noticed them in the motel’s restaurant. The man arrived at the restaurant around 7. Eating his meal, he found himself watching the woman and two teenage girls at the booth beside his table. He did not mean to stare, he later explained, but they were directly in his line of sight; whenever he lifted his eyes from his food, he could not help but look their way.
The man was close enough to hear the sound of their voices, but not their exact words. They were obviously in a good mood, though, laughing and joking. When they finished eating and got up from the booth, Michelle looked at him.
“Hi,” she said, and then she and her sister and mother walked out.
That Thursday evening, they shot one more photo. It was the last snapshot on the last roll discovered in their room. Taken from the balcony outside 251, with the camera pointed toward the bay, it shows a cluster of palm trees silhouetted against a glowing evening sky.
Sometime after they snapped the picture, the three of them left the Days Inn and got into the Calais and drove toward the horizon they had just glimpsed from the balcony. They had an appointment to keep. Jo had written the directions on a piece of paper, and now she and the girls were on their way.
They would not see the sun again.
That weekend, Hal Rogers kept watching the driveway. He would walk out of the milking parlor, finished with another shift with the cows, and glance up toward the house, hoping to see the Calais.
Hal didn’t understand it. He hadn’t heard from Jo or the girls for several days, but he was sure that Jo had told him they would be back on Saturday or Sunday at the latest. Jo was due back at work on Monday; Michelle’s summer school classes were starting.
He tried not to worry. He told himself everything was fine.
“They’re probably just dinking around someplace,” he said to a friend.
Still, it wasn’t like Jo to be late. Wasn’t like her not to call if the plans had changed or if something had gone wrong.
Where were they?
The first sighting was early that Sunday morning.
This was June 4, another hot and beautiful day. The Amber Waves, a sailboat on its way home to Tampa after a trip to Key West, had just crossed under the Skyway when several people on board saw an object in the water. It looks like a body, one of them said.
It was a female, floating face down, with her hands tied behind her back and her feet bound and a thin yellow rope around her neck. She was naked from the waist down.
A man from the Amber Waves radioed the Coast Guard, and a rescue boat was dispatched from the station at Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg. The Coast Guard crew quickly found the body, but recovering it from the water was difficult. The rope around the neck was attached to something heavy below the surface that could not be lifted. Noting the coordinates where the body had been found, the Coast Guard crew cut the line, placed the female in a body bag, pulled the bag onto the boat and headed back toward the station. The crew members had not yet reached the shore when they received another radio message: A second female body had just been sighted by two people on a sailboat.
This one was floating to the north of where the first body had been sighted. It was 2 miles off The Pier in St. Petersburg. Like the first, this body was face down, bound, with a rope around the neck and naked below the waist. The same Coast Guard crew was sent to recover it, and while the crew was doing so, a call came in of yet a third female, seen floating only a couple of hundred yards to the east.
The three bodies were taken to the dock at the Coast Guard station to be examined and photographed by the police investigators already arriving at the scene. The bodies were bloated and had begun to decompose, but it was still possible to determine that they were white women who appeared to be fairly young.
The hands and feet of all three were tied and bound in the same manner, though the left hand of the second woman was loose. Before dying, she had apparently wrested the hand free. All had duct tape over their mouths. The second and third bodies had concrete blocks attached to the ropes around their necks. Though the rope around the neck of the first body had been cut by the Coast Guard, it was assumed that a concrete block had been tied to that line as well.
The discovery of a triple homicide on a quiet Sunday morning — a morning so perfect, it was difficult to conceive of anyone having even a violent thought — galvanized law enforcement agencies from all around Tampa Bay. Divers were soon plumbing the waters near the Skyway, looking for the object that had been cut from the line attached to the first body. Police boats crisscrossed the bay, making sure there were no more bodies to be found. A plane circled overhead, searching for the same.
Back at the dock where the bodies had been brought, detectives were already trying to understand what had happened to the women. Given that all three were partially nude, sexual assault seemed likely. As for the cause of death, a quick examination of the bodies revealed no obvious bruises, knife wounds, or bullet holes. It was possible that the women had been bound and gagged, weighed down with the concrete blocks and then tossed alive into the water to drown at the bottom of the bay.
Disturbing as that scenario was, there was no time to focus on it just yet or to determine its plausibility. To know even the most basic facts of how the women died, the detectives would have to wait for the results of the autopsies. And before they could search for the killer, they needed to first learn who the victims were. No identification had been found on the bodies, and there had been no local reports of three women missing.
What were their names? Where did they live? Were they locals or tourists?
All the detectives had to go on was the bodies themselves and the clothing and jewelry they had been wearing. One of the women, probably the oldest of the three, had long brown hair and had been found in a black T-shirt and with a gold wedding band on the ring finger of her left hand. Another had medium-length brown hair and was wearing a peach-colored shirt and three cloth bracelets, braided and decorated with pink, green and white stripes, on her left wrist.
Finally there was the young woman who had apparently struggled hard enough to remove one of her hands from the rope. She had wavy brown hair and wore a black tank shirt over a blue bikini top. On her left hand, the hand that had broken free, she wore four rings. Two gold, two silver. One on each finger.
“Have they called?”
Jeff Feasby was getting impatient. Michelle was supposed to be back by now, and he missed her. So he kept phoning the farm, asking Hal Rogers if he’d heard from them.
Hal did not know what to say. As the days went by without a word, he was growing increasingly panicked. He called Jo’s friends and relatives to see if she’d contacted them, called Jo’s boss at the distribution center to make sure he’d understood correctly when she was due back on the job, checked with the Van Wert Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio Highway Patrol and reported them missing. No one had heard a thing.
Then, one night early that week, Jeff Feasby phoned again. He’d gotten a postcard from Michelle. The one with the girl in the bikini and the bull gator and the words on the front that said FUN TIMES IN FLORIDA. Hal asked him to bring it to the house. Jeff drove right over, and Hal held the postcard, reading it over and over, searching in vain for some hint of what might have happened.
Hal was pacing back and forth through the house, smoking one cigarette after the other. He was sure something had gone terribly wrong. Maybe they’d been robbed and left somewhere, he told himself. Or maybe their car had gone off the highway into a marsh or in some woods where no one would find them for weeks. Maybe they were still alive, trapped somewhere, hurt, waiting to be rescued.
The images played through his mind until finally he could not stand it anymore. Desperate to take some kind of action, he went to the bank that Wednesday and withdrew some money. He had a plan. He was going to get into the air and conduct a search himself. He would find a private plane and a pilot and together they would fly over the roads Jo and the girls had traveled between Ohio and Florida.
One way or the other, he was going to find his family.
It was the next morning — Thursday, June 8 — when the maid at the Days Inn in Tampa spoke up about Room 251.
For days, the room had been untouched. The guests, obviously one or more women, had checked in a week before and had made it up to the room, leaving their suitcases on the floor and a purse on the table and other items strewn about. From that day on, though, there had been no sign of their returning. The beds had not been slept in. The shower and bath had not been used. The personal items had not been disturbed.
Now, on this Thursday, the maid studied the scene before her and decided something was wrong. Where had the guests gone?
That was how the chain began to unfold. The maid’s suspicions were passed along to the Days Inn’s general manager, who called the Tampa police and informed them that one or more of the motel’s guests appeared to be missing.
By this point the newspapers and TV news shows had been filled for several days with reports about the three bodies found in the bay. When officers from the Tampa police arrived at the Days Inn, it quickly became clear that the answer to the women’s identities might well be there.
The Tampa officers sealed off Room 251 and radioed for their superiors. Soon detectives were arriving from both Tampa and St. Petersburg, and the room was being searched and photographed and dusted for prints, and all the personal belongings were being inspected and bagged and numbered. A technician quickly matched prints from the room — including prints taken from a tube of Oral-B Sesame Street toothpaste on the vanity outside the bathroom — with the prints taken from the bodies in the bay.
“It’s them,” the technician announced. “This is their room.”
Meanwhile, preliminary identifications were being made from the information in the purse and on the registration form at the front desk.
Someone was going to have to call Ohio.
That day, Jeff Feasby phoned the Rogers house again, hoping Michelle would be back.
Hal picked up. His voice was strange. He sounded furious.
“Who is this?” he demanded.
Jeff told him who it was and asked if he’d heard anything. With that, Hal broke down.
“They’re not coming home,” he said, his voice trembling.
Jeff paused for a second. He didn’t understand.
“What do you mean?”
So Hal told him. They were gone, he said. All of them.
The sheriff of Van Wert County, a friend of Hal’s since high school, had come out to the farm that afternoon. A little while later, a reporter — the first of many — had walked onto the property and tried to interview Hal as he came out of the barn.
It was like an explosion had gone off. The news was all over the radio and the TV. Television crews were starting to pull up on the road beside the farm. Michelle’s and Christe’s friends were calling one another, sobbing. So were different members of the family.
“They found Jo and the girls,” Jim Etzler, Jo’s brother, told his wife that day over the phone. “They’re dead.”
“Surely not all of them, Jim,” said Colleen.
Jeff Feasby was overcome with anger. Moments after hanging up with Hal, he went downstairs to his family’s basement and punched a hole in the door. Then he got into his pickup truck and went tearing down the road, tires screeching.
An hour or so later, Jeff went over to the farm. Hal was there with a friend who’d been helping him hold things together while Jo and the girls were on vacation. Hal and the other man were outside, taking another load of hay into the barn.
Hal was beside himself with rage and grief.
“Not all of them,” he told a friend. “Why everybody?”
But he did not have the luxury of collapsing. The cows had to be milked and fed, just like any other day. The farm had to go on.
Tears in his eyes, Hal kept working.
That same day, two things happened in Tampa Bay.
First, the police found the Calais.
They got the make and model and tag number off the motel registration form, and when it didn’t turn up in the lot at the Days Inn, they searched the surrounding area until someone discovered it parked just a couple of miles away, at a boat ramp along the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
The car appeared to have been undisturbed since Jo and the girls had left it there a week before. The doors were locked; the passenger seat was pushed forward, as though someone had just climbed out of the back.
Scattered within the interior was a Clearwater Beach brochure, a deck of Uno cards, a puzzle book someone had been working on in the back seat. On the front passenger seat was a sheet of Days Inn stationery, marked with directions – written in Jo’s hand – that had guided them from the motel to the boat ramp.
The directions said:
turn rt (w on 60) – 2 1/2 mi – on rt side alt before
Beside these words was one more instruction:
The police were a long way from discovering who had lured the Rogers women out onto the water. Whoever they were, though, it was a fair bet that they owned a blue and white boat.
The second big lead — and undoubtedly the most startling — came that same day, while one of the investigators was talking over the phone with the chief of detectives from the Van Wert County Sheriff’s Office. The detective wanted to make sure that the investigators working the homicides were aware of all the facts about the Rogers family. So he told them about Michelle and her uncle John.
Even though John Rogers had been in prison at the time of the murders, the investigators could not ignore the similarities between what had happened to Michelle on that farm and here in Tampa Bay. Both times, she had apparently been subjected to bondage, with her hands tied. Both times, it appeared, she had been raped.
The investigators needed to consider the possibility that John Rogers might have somehow orchestrated the murders from behind bars, possibly arranging for someone with a boat to get them out on the water. They needed to know more about the Rogers family, period. The better they understood Jo and Michelle and Christe, the better their chances of discovering exactly how the three of them wound up out on the bay at night, alone with someone who wanted to hurt them.
The day after the bodies were identified, two detectives were on a plane, headed for Ohio.
Chapter 2: Haunted
Usually, when someone from Zion Lutheran Church died, the church would call a man who lived nearby and ask him to help with the graves. This man was a member of the congregation; more importantly, he had a backhoe, and opening the graves took him only a few minutes.
But in June of 1989, when they asked him to bring his backhoe for the burial of Jo and Michelle and Christe Rogers, he told them they would have to find someone else this time.
Like so many others in Van Wert County, Ohio, he had known the Rogers family for years. He was one of Hal’s best friends — they had hung out together since elementary school — and Jo had been like a sister to him. Michelle and Christe had grown up in front of him, playing on his back porch; Christe used to help him load cows.
How could he dig three holes in the ground for them?
“No, I can’t,” he told the church. “I can’t. I can’t do that.”
The size of it, the depth and scale and unthinkable nature of it, was almost impossible to comprehend.
At first, when the bodies were being flown back to Ohio and preparations were being made for the funeral, family members struggled to come to terms with what had happened. They worried about what clothes Jo and the girls should be wearing in their caskets; then they remembered how long the three of them had been in the water and knew the caskets would be closed.
Somewhere in that first numbing week, Colleen Etzler — married to Jo Rogers’ brother, Jim — was sitting with Bill Etzler, her father-in-law and Jo’s father, when Bill got this strange look on his face.
“Do you realize how many pallbearers we need?” he said.
No one was in greater shock than Hal Rogers. Even in those first days, when the news was all over the newspapers and the TV and the entire county was reeling, Hal managed somehow to keep the farm going. He got a couple of hands to help him and continued with the milkings and the feedings and whatever else had to be done. But inside he was lost.
Hal kept waiting for someone to tell him that there had been a mistake, that the bodies sent up from Florida weren’t his family after all, but someone else. The phone would ring, and he would pick it up, expecting to hear Jo’s voice on the other end of the line, apologizing for making him worry. In the mornings, he would come out of the milking parlor and look toward the house, hoping to see the Calais pulling into the driveway and Jo and the girls piling out, grinning and waving.
But no one called, and every time Hal checked the driveway there was no sign of the Calais, and the hole inside him kept growing.
One day he turned to Colleen Etzler.
“I should have went with them,” he said. “This wouldn’t have happened.”
Colleen looked at Hal, enveloped in a loss that defied the imagination, and tried to think of what to say. What could anyone say? How was this possible? How could Jo and the girls be alive one day and then sealed inside their caskets the next?
No. It made no sense.
“Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference if you had gone,” she said.
The pallbearers took up four rows of pews.
Though it was mid-June, the day of the funeral was windy and cool, the sky overcast. Inside Zion Lutheran, an imposing Gothic structure with red-brick walls and green spires that stretched high above the surrounding farmland, the sanctuary was overflowing. So many people came to pay their respects, they were crowded into the church’s basement and fellowship hall. Outside, the road was lined with vans and trucks of TV news crews. Not allowed within the church, reporters stood beside the road with their microphones, looking into the cameras. Driving by, Hal Rogers counted 12 news crews.
Hal was wearing his only suit, a gray pin-stripe Jo had given him, and a raspberry-colored shirt that Jo had always liked on him. (“I ain’t afraid to wear pink or orange,” he says.) When Hal arrived at the church, the caskets were up front, each covered with flowers and adorned with a framed picture. There was Jo in her high school senior photo, looking like she had all the time in the world, and Michelle in her junior class photo, smiling a camera smile and wearing her glasses with the pink frames, and Christe in another school portrait, beaming as her hair defied gravity and achieved its usual mousse-induced liftoff. At Hal’s request, a teddy bear had been placed inside each of the girls’ caskets.
Before the service began, Hal nearly lost it. They sat him up front, and then they made room beside him for his mother. This was the woman who had chosen to believe that Michelle and Jo had made up the rape charges against her son John, and she and Hal had barely spoken in the year since then. When Hal saw her there in the church, he could barely contain himself.
“I was about ready to cold-cock her,” he would remember.
The service got under way. The congregation sang How Great Thou Art, and when it was time for the sermon, the pastor asked aloud the question that was on so many people’s minds: How could God have let this happen? That night out on Tampa Bay, when Jo and Michelle and Christe were praying for their lives, where was the God?
“Why? Oh, dear God, why?” said the Rev. Gary Luderman. “Where were you, God, when this was going on? What was God doing when this was going on? What in the world was going through God’s mind when He decided to allow this to go on?”
The pastor told the congregation that God in fact had been with them on the water that night, watching over them as they moved not toward death but toward eternal life. If heaven could open up at this moment, he said, the congregation would see Jo and Michelle and Christe, bathed in joy and glory.
“Don’t you see?” he said, his voice rising. “Don’t you see how Jesus loved Joan and Michelle and Christe? Don’t you see how Jesus loves you? How God must feel right now as he looks into our hearts and sees our pain and our sorrow and our grief?”
The church was silent, but from outside came the sound of a sparrow chirping.
Luderman went on. God, he said, had not intended for something so horrible to happen. “He never meant for you to suffer this pain. He never meant them to have this death. He loves us.” Here the pastor’s voice dropped. “What a terrible thing it must be to be God. How in paradise at this moment He must be weeping with you.”
In the pews, the congregation was indeed weeping. It seemed that tears were falling down every face. People were holding those sitting next to them, even if they did not know each other.
The most noticeable exception to these displays of grief came from Hal Rogers. Wearing his tinted glasses as usual, Hal did not show anyone his tears. He sat silently up front, his movements almost robotic, his face a blank and unreadable text.
The pallbearers stood up and carried Jo and Michelle and Christe down the red carpet of the center aisle and out the arched front doors. To the tolling of church bells, three hearses took the caskets to the tiny cemetery across the road where three freshly dug graves were waiting. As the final prayers were spoken and the bodies were ready to be committed to the earth, some of Michelle’s and Christe’s friends began to sob and cry out.
Hal walked over to the caskets, took some flowers from the arrangements, and handed them, one by one, to his daughters’ grieving friends. When the service was over, he went back across the road.
“I just want to be by myself,” he said.
He went inside the sanctuary, walked across its old, creaking floor to one of the pews and sat alone, leaning over, wrapped inside himself. A neighbor’s son stood guard at the front doors to make sure no reporters or photographers disturbed his solitude.
Later that afternoon, Hal returned to the farm. He took off his pin-striped suit, put on his overalls, and went out to the barn to grind some feed for the cows. It was all he could think to do.
The police investigation was already hurtling in a dozen different directions. And already running into a dozen different complications.
Nothing in the case was to be easy. To begin with, it had not been clear which city’s police department should have jurisdiction over the murders. The bodies had been recovered in St. Petersburg waters, but Jo and her daughters had disappeared from a motel room in Tampa. So a special task force was formed, made up of more than two dozen investigators from both cities’ departments and from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Marine Patrol.
Of course, since the bodies had been found in the water, the task force was being asked to solve a crime without the wealth of information and evidence that a murder scene typically provides.
“We absolutely have nothing to go on,” one Tampa homicide detective told a reporter. “And we’re just hoping someone saw something.”
No suspicious fingerprints had been identified so far in Room 251 of the Days Inn at Rocky Point. Most of the prints in the room that had been checked belonged to the Rogers women or one of the maids. No unusual prints had yet been identified on the exterior or the interior surfaces of the family’s car, either. In fact, the Calais was remarkably clean; the technician who processed the vehicle for prints said the car looked like it had gone through a car wash. There was the Clearwater Beach brochure, however. Found inside the car along with other personal items, the back of the brochure showed a map of Tampa Bay. The map was marked with directions, written in a hand different from Jo Rogers’, that described how to get to the Days Inn.
Obviously the Rogers women had met someone on the day they were killed, probably when they first reached Tampa, and this person had helped them find their way to the motel. But who this person was, or how the person met up with them, was unknown.
Even the question of how the three women were killed could not be answered with precision. The autopsies showed that they had died of asphyxiation, but the medical examiner could not determine whether they had drowned or been strangled by the ropes around their necks. Because the bodies had been in the water for several days, it was no longer possible to tell if there had been any sexual assault. Still, the most likely scenario appeared to be that the women had been tied and gagged, raped and then dropped into the water, one by one.
As for how many assailants had been involved, that was anybody’s guess. Some theorized that it would have likely taken at least two attackers to subdue three victims. Others pointed out that one person, pointing a gun at a mother and her daughters, would have had no trouble compelling one of the victims to gag and tie up the other two before she was restrained herself. However many assailants there were, the nature and scope of this crime made it seem unlikely that the killer or killers were novices. It also seemed probable that the killer had derived some sadistic pleasure from forcing each of the women to witness what was happening to the others.
Using credit card records and receipts found in the motel room, the investigators reconstructed the itinerary of the Rogers women in Florida. They developed the rolls of film discovered in the motel room and examined the snapshots for clues. The Nikon One-Touch used to shoot the film, however, had not been found in either the motel room or the car. This suggested that the killer may have used the camera to take photos of the attack and then kept the film and the camera as souvenirs of the murders.
Fanning out across Florida and northward into Georgia, investigators compiled lists of all the guests and employees at the motels where Jo, Michelle and Christe had stayed. Then they began the long process of talking to as many of these people as possible.
They interviewed the employee at the Days Inn who had helped Jo Rogers register for the room.
They interviewed the businessman who had seen Jo and the girls at dinner the night they were killed.
They interviewed boaters at the boat ramp where the family car had been found.
They searched construction sites near the boat ramp, looking for concrete blocks that matched those found tied to the bodies.
They consulted with agents at the FBI’s behavioral science unit, hoping to develop at least a preliminary profile of the kind of person who could kill three people in this fashion.
They spoke with tidal experts at the University of South Florida, who confirmed that, based on the flow of Tampa Bay waters and the locations where the bodies had been found, it would have been impossible for the bodies to have been dropped from land or from a bridge. In other words, there was growing evidence to support the theory that the three women had been invited to the boat ramp by someone who took them out in a boat and killed them.
This led investigators back to the directions Jo Rogers had scribbled down and left in the car, the ones that suggested she and her daughters had been meeting someone with a blue and white boat. The detectives combed the boat ramp, asking if anyone had seen a blue and white boat on the day the women disappeared. They took the lists of the guests who had stayed at the same motels as the Rogers women, then cross-checked them against the names of more than 700,000 boaters registered in Florida as well as the names of thousands of others from Ohio.
Day after day, they described the boat in news releases and in fliers, appealing to the public for help. They offered a $ 5,000 reward to anyone providing information leading to an arrest and conviction.
In the following weeks, the task force received more than 800 tips. Keeping track of so much information was a struggle. Unable to follow up on every phone call, the investigators logged the tips and graded them, assessing which ones appeared the most substantive. One by one, these leads were checked out. One by one, they were eliminated.
“We’ve worked it hard,” said Sgt. Bill Sanders, the St. Petersburg officer overseeing the case. “But we just haven’t gotten anywhere.”
Early on, one promising lead involved a Hillsborough County man who owned a blue and white boat and who had been seen offering a ride on the boat to a couple at the same ramp from where Jo and her daughters had disappeared. The man had given the couple his name and phone number, and the police soon discovered he had been charged in years past with burglary, grand theft and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Detectives went to the man’s home. The boat was parked in the driveway. On the ground behind the boat were two concrete blocks, one with a dark stain on top of it; inside the boat was some yellow rope and white rope, similar to what had been used to tie up the Rogers women. When the detectives knocked on the man’s door and questioned him and his wife, he told them that on the day of the murders he had been out in his boat with some friends. A few moments later, though, the man pulled one of the detectives aside, out of earshot of his wife.
He hadn’t told the investigators the whole story yet, he whispered.
On the night of the murders, the man said, he had been out with a girlfriend. His wife did not know about her, he said.
Inquiries followed. The man’s alibi checked out. He agreed to take a polygraph examination and was judged to have had no knowledge of the murders.
Another dead end.
Of all the early leads, none attracted as much attention as the one that led northward along I-75, away from Florida and back into Ohio, straight to the Rogers family farm.
In those first weeks of the investigation, a pair of detectives — Ralph Pflieger, from the St. Petersburg police, and Henry Duran, from the Tampa police — traveled to Van Wert County twice. They were there to learn more about Jo and Michelle and Christe and to gather whatever insights they could into the women’s personalities, habits, state of mind. The most pressing question before them, however, was whether there was any link between the murders and the sexual assaults that Michelle had allegedly suffered at the hands of her uncle, John Rogers.
Certainly the uncle had no shortage of possible motives to have sought revenge against Michelle and the rest of the family. Did he have the means to carry it out?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if John could have something to do with it,” Hal Rogers told the detectives. “But to put it bluntly, I think it would be a very remote possibility.”
John Rogers was in prison when the murders occurred. Just before he was sentenced, though, he had visited the Tampa Bay area. His parents sometimes wintered in Manatee County, staying at a trailer park in Ellenton, just a few miles south of the Sunshine Skyway. Over the years, John had often joined them there. His last visit had been in early 1989, a few months before the murders, and he had stayed for several weeks.
Obviously, Pflieger and Duran needed to consider the possibility that John had somehow arranged the deaths of Jo and the girls during that visit. But after interviewing John at the Ohio prison where he was serving his sentence, the detectives agreed with Hal’s assessment and decided that it would have been extremely difficult for John to have had anything to do with the Rogers murders.
To begin with, there was no evidence that he was even aware of the three women’s vacation plans, making it unlikely that he could have hired someone else to carry out the attack.
The only visitor he had received in recent months had been his mother, who had come to see him in April, long before Jo and the girls had made all their preparations for the trip. He had received no packages at the prison in recent weeks, and phone records showed that the only long-distance call he had made had been after the murders, when he called his parents’ home on Father’s Day.
Inmates housed with Rogers confirmed that John was a loner with few friends inside the prison and that he did not have the connections to arrange a triple homicide. After meeting with John themselves, Pflieger and Duran agreed that he seemed too isolated to have put together such a conspiracy.
As they conducted their investigation, however, the detectives discovered that John Rogers was not the only member of the family whose behavior had raised questions. They learned something strange about Hal Rogers, something that had long troubled many people in Van Wert County.
In the spring of the previous year, after John Rogers was arrested, Hal had arranged for his brother’s bail. Hal knew that John was accused of raping Michelle, and yet he had personally posted the $ 10,000 surety bond.
There was something else unusual. In early June, after Jo and the girls were killed but before their bodies had been identified, Hal had withdrawn $7,000 in cash from an account at Van Wert National Bank. Where had that money gone?
Pflieger and Duran easily established Hal’s whereabouts on the day and night of the murders. As always, he had been on the farm, milking the cows until late that afternoon, and had been back at it before dawn the next morning. This was on a farm approximately an hour away from the nearest airport of any size, which was across the Indiana border in Fort Wayne. There had been no time for him to get down to Florida and commit the murders. And there was nothing to suggest a motive for an act as heinous as killing his entire family.
Still, the cash withdrawal begged the question. Was it possible that, for reasons unknown, Hal had hired someone to commit the murders?
The detectives spent much of their time in Ohio on the farm, interviewing Hal at length. He was clearly numb with grief and appeared to be moving through the days on automatic pilot. His eyes, as Pflieger would later describe it, had a “blank, hundred-mile stare.”
Even so, Pflieger and Duran needed some answers. One of the first things they asked was why he had posted his brother’s bond.
Others had asked the same question, and the reply that Hal repeatedly had given was odd and unsettling and completely consistent with his proud and stubborn personality. He had agreed to post the bail, he said, after John was accused of raping the woman who had shared his trailer. By the time Hal learned about the allegations involving Michelle, he said, he had already given his word. And once he gave his word, he was required to keep it, no matter how hard it was or how unusual it appeared to others.
Speaking privately to Pflieger and Duran, Hal said more. He said he had wanted to be supportive of Michelle but had also wanted to keep the peace with his brother and his parents. He said that he believed Michelle but was aware that someone was lying – either his brother or his daughter – and that he wanted to wait to see if the truth became any clearer. Furthermore, he said he had agreed to fulfill his pledge to his brother and post the bond only after John agreed in return to sell his half of the farm and never come near the property or Michelle again.
As for the $ 7,000 he had taken out of the bank, Hal explained that he had withdrawn it during the agonizing days when Jo and the girls were missing. He had needed the money, he said, to travel between Ohio and Florida, searching for his family. He had to withdraw it in cash because he had no credit cards; didn’t believe in credit cards, he said. Before he got the chance to carry out his plan, he had learned his family was dead.
Hal did his best to answer the detectives’ questions. He understood why they had to ask these things and wanted to resolve any suspicions about him so they could move on and pursue other leads.
At the end of one interview, as the two investigators were preparing to back out of the driveway, Duran turned to Hal and asked, almost off-hand, one last question.
“I got one more thing to ask you. I almost forgot,” Duran said, looking up at Hal through the car window. “About that money you withdrew from the bank? That $ 7,000? What happened to it?”
Motioning to the detectives to follow him, Hal walked over to his pickup truck, parked a few feet away. He opened the truck’s unlocked door, opened the glove compartment and showed them a bank bag. Inside the bag was $ 6,000 in cash.
The other $ 1,000 was in Hal’s pocket.
So much for the road to Ohio.
When the detectives returned from their rounds of interviews up north, neither Hal nor John Rogers was considered a viable suspect. In fact, the investigators had found nothing to suggest that the crime had any connection to Ohio whatsoever.
“We got nothing there,” Sgt. Sanders said. “We’re coming back with zilch from Ohio … It’s something that happened here.”
If the murders were something that had begun and ended in Florida, that suggested a random meeting between the women and their killer. Apparently they had stopped at some point, run into someone, struck up a conversation and then felt safe enough with this person to accompany him — given the probable sexual nature of the attack, it was almost certainly a man — on a boat ride on Tampa Bay.
Such randomness made the task of solving the case that much more difficult. As the weeks went by, the chances of finding the killer began to seem increasingly remote. The early flood of tips dwindled to a trickle; the most encouraging leads were all proving to be nothing. The multiagency task force was disbanded and the case was left in the hands of the St. Petersburg police.
In the beginning, there had been more than 20 investigators working on the case. Soon that number was cut to four.
Even the commanding officers in charge of the investigation admitted they were stymied and simply hoping that someone would step forward with new information.
“That’s what we’re down to now,” said Maj. Cliff Fouts, the officer who headed the department’s criminal investigation section. “We really have no place to go.”
The lack of progress in Florida only added to the sense of hopelessness felt by those who cared about Jo and Michelle and Christe.
Jeff Feasby, Michelle’s boyfriend, was gripped with a searing, unshakable rage. Jeff had not attended the funeral – he couldn’t bear it, he said – and since then had refused to go anywhere near Zion Lutheran Church or the little cemetery across the road. He did not like to let his friends out of his sight and would get upset it if he saw one of them talking to a stranger.
Jim Etzler, Jo’s brother, would wake up at night from horrible dreams, flailing his arms. His wife, Colleen, found him out in the barn one evening, hurling a soda can at the wall over and over. Colleen would go to Van Wert, shop for groceries, come home and realize she had been in a trance throughout the errand and could not remember a single detail of what had just transpired.
Colleen felt a terrible connection with the murders. Not long before Jo and the girls were killed, during a vacation in South Carolina, Colleen had been raped while taking a morning walk along the beach. She had screamed for help, but the waves of the ocean had drowned out her cries. Now her memories of that day combined with her grief and terror from the murders. Knowing that Jo and the girls had died at night, Colleen could not stand to be alone after dark. She hated to drive anywhere at night, even short distances. She began to view the world as a randomly cruel and unpredictable place, a place steeped in blood and violence.
One night Colleen had a dream and found herself standing at the edge of a body of water — a lake, a river, it wasn’t clear — and on the other side was Jo.
“I haven’t seen you for a long, long time,” Jo said.
They were all haunted. Colleen’s 12-year-old daughter, Mandi, stayed upstairs in her bedroom for hours with the door locked, because it was the only place she felt safe. A counselor, trying to help, asked Mandi what would happen if an attacker came into the house while she was in the bedroom. What if this attacker were downstairs, doing something to another member of the family?
Mandi shook her head. “I just don’t want to know,” she said.
Ginny Etzler, Mandi’s grandmother and Jo’s mother, went into her basement one day, where Michelle and Christe used to play, and found a little blackboard, still marked with their scribblings from years ago. A heart had been drawn on the blackboard, and beneath the heart were the words — written in Michelle’s cursive — “I love . . . ”
Hal Rogers was disappearing further inside himself. He didn’t want to talk, didn’t know how to explain what he was feeling, had no interest in the reporters and camera crews who kept showing up at the farm.
No matter what the detectives had concluded, many people in Van Wert County were wondering if Hal and his brother John were involved in the murders. People said the Rogers family was strange. They talked especially about Hal, how quiet he was, how he never broke down after the murders, how he always wore the tinted glasses, even at the funeral. He was hiding something, they said. Why hadn’t anyone seen him cry?
No one accused Hal of anything to his face, but his friends heard the talk and did their best to stop it.
“Goddamn it, that ain’t nothin’ but rumors,” said Darrell Dietrich, one of Hal’s neighbors and closest friends. “Hal didn’t do nothin’. You just don’t know Hal.”
Darrell and others pointed out that there was no way for Hal to have committed the murders, that he had been seen on the farm in the hours shortly before and after Jo and the girls were killed. They talked about how much he had relied on Jo and how he had doted on Michelle and Christe.
“Those girls were his life,” Rosemary Krick told one accuser. “He worshiped the ground they walked on.”
But the rumors didn’t stop. Sometimes when Hal walked into a restaurant or a bar, he could feel people staring at him, wondering if he had arranged for the slaughter of his family.
“People just couldn’t believe that they were picked out at random,” says Colleen Etzler.
Hal did not want to show his grief to the reporters or the cameras or the rest of the world, but the grief was there. He didn’t like to go inside the girls’ rooms and see all their clothes and books and knickknacks. He could not bear to sleep inside the house, in the bed he had shared with Jo, so for months he spent his nights on the couches of friends. Often, he showed up at Vance and Rosemary Krick’s house. He would stretch out on one of their recliners, watch TV with them for awhile, then close his eyes and fall asleep, never having said a word to them all evening, just appreciating the fact that he could find quiet refuge in their home. Vance and Rosemary would put a blanket on him before going to bed; in the morning, when they woke, Hal would already be gone, off for the first milking of the day.
Like others, the Kricks pushed Hal to seek counseling.
“You’ve got to get help,” Rosemary told him. “You have got to talk to somebody.”
“No,” he would say. “I have to do it myself.”
A month or so after the murders, Hal went out to the mailbox and found Jo’s credit card bill listing a charge from the Days Inn at Rocky Point for his family’s stay in Room 251. Jo and the girls had spent all of a few hours in the room before they disappeared, but a week had gone by before they were identified, and for days the room had technically still been theirs. Now the charge for the room — to be exact, $ 321.46 — was included in the credit card bill.
Hal wrote the check, sealed the envelope, sent it off.
The first break came that October.
Jim Kappel, the lead detective on the case since the day the bodies were pulled from the water, was looking at a bulletin issued every month by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Someone else had seen the bulletin and passed it on to Kappel, pointing to an item about a rape in the waters off Madeira Beach. The victim was a 24-year-old Canadian woman. She had been vacationing in Pinellas County and had met a man who took her out on his boat in the gulf off John’s Pass and assaulted her.
Kappel checked the date of the rape:
May 15. Two weeks before the Rogers women were killed.
He checked the description of the boat:
light blue and white interior.
A flurry of things happened very quickly.
Kappel spoke to the Madeira Beach police investigator who had handled the rape back in May and learned the details of the assault. Then Kappel and another detective flew to Canada to interview the victim. They returned convinced that the man who had committed the rape probably was involved in the Rogers murders.
The woman had been on vacation in Madeira Beach with a girlfriend, also from Canada. The two of them had stopped one night at a 7-Eleven, when a man in the parking lot struck up a conversation with them. He was in a dark-colored four-wheel-drive vehicle with tinted windows and a Florida license plate; later the women would describe it as similar to a Ford Bronco or a Jeep Cherokee. He was older than the two of them, perhaps in his mid-30s. He was white, about 5 foot 10 and 180 pounds, with blond, slightly reddish hair and a ruddy complexion. He said his name was Dave Posner — or Dave Posno, the woman wasn’t sure — and that he owned an aluminum company and lived in Bradenton.
He seemed nice enough, polite and easy to talk to, and he offered to take the two women out on his boat the next afternoon. The 24-year-old woman had wanted to go, but her girlfriend had not, and so she went alone. That afternoon, they went out into the gulf briefly and then cruised the Intracoastal Waterway. The man was friendly, talkative, appropriate with his words and actions. When he returned the woman to shore, he offered to take her and her friend out that evening for a sunset cruise. It would be pretty on the water, he said, and they should bring a camera.
Again, the 24-year-old woman wanted to go, but her friend did not. And when she showed up at the dock that evening, the man seemed happy to see her but irritated that her friend had not come along. He took the woman out onto the water anyway. She had brought her camera, and as they rode across the water, talking, she took the man’s photo. By now it was getting dark, and they were a ways off shore. Suddenly the man’s demeanor changed. Now he was touching and hugging her, talking about how pretty she was, saying he wanted to have sex with her. When she refused, he insisted.
The woman screamed. The man told her she was wasting her time.
“What are you doing? Nobody’s going to hear you,” he said. “What are you going to do? Jump out of the boat?”
He told her to be quiet. If she didn’t stop screaming, he said, he would cover her mouth with duct tape.
“Is sex something worth losing your life over?” he said.
He ripped off her top, pulled down her shorts and the bottom of her bathing suit, and raped her. When it was over, he told her to get dressed. He gave her a thermos of water and told her to rinse herself, ripped the film from her camera and threw the film overboard.
As the woman huddled in the boat, shocked and terrified, the man apologized for what he had done.
“I’ve taken something from you that you can never get back,” he said.
When they headed back to shore, he seemed to want to talk. He said he knew she would report what had happened, but he would appreciate it if she waited a little because his mother was old and he wanted the chance to tell her first, so she would not have a heart attack when the police showed up at the door.
Several times, he threw up over the side of the boat. At first she had thought he was vomiting out of remorse. Later, though, she and others would wonder if it was because he remembered the friend on shore and knew that someone else could identify him if he killed her there on the gulf.
The man pulled the boat into the shallow water off John’s Pass and stopped, letting her get out and walk back to shore.
“Watch your step,” he said.
The detectives listened to the woman’s account and made a mental list of all the details that were similar to the Rogers case. The attacker had made his approach in a public place on two tourists, offering them a scenic ride in his boat. He had not been deterred by the thought of having two women on board; in fact, he had clearly preferred for both of them to be on the boat. On top of that, he had threatened to use duct tape, he had removed the clothing from the lower half of the victim’s body, and he had taken advantage of the victim’s unfamiliarity with her surroundings, both on land and on water.
They asked the Canadian woman to help them put together a composite drawing of her attacker. She had helped with a composite for the Madeira Beach police, but in that drawing he had been wearing a hat and they wanted one that showed his whole face.
The detectives flew back to Florida. They already knew there was no Dave Posner or Dave Posno who owned an aluminum company or lived in Bradenton or anywhere else around Tampa Bay. They decided to make public the composite drawing, along with a description of the man and his boat and his four-wheel-drive vehicle. For days, the composite was everywhere. It was printed on fliers and copied to other law enforcement agencies and shown on the TV news and printed in the newspapers.
The floodgates opened once more. The investigators received more than 400 tips. Once again, extra detectives were assigned to the case. Once again, they scrambled to investigate as many of the tips as possible.
And once again, the tips they checked out all proved worthless.
It was maddening. Kappel and the other investigators were confident that they had the right suspect and that they had a good description of him. But they still had no idea who he was. As the weeks passed, the number of detectives was cut again.
By now it was December of 1989. Jo and Michelle and Christe had been dead for six months.
Hal Rogers decided to head to Florida himself. He drove down a few days before Christmas. He was in the Calais, the same car Jo and the girls had been driving when they disappeared. The police had returned the car to him months before.
For a long time Hal had not been able to even look at the Calais; anxious to keep it out of sight, he had left it at a friend’s house. But eventually he got over that and returned the car to his own driveway. Some nights, when he couldn’t bear to sleep inside his house, he slept out in the car, the key in the ignition, drifting off to a country station on the radio.
Now here he was, making his own pilgrimage to Florida, sitting behind the same steering wheel as Jo, heading down the same stretch of highway that she and the girls had taken.
He arrived in Tampa on Dec. 23. It was cold and raining. He didn’t have the heart to visit the Days Inn, but he did drive over to the boat ramp on the Courtney Campbell Parkway. He walked to the edge of the bay and stared out over the water. He wanted to see what his wife and daughters had seen, to feel what they had felt. Maybe then everything would make more sense.
But it didn’t help. How could it?
Hal got back in the Calais and drove away.
The one-year anniversary of the murders was approaching, and the case was literally stuck on the shelf, summed up inside a few black notebooks filled with reports that almost no one had time to read anymore.
There was a new sergeant overseeing the investigation. He was a novice to homicide, had almost no experience with solving murders, but he did not think that mattered. In fact, he thought it might help.
His name was Glen Moore. He had some ideas on how to tackle the investigation from a fresh angle, and some notions on how to get those ideas translated into reality.
Sgt. Moore had never met Jo or Michelle or Christe. Still, he hated to think of them dying alone on the bottom of Tampa Bay and then being abandoned to die again inside a handful of notebooks on a shelf. He did not intend to leave them there.
Across the bay, a woman stood inside the kitchen of her Tampa home, looking at the newspaper clipping hanging on her white Kenmore refrigerator.
The clipping showed the composite drawing of the man from the Madeira Beach rape case. To Jo Ann Steffey, the drawing resembled one of her neighbors.
Steffey thought the man was maybe 40 or even older, about 5-10, with reddish-blond hair and a ruddy face. He was an aluminum contractor, married, with a little girl. He drove a dark blue Jeep Cherokee and lived two lots down the street from Steffey, in a house on Dalton Avenue, on the far west side of Tampa, only a few miles from the boat ramp where the three Rogers women had disappeared. His house was on a canal that led straight to the bay, and until a few months ago, he had owned a blue and white Bayliner that he liked to take out at night.
For some time, even before she read the story in the newspaper about the Madeira Beach rape, Steffey had felt that there was something off about this neighbor. He was so talkative, he tried so hard to seem friendly and helpful. When he looked at her, she got an uneasy feeling.
Then the composite came out in the paper. That morning, after Steffey read the story, she was driving down her street past the neighbor’s house when suddenly it hit her.
“Damn,” she said to herself. “It’s him.”
Now she stared at the clipping on the refrigerator. She gazed at the face in the drawing. It was him, she told herself.
Chapter 3: Neighbors
One night, when he could take it no longer, Hal Rogers grabbed a spade and a shovel and drove to the cemetery.
He knew others would not understand. But he did not care.
He wanted to know if it was really Jo and the girls sleeping in the ground.
For months, Hal had been tormented with the notion that the three bodies flown up from Florida the previous summer were not his wife and daughters. After all, the bodies had been identified in Pinellas County, through dental records sent from Ohio, and had been shipped in sealed containers that had never been opened, not even at the funeral home in Van Wert County. There had been no chance for Hal or anyone else who knew Jo and Michelle and Christe to look at the bodies and say, yes, that is them.
The same questions kept running through Hal’s mind. What if the authorities in Florida were wrong? What if there had been a terrible mistake, and the bodies were those of three other women, and his own family was alive somewhere?
“It’s not them,” he told his friends.
The idea plagued him. He could not even bring himself to buy headstones for the three graves. Months after the funeral, they were still distinguished only by copper markers embedded in the ground.
Finally Hal decided he had no choice but to dig them up. No matter how horrible it would be, he had to see for himself.
He drove to Zion Lutheran cemetery in his pickup truck, the spade and shovel in the back. He got out and stepped over the fence surrounding the tiny property and its rows of graves, some of them dating back as far as the 1830s. The place was empty and silent.
Hal found the markers for Jo and the girls and sat in the grass. He stayed there for what seemed like a long time, thinking and wondering and trying to find the strength to do what was in his heart.
Then it hit him. If he carried through on this, people would think he had snapped. He would probably be sent to an institution, taken away from his farm and his home and everything he had shared with Jo and the girls. Plus, the episode would be all over the news, a spectacular display of untrammeled grief, perfect for the front page.
“This is exactly what those bastards at the newspaper really want,” Hal said to himself. “This would make a good story here.”
He stood up, got his tools and walked back to the truck.
The man was out there.
It was about 10 o’clock on a Saturday evening. Jo Ann Steffey had just gone inside the kitchen of her Tampa home, where the composite drawing still hung on her refrigerator. She was convinced that the face in the drawing belonged to her neighbor two houses down on Dalton Avenue. She had been staring at the composite for weeks; cut out from the newspaper, it was starting to curl and yellow. Now she was debating whether to report her hunch to the police. Trying to decide, she had shown the composite to a friend.
“Look at it,” she said. “Doesn’t it look just like him?”
Her friend did not think so. At least, he didn’t think the composite looked anything more like the neighbor than like 10,000 other people with blond hair. He told her she should be careful making such accusations; she could ruin an innocent man’s life.
Her friend’s warning held Steffey back. Besides, she wasn’t eager to have her name dragged into something so frightening.
Then, that Saturday night, Steffey walked into her kitchen and looked out the window toward the street. Suddenly she caught her breath. There, standing in the grass near the edge of her driveway, was the very neighbor she suspected.
He was maybe 35 feet away. She could see him clearly, because there was a streetlight nearby, illuminating the scene. She could not tell what he was doing, but he was looking in her direction.
Steffey rushed to turn off the lights. She stepped back into the shadows and kept her eyes fixed on the man. He was still standing in the grass, gazing toward her house. For what seemed like a long time, the two of them stood there motionless. Finally the man turned and called out a name. A little, fuzzy, white dog answered the call, and then he and the dog walked away.
When the man was gone, Steffey sat down, terrified. That was it. She could not ignore her feelings about the neighbor any longer.
The notebooks haunted the new sergeant.
There were three of them in all, each a 4-inch black binder, and they sat in Glen Moore’s cluttered little office on the second floor of the St. Petersburg police station. The books were filled with reports and photos and notes on tips and leads that had been pursued and eliminated. Taken together, they contained the sum of all that had been learned so far in the Rogers investigation.
Moore, transferred to homicide almost six months after the murders, was troubled by the lack of progress in the case. He didn’t like to see the notebooks stuck on a shelf, with no one looking inside them. He wanted updates. He wanted movement.
“What’s happening?” he would ask Jim Kappel, the detective who had been lead investigator on the case since it began the previous summer. “What’s going on?”
There wasn’t much Kappel could say. He was an experienced and respected homicide investigator; several years before, the St. Petersburg Exchange Club had named him the department’s officer of the year for his work on another murder case. For months, Kappel had poured himself into the Rogers investigation, sometimes working 14-hour days for weeks straight. And he had made some invaluable contributions, establishing the probable connection between the murders and the Madeira Beach rape. But by the spring of 1990, the tips generated by the composite drawing from the rape had long since stopped. There were no new leads. The case was growing colder by the minute.
“It just kind of died,” Kappel would later say.
As far as Moore could tell, Kappel was a good detective. But with all the problems that came with the investigation — no crime scene, almost no physical evidence, the apparently random selection of the victims — Kappel and the rest of the investigators had always been fighting against the odds. As the months went by, Kappel’s superiors had clearly lost confidence that the murders could ever be solved.
“Our department had never run into a case like this before,” says Moore.
Complicating the situation was the fact that the department’s two homicide squads were swamped with other murders. In the year that the Rogers women died, there were 45 other homicides in St. Petersburg — a record for the city. The strain was showing; there were too many killings and too few detectives. A disturbing number of cases were not being solved.
Something had to give. Kappel was still officially assigned to the Rogers case, but for some time now he had also been assigned to other cases that took up most of his time. Unless new information was developed, the Rogers case was going nowhere.
Moore wanted to give it another shot.
A detective who had been with the St. Petersburg police for two decades, Moore had spent years working patrol, vice and narcotics, and burglaries. When he was transferred to homicide in November 1989, he had never investigated a homicide, nor had he ever supervised a homicide investigation. He did not think like other homicide detectives, because he had never been one of them.
“I was dumb and innocent,” he says today, looking back.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how these very qualities in Moore — his inexperience, his willingness to ask questions that others might have thought pointless — served him so well in his new assignment. But there were other, less obvious qualities that made him particularly well-suited to the difficulties of this case.
For one thing, he was quietly, politely, unbelievably stubborn. For another, he carried himself with the peace of a man who knows that, no matter what, his soul is saved and on its way to heaven.
Moore’s faith in God was as robust as the rest of him. He was a big man, imposing, with a thick neck, wide shoulders, hands that looked huge enough to crush boulders into pebbles. He looked just like what he was, a former high school football player and discus thrower who had grown up in Georgia, moved to Florida, joined the police academy, married his high school sweetheart, had three children and devoted himself to a lifetime in law enforcement. Around the department, he was known as “Boomer.”
This was a nickname bestowed upon Moore eons ago, when he was a rookie and the department put on a wrestling exhibition for charity. At the last minute, Glen was persuaded to climb into the ring, where he unceremoniously creamed a couple of opponents, including his sergeant at the time, who took the whole thing surprisingly well once he managed to peel himself off the floor. The sergeant dubbed him “Boom-Boom,” which had evolved into “Boomer” and stuck ever since.
The cartoonish nickname was a smoke screen. It made it easy to underestimate Moore. Because underneath the hulking exterior was an attentive and complicated person. Moore did not fit any of the usual stereotypes of a cynical, world-weary detective. He rarely swore. He hardly ever drank. After 20 years of marriage, he was still crazy about his wife and spoke about her with unrestrained reverence. He was an involved father who cheered for his children at their school plays and football and baseball games. He loved to read and possessed a roving curiosity about everything from politics to sports to history to science. When he wasn’t talking shop, he would engage people in conversations about the nature of time and eternity, the origins of the universe, whether intelligent life truly existed in Washington, D.C.
What defined Glen Moore, more than anything else, was his belief in God. Raised in the Baptist faith, he had been saved at the age of 12. All these years later, he prayed every day and served as a deacon at his church. Though he tried to avoid forcing his views on others, especially at the station, he found it hard to understand why everyone did not believe in God. To him, there was an abundance of undeniable, irrefutable proof of God’s existence; God, he believed, was an artist without compare whose works were on display for anyone with eyes to see. It was there in the staggering diversity of creatures multiplying across the planet. It was there in the brilliance of the stars exploding in the sky.
“Who am I to challenge the wonders of this universe?” he would say. ”It’s all around us . . . God’s creation is all around us.”
Moore was deeply conservative. He saw the Bible as God’s word, meant to be interpreted literally. He thought the theory of evolution was ridiculous. He believed that the country was coming apart and the apocalypse was close at hand. He was not one of these doom-and-gloom types, always waving signs proclaiming that the end was near; he didn’t run his life that way and didn’t teach his children to do so, either. Still, he believed in God’s judgment and did his best to conduct himself accordingly.
He was perfectly capable of getting along with people who did not share his views. He had no trouble surviving in the modern, politically correct working world of the 1990s. In many ways, he was a progressive-minded boss. He was not particularly focused on hierarchy, did not feel the need to wave his rank or his seniority over those he worked with. He was a good listener, and encouraged those who worked for him to speak their minds. Time and again, he insisted that his detectives pull themselves away from their cases and take time for their families.
“Go home,” he would tell them. “Get out of here.”
Like anyone else, Moore had his flaws. He could be impatient, bullheaded and overbearing; some people in the department saw him as arrogant. He had a tendency, from time to time, to think he was always right. A perfectionist, he sometimes had difficulty letting go when things didn’t proceed exactly as he saw fit. That’s when other people would give him the speech.
“Glen, go back to your office,” they would say. “Sit in that little room and forget about it.”
But Moore wasn’t good at forgetting. He also struggled sometimes with keeping his temper; during his younger years with the department, he occasionally exploded without warning.
Once, in an almost legendary episode when he was still with vice and narcotics, he lost it with another officer who swiped one of his apples. At the time, Moore was preparing for a body-building competition and was suffering under a Draconian diet that allowed him almost no sweets, no fats, virtually no food at all. He was training at the gym one day, looking forward to eating an apple that awaited him as his reward — a Red Delicious apple, to be precise — when he realized that this officer, who worked out at the same gym, had taken the apple and eaten it. Suddenly Moore was lifting the poor guy off his feet and pushing him against the wall.
“Don’t you ever touch one of my apples again,” he told him.
In retrospect, Moore acknowledges that he came slightly unhinged that day. Later he apologized to the officer, and they remained friends.
Moore didn’t like losing his temper and had worked over the years at learning how to stay calm. His belief in God, he said, had helped him with that task.
His faith transformed the way he approached everything. Guided by his belief in the Bible, he was motivated by a strict and unwavering sense of morality. He did not agree with taking the easy way out, was not afraid to take an unpopular stand when he believed it was the correct thing to do.
“What’s right is right,” he liked to say. “Truth is truth.”
Some people might have been surprised to learn that a veteran police officer, having seen so much ambiguity and complexity, would view life in such simple, black and white terms. But these were his beliefs, and Moore made no apologies. His faith was exactly the rudder he needed to navigate his way through the grueling, emotionally draining work in homicide. As he and his detectives sorted through the growing pile of cases before them, Moore was witness to some of the best and much of the worst of human behavior. To him, their job was part of the ongoing war between good and evil.
And when he looked over at the black notebooks from the Rogers case, he was determined to do everything possible to solve the murders and bring the killer to justice. To Moore, it was obvious that he and the other investigators were searching for someone possessed by a darkness beyond understanding. Someone who thought of people as objects to be manipulated and tortured and thrown away. Someone who had no remorse, no guilt, no conscience.
If Moore and his detectives didn’t catch this person, who would? If they did not demand that the killer be held responsible for the deaths of three human beings, then who else would do it? Who else was left? Who else could speak for Jo and Michelle and Christe?
Late that spring, as the one-year anniversary of the murders approached, Moore went to one of his superiors, Maj. Cliff Fouts, and told him he wanted to do a review of the case. He wanted to gather a team of new investigators — people who would look with fresh eyes — and have them pore over the case books and talk to the original investigators and then see what shook loose.
Okay, said the major.
That June, Moore put together his team, using several detectives who were new to the case as well as an investigator from the state attorney’s office and a former St. Petersburg police detective who was now a special agent for the FBI, assigned to the bureau’s Tampa office. They took the notebooks off the shelf and read through them and then sat down in a room with Jim Kappel and Ralph Pflieger, another experienced detective who had worked extensively on the case, and started emptying their brains of everything they had learned and everything they wondered and everything they considered.
Moore and his team had a list of items they wanted to go over with Kappel and Pflieger. It was a long and tough and sobering list, with close to 150 questions in all, and it took several days to go through. The process was not fun. Attempts were made to reassure Kappel and Pflieger, to remind them their efforts had been appreciated, to tell them they were not being criticized or attacked.
These efforts were not entirely successful. No one likes to be second-guessed, especially by a group of inquisitive, intelligent people who are trained in finding holes and who are all now playing devil’s advocate as they comb through every step you’ve taken for the past year. Moore and others who took part in the review all agree that Kappel and Pflieger grew frustrated during the questioning, that they felt as though they were being subjected to a marathon grilling.
For their part, Kappel and Pflieger say today that they understood the reason for the review and tried not to take it personally. Still, they had given the investigation everything they had. Pflieger was so obsessed with the case, he often dreamed about Michelle and Christe; in these dreams, he would see the girls still alive, walking the halls at school and milking cows on the farm.
Looking back on the review, the two investigators acknowledge that the sessions were sometimes difficult and even exasperating. Kappel remembers some verbal sparring. Pflieger says it felt as though the quality of his work was being questioned.
Either way, the two of them told the new team that they had tried everything they could think of, that there was nothing new to be explored.
“We did that,” they said repeatedly. “It’s already been done.”
Moore and the other members of the team did not agree. Two weeks after the review began, Moore’s team concluded that many things had not been done. They discovered, says Moore, that the Clearwater Beach brochure recovered from the Rogers car — the one marked with the handwritten directions showing the family how to reach the motel — had never been processed for prints. Other items found in the car and in the motel room, Moore reports, had never been processed, either. Many of the hundreds of tips that had come pouring in at various points during the investigation had not been pursued.
Moore had little interest in casting blame or pointing fingers for any oversights. He knew that Kappel and Pflieger and all the other investigators had done their best under extremely difficult circumstances.
But somewhere along the line, Moore believed, too many people had bought into the argument that this case could not be solved. As far as he was concerned, the most devastating error had not come in the handling of evidence or in how many calls were or were not made. It had been in the minds of the investigators and their superiors. The reason they had not gotten anywhere, he thought, was because they had decided there was nowhere to possibly go.
Moore, too stubborn to know better, saw things differently. And now, after typing a 10-page memo detailing the findings of the review, he had the proof to show his commanding officers that there was a great deal of work to be done. He did not have to be particularly blunt about it, either. The bottom line was so obvious:
The Rogers case was not dead unless they killed it themselves.
Faced with Moore’s memo, the commanding officers didn’t really have much choice. Moore asked for more time. They gave it to him. He asked for two new detectives, both from the team that did the review. They approved it. He requested that these detectives be allowed to work exclusively on the Rogers case. They granted it.
Yes, they said. Do it.
Jo Ann Steffey had decided.
The deputy in her class. She would tell him about her neighbor.
Steffey had been watching the man down the street closely ever since she first suspected him. She tried to keep an eye on his house, tried to notice everything she could about him. But even though she wanted to tell the police about him, she still did not want her name brought into the case.
That was why she thought of the Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy. They were in an accounting class together at Tampa College – Steffey was working on a business degree – and Steffey knew he was a deputy because he often came to class in his uniform. If she told him, maybe he could keep it unofficial.
They were in class a couple of days later. Steffey waited for a break, then followed the deputy out into the hall and into the break room and sat down beside him. She said she had to talk to him.
She told him about her neighbor and the composite drawing and the similarities between him and the man the detectives were looking for. She thought it was important that her information be passed along, but she preferred to be kept out of the investigation.
“I don’t want to be involved,” she told him.
The deputy nodded.
Sgt. Moore and his team started like this:
Inside the office where they worked, there was a white bulletin board, and they covered it with photos of the Calais at the boat ramp and Room 251 at the Days Inn and what remained of Jo and Michelle and Christe after they were recovered from the water.
Among these photos, they also hung pictures from Ohio, from when the three women were alive. There was one of Jo folding clothes, a school portrait of Michelle and a shot of Christe with her pouffed-up bangs. After a while, the evidence photos were taken down from the bulletin board to be replaced by other photos and maps and reports. But the family pictures stayed up, spurring the team onward.
Not that the new team needed to be pushed. The two detectives that Moore had requested — Cindy Cummings and J.J. Geoghegan — were both highly motivated self-starters, full of energy and ideas.
Working with Moore, the two of them began to fill in the gaps left open during the first year of investigation. Jim Kappel worked with them for a while, but soon he and Moore agreed it was best he move on. Kappel, ready for a change, transferred to another division and became a school resource officer.
Moore, Cummings and Geoghegan went back to the beginning and took it step by step. They re-interviewed guests who had been staying at the Days Inn when the Rogers women disappeared. They studied the snapshot of the sunset that the family had taken outside Room 251 and tried to ascertain exactly what time it was shot, so they could pin down more accurately when Jo and the girls left the motel for the last time.
They looked through all the items gathered from the car and the motel room and from the bodies. They sent the Clearwater Beach brochure and other items to be processed for fingerprints. As it happened, there were several unidentified prints on the brochure, possibly left by the person who had written the directions to the Days Inn.
They began investigating the tips that had never been checked out. Some of these tips seemed promising at first, but one by one they all faded into nothing.
What they did not do that summer was pursue the information that Jo Ann Steffey had passed along to the Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy in her accounting class. They didn’t pursue it because they did not know about it. Either the deputy did not report it, or his report was disregarded, or the information was somehow lost. For whatever reason, the tip did not reach Moore and his team.
The truth was, they were already overloaded with everything before them. It wasn’t just the tips that had never been checked out. It was keeping track of all the tips that had been pursued, and keeping track of all the information from those tips, and keeping track of all the facts from all the interviews and statements and reports in the case. They were flooded with information.
Which is why that fall, the police department sent Moore to England. The British police had a computer system called HOLMES — the acronym was far more enticing than the full name, Home Office Large Major Enquiry System — that had been used, two years before, in the bombing of the Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. HOLMES was designed to help investigators organize huge amounts of information. Though it had never been used in the United States, it was perfect for the Rogers case; even better, the company that owned it — McDonnell Douglas — was eager to share it with the St. Petersburg police, so other law enforcement agencies would be encouraged to buy it. The company was willing to donate the system and to help pay for the training required to use it.
Moore spent a week in England, studying HOLMES and how it was being used at Scotland Yard. When he returned to St. Petersburg, he was convinced that the system was just what the team working the Rogers case needed. So he asked Larry Heim, another detective with expertise in computers, to join the investigation and serve as the HOLMES administrator, overseeing the use of the new system. Heim was eager to help in any way he could; when he looked at the photos of the two Rogers girls on the bulletin board, he saw his own two children staring back at him.
In the weeks that followed, Heim and the other detectives and the office assistants working with the investigation took classes on how to put the system to work. The computer training was long and dull and mind-numbing. But at last Moore and the investigators had a way to stay on top of the river of information.
HOLMES had arrived just in time. The river of information was about to overflow its banks. Moore and his team were due in several weeks to visit the FBI’s behavioral science unit at the bureau’s academy in Quantico, Va. This is the unit, popularized in novels and movies such as The Silence of the Lambs, that specializes in developing psychological profiles of killers in unsolved cases. Moore and the team would share everything they had learned about the case, and the FBI profilers would offer advice on what kind of person they were looking for.
Before they headed for Quantico, however, the detectives had another trip before them: They were going to Ohio. Among other tasks, they wanted to talk to Hal Rogers.
Hal had been interviewed before, back at the beginning. Now Moore and the other investigators wanted to question him again.
They doubted that Hal had anything to do with the murders. But as long as they were going over everything in the case, it made sense to give Hal a second look.
They also wanted to talk to as many people as possible who had known Jo and Michelle and Christe. Both for their purposes and the FBI’s, they needed to understand the trio’s emotional state at the time of the vacation. Would the awful experiences of the past several years — the allegations Michelle had made against her uncle John, the bitter split in the family over who was telling the truth — have left Jo and the girls more suspicious of people and therefore more reluctant to get on a boat with a stranger? Or would those experiences have made them more likely to trust a fresh, new face? The more they understood about the Rogers women, the easier it might be to figure exactly how they had died and who had killed them.
Cummings and Geoghegan made the trip late that January, accompanied by Jim Ramey, the FBI agent who had sat in on the review. They flew into Fort Wayne, Ind., just across the state line from Van Wert County. As their plane made its descent, Geoghegan — a Florida boy, through and through — looked out the window and asked why there was so much sand on the fields below.
Cummings and Ramey laughed.
“That’s snow, dummy.”
The three of them had not told Hal they were coming. They wanted to show up unannounced, so he would have no chance to prepare and so they could see the unrehearsed reaction on his face when they arrived. To maximize the possibility of surprise, they decided to fly up on Sunday, Jan. 27, because that was the day the New York Giants were playing the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium. If Hal had anything to do with the murders, and was worried about detectives coming up from Florida, they figured that Super Bowl Sunday – when half the law enforcement officers in Tampa Bay would be working some sort of detail or watching the game – would be a day when he would almost certainly not expect any visitors carrying badges.
That Sunday afternoon, when Cummings and Geoghegan and Ramey stepped off the plane in Fort Wayne, they drove straight to the farm. When they got there, Hal was in the house, asleep on the couch. He came to the door, saw them and calmly said hello.
“Come on in,” he said, inviting them into the living room as though they were neighbors from down the road.
They interviewed him there in the house. As they asked their questions, they saw, all around them, signs that this was a man paralyzed with grief and denial. Michelle’s and Christe’s bedrooms were clean and tidy, exactly as they had left them before the trip to Florida; it was as though the girls were going to walk back in at any moment. Eighteen months had passed, but Hal had not been able to bring himself to put away their belongings. The rest of the place was a wreck. Clothes were scattered everywhere, the bathroom was beyond redemption, the litter box for the cats did not appear to have been emptied for weeks. It was not a home anymore, but a place where someone wandered through what was left of his life.
The investigators felt for Hal, but did not hold back. He sat in a recliner, they pulled up chairs and surrounded him. They took turns firing away with their questions. They tried to catch him in contradictions, tried to stump him, did their best to throw him off. They even tried to get a rise out of him.
“Did you kill them?” they asked.
Hal shook his head and said no, he did not. He was not defensive, did not appear nervous, just looked them straight in the eye and answered their questions.
He talked about how much he missed Jo and the girls, especially Christe. His little girl, he called her. He said he appreciated all their efforts to catch the killer, but wasn’t sure that knowing who had done this would help him. It was hard enough that they were gone, he said. Wouldn’t it just be that much worse if the police caught someone and he was forced to learn all the gruesome details of how it had happened?
Though he did not shirk questions that touched on his feelings, Hal made no attempt to solicit their sympathy. As usual, he underplayed his pain.
“I have good days and bad days,” he told them. “I try to keep busy.”
Several hours later, when the investigators left the farm, they had learned nothing that would cast suspicion on Hal. To begin with, he didn’t appear to have had the opportunity or motive to arrange the murders. Although his wife and daughters had been covered by life insurance policies, the money Hal had received – Cummings recalls that it was just under $ 70,000, but Hal believes it was closer to $ 100,000 – was hardly enough incentive to kill one’s entire family. After their years in law enforcement, the detectives thought they knew enough to tell when someone was lying or putting on a show. Geoghegan said he would have bet a month’s salary that Hal was clean.
The three investigators stayed in Ohio for 10 days. They interviewed more than 70 people. They talked to Hal two more times. They talked to Jo’s co-workers, to Michelle’s and Christe’s friends, to their teachers, to the counselors who had worked with Michelle after she told the police about her uncle, to neighbors who knew Hal and the rest of the family. They even drove to the prison in Lima, Ohio, where John Rogers was incarcerated, and interviewed him.
By the time they had packed their bags and were ready to leave, they were convinced that neither Hal nor John was involved in the murders, that the killer, or killers, was not from Van Wert Couty.
Whoever they were after, he was somewhere in Florida.
Before they left, the investigators made a trip to the little cemetery where Jo and Michelle and Christe were buried. They wanted to view the graves themselves, so they could know as much as possible about the Rogers family and so they would remember.
So when they were back at their desks and frustrated and beyond exhaustion and not sure what to do next, they would think of this place and keep going.
They arrived at the cemetery to find it blanketed in a freshly fallen layer of snow. It covered the ground and lay in thin ridges along the tops of the headstones. There were still no stones marking the Rogers graves, but the detectives knew where to look. Hal had told them about the copper markers in the ground. He had also told them that Christe’s friends, remembering how much she had loved teddy bears, had left a collection of the stuffed animals on her grave.
The investigators walked down the rows, their breaths forming tiny clouds, the snow crunching under their shoes, until they reached the place where the three women were buried. But they could not see anything. The graves were hidden in the snow.
They got onto their knees and dug through the snow with their bare hands until they uncovered the markers and the bears. Then they stood up and held still for a moment, saying nothing. They looked at the graves and looked at the fields around them and looked at the church across the street where Michelle and Christe had prayed and sung and gone to Sunday school and learned about sin and forgiveness and the glories of eternal life.
When they had seen enough, they drove away.
The rumors about Hal were flourishing.
Ever since the case began, Van Wert County residents had been whispering about him, saying he was strange, noting how he had yet to cry or break down in public, wondering if he might have had something to do with the murders of his wife and daughters. Now, after the visit by the investigators from Florida, the gossip took on new life. People were talking about all the time the detectives had spent in Ohio and all the questions they’d asked about Hal and his family. They had even more to talk about a few weeks later, when reporter from the Tampa Tribune came to Van Wert and started making some inquiries of his own.
One day the reporter showed up at Hal’s door. He told Hal he had heard about the investigators’ visit and was working on a story about what it meant.
Hal talked to the man for only a few moments before he understood what was happening. Then he told him to get out.
“If he walked in today,” says Hal, “I’d poke him clear into yesterday. I should have shot the son of a bitch when he was here.”
The Tribune printed the reporter’s article late that April on the front page. The story was long, brimming with detail and driven by an unmistakable point of view. It said that the police investigation had shifted back to Ohio and the Rogers family. It described Hal as “a hot-tempered, distant man who hid his eyes behind dark glasses.” It talked about how Hal had posted his brother John’s bond in the rape case and about the questions raised by the bond. It talked about how Hal had failed to put headstones on his family’s graves. Over and over, it quoted people who described Hal as cold, bizarre, distant.
“I don’t have any idea what goes on behind those eyes,” the Rev. Gary Luderman, the pastor who had delivered the eulogy at the funeral, was quoted as saying from his new post at a church in Niagara Falls. “They look dead. Everything about him is so controlled, so withdrawn. I just don’t know what goes on inside that man. I’ve never experienced anyone like him.”
The story did not say so out loud, but the point was clear enough:
Hal Rogers was suspect number one.
The word from Quantico was not good.
That spring of 1991, after Sgt. Moore and his team shared everything they knew about the case and everything they had learned in Ohio with the FBI’s behavioral science unit, the profilers came back with some disturbing conclusions.
According to the FBI profile, the murderer was probably a serial killer. The profile predicted that the killer would turn out to be a white man, possibly between age 30 and 40, of above average intelligence. He was probably neat and meticulous, with strong social skills, affluent enough to own a boat, well hidden behind a persona of respectability. Given the relative difficulties of controlling three victims, the profile said the killer may have been helped by someone else. But if so, the killer would have psychologically dominated this other person.
The profile laid out a chilling description of how the murders had most likely taken place. It said the killer enjoyed the suffering of others and fantasized about such an attack for a long time before carrying it out. He planned the murders carefully, then chose the Rogers women as his specific targets after meeting them in Tampa.
He charmed them, arranged to meet them at the boat ramp, took them out in his boat, then turned on them with a weapon of some sort. He had used the weapon, along with the women’s fear of water and their unfamiliarity with the bay, to isolate them and keep them under control until they were tied and gagged. Though he had covered the women’s mouths with duct tape, he had left their eyes uncovered so they could see what was happening and so he could enjoy the fear in their eyes. Once they were tied, he probably raped them, weighted them down and pushed them into the water alive, one by one.
The Rogers attack was probably not his first, the profile said, because such predators usually require experience before they are confident enough to approach more than one victim at a time. And because nearly two years had gone by without his being caught, he probably felt confident enough to kill again. Only this time, the profile said, he was likely to have learned from his mistakes in the Rogers case and be more successful at concealing the bodies. Given his confidence, he would probably keep killing until arrested.
One more thing:
The killer owned a boat and knew the area well, both on land and water. He almost certainly lived somewhere around Tampa Bay.
When they delivered their profile, the FBI agents had a piece of advice for Moore.
Use the media, they said. Tell the newspapers and the TV and radio stations what you know and what you’re looking for, and then they will tell the public, and then the public will be on your side, helping you search for this man. Because he won’t be easy to find, they said. He doesn’t look like a monster. He probably appears harmless, has a job, shows every sign of being a responsible, law-abiding citizen.
Moore was listening. Up to now, he had always seen the news media as a necessary evil. Don’t tell them anything, he would instruct detectives, unless absolutely necessary. Now the FBI was suggesting the opposite approach.
As it happened, Moore was already thinking a great deal about the media. Specifically, he was worried about the Tampa Tribune article suggesting that Hal Rogers was the prime suspect in the murders. Normally, Moore didn’t waste much time poring over what newspapers wrote. But this article was disastrous. If the Tribune was suggesting to its readers that the killer was probably someone in Ohio, then people who lived in Tampa would not be on the lookout for suspects in their back yard.
If the team was going to get the tip it needed to break open this case, the Tribune story — and all its damaging points about Hal — had to be countered.
Moore decided to ask Hal to take a lie detector test.
Like the investigators who had traveled to Ohio, Moore had already concluded that Hal had no connection to the homicides. But the sergeant wanted something to back it up, something tangible that he could wave in front of the media so they would believe it and move on. He asked Hal to submit to a polygraph, knowing full well Hal would pass it.
The polygraph, in other words, was not requested to further the investigation. It was requested to redirect the media’s coverage of the investigation.
Hal agreed to the test, took it in mid-May and passed.
A week later, Moore called a press conference – the first of his career – to talk about the FBI profile, to ask for the public’s help, and to state loudly that Hal Rogers was not a suspect, that in fact Hal had taken a lie detector test.
“Mr. Rogers is a victim in this case,” Moore said.
Sitting before a room full of microphones and cameras and reporters, the sergeant laid everything out, step by step. He shared the FBI’s chilling conclusions. He said that the killer was not from Ohio, but probably from Florida, living nearby. Again and again, he talked about how much his team needed help from anyone with information about the case.
For all his openness, Moore had a hidden agenda. He was not just talking to the press or the public. He was delivering a personal message to the killer.
As he spoke that day, Moore hoped that the man they were after was watching. Because as the second anniversary of the murders approached, he did not want this person to feel too safe. Moore wanted him to know – wanted him to look into his face and see for himself – that he and the other detectives were not discouraged and never giving up. Sooner or later, they would track him down.
Staring straight into the cameras, the sergeant announced that the honeymoon was over for the killer.
“We’re going to hunt him down until we find him.”
That summer, as she drove down her street, Jo Ann Steffey often thought of her neighbor with the blue and white boat.
It had been so long since she had passed along her suspicions to the deputy in her accounting class. Afterward, she had kept watching the house, waiting for a police cruiser to show up in the man’s driveway. More than a year had gone by. But she had seen nothing.
Steffey tried to put it out of her mind. Just because she had not seen any officers at the man’s house did not mean they hadn’t checked him out, she told herself. They must have done their homework. They must have interviewed him and decided he wasn’t the one.
Thinking this way made Steffey feel better. She hoped her neighbor had been investigated. But if he hadn’t been, she didn’t know what to tell the police anymore.
Because the man was no longer her neighbor.
He and his wife and their little girl had moved out months ago with hardly a word to anyone. Didn’t say why they were leaving or where they were going. Just packed up a trailer one day and drove away. No one seemed to know their whereabouts, not even the real estate agent trying to sell their house.
They were gone.
Chapter 4: The Tin Man
Sgt. Moore was praying.
He did it every morning, in his car on his way to work. He did it in the evenings, in his prayer group at his Baptist church. He prayed for himself and his team of investigators. He prayed for the man they were hunting.
Glen Moore did not know why God had allowed this person to walk free through the world, doing such horrific things. But he believed that the Lord had a reason for everything, even this. So now he was asking for illumination. He wanted to understand what purpose the killer served, what goal was being furthered in the eternal plan. Mostly, though, he wanted to know how to track this man down and lock him away forever.
“If you want us to find this guy,” he would say to God, “show us the way.”
A thousand miles to the north, Hal Rogers was carrying on his own conversation with God.
People kept telling Hal that God never gives us more of a burden than we can handle. But Hal, lost for so long in numbing sorrow, was not so sure. There were days, standing in the milking parlor before dawn, when he would have given anything for God to come down from heaven and answer a question or two.
For starters, Hal wondered why God had taken his family from him. Hal had heard the minister’s explanation for this at the funeral, but he had found that particular explanation to be empty, unmemorable, completely useless. What purpose had been served by allowing his wife and daughters to suffer and die in the prime of their lives? Why, for that matter, had God left Hal alive to continue on alone? Why had he been chosen for such a loss? Had he done something wrong?
The months were blurring together. Hal was drinking too much. He was driving his car too fast late at night. For a while he was frightened, because he could not bring himself to summon up a clear image of Jo’s and Michelle’s and Christe’s faces. Try as he might, he could not remember what they looked like.
One day, Hal decided to put an end to it all. He climbed on his motorcycle, found a long and empty stretch of State Road 49, accelerated till he was tearing down the pavement at 100 mph, then closed his eyes and took both hands off the handlebars. A mile or two later, when the motorcycle finally stopped, he opened his eyes and realized he was still on the pavement and still very much alive.
He figured it was Jo and the girls, watching over him. They weren’t ready to let him join them yet.
The detectives were in the dark, searching for the door that would lead them to the light.
It was the spring of 1992, and the investigation was well into its third year. Sgt. Moore and the rest of the team did not know how much longer they had left until the powers that be decided the whole thing wasn’t worth it anymore.
Moore and the others kept going, trying almost anything they could think of to buy more time, more room, a solid lead. They held more press conferences, brought new people onto the team, raised the reward from $5,000 to $25,000. They asked Unsolved Mysteries to feature the case. They remembered the writing from the Calais — the handwritten directions found on the Clearwater Beach brochure — and asked whoever wrote them to please call.
Moore turned to his wife, Carol, for help. After 20 years of marriage, he knew she was smart and independent and not afraid to speak her mind. She worked as an interior decorator, which meant she saw the world differently, thought in terms of colors and shades and balance, sensed when things were arranged properly and when they were not.
So Moore showed Carol photos of the brochure and the handwriting.
“What does this mean to you?” he asked.
When he was off duty, he would take her to the boat ramp. He took her to the Days Inn. He drove with her on I-4 and I-275, guiding her along the route that the Rogers women had taken into Tampa and to their deaths.
“What do you see?” he said. “What were the victims thinking?”
Carol did not disappoint him. When they drove the route, she wondered if perhaps Jo and the girls had been in the far right lane of I-275 South and accidentally gotten off at Dale Mabry Highway, where the exit-only lane suddenly curves right. Maybe they got lost, she said. Maybe they stopped someplace on Dale Mabry and asked for directions. Could that be where they met the person who wrote on their brochure?
Glen listened carefully, filing everything away. He was ready to consider any plausible theory.
After all this time, he and the other investigators were still working out of the gray office on the second floor of the St. Petersburg police station. The team members had their work cut out for them. Finding the killer was already a mammoth challenge. But as they piled up the overtime on the case, they also found themselves being second-guessed inside their own police department.
From almost the start of their time on the Rogers investigation, Moore and his detectives felt they were under attack from nearly every direction. Other officers resented how much time they were being given. They especially resented seeing so many resources devoted to a case that, in their opinion, was clearly unsolvable. The only way the case would ever be closed, they said, was if the killer strolled into the station and turned himself in. Moore’s team was accused of wasting time, acting selfishly, riding the case for all it was worth.
“How much longer are you gonna milk this one?” people would say.
The jabs were not occasional. They were a common refrain, heard in the halls, in the offices, in staff meetings.
“Why are people still working on this case?” other officers asked. “Why are we doing this?”
The critics were envious of the fact that the team was allowed to use a special computer system, the HOLMES system brought over from England. Due to the high-profile nature of the case — the Unsolved Mysteries segment had aired in the fall of 1991 — they also assumed that Moore and his people were signing book and movie contracts left and right, preparing to grow rich and famous. As it happened, producers and agents were calling, expressing interest in the case. Moore and the rest of the team had already agreed, though, that they would have no part in such projects. Their goal was to make an arrest, period.
The critics weren’t buying it.
“When’s your book coming out?” they would ask Moore.
Moore would look at them. “I’m not a writer,” he would say. “I’m not doing a book.”
Ill feelings toward the sergeant and his detectives skyrocketed early in their investigation, when the decision was made to segregate themselves inside a special office. Moore’s team had occupied one end of a large squad room, sharing the space with detectives working robberies and other homicides. Then one day a construction crew showed up and erected a wall across the center of the room, dividing the area where the Rogers investigators were working from the area where the other detectives worked.
It didn’t help that the half of the squad room claimed by Moore and his people had better windows, affording them more light than the detectives on the other side of the wall. It also didn’t help that Moore had a lock installed on the door to his half of the squad room, or that the only people with keys to that lock were the members of his team.
Even worse, the thermostat regulating the temperature for the entire room was located on the other side of that locked door. This meant that Moore’s team controlled the temperature for everyone in the room; sometimes, when no one was inside the locked office, the other detectives would be burning up or freezing and would have no way to get to the thermostat.
By their nature, detectives are nosy people. They don’t like to be shut out of anything, especially a piece of their own home turf. From the day the room was split in half, the other investigators complained about the locked door and the thermostat and the unfairness of the window situation.
Mostly, though, they griped about being locked out.
“What’s going on back there?” they would say to the team members emerging from the inner sanctum. “What’s so secret?”
As much as Moore and the rest of the team chafed at the accusations of elitism, discretion told them to keep their mouths shut. Given the appalling nature of the crime they were investigating, they knew that any leaks could have disastrous consequences. Among other things, they could not allow the names of potential suspects — and there were hundreds of them over the years — to accidentally be made public without risking the ruin of those people’s lives.
To be fair, the frustrations with the Rogers investigation were not all based on envy or petty concerns. Some of the other homicide detectives, struggling with unsolved cases of their own, wanted to know why the murders of Jo and her daughters merited so much more attention than other homicides. Yes, this case was terrible. But was it necessarily more terrible than other murders? What if some of the vast amounts of time and money expended on the Rogers case for more than two years now had been directed instead toward other investigations? How many more killers might have already been caught and put behind bars?
These were legitimate questions. Furthermore, they were exactly the kind of issues that had to be agonized over and weighed by the officials running the police department. After all, the department ran on a budget like every other government agency. Resources were limited; tough decisions had to be made on how to divide those resources.
Up to now, the department’s chain of command had decided that the Rogers investigation did merit extraordinary attention. Moore and his team were searching for someone who was almost certainly a serial killer with a taste for murdering more than one victim at a time. If this person were not caught, how many more lives might he claim? Still, the longer the case dragged on, the more difficult it became for the department to reconcile the tension between the desire to make an arrest in the Rogers murders and the need to attend to other cases.
Moore felt this tension every day as he walked down the halls of the station. To him, it seemed as though he and his investigators were working under a perpetual cloud. He felt he had the support of his immediate superiors, Lt. Gary Hitchcox and Maj. Lois Worlds; Hitchcox, in fact, was devoting himself full-time to the case and was working out of the team’s office. But elsewhere in the department’s hierarchy, there were those who clearly thought the time was approaching when Moore and his team would have to be ordered to let it go.
“We had a tremendous amount of pressure put on us by the administration,” Moore says. “Not to solve the case, but to get off the case.”
To keep the investigation alive, Moore would have to use every tool at his disposal. It wasn’t enough to be a good detective or a strong supervisor. He had to transform himself into a master salesman, too. That’s why he kept the chain of command well-supplied with updates and progress reports, keeping them happy and off his back. It’s also why he became so adept at manipulating the media.
In the past year, since the FBI had recommended using the media to generate leads, Moore had seen for himself just how useful a bit of coverage could be. He had held several press conferences, given interviews, cooperated with TV producers. With each new round of publicity, tips poured in.
By now, Moore had learned a great deal about how reporters and editors think, how to get their attention, how to make them do what he needed. He had discovered, for instance, that the media prefer to be fed their news in bite-sized chunks, easy to digest and easy to pass along to the public.
Thinking back to his first press conference, he realized he had overloaded the reporters with too much information. He had given them six or seven items — the FBI profile, the innocence of Hal Rogers, the likelihood that the killer lived in Tampa Bay, to name a few — when any one of those items, by itself, would have been strong enough to make a compelling news story. It would have been better if he had parceled out the items slowly, one or two at a time, over several months. Each piece of information would have gotten better play, and there would have been that many more rounds of stories, generating that many more new tips.
Now he knew better. He understood that reporters were constantly hungry for something fresh.
“Every time you talk to them,” he would say, “you’ve got to have a new hook, a new bait.”
So he gave it to them, calling press conferences and issuing press releases to detail important developments, different strategies, emerging theories.
Moore didn’t particularly enjoy talking to reporters. In fact, it made him uncomfortable. But the more coverage he drummed up, the better the chance that the right tip would finally come the team’s way.
The publicity served a second purpose. As long as the Rogers story was in the newspapers and on the evening news, Moore figured, the higher-ups in the police department would be reluctant to pull the plug on the investigation.
The highest of the higher-ups, it turned out, didn’t need to be pressured into supporting the investigation.
Since the Rogers women were killed, there had been a couple of police chiefs in St. Petersburg. Early in 1992, the chief was Ernest “Curt” Curtsinger, and some of the pointed questions about the investigation were reaching his office. So Moore and Lt. Hitchcox sat down with the chief one day and gave him an extensive review of the case, telling him everything they were doing and everything they were still struggling to get done.
Curtsinger listened closely. When they were finished, he turned to Moore.
“How many people do you need?” he asked.
“How about six?”
Moore was amazed. At that point, there were eight people on his team, including him and Cindy Cummings and J.J. Geoghegan. Now, here was the chief himself approving six more detectives — he also okayed an extra investigator, an agent from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — and promised them at least six more months to work on the case.
The euphoria was short-lived. Curtsinger had been under attack for some time, accused of insensitivity to minorities. A month after he approved the new detectives for Moore’s team, Curtsinger was fired.
Moore was left to wonder where the investigation stood. Who would be the next police chief, and how supportive would he be? How much time did the team truly have left before someone pulled the plug?
All Moore and his investigators could do was keep going until someone told them to stop. By now, more than 1,500 tips had been logged in the case, and the number jumped again late that March, when the investigation was featured a second time on Unsolved Mysteries.
Hundreds of people called, saying they knew someone with a blue and white boat or someone else suspicious that the police should check out. Many of the calls were frustrating. One St. Petersburg woman, for instance, phoned to say she had a sister in Tampa who had wondered for some time if a man who used to live down the street from her had something to do with the murders. The caller suggested that the police phone her sister. A detective did in fact call the sister’s house, but she was not home. The detective left a message, but the sister with the information did not call back.
That was how it went, over and over. At any one time, the investigators were checking out an endless parade of names and numbers and facts, hoping they would finally stumble across the one detail that would blow the case wide open. They had no doubt that the detail was out there.
“This can be solved like any other crime,” Geoghegan would say to Cummings. “All we have to do is work it.”
After many long months spent trying to understand exactly how Jo and the girls had died, the detectives were now leaning heavily toward the theory that the attack had been carried out by only one person. Cummings, an experienced rock climber who knew something about ropes and knots, had studied the ropes used on the three women. In each case, she observed, the hands had been tied in the same manner. Furthermore, it appeared to her that whoever tied the hands had done the job in a hurry; that was why, she believed, Michelle had managed to work one of her hands loose before she died.
To Cummings and the other investigators, this evidence pointed toward a single assailant, moving quickly to place Jo and the girls in his control. He had probably held a gun on them, threatened to kill one of them if they moved, promised that everything would be okay if they just did as he told them. Under this theory, the killer had then taped their mouths, removed the clothes from the lower part of their bodies, then tied their feet. After examining the ropes, Cummings had noted that the women’s feet had been bound much more carefully; if their hands were already tied and their mouths taped, he would have had the luxury of taking his time to tie their feet.
None of this, however, brought them any closer to identifying the killer. To do that, the investigators were focusing increasingly on the handwritten directions found on the Clearwater Beach brochure in the Rogers car. The directions, which told Jo and the girls how to find their motel, were written on the back of the brochure, on the same page as a map of Tampa Bay. Below the map, the writing said:
Courtney Cambell Causeway
RT 60 Days Inn
Originally the detectives had thought that the person who shared the directions had merely been someone helpful who gave the Rogers women assistance and then went on his way. Now the investigators saw it differently. After analyzing the timetable of the women’s last day alive, as well as the psychological profile provided by the FBI, they thought it appeared extremely likely that whoever had given the Rogers women the directions was the same person who had arranged to meet them later at the boat ramp. The man who wrote the directions, then, was almost certainly the killer.
The writing was distinctive, even to a layperson. The man they were looking for printed his letters, with understated R’s and an exaggerated curving hook extending to the left from the bottom of his Y’s.
That May, Moore held another press conference, where he announced the new theory about the killer. He encouraged the media to publish samples of the handwriting, and asked anyone who recognized the writing to please call.
Moore repeated the investigators’ belief that the killer probably would turn out to be someone charming and likable, someone with a job and a home, someone who appeared respectable and harmless.
“Don’t rule out anyone,” he said. “Think about your husband, your boyfriend, your fellow employee.”
It was 2 1/2 years since Jo Ann Steffey had clipped the composite drawing from the newspaper, but she had not forgotten about the man who used to live two houses away on Dalton Avenue in her Tampa neighborhood. She had already tried once to report her suspicions. But it bothered her that she’d never seen any proof that her tip was even investigated.
As it happened, someone else had tried to pass along her suspicions. After hearing Jo Ann talk about the neighbor with the blue and white boat, one of Steffey’s sisters had called the police. This was the tip that had been phoned in on that night in March, when the Rogers case was featured on Unsolved Mysteries. Steffey’s sister was the one who had talked to the detective, encouraging her to speak to Steffey. The detective had called Steffey’s house and left a message, but for some reason the message never reached Steffey. Nor had her sister, Steffey says, told her about calling the police.
Steffey felt a connection to Jo Rogers. They shared a similar first name, and just like Jo, Steffey had two daughters. Sometimes she had nightmares about the family. She would see them on the boat and would wake up, her heart pounding.
“It could have been me and my girls,” she would say.
So when she picked up the newspaper the morning after Sgt. Moore’s press conference — it was Thursday, May 14, 1992 — and read the quotes about the handwriting and how it was the key to finding the killer, Steffey found herself wondering if she should report her suspicions again.
The police were saying the killer probably had a job not far from wherever he had met Jo and her daughters. Steffey remembered that her former neighbor was an aluminum contractor who built porches and additions for homes. But she couldn’t remember where his office had been. So she went next door and asked her neighbor, Mozelle Smith, if she did.
Smith had once hired the man to add an aluminum porch to another house she owned in Tampa. She said she thought he worked out of his home. Then something else occurred to her:
The contract. When she hired the man to build her porch, he had filled out a contract for her.
A handwriting sample.
Later, looking back on their detective work, Mozelle Smith and Jo Ann Steffey would differ in their recollections of the exact sequence of these events. In fact, in the years that followed there would be a great deal of disagreement about how the two neighbors and those close to them pursued their suspicions concerning the man down the street.
Smith, for instance, would insist that on that day, when the handwriting appeared in the newspaper, she immediately found the aluminum contract filled out by the man. Steffey, meanwhile, would say that the two of them searched through Smith’s house for hours, sifting through the drawers where Mozelle kept her paperwork, but could not find the contract.
Either way, Steffey says she was not deterred. As far as she could tell, she had enough to justify calling the task force. She was still nervous, wondering if she were right, wondering if her former neighbor would learn that she had reported him and if perhaps he had an accomplice who lived nearby. But she picked up the phone anyway.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I’m gonna call ‘em.”
Steffey talked to Eileen Przybysz, a civilian investigator. Steffey says she told Przybysz about her neighbor and his blue and white boat and the dark-colored sports utility vehicle he had driven. She told how the man had lived in a house on Dalton Avenue along a canal that fed into Tampa Bay, and how her neighbor had hired him for her porch and was searching for the contract. She told how he had moved away suddenly with his wife and little girl two summers ago, and how he had always seemed off to her, made her feel as though he had something to hide.
And she shared the name of the man:
What happened next?
Jo Ann Steffey remembers it like this:
Later that afternoon, she says, Mozelle Smith called to tell her she had found the contract, along with a check signed by Oba Chandler.
Steffey hurried next door with a clipping from the newspaper, showing the handwriting that Sgt. Moore had displayed at the press conference. Smith was outside, waiting for her.
The two of them, Steffey says, made the comparison right there in the driveway. They took the newspaper clipping and the contract and the check and placed them on the tailgate of Smith’s husband’s truck, and then looked back and forth among the three samples, examining the handwriting.
Steffey felt her knees turning to water. She was suddenly so weak, she almost could not stand.
It was the same. She was sure of it.
Steffey called the task force again and spoke to Przybysz, the civilian investigator. She told her about the contract.
“I’ve got it,” she said.
Przybysz listened. It would be helpful to see that contract, she said.
“Can you fax it over?”
The contract was faxed, along with the check signed by Chandler. The fax was then attached to the investigator’s notes on Steffey — and put in a stack of other potentially promising tips.
Once again, the task force was overwhelmed with information. Sgt. Moore’s attempts to generate tips were working almost too well. All the investigators could do was check out the tips, one at a time. They would get to Steffey and her suspicions as soon as they could.
Moore, meanwhile, was preparing for a possible struggle with the new person running the police department. His name was Mack Vines. He had been the chief of the St. Petersburg Police Department in the 1970s, and had gone on to serve as chief of police in Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., before returning to Pinellas County as director of the police academy at St. Petersburg Junior College.
Now Vines was back in charge of the St. Petersburg police, trying to mend a department torn apart by Curtsinger’s controversial tenure and firing. Vines wasn’t the new chief; he had been hired as an assistant city manager to oversee the police department until another chief was found. It was unclear whether Vines would stay in his new job after a chief was hired, but for now he was sitting in the chief’s office on the third floor of the station.
Vines was brought in on May 15, one day after Jo Ann Steffey phoned in her tip. From that day onward, he had his hands full, trying to boost morale and hold the department together in the wake of Curtsinger’s firing. He had a host of things to worry about other than the Rogers case. Still, Moore says, Vines soon made it clear that he was debating whether it made sense to continue devoting so many officers to one investigation.
“We’re not going to continue this case forever,” Moore remembers Vines telling him.
Moore was realistic enough to know that time was limited. But he pointed out to Vines that back in February the task force had been promised at least six more months to work. Those months would be up in mid-August.
All right, said Vines. He agreed to honor the six-month commitment. But in August, he said, the case would be reviewed to see if the task force should be disbanded.
To Moore, the message was obvious enough. Come August, the investigation would be over.
“The guillotine,” as Moore later put it, “was coming down.”
Years later, Vines would say he doesn’t remember specifically telling Moore that the case would not be continued forever. But he might well have said it, he adds, because it was true. No investigation, Vines says, can be allowed to drag on indefinitely. Either way, he says he knew how hard Moore and the task force were working and was hoping they would develop some strong leads by the August deadline.
That summer, the Rogers investigators made the most of the time that remained before the deadline. Amid the hundreds of phone calls and tips, they were still trying to understand exactly how Jo and the girls had spent their last hours. Their latest theory, as it happened, relied heavily on the idea suggested by Moore’s wife, who had wondered if the family might have been driving in the far right lane of I-275 South in Tampa, and accidentally gotten off at the Dale Mabry exit and then stopped somewhere for directions.
Cummings and Geoghegan thought this idea had merit. For one thing, when the two detectives looked at the directions on the brochure and the map beside it, it appeared that the point of origin for the directions was in fact on Dale Mabry or nearby. Second, the detectives had driven that stretch of I-275 and seen how suddenly the far right lane turned into an exit and how easy it would be for a driver unfamiliar with the road to suddenly veer off the interstate.
As for where the three women might have gone for directions, the investigators thought the most likely answer was a McDonald’s just north of the exit. The fast food restaurant would have been directly in front of them, on the right side of Dale Mabry, making it easy to turn in; it was also a place that would have looked familiar and safe to someone who was lost.
Maybe Moore’s wife was right. Maybe they saw the golden arches and stopped there, hoping to find a map or a soft drink or just a place to use the bathroom. And while they were there, they met the person who wrote the directions on their brochure. Once he wrote the directions, he knew they were staying at the Days Inn, which would have made it easy to arrange a boat ride later in the day.
Maybe he knew they were tourists and therefore easy prey. He could have seen their Ohio tag and struck up a conversation with them, just as the man in Madeira Beach had done with the Canadian tourist when he saw her and her friend in the parking lot of the convenience store.
If this theory were true, Jo and Michelle and Christe had died simply because they had wound up in the wrong lane of the interstate.
Time was running out. The August deadline was fast approaching.
The detectives drove up and down Dale Mabry, talking to business owners, talking to waitresses, interviewing anyone who might have seen the Rogers women or might know someone with handwriting like the directions on the brochure. They questioned dancers at the strip joints near Tampa Stadium, showing them the composite from the Madeira Beach case, asking if they knew a man who looked like this.
The first week of June, as the third anniversary of the murders came and went, Cummings and Geoghegan sat in a car near the boat ramp on the causeway, watching for hours in case the killer returned out of some perverse desire to relive the moment when Jo and the girls stepped onto his boat. But they never saw him.
Early that summer, the investigators also were talking about billboards.
It was an unusual idea, suggested by a couple of the detectives, Jim Culberson and Mark Deasaro. What would happen, they said, if the task force placed the faces of the Rogers women on billboards, along with an appeal to the public for help?
Moore, open to anything that might work, thought it sounded good. Even better, it was free. Patrick Media Group Inc. agreed to donate the space, and Jim Culberson’s father donated the $ 1,000 required to produce the signs.
In May, the billboards went up around Tampa Bay. In huge red letters, they shouted the question WHO KILLED THE ROGERS FAMILY? Below the words were giant photos of Jo, Michelle and Christe, a reminder that the reward for an arrest and conviction was $25,000, and the phone number for the task force.
The detectives were not the only ones thinking about new directions for the investigation. Barbara Sheen Todd, a longtime Pinellas County commissioner, had been following the case closely; like so many, she had not been able to forget Jo and her daughters. When Todd heard that the investigators now believed the killer had left his handwriting on the brochure, she called Moore with an idea of her own.
Why not put the handwriting onto billboards?
Initially Moore was not sure where they would get the money for a second round of billboards. But after Todd told him she would make some calls and take care of it, the two of them worked together to get the new billboards up. Moore doubted the billboards would generate that many leads. However, if more billboards went up with the help of a county commissioner and Moore asked her to join him at another press conference, the media would have a good hook to bite on.
The truth was, the press was growing bored with the Rogers case. When the first billboards had appeared, there had been relatively little coverage. But now, with Todd’s help, Moore was confident that the second billboards would lead to renewed interest in the case. The billboards would be shown on TV and in the newspapers — they were a perfect visual, just the sort of thing editors loved — and the handwriting would be noticed not by a few motorists, but by hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers from all over Tampa Bay.
The strategy went off exactly as planned. With Todd’s encouragement, Patrick Media Group agreed to donate the space a second time, and the new billboards, emblazoned with the handwriting samples, went up on Thursday, July 30. That same day, Moore and Todd stood together at a press conference held in Tampa — this was another strong visual touch — near one of the billboards, erected on Himes Avenue and Columbus Drive, close to the section of Dale Mabry where the investigators believed the Rogers women had met their killer.
“Normally our policy is not to discuss evidence, or have the public view evidence, in unsolved homicide cases,” Moore said about the handwriting. ”However, the Rogers case is so unique, and the necessity to capture the killer so compelling, the need to display this evidence overrides normal procedures.”
When it was her turn to speak, Todd was sincere and impassioned. She said exactly what was needed.
“The thing to emphasize,” she said, “is there is no doubt this person will kill again.”
Jo Ann Steffey couldn’t believe it.
She and Mozelle Smith and others had been calling the task force, asking if anyone had checked out Oba Chandler and his handwriting sample. Each time, they were told to please be patient, that the investigators were still catching up on the backlog of tips and would get back to them as soon as possible.
Now the task force members were putting up billboards, practically begging for someone to tell them what they already knew. Hadn’t they looked at the handwriting on the contract?
Steffey called and talked to Przybysz, the investigator who had taken her original tip.
“What are you people doing over there?” Steffey asked her.
Przybysz said she had the information that Steffey had called in earlier. They were getting to it, she said. Be patient.
Mozelle Smith’s daughter was calling as well, pressing to know what had happened to the fax of the contract and check signed by Oba Chandler. She also talked to Przybysz. Overwhelmed with phone calls, the investigator told her that she couldn’t put her hands on the fax right away and would have to get back to her.
So Smith’s daughter faxed the papers again. This time, though, she threw in a cover letter, bristling with frustration.
Here is another copy of Oba Chandler’s handwriting and on the back of his check is his driver’s license number. Although I’m sure you received numerous samples of handwriting, many of us are convinced that this handwriting is the same as the one published in the papers. We feel so strongly that they are one and the same that due to your lack of response we were tempted to pursue this with a handwriting expert of our own.
However, due to Commissioner Todd’s new personal interest we have recontacted you. We expect a response to this information as soon as possible.
Thank you for your assistance.
The letter was difficult to ignore. Przybysz looked at the writing on the contract and on the check. She didn’t know what to think. There wasn’t enough writing on the check to make any comparison, just a signature. As for the writing on the contract, it was blurry.
Przybysz went to Moore and told him that some people in Tampa kept calling, insisting they had the guy. Looking over the notes and the fax, Moore saw that this particular lead was one of many assigned to Geoghegan. It was in his stack of tips still to be checked out.
Moore called Geoghegan, who was out on the road that day, and asked him to find this woman and get the original.
No problem, said Geoghegan.
It was Friday, July 31. Two weeks before the deadline.
Geoghegan went to the address in Tampa where Mozelle Smith was waiting. Smith was not in the friendliest of moods. She didn’t want to be interviewed by Geoghegan or anybody else. If anything, she wanted him to answer a few questions. After weeks of trying to get the task force’s attention, she wasn’t sure she should give him the original of the contract. What if they lost it? Hadn’t they already misplaced the first fax that had been sent over?
Geoghegan did his best to reassure her. But Smith wanted something more. Before she gave him the contract, she demanded that he sign a piece of paper acknowledging that he was taking custody of the document. She had a notary public — a friend of her daughter’s — standing by, ready to notarize the piece of paper.
Being on the receiving end of all this was not exactly standard procedure. But what was Geoghegan supposed to do? He signed the paper, watched the notary stamp it and got out of there.
Contract in hand, he drove back to St. Petersburg, across the sparkling water where Jo and the girls had died.
Years later, Moore would think about Jo Ann Steffey and Mozelle Smith and shake his head.
He acknowledges that the tip from the women and their families should have been pursued more quickly. But at the time, he says, the task force was swamped with tips, many of them from people who were sure they had found the killer. Among all the other handwriting samples flowing into the office, the contract with Oba Chandler’s writing was overlooked.
“The handwriting thing did get misplaced. It was in a stack about this high,” says Moore, holding his hand about 6 inches above the table in front of him. “Nobody seems to understand how difficult it was to manage this massive amount of paperwork.”
But on that summer day in 1992, when Geoghegan returned to the office with the contract, things moved quickly.
Moore and Geoghegan looked back and forth between the contract and the directions on the brochure. They appeared to be written by the same person, but it was hard to be sure. The contract, it turned out, was not the original. It was the customer’s copy, the copy from underneath the original, and the writing was faint.
Still, the resemblance appeared strong – strong enough that the task force had a new suspect and a new focus.
Moore and the others scrambled to learn more about this Oba Chandler. They ran his name in every computer they could think of and quickly discovered that he was 45 years old and living with his wife and daughter across the state in Port Orange, near Daytona Beach.
They learned that Chandler’s old house was on Dalton Avenue, not far from the McDonald’s on N Dale Mabry, and only 2 miles from the boat ramp where Jo and the girls had disappeared. At the time, state records showed, he had owned a 21-foot Bayliner boat, with a blue exterior and white interior. At the time, he was also the registered owner of a dark blue Jeep Cherokee. Furthermore, he had a long criminal record and had been charged with everything from kidnapping to burglary to armed robbery to counterfeiting.
All of these facts were encouraging. But the investigators did not dare get their hopes up too high; they had been dashed so often before.
Then Marilyn Johnson spoke up.
Johnson was a soft-spoken, older woman, a grandmother who sometimes doted on the other members of the task force. She worked as an office assistant, typing information into the HOLMES computer. She was not a detective, but Moore had encouraged everyone to toss out ideas. So one day, at the end of a meeting on the new suspect, Johnson raised her hand.
“Yes, Marilyn,” said Moore.
“I don’t know if you noticed it or not,” she said. “But this guy looks just like the composite.”
Moore’s mouth dropped open.
In all the rush, and in all the checking, no one else had thought to make this simplest comparison.
They had a photo of Chandler, given to them by probation officials. And when Moore looked at it and then at the composite drawing, he saw it, plain as day.
“You’re right, Marilyn,” he said. “You’re right.”
They had found him.
After three years of back-breaking investigation, Moore was convinced they had the man they were looking for.
Now all they had to do was prove it.
One more thing.
As the investigation raced forward, energized by these discoveries, Marilyn Johnson pointed out something else. Typing files into the computer, she remembered a fact — one fact out of the tens of thousands of stray facts that had been logged over the years — that had escaped everyone else’s memory. The man who had raped the Canadian woman, Johnson pointed out, had told the victim he owned an aluminum company.
Just like Chandler.
That was how they came up with the code name. As they turned their attention to their prey, the members of the task force tried to keep his real name out of their conversations and even their reports. They didn’t want to be paranoid, but they had no desire for the word to get out and for Chandler to learn they were on his trail.
So they called him by a different name. A name that played off his line of work. A name that was perfect for someone who they suspected had no heart.
They called him the Tin Man.
Chapter 5: Silver Bullet
That summer, three years after the murders, Michelle and Christe were watching the detectives.
Photos of the Rogers girls still hung on a wall of the task force’s office on the second floor of the St. Petersburg police station. The most haunting of these pictures, the one that the members of the task force would talk about long after the case was over, was the Christmas shot.
It had been taken in December 1980, when Michelle was 8 and Christe was 6. They are shown standing side by side in front of the Christmas tree. Candy canes and a silver garland and a Santa Claus ornament are hanging off the branches behind them; a small mountain of wrapped presents rises from the floor at their feet. But the most striking aspect of the picture is the girls themselves.
They are dressed up, posing for what was clearly the official holiday portrait. Michelle, chin raised, her long hair held back by white barrettes, is wearing a blue velvet jumper over a long-sleeved white blouse; Christe, her bangs hanging past her eyebrows, is in a rose-colored jumper over a white blouse. Both are wearing white knee socks. Both are standing stiffly, hands behind their backs, neither of them smiling as they stare toward the camera.
The photo had been placed on the wall early in the investigation. Now, as the members of the task force turned their attention toward the new suspect, it stayed up. Day after day, the girls gazed out at them, still alive somehow, standing straight before them, listening, noticing, taking everything in without uttering a word.
Michelle and Christe were waiting.
Sgt. Glen Moore and the other investigators knew that a great deal remained to be done before they could arrest Oba Chandler. They were convinced he was the one; they could feel it. But they did not yet have enough hard evidence to make the case stick in front of a judge. At the moment, about all they had was the similarity between Chandler’s handwriting and the writing on the brochure, the proximity of his home to the water and to the boat ramp where Jo and the girls had disappeared, plus Chandler’s strong resemblance to the composite drawing provided by the Canadian woman who had been raped in the boat off Madeira Beach two weeks before the murders.
So far, they didn’t even have enough to charge him in the rape.
They needed much, much more. They needed to put Chandler under the microscope, to learn whatever they could about him, to track down every possible piece of evidence. And they needed to head across the state of Florida to his new home on the east coast, in Port Orange, and place him under surveillance.
Which meant they needed the approval of Mack Vines.
Vines was the assistant city manager running the St. Petersburg police department. As far as Moore was concerned, Vines had never shown much enthusiasm for the Rogers investigation. If anything, Moore thought, Vines seemed tired of it.
Like so many others in the department, Vines was concerned about the time and money that were being devoted to a case that had stymied all the investigators and had shown no sign of moving toward an arrest. Vines had given Moore and his task force until the end of the summer to produce some results. Otherwise, he had said, he would review the status of the investigation and decide what to do with the task force.
By this point it was mid-August. The deadline was almost up. But now things were different. The detectives on the task force had a strong suspect. They were barreling toward an arrest. Surely Vines would give them more time as well as approval for taking the investigation over to Chandler’s home in Port Orange.
Moore and his immediate superiors, Lt. Gary Hitchcox and Maj. Lois Worlds, went together to Vines’ office to tell him about Chandler. Moore thought Vines would be excited. At the very least, he expected Vines to congratulate them, to tell them how pleased he was that three years of investigation had finally paid off.
What happened next is the subject of some disagreement. Moore recalls it like this:
Instead of congratulating them, he says, Vines exploded. For the next several minutes, he vented at Moore, telling him he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He said he had thought they were almost done with this case, but no. Here was Moore, saying they had a suspect they wanted to place under surveillance, insisting they needed more time, more money, more support.
“What have you done?” Moore recalls Vines saying. “You’ve backed me into a corner.”
Moore sat there, stunned at what he was hearing. Beside him, he says, Hitchcox and Worlds appeared to be in shock as well. Maybe they had approached Vines the wrong way or had simply wandered into his office on a bad day. But for whatever reason, the assistant city manager was giving Moore the worst chewing out of his 22 years on the police force.
Vines went on and on. Moore just listened, not sure how to respond. What could he possibly say?
“Okay,” he told his boss.
When he left Vines’ office, Moore’s face was bright red and his veins were popping out of his neck. He was so angry he could barely contain himself. He had to get away, had to go someplace where he could let it out. So he went to the stairwell and climbed to the roof of the police station.
Moore stood there, looking out over the city, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Today, Vines says he has only a vague recollection of the meeting with Moore and the others. He doubts that he would have exploded — it’s not his style, he says — but does recall a disagreement over exactly how the task force should proceed. As much as he respects Moore, he says the sergeant’s intensity for the Rogers case sometimes made him a challenge for those above him.
Vines called Moore later that day. Moore says the assistant city manager apologized to him for overreacting at the meeting; Vines says he remembers making no such apology. Either way, Vines told Moore that the investigators on the task force would have his support to pursue the new suspect. They could have their extra time. They could go to the east coast and put the suspect under surveillance.
Whatever they needed to get the job done.
In reality, there was no danger of the investigation suddenly halting that day in Vines’ office. From the moment Oba Chandler was identified, there was no turning back.
Suddenly everything in the case accelerated. The task force quickly grew, taking on additional investigators from the St. Petersburg police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In addition, Moore and the others were working closely with prosecutors from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office. The state attorney’s office had been involved in the Rogers case since the first day of the investigation, when the bodies of Jo and Michelle and Christe were pulled from the water. Now, as the task force zeroed in on Chandler, top assistants from the office were meeting with the task force almost daily. Ultimately, it would be up to them to decide whether there was enough evidence to take the case to trial.
Moore and the rest of the detectives were doing their best to gather that evidence. Investigators were fanning out across Florida and into the Midwest, piecing together as much as they could about Chandler.
What they learned only bolstered their suspicions.
Chandler had been in trouble with the law since he was a boy. He was a con man and a career criminal, with a slew of aliases and fictitious identities, a prison record, and a history of disturbing, sometimes violent behavior with women. He had joined the Marines, but had deserted shortly afterward. He had been married numerous times — the exact number was difficult to determine — and had fathered eight children with seven women. Through the years, he had claimed to be an X-ray technician, a mechanical draftsman, an apartment manager, an aluminum contractor.
He seemed to enjoy frightening people. He had repeatedly threatened those around him, put them on edge, hurt them. For a while, as a younger man, he drove a black van decorated with a mural on the side, showing a motorcycle rider speeding through a graveyard.
The basic details of Chandler’s history were easy enough to track down. Born on Oct. 11, 1946, in Cincinnati, a hundred miles or so from where the Rogers women grew up, he was the fourth of five children of Oba Chandler Sr. and Margaret Johnson. When Oba Jr. was 10, his father hanged himself in the basement of the family’s apartment. One cousin, who attended the funeral, later reported that Oba Jr. jumped into the open grave as the gravediggers were covering the coffin with dirt.
“Every time another shovel of dirt got throwed in,” the cousin said, ”the boy would jump in and stomp it down.”
Others in the family would deny this account. Either way, Oba Jr.’s life soon spun out of control. He was stealing cars by age 14 and was arrested 20 times while he was a juvenile. As an adult, he was charged with a long list of crimes, including possession of counterfeit money, loitering and prowling, burglary, kidnapping and armed robbery. Once he was accused of masturbating while peering inside a woman’s window; another time, with receiving 21 wigs stolen from a beauty parlor.
On another occasion, Chandler and an accomplice broke into the home of a Florida couple and held them at gunpoint while robbing them. Chandler told his accomplice to tie up the man with speaker wire and then took the woman into the bedroom, where he made her strip to her underwear and tied her up, too. While she lay on the bed, he rubbed the barrel of his revolver across the woman’s stomach.
On May 14, 1988, Chandler had married Debra Ann Whiteman, a Tarpon Springs woman. They were wed just 10 days after she divorced her previous husband. Seven months later, the two of them had bought a three-bedroom home on Dalton Avenue, just down the street from Jo Ann Steffey, the woman who would later report her suspicions about Oba Chandler to the police. In February 1989, Debra Chandler gave birth to a daughter, Whitney.
The Dalton Avenue house was located on a canal with access to Tampa Bay. Behind the house were two davits, which Chandler used to lower his Bayliner powerboat into the water.
A quick check with state records showed that Chandler had owned the Bayliner in 1989, at the time of both the rape of the Canadian tourist and the Rogers murders. He had sold the boat three months after the murders.
Records from the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles also showed that during the same period Chandler had owned a dark blue Jeep Cherokee, strikingly similar to the vehicle driven by the man who had raped the Canadian tourist. He was the registered owner of the Jeep until the following year, when it was repossessed.
In the summer of 1990 — as new articles about the Rogers investigation appeared in the newspapers, reporting that the case was soon to be featured on Unsolved Mysteries — Chandler and his wife and young daughter abruptly cleared out of the Dalton Avenue house. They moved away and stopped making house payments. Later that year, after failing to locate the couple, the bank that held the mortgage foreclosed on the house and sold it.
Chandler had moved to the east coast of Florida. The investigators learned that for a brief time he and his family had lived in Broward County. But by October 1991, the Chandlers were leasing a house — not eager to have their credit problems follow them, the couple put the lease in 3-year-old Whitney’s name — in Port Orange, near Daytona Beach. They still lived there, on the southwest side of town, in a middle-class subdivision known as the Woods.
Chandler’s neighbors later would describe him as a normal, friendly man. They didn’t know what he did for a living — as far as they could tell, he was unemployed — but he seemed nice. He had a new boat, and sometimes he offered rides to neighborhood children, asking them to join him fishing.
The investigators sent Chandler’s handwriting to an analyst with the FDLE, who confirmed that it matched the directions written on the Clearwater Beach brochure.
They got his prints from his prison and probation records, then sent them to another analyst, who concluded that one of the prints found on the brochure — a palm print — had come from Chandler’s right hand.
They sent law enforcement officers to Volusia County to begin the surveillance of Chandler’s home.
They had a device placed on Chandler’s phone line, keeping a record of every call into or out of the house.
Early in September, as all these other assignments were being carried out, two investigators — Katy Connor-Dubina, a St. Petersburg police detective, and John Halliday, an FDLE agent who had worked with the task force for more than a year — flew to Toronto to interview the Canadian tourist who had been raped in the waters off Madeira Beach back in May 1989, two weeks before the murders.
They interviewed her one Thursday evening in a hotel room. Knowing how difficult it would be to talk about something so painful, they did their best to make her feel comfortable. Before she arrived, they bought some yellow daisies at a market and placed them in a bottle in the room.
The woman was almost 27 now, recently married, employed as a social worker. More than three years had passed since that day when she had joined the man out on the gulf in his blue and white boat. But she had no trouble recalling details. She explained how she and her girlfriend were on vacation that week in Madeira Beach, how they met the man one night in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, how she wound up talking to him and agreeing to join him the next day on his boat, how he seemed disappointed and even angry when her girlfriend wouldn’t join them.
She described the man and said he was wearing faded jeans and a mint green, cotton mesh shirt. She described the boat and its engine, which she remembered was a Volvo engine, painted yellow. She talked about how, just before the man changed, the night grew so still and quiet and how she began to feel so uncomfortable. Through the silence, she said, she heard a bell from a nearby buoy, ringing over and over.
Once again, she recalled the things he had said to her when she tried to get away from him.
“What are you going to do? Jump out of the boat?” he asked her. “Is sex something worth losing your life over?”
The man threatened to cover her mouth with duct tape, she said. He pulled down her shorts and the bottom of her bathing suit. She tried to persuade him to stop, told him she was a virgin, but this only seemed to spur him on.
Connor-Dubina told her they had some photos to show her. The man who had raped her, the detective said, may or may not be in the photos.
The detective asked the woman to look at all the photos before making a decision. Then she opened an envelope and pulled out six photos, each showing a different man.
The Canadian woman held the photos in a stack in her hand, looking at them one by one. When she reached the third photo, she raised it closer to see more clearly. Her face grew flushed.
She looked through the remaining photos, going through them all before she stopped.
“You really want to know?” she said.
She pulled the third photo from the middle of the stack and threw it down in front of the investigators.
“My initial reaction is him.”
It was Oba Chandler.
Connor-Dubina asked her to sign the photo and mark it with the time and date. The woman did it, then asked for a favor.
Would it be okay if she turned the photo over, she said, so she didn’t have to look at it anymore?
“It’s really bothering me.”
The detectives had company with them in Toronto.
Joining them on the trip was one of the assistants from the state attorney’s office. As Halliday and Connor-Dubina questioned the Canadian woman, this prosecutor sat in a nearby hotel room, waiting.
After the woman had given her statement, the prosecutor carefully questioned her again. He needed to hear her account and study her with his own eyes, so he could evaluate how well her testimony would hold up in court. Now that she had picked out Chandler’s photo, was that enough to make an arrest? To win a conviction?
The prosecutor thought so. The Canadian woman, he believed, was an exceptionally strong witness — articulate and credible, and willing to tell her story in front of a jury.
The time had come to move. The assistant state attorney and his colleagues from the state still wanted more evidence before seeking an indictment against Chandler in the Rogers murders, but there was enough to arrest him for the Madeira Beach rape. It was a serious charge, carrying a possible life sentence. They would use it to get him off the street, then keep strengthening the Rogers case until they had enough to prove those charges as well.
They wrote up an arrest warrant and took it to a judge to be signed. By this point the surveillance units in Volusia County were working around the clock. Keeping track of Chandler’s movements had expanded into a huge operation. Now the task force comprised 40 to 50 law enforcement officers, fielded from the St. Petersburg police, the FDLE and the FBI. They worked out of a command post a few miles from Chandler’s house, taking over an empty business office. Officers had stationed a video camera near Chandler’s house, pointed toward the driveway and front door; a couple of blocks away, they had rented a house and converted it into a small watching post. Members of the task force kept track of a monitor showing them the feed from the video camera. If anyone came out of the Chandler house or pulled up the driveway or ran across the front yard, they would see it immediately.
Whenever Chandler left, he was followed. At any one time, there were as many as six or seven units in unmarked cars assigned to track of his movements. To avoid alerting Chandler to their presence — getting “burned,” the surveillance people called it — they rotated the ground units so that no one vehicle stayed anywhere near him for long.
The FBI had donated the use of two of the bureau’s single-engine Cessnas to assist the ground units. From before dawn till late at night, one of the planes stayed high above Chandler’s house, circling endlessly; when that plane had to refuel or the pilot needed a rest, the two-man team in the other Cessna would take over. If Chandler pulled out of the driveway, whichever plane was in the sky — the air unit was called Eagle — would follow. A spotter seated next to the pilot would watch Chandler’s movements, making sure they stayed with him.
“Okay,” they would say, speaking over the radio to the units on the ground, “Eagle has the eyeball.”
The surveillance was just beginning to settle into a routine when the prosecutors came to Volusia County with the arrest warrant. The plan was to take Chandler into custody on the rape charge. Glen Moore and a couple of other investigators would then try to question him. Moore and the other investigators had a strategy for how to conduct the interview. They had been rehearsing how it would go. They were going to get him in a room at the FBI’s Daytona Beach office and show him photos of Jo and Michelle and Christe, both after they were dead and when they were very much alive. Then, they hoped, he would start to talk.
They were set to go on Thursday, Sept. 17. But that morning, an hour or so before they were to arrest him, something unexpected happened.
Chandler walked out of his house, got into his car, a blue Toyota Corolla, and drove out of town.
“Do you want us to take him down?”
The surveillance teams on the ground were calling the command post on their radios, trying to determine what to do as Chandler got onto Interstate 95 North. Should they arrest him now? Or should they let him drive?
Back at the command post, a debate was under way. Now that the officers had an arrest warrant in hand, some members of the task force thought Chandler should be immediately taken into custody. But others, including Lt. Hitchcox, thought it better to wait. Moore and the other two investigators who would attempt to question Chandler were still preparing for the interview. Besides, none of them could say for sure where Chandler was headed. Maybe he was just making a short trip and would soon be back.
Why not just keep following and see where he goes?
“We’re not gonna stop him,” Hitchcox told the ground units.
So off they went, trailing the blue Corolla, doing their rotations and keeping their distance to avoid getting burned. Above them, one of the FBI’s Cessnas followed overhead, orbiting Chandler’s car as it continued northward along the interstate.
A little while later, he turned off I-95 and headed west on State Road 40, cutting through the center of the state until he reached I-75 and turned northward again. He stayed on I-75 for a long time. He was a half-hour or so away from the Georgia border when the officers back at the command post in Volusia County decided that the units had followed him long enough. Once he was within a few miles of the state line, they instructed the teams, Chandler was to be stopped and taken into custody.
Before they had the chance, though, Chandler got off the interstate. This time he headed into Lake City, just south of where I-75 intersects with I-10. The surveillance teams followed him as he drove into town and watched him stop at a car stereo business. Falling back to avoid detection, the ground units waited for the blue Corolla to leave.
Right around this time, two things occurred to complicate the surveillance. First, the Cessna that had followed the Corolla up from Volusia County was low on fuel; the crew members needed to break off and find a nearby airport. The second plane quickly arrived to take its place, but by then a thunderstorm was raging in the skies above Lake City, making it harder to keep track of what was happening below.
The ground units were having trouble seeing, too. The heavy rain was obscuring the officers’ view.
Then it happened.
One of the ground units observed Chandler coming out of the car stereo store and driving away.
“We got some movement,” someone said over the radio. “Target is mobile.”
They tried to follow him away from the store. But they were in an unfamiliar city, making their way through a driving rain.
Suddenly the radio crackled with urgency.
“Who has the eyeball?”
No answer from the other units.
“Who has the eyeball?”
Still no answer.
“Where did he go?”
In the sickening moments that followed those transmissions, units scrambled in every direction to find the blue Corolla. They searched north and southward on I-75. They searched east and west on I-10.
The news that they had lost Chandler swept through the task force like another thunderstorm. People were yelling. People were swearing. Some were furious that the decision had been made not to arrest Chandler earlier, when they had the chance in Volusia County.
A hundred questions and possibilities dangled before them. Had they been burned? Did Chandler spot the surveillance? Or had he just slipped away without any idea that dozens of law enforcement officers were on his tail?
The worst question, the question that would plague the investigators and keep some of them awake for many nights, was this:
What if their suspect killed someone else?
Glen Moore was frustrated and upset like everyone else. But as far as he could tell, there was no evidence that Chandler had detected the surveillance. Chandler’s wife and daughter were still at the house in Port Orange, which suggested that he was probably coming back.
The only thing they could do now was wait for him to show up.
So they returned to their Port Orange command post, watched the monitor showing the video surveillance of Chandler’s property, paid close attention to phone calls to the house. As the days passed, a series of calls came in from phone numbers in Cincinnati and from across the Ohio River, in northern Kentucky. The FBI dispatched agents to those locations, but they didn’t find Chandler.
Moore and the others assumed Chandler was visiting old haunts up north. To some of the investigators, this suggested that their suspect was not on the run, but was merely on a trip and would soon be back.
They kept on waiting.
That Sunday, as usual, Moore went to church. Since he couldn’t go to his own Baptist church back in Pinellas County, he opened the Volusia County phone book and found a Baptist church nearby. Moore asked Cindy Cummings if she wanted to join him. Cindy said yes.
The sermon that particular day at the church was on the subject of forgiveness. The minister talked about how hard it was to forgive, but how crucial, especially when it was hard. He said that even someone who has committed terrible sins — someone like Ted Bundy, he said — can be forgiven if he repents and accepts God into his heart.
As they sat in the pew, listening to this message, Moore and Cummings could not help but relate it to Oba Chandler. But their responses were completely different. Moore agreed with the minister. He believed that Chandler should be arrested and convicted. Even so, if he truly faced up to his sins and begged God’s forgiveness, Chandler deserved to be saved and spared the torments of hell.
Cummings did not see it that way. Chandler, she believed, had caused too much pain and suffering. Why, there were people out there — Hal Rogers, to name just one — who were still being tortured by Chandler’s cruelty.
No, Cummings said to herself. No forgiveness. Let him burn.
More days went by. More waiting.
Then, early on a Thursday afternoon, one week after the surveillance units had lost Chandler in the rain, a call was placed to the house in Port Orange from Georgia. The call was traced to a pay phone just off I-75 in Valdosta, not far from the Florida state line.
Chandler was coming home.
They assumed he would cut across again at some point to I-95 and take it back into Volusia County. So they stationed officers in unmarked cars along the interstate exits, waiting for him to appear. They spotted him at a Port Orange exit. He had just pulled off the highway and stopped at an Amoco gas station when several unmarked units arrived and positioned themselves around his Corolla.
“Get him,” someone said over the radio. “Take him down.”
Chandler was walking toward the rear of the Corolla when John Halliday, the FDLE agent, approached him.
“Mr. Chandler, you’re under arrest. Put your hands on the trunk.”
Chandler was calm. He did not resist in any way. But he did ask what he was charged with.
He barely blinked. They handcuffed him and took him back to the FBI office in Daytona Beach, where they tried their long-delayed plan to get him to talk.
It didn’t work.
Chandler had been arrested too many times. He knew the routine and was not about to get rattled.
He had nothing to say, he told them. He wanted a lawyer.
Sgt. Moore saw him there, at the FBI office, waiting to be driven across the state to the Pinellas County jail. After wondering for so long what it would be like to finally have a suspect in custody, Moore allowed himself a moment or two to study Chandler.
He had short blond hair, blue eyes, the slightly worn face of a longtime smoker. He was a large man, with a barrel-shaped body and huge forearms, but he did not look particularly violent or particularly evil. He didn’t stand out at all.
Not a monster. Just another man.
He was taken back to Pinellas County that night.
Halliday drove, while Chandler sat in the back, his hands cuffed behind him. Jim Ramey, the FBI agent who had assisted with the investigation since early 1990, sat on Chandler’s left side.
By now it was well past dark, and as the car headed westward on I-4, retracing the route that the Rogers women had taken to their deaths in Tampa Bay, Chandler talked away with Ramey.
It was the longest conversation he would ever have with any member of the task force. He talked about his daughter Whitney and how much he liked taking her to the park. He talked about selling used cars to high school kids, which was how he said he had been earning a living of late. He tried to cut a deal with Ramey, offering to tell authorities about a man whom he claimed was turning back odometers on cars. Ramey was doing his best to give no indication of what they had on Chandler or how much they knew about him. But he could scarcely believe what he was hearing. Here was Chandler, charged with rape and on the verge of being charged with a triple homicide, and yet he expected to make a deal because he had the dirt on some piddling odometer scheme?
Again and again, Chandler complained about the discomfort of having his hands cuffed behind his back. Was that really necessary? Couldn’t they at least cuff him in front?
Ramey thought about Jo and Michelle and Christe and how they were found when they came out of the water. He thought about the concrete blocks around their necks, the rope around their feet, their hands tied behind their backs.
He told Chandler the handcuffs would stay just as they were.
Chandler’s first hearing was early the next morning, in a little courtroom inside the Pinellas County jail. The presiding judge read the affidavit supporting the arrest and the charge of rape and kept the bail at $1-million, where it had been set at the time the arrest warrant was signed.
That day, reporters converged on the Rogers farm in Ohio and found Hal outside the barn. He had already heard the news; someone had called him the previous evening. Now, standing in his galoshes and with a feed cap pulled low over his eyes, he didn’t want to tell these strangers who he was. It was an old trick, learned in the months immediately after the murders. When reporters showed up at the farm, Hal would pretend to be someone else and would say that Hal Rogers wasn’t around right now.
But this time the trick didn’t work. The reporters knew who he was and had no intention of leaving without a comment about the arrest. So Hal gave it to them. After all this time, he said, it was difficult to feel overly optimistic.
“It sounds good, but they ain’t charged him with nothing,” Hal said.
Colleen Etzler, Hal’s sister-in-law, was equally cautious.
“That’s something we’ve been praying for,” she said when a reporter asked about the arrest. “But they have to prove it still. You see, it means nothing if he walks.”
Proving the Madeira Beach rape was one thing. The victim in that crime had identified Chandler as her attacker. But the Rogers women were no longer alive to identify the man who had taken them out on the water on that night so long ago.
So far the best evidence the state had for the murders was Chandler’s handwriting and palm print on the brochure. But this only proved that Chandler had met Jo and her daughters, not that he had killed them. There were also the directions Jo had scribbled and left in her car before she disappeared at the boat ramp, suggesting that she and the girls were on their way to meet someone with a blue and white boat. This was incriminating, since Chandler had owned such a boat, but hardly conclusive. At the moment, the prosecution couldn’t even prove that Chandler had taken his boat out on the night of the murders.
The lawyers for the state were hoping to bring in the evidence tying Chandler to the rape, pointing out the similarities between that attack and the murders. But it was still up in the air whether a judge would allow such testimony in front of a jury.
No, they had to have more. Something that would directly connect Chandler to the murders. Something that would put him out on the water that night.
What they needed, said one of the state attorney’s investigators, was a silver bullet.
They tracked down the Bayliner that Chandler had owned and discovered that not only was it indeed blue and white, but it had a yellow Volvo engine.
They searched through Chandler’s old house and through his current one. Inside the master bedroom of the home in Port Orange, they found a mint green, cotton mesh shirt.
They flew the Canadian woman and her friend — the woman who had accompanied her during the vacation in May 1989 — to Pinellas County, so they could view a lineup inside the jail. Both identified Chandler.
They talked to one of Chandler’s many children, a woman named Kristal Mays, who told them that her father had unexpectedly paid her a visit in Cincinnati in late 1989, just after the composite drawing was made public. During his visit, Mays said, Chandler had told her that he was on the run. The police in Florida, she remembered him saying, were looking for him in the rape of a woman and for killing some women. He was not specific, she said, but she distinctly recalled his statements and how much they had shocked her.
Kristal’s husband, Rick Mays, said Chandler had made even more incriminating statements to him. According to Rick, his father-in-law had confessed to raping a couple of women in his boat and throwing at least one woman over the side. Furthermore, he said Chandler had told him he had “murdered three women.”
In November, after Rick and Kristal Mays shared these recollections with investigators, the state attorney’s office decided it had enough to take its case on the Rogers homicide to the grand jury. After hearing the state’s evidence, the grand jury indicted Oba Chandler on three counts of first-degree murder.
The trial was still nearly two years away. This was a massive and complex triple homicide case; there were hundreds of motions to be filed, and hundreds of witnesses to be questioned, and thousands of details for both the state and the defense to weigh before taking the case into court.
Through all the long months that followed, the prosecutors kept up their search for more evidence. The confessions related by Chandler’s daughter and son-in-law were good but vague. Furthermore, the defense might have some success raising questions about the couple’s motives in stepping forward. Both of them had been terribly treated by Chandler; Rick Mays acknowledged that his father-in-law had once set him up in a drug deal and had pointed a gun at his head.
“Family don’t mean shit to me,” Mays said Chandler had told him.
Still not enough. Still not the silver bullet they were looking for.
“Somewhere along the line,” said Steve Porter, one of the state attorney’s investigators, “we’re missing something that is going to put this guy away.”
By now it was the spring of 1994, several months before the trial was scheduled to begin. Porter was studying Chandler’s phone bills, sifting through records that had been obtained under subpoena from GTE. But two crucial records — the bills for phone service to Chandler’s house during the months of May and June 1989 — were missing.
Investigators had already sought those records, but had been told that GTE had purged them. Porter, however, wasn’t ready to give up. That April, he called a contact at GTE, a former FBI agent who now worked security for the company and served as a liaison with law enforcement officers. Was it possible, Porter said, that there were copies of the monthly bills, stored away somewhere?
A day or so later, the prosecution got the break for which they had waited so long. The man from GTE called and reported that the company had in fact found backup copies of the bills.
Examining the newly discovered bills, Porter noticed something intriguing:
On May 15, 1989, the day of the Madeira Beach rape, a collect call had been made to Chandler’s house at 5:49 p.m.
On June 2, 1989, in the hours after the Rogers women disappeared, five collect calls had been made to the house at 1:12 a.m., 1:30 a.m., 1:38 a.m., 8:11 a.m., and 9:52 a.m.
All of these calls were listed to the same number. A number Porter didn’t recognize.
Porter called his contact back.
“What is this number?”
“It’s a special billing number.”
The number was fictitious. It was used solely for billing purposes to designate marine phone calls. In other words, these collect calls to the Chandler house — calls made on the two key nights of the case — had been placed from someone on a boat, out on the water.
But who had made them?
Porter pushed for answers.
He learned that whoever placed those phone calls would have had to get on the boat’s radio and call a special marine phone operator. This operator would have then patched the caller through to the house. Furthermore, there would have been records of the phone calls — marine phone toll tickets, filled out by the operator, listing not just the times and duration of the calls but also possibly naming the person who had made them.
Obviously, they needed to see those toll tickets. But again GTE said it was too late. Those records, too, had already been destroyed.
Porter persuaded GTE to keep looking. A supervisor from the company went through a storage facility, checking for backup copies.
Late that April, the supervisor reported back. After close to six hours of searching through rolls of microfilm, she had found the tolls.
Porter couldn’t believe it. Looking at the toll ticket for the call made on May 15, he saw that the call had been placed from a vessel identified as Gypsy One. The person placing the call had identified himself as “Oba.”
Turning to the tickets for the calls placed on June 2, Porter saw again that each call had been made from Gypsy One. But during the first four calls, the tickets did not show a name for the person placing the call.
Finally, on the fifth call, the person aboard the boat had identified himself to the operator.
Obie, he said his name was.
Chandler’s lead defense attorney, Fred Zinober, got the news a few days later. He was at the state attorney’s office when Glenn Martin, one of the prosecutors working on the Rogers case, told him he had something to share with him.
Martin gave Zinober a copy of the marine phone toll tickets. He explained to Zinober that the records clearly put his client out on the water both on the evening of the rape and shortly after the murders. Then he watched the understanding – the full weight of what this meant – wash across the defense attorney’s face.
Zinober tried to protest. He said the tolls didn’t prove anything, arguing that the calls could have conceivably been placed from anywhere, even far away from Tampa Bay.
“You can’t say where these calls are made from,” he said.
“Yeah,” he said. “We can.”
Chapter 6: Night Stories
Late one night, an investigator stared into the dark water where the bodies of the Rogers women had made their way back to the surface of the world. It was a few months before the trial was scheduled to begin. Scott Hopkins, an investigator with the state attorney’s office, had been cruising in his 17-foot Boston Whaler, clearing his mind, getting away from the case for a couple of hours. He was near the mouth of Tampa Bay, steering toward home, the Sunshine Skyway shining behind him, when it occurred to him how close he was to the place where the first body — Christe’s body — had been sighted.
It was a gorgeous evening, cool and clear, no moon to speak of, the dome of the sky lit with a thousand stars. The air was still. The water calm. Hopkins checked the coordinates on the glowing screen of his navigational computer, just to make sure he was in the right spot. He turned his engine off.
He stood on the bow, his eyes fixed on the water, and tried to envision the scene from that other boat on that other night. He thought of Jo and the girls, lying on the deck, the duct tape over their mouths, the ropes around their necks. How long had they been forced to wait for it to end? One hour? Four? He wondered who had been thrown over the side first. Was it the youngest or the oldest? And what about their clothes? They all had been found naked from the waist down. What had been done with their shorts, their underwear, their shoes?
Hopkins, a father of two daughters who had been close to Michelle’s and Christe’s ages at the time of the murders, knew he was trying to comprehend something incomprehensible.
Of one thing, though, Hopkins was certain. He looked at the lights of St. Petersburg, glimmering to the northwest like some scene invented by a child, and he looked at the bay stretched about him like a sheet of ruffled satin, and he felt himself wrapped in the solitude of the night air, and he realized that, for Jo and her daughters, all of these wondrous things would have been turned upside down. That night, the bay would have seemed so vast and cruel, and the lights of the shore would have looked so out of reach, and the silence would have been absolute, mocking them, suffocating them, amplifying the pounding of their hearts.
Now, gazing into the distance, Hopkins did what so many of the others working on the case had done over the years. He prayed.
Hopkins prayed every day about the case. But this prayer, here tonight on the water, was different. This was a prayer of desperation.
The trial, Hopkins knew, would not be easy to win. Yet he had no doubt that Oba Chandler was guilty and no doubt that if Chandler went free, he would kill again. So Hopkins asked God to guide him and the rest of the prosecution team on to the right path, to lead them toward a conviction.
When he was done, Hopkins turned the engine back on and headed for shore.
Oba Chandler’s wife was having problems with her memory.
“Did your husband ever call you from the boat?” asked the man seated across the table.
“I cannot recall,” said Debra Chandler.
“Do you recall ever accepting a collect call through the marine operator?”
“I cannot recall.”
Mrs. Chandler was seated in a little room in the state attorney’s office. She did not particularly want to be there. Her husband’s attorneys definitely did not want her there. But there she was, summoned by subpoena.
The man wouldn’t stop with his questions.
“Do you recall what your phone number was in 1989?”
He read her the seven digits of a phone number. Did she recall having that number in 1989?
It was a Monday evening in early May 1994, and the prosecutors were deep into their trial preparations. Tonight, their goal was to take a sworn statement from the 38-year-old Mrs. Chandler, and to discover what she might have to say when the case went before the jury.
The man across the table — Doug Crow, an executive assistant state attorney — wanted to know what Mrs. Chandler could tell him about the night of May 15, 1989, when the Canadian tourist was raped on a boat off Madeira Beach, and the night of June 1, 1989, when the three Rogers women were murdered. In his hands, Crow had the marine phone tolls showing that collect calls had been made on both those nights from Chandler’s boat to his house in Tampa. In one of those calls, the marine phone operator had noted that the caller was named Oba.
Crow pushed Mrs. Chandler for details. Had the marine phone calls been made to her? She said she could not recall.
Mrs. Chandler was not revealing anything that would prove her husband guilty. But she wasn’t revealing anything that would prove him innocent, either. Her memory loss cut both ways.
“Do you have any idea,” said Crow, “where your husband was on May 15th, 1989?”
“No, I do not.”
“Do you have any recollection of where your husband was on the morning, afternoon and evening of June 1st, 1989?”
“No, I do not.”
“Can you provide him an alibi of any sort as to where he was?”
“I do not recall where he was on that date.”
As the trial loomed, members of the state attorney’s team were not just building a case against Chandler; they were plugging every possible hole that could sink that case. They had to be ready to counter whatever the defense might put before the jury.
Prosecutors always have to anticipate the defense’s next move. But here, the task was especially daunting because of the size of the investigation. All those tips that had come pouring into the police department over the years, sending the detectives in a thousand directions? The defense attorneys could take their pick of any of these leads, and wave them like a flag at trial, constructing their whole case around them.
There was no way to be sure which tips the defense might target, so the prosecution had to be ready to neutralize them all, ready to produce the witnesses and the evidence to prove that these other tips were groundless, that the only trail that mattered was the one that led straight to the defendant.
The hundreds of boat owners and other potential suspects who had been checked out before the detectives zoomed in on Chandler? The defense attorneys could point at any of those people — John Rogers, Michelle’s uncle, was obviously a promising target, given his disturbing history — and they wouldn’t even have to prove that this other person was indeed the killer. All they had to do was raise the possibility.
As spring turned to summer, the prosecutors were shifting into overdrive. They were working nights and weekends, interviewing witnesses, organizing the mountain of files, debating strategy and counter-strategy. At the same time, investigators from the state attorney’s office and from the task force were checking out hundreds of details, nailing down unanswered questions.
Particular attempts were being made to learn as much as possible about the marine phone tolls. Even though Debra Chandler said she did not remember the calls, the prosecution assumed that Chandler had been phoning his wife. Why would he have called her on those nights, once just before allegedly committing the rape, then three times on the night of the murders, then two more times the next morning?
There was no reason to believe that Debra Chandler had known anything about the crimes; it was far more likely that Chandler had called to give some excuse for being out so late.
Had any of the Rogers women still been alive when he made the calls? Had they been lying there in the boat, tied and gagged, forced to listen as he called his wife?
The prosecution could only guess at the answers. There was something else, though. Chandler had returned to land sometime the next morning; at least two witnesses had seen him making stops at an aluminum contracting job around 7:30 a.m. But then, as the phone records proved, he had been back out on the water shortly after 8 and had stayed out for at least a couple of hours.
Why? Why had he taken his boat out again?
The answer seemed obvious to the prosecutors. He had gone back out to make sure that the evidence of his crime stayed submerged. He had met his business appointments, then returned to the scene where he had murdered Jo and Michelle and Christe, just so he could see for himself that their bodies had been properly weighted and were still hidden beneath the surface of Tampa Bay.
Clearly, the marine phone tolls were a critical part of the case against Chandler. Yet even with this evidence, the verdict was far from a foregone conclusion. This was still a case so complicated and constructed out of so many circumstantial pieces that it would be easy to lose.
Around the courthouse, the word had spread that this trial was not a slam dunk. People were talking about it in the crowded halls outside the courtrooms, wondering if the state would be able to prove Chandler’s guilt.
“What do you think?” they were saying. “Do you think he’ll get off?”
The state attorney’s office was doing everything possible to make sure that did not happen. To begin with, the state had assembled a formidable trial team. Most first-degree murder trials are handled by two assistant state attorneys. In recognition of its sprawl and complexity, the Chandler trial would be argued by four seasoned and respected prosecutors — Bruce Bartlett, Bob Lewis, Jim Hellickson and Doug Crow. Working behind the scenes was yet a fifth assistant state attorney, Glenn Martin. Martin’s role was not as glamorous as the others; he had known for some time that during the trial he would not even be sitting in the courtroom. But he had been immersed in the case for a year and a half, and knew the files and the reports and the witnesses better than any of the other lawyers.
The lead prosecutor — the designated point man in the courtroom — was Doug Crow. After more than 20 years as a prosecutor, Crow was known as perhaps the most brilliant and tenacious lawyer in the state attorney’s office. He would never have said so himself; relentlessly modest, he preferred to keep a low profile. But his colleagues were openly in awe of his mind.
Martin put it best: Some trial lawyers played checkers, and some played chess. “Doug plays three-dimensional chess.”
Crow did not cut a particularly imposing figure. He was relatively small, his skin was permanently pale, he looked like he could barely hold his own on a windy day. With his pallor, moustache and melancholy, dark eyes, he bore more than a passing resemblance to a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe.
He excelled at worrying, especially about things that hadn’t even occurred to anyone else.
“I always tell him the reason he’s so miserable is he knows too much,” says Scott Hopkins, the investigator. “Most of us stumble through life half-stupid and happy. He sees all the problems there are and agonizes over them.”
Inside the state attorney’s office, Crow had become a legend, not just for his skills but for his quirks. He did not appear to require sleep; he was always at his desk, sometimes as late as 2 a.m. He liked to watch old sci-fi shows with his kids. His diet was a nightmare; he seemed to live on beef jerky, potato chips and Gummy Bears, especially during trials. He frequently was observed talking to himself. He was so absent-minded, he was constantly losing his keys, misplacing papers, heading for his home in St. Petersburg but accidentally winding up across the bridge in Tampa. For years, no one had dared trust him with the original of a document.
“You never give Crow an original of anything,” Hopkins loved to say. ”You give him a copy.”
When he stepped inside a courtroom, though, Crow was transformed. In front of a judge and jury, he forgot nothing. He could recall every fact from the file at the bottom of the stack, remember every nuance from an opinion issued years ago from the bowels of some court of appeal.
“You don’t know how good he is until you see it running,” says Martin. ”He gets in the courtroom, and it’s unbelievable.”
After all these years, Crow could have crossed over to the other side. He could have become a defense attorney and easily doubled his salary. But he burned with the flame of a true believer. He remained a prosecutor because he still thought that human dignity should be respected, that an attack on anyone was an affront to everyone, that justice can only be attainable if someone is willing to fight for it.
Soon he and the rest of the prosecution team would be demanding justice for Jo Rogers and her daughters.
The trial began in late September 1994, on a brilliant, sunny day five years after the murders. Due to the local publicity surrounding the case, the jurors were chosen in Orlando and then taken to Pinellas County, where they were sequestered for the duration of the trial.
Opening statements were delivered inside a packed fourth-floor courtroom. Presiding over the trial was Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, a no-nonsense judge known for her command of the law and of the lawyers appearing before her. But that morning, as the trial began, people weren’t watching the judge. Instead, all eyes were focused on Chandler.
Clad in a dress shirt and khakis, black-rimmed reading glasses perched halfway down his nose, the defendant surveyed the proceedings without a trace of anxiety, projecting an almost breezy indifference. On trial for his life, he sat with a strangely affable smile playing at the corners of his mouth — a smile that suggested a mixture of mild curiosity and low-grade boredom.
It quickly became apparent that Chandler was giving a performance, making a show of his detachment, telling everyone in the room that he considered himself just another spectator. The fact that the performance was so transparent — that he so obviously wanted it to be noted — made it all the more disturbing. What was really happening inside him? Did he see this as some sort of elaborate game?
Doug Crow had no time to worry about such questions. He was too busy giving his opening, outlining the prosecution’s case.
“The evidence will show that these three women were murdered in this premeditated fashion by the man” — here Crow pointed behind him, toward the defendant — “who sits across from you in the courtroom today, Oba Chandler.”
His voice rising with emotion, Crow took the jurors through the evidence that would be presented.
“Using a boat, under apparent cover of darkness,” he said, “the killer committed a crime miles out in the open water, where there were no witnesses, save the dead victims, to see or hear or remember what happened. And by using the boat, which the killer then removed and obviously cleaned up, he left no scene for the police to investigate. But the police went backwards, and they began looking at the pattern of this case, and that pattern emerged to them, and what they saw helped them to make a connection. . . . ”
Step by step, Crow explained how the investigators had discovered the similarities between the murders and the rape of the Canadian tourist. He explained how her description of her attacker and the handwriting on the brochure had ultimately led the police to Chandler. He explained about the marine phone tolls and what they proved. He also revealed that one witness — a man who once worked for Chandler — would testify that, a few hours before the murders, Chandler had told him he had an appointment to “meet some women.”
The jurors, Crow promised, would learn all these things for themselves. They would even hear from the Canadian woman. She would take the witness stand and relive the most disturbing day of her life.
“That’s an experience she will willingly undergo to give the 12 of you the opportunity to render justice and to reach a verdict that speaks the truth,” said Crow.
When his turn came to speak, Fred Zinober, the lead defense attorney, boiled his case down to one basic point. His client, he said, had indeed met Jo, Michelle and Christe on the day of their deaths and had written directions for them on the brochure. But the state, he said, would not be able to prove that Oba Chandler had ever seen the three women again.
“The defense in this case is very straight, very simple. It is simply that they have the wrong man,” he said. “And the evidence is going to suggest that they simply have not uncovered anything conclusive or credible that links Oba Chandler to the Rogers homicide.”
Zinober did concede that Chandler had met the Canadian woman and had taken her out on his boat. But the defense, he said, would not even try to respond to the contention that Chandler raped her. Chandler, he pointed out, was on trial for the murders, not the rape.
Before the trial was over, Zinober said, the jurors would hear from Oba Chandler himself. He would explain why he was out on the water that night, and he would look each of them in the face and proclaim his innocence.
“Mr. Chandler is going to take the stand, and he is going to face his accusers,” said Zinober. “And he is going to let you know that he is not happy about being accused of these crimes and that he did not commit any of these homicides. . . .
“It is that simple.”
The prosecutors wasted no time.
In the week that followed, they moved quickly through their case, calling as many as 20 witnesses a day. They brought in a handwriting expert to tell about the directions found on the brochure in Jo Rogers’ car, and a print analyst to tell about the palm print on the brochure, and the marine phone operators to tell about the calls Chandler made from his boat. They called Kristal Mays, one of Chandler’s adult daughters, so she could repeat the statements she heard when he showed up in her hometown of Cincinnati in November 1989, just after police released a composite drawing of the Madeira Beach rapist.
Kristal Mays had not been expecting her father. He arrived in town one day, checked into a motel and called her, asking her and her husband to meet him. They found Chandler anxious and nervous, his room littered with coffee cups and with ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.
“Did he tell you why it was urgent for you to come there and visit and why he came to Cincinnati suddenly and unexpectedly?” asked Crow.
“Not on the phone,” she said. “But when we got there, he did.”
“What did he tell you?”
Mays shifted in the witness stand, not looking at her father across the room.
“He told us he couldn’t go back to Florida because they were looking for him for a rape of a woman.”
When Mays heard this, she said, she was so disturbed she went into the bathroom. Later, her father apologized for the way he was acting. He needed help. It was already getting cold in Ohio, and he’d had no time to finish packing, and so the next day she bought him a coat.
That evening, when he came to her house for dinner, he made another shocking statement. He told her he also could not return to Florida because he had killed some women.
“He indicated he had killed women?”
Rick Mays, Kristal’s husband, was summoned to the courtroom to describe what he remembered from Chandler’s visit. Mays recalled going with his wife to the motel and hearing Chandler talk about raping someone in Florida. Later in the visit, during a car ride together, he said, Chandler admitted to being involved with some murders in Florida.
“What was the substance related to you,” said Crow, “about his involvement in the murders?”
“That he could not go home because of the murders — murders of the women in Florida.”
“While he was up there, did the defendant say anything to you about what to do if anyone called looking for him?”
“That we haven’t saw him.”
That same afternoon, the prosecution called three witnesses who had spent time in jail with Chandler while he was awaiting trial; all three testified that they heard him make incriminating statements. One witness said Chandler told him about raping a woman from another country. Chandler, he said, talked of taking the woman far out into the gulf and telling her to “f— or swim.”
“What else did he say?” asked Bob Lewis.
“That the only reason the lady is still around is because somebody was waiting at the boat dock for her – one of her friends.”
Another man testified that he overheard Chandler talking about the Rogers case. Chandler, he said, had been watching a segment of A Current Affair that featured the case and said out loud that if one of the women — he didn’t say which one — had not resisted, he wouldn’t be in jail. A third witness said that during their time together in jail Chandler talked about meeting the Rogers women near Tampa Stadium, giving them directions, then arranging a rendezvous with them later that day at a boat ramp. Once, the witness said, a report on the murders had aired on a TV in their cell pod, and Chandler was watching as the report showed film of the bodies being recovered from the bay.
“Did he make any statement when that picture was shown on TV?” asked Jim Hellickson.
“He said, “Well, that is something they can’t get me for.’ He said, “Dead people can’t tell on you,’ or “can’t talk.’ Something like that.”
The next morning, the prosecution called in Rollins Cooper, a laborer who often did aluminum contracting jobs for Chandler around the time of the murders. This was the man Crow had talked about in his opening statement. On the day the Rogers women disappeared, Cooper was installing an aluminum addition at a house in Tampa. Around midday, Chandler stopped by with a screen that was needed to finish the work.
“Did he give you the screen?” asked Bruce Bartlett.
“Yes,” said Cooper. “He never came in the yard; he handed the screen over the fence.”
“Did he seem in a hurry?”
“Yes. I asked him why he was in such a big hurry, and he told me he had a date with three women.”
The next morning, around 7:30, Cooper met Chandler at the site of another aluminum job.
“Did you notice anything unusual about Mr. Chandler that morning?”
“He was kind of grubby.”
“And did you ask him about that or inquire as to why he looked as he did?”
“Yes, I did. He said he was out on the boat all night.”
During cross-examination, Zinober did his best to undermine Cooper’s testimony. He prompted Cooper to acknowledge that he and Chandler had stopped working together after a disagreement over whether Chandler owed him money. Zinober pointed out that in the years since the murders, investigators had repeatedly questioned Cooper and that he had not mentioned Chandler talking about having a date with three women. He hadn’t brought up this detail until the summer of 1994, five years after the murders and almost two years after Chandler was arrested. Cooper said that was correct. Under prodding from Zinober, Cooper explained that he woke one night in a sweat and clearly remembered Chandler talking about the date with the women.
“Well, you just woke up,” said Zinober. “Were you dreaming it?”
“You had just been asleep, and you wake up in a sweat, and you remembered it. Right?”
“Five years later?”
“Five years later.”
Zinober asked Cooper if he’d had a drinking problem back in 1989. Cooper said no. In fact, he said, he hadn’t been drinking at all during that period of his life.
Standing at the lectern, Zinober flipped through a deposition Cooper had given before the trial. He turned to page 56, reading aloud from a section where Cooper had been asked about his drinking in the summer of 1989 and had acknowledged drinking about two six-packs of beer a week.
“Was that your answer back then?”
Yes, Cooper said, that had been his answer at the deposition. But then he had thought about it some more, checked the dates and realized he was wrong, realized he had not been drinking back then, he said.
“Did you remember that in a sweat?” said Zinober.
Cooper had no chance to answer. Judge Schaeffer was glaring at the defense attorney.
“Mr. Zinober, I will not have that.”
She summoned the lawyers to the bench. There, speaking quietly so the jury could not hear, the judge gave Zinober a tongue-lashing.
“You know better than that. . . . You were trying to get a cheap shot in,” said Schaeffer. “And I’m not going to have it. I wouldn’t put up with it from them,” a nod toward the prosecutors, “and I’m not going to put up with it from you.”
Oba Chandler wore his apathy proudly.
Day after day, he maintained the same bizarrely cheerful detachment, smiling his odd little smile from time to time, as though something one of the witnesses had just said reminded him of a secret to which only he was privy. Sometimes he would jot a note on a pad; occasionally he leaned over to his lawyers and whispered into their ears. Otherwise he showed almost no reaction to the evidence piling up against him.
It was almost impossible for an observer in the courtroom to get a fixed impression of Chandler. At times, he came across as harmless, anonymous, utterly forgettable; your eyes would sweep over him and barely register his presence. A minute later, he would shift in his chair or turn his head a certain way, and all at once he seemed intimidating, even menacing. It was there in his size and obvious physical strength, in the enormous forearms that rested on the table before him, in the way he stepped so jauntily in and out of the courtroom under the bailiffs’ escort. For someone so big, he was surprisingly light on his feet.
Perhaps most unsettling was the way Chandler seemed to be keeping so much of himself back. Watching him, you had the sense of something carefully held in check.
Whatever this quality was, it soon made an impression on the jurors. Seated across the room from him, some of the eight women on the jury could hardly bear to look at him.
They wanted to get away from the man.
The most devastating witness during that first week of testimony was the Canadian tourist.
The state had fought hard for permission to call her. When a defendant is on trial, the jury is rarely allowed to hear testimony regarding any crime other than the one at hand. The principle is simple: If a defendant is to have a fair trial, he should be tried on the evidence in the case in which he is charged, not evidence from some other charge. But in this case, the prosecutors pushed for an exception to that rule. Before the trial, they had argued that details of the rape and of the murders were so similar, they formed a consistent and identifiable pattern that proved the same person had committed both crimes. And to establish that pattern, they said, evidence from the rape should be allowed into the trial. Over the defense’s fervent objections, Judge Schaeffer agreed.
So now the prosecutors brought the Canadian woman into the courtroom.
“State your name, please,” said Doug Crow.
Seated in the witness chair, the woman answered.
“Where do you reside?”
She named a place in Ontario.
“What’s the nature of your current profession or occupation?”
“I’m a social worker.”
“Calling your attention to May of 1989 …”
From the moment the woman stepped into the room, the defense was in a great deal of trouble. Even as she answered the preliminary questions, she was already an intensely sympathetic witness. Now 29, she was married, college-educated, graceful and articulate. For her testimony, she wore a conservative skirt and jacket. Her hair was shoulder-length and straight and so light blond that it seemed white. Visibly nervous, she still managed to sit with her chin up and shoulders back.
The most important thing about her, though, was that she was still alive. Jo and Michelle and Christe Rogers could not sit before this jury and describe what had happened to them after meeting Oba Chandler. This woman could.
Speaking in a steady voice, she explained how she and a girlfriend had come to Madeira Beach for a vacation that May and how one night they stopped at a convenience store not far from their condo. As they left the store, a man struck up a conversation with them in the parking lot. He said his name was Dave. He offered them a ride to John’s Pass Village, they accepted, and their conversation continued. They told him they were tourists; he warned them that they were staying in an unsafe area and should be careful.
“It’s a high-crime area,” she remembered his saying. “Lots of things happen.”
“What was his demeanor?”
“Very friendly, very warm. He sort of drew you into him in terms of invoking your trust. He seemed very concerned about us.”
The man offered to take the woman and her friend for a ride the next day in his boat. She thought it sounded like fun and arranged to meet him the next morning at a dock. When her girlfriend decided not to go, the woman went anyway. She didn’t know how to reach Dave and didn’t want to leave him hanging. Besides, she thought he seemed okay.
The man seemed disappointed that her girlfriend didn’t join them, but they made the best of it anyway. As they headed out into the gulf, he talked about his aluminum business and said he lived with his mother.
“Did he make any advances or anything like that during the day at all?”
Late that afternoon, he dropped her off back at the dock. He said he needed to fix something with his boat, and he encouraged her to get some dinner and meet him at the dock later to go back out and watch the sunset. He wanted her to bring a camera, so she could get pictures of the sunset; he also was eager for her to persuade her girlfriend to join them.
When she returned to the dock, he was waiting. She had her camera with her. But her girlfriend, she told him, still did not want to come.
“What was his reaction to that?”
“He seemed ticked off. He was quiet, but as if he was trying to hide that he was perturbed in some way.”
The two of them went out into the gulf. They talked, dodged crab traps, got out the fishing poles, took pictures of the sunset and of each other.
“It was starting to get dark,” she said, “and I expressed concern that I needed to be back, and people were waiting for me back on land.”
That’s when everything spun out of control, she said. He asked her for a hug, and when she said she didn’t want to hug him, he pulled her toward him and began to touch her. They were going to have sex, he said.
“I started to get very panicky and sort of moving away from him around the back of the boat. I believe I said to him, “If you lay one hand on me, I’ll charge you with rape.’ He sort of felt that was ridiculous. I was screaming, I believe, at that point, and he made some reference to the fact, “You think somebody is going to hear you?’ ”
“How far out were you offshore at that point? Could you see light still on the shore?”
The man started the boat up again. At first she thought he was taking her back, but instead he went farther away from shore. Again, he told her she was going to have sex with him. He had a roll of duct tape, she said, and if she did not comply with his demands, he threatened to put the tape over her mouth. There was no way around it, he said.
The man pulled down her shorts and bathing suit and raped her. Afterward, he tore the film out of the camera and threw the film overboard, then wiped his prints off the camera. Then, finally, he returned her to shore.
As the woman testified, her eyes filled with tears. Once, she stopped for a moment and bowed her head to collect herself. But then she lifted her head and kept going. She did not break down.
“I want you to look around the courtroom today,” said Crow, “and see if you can identify that person.”
The woman looked and nodded. In the years since the assault, the man had gained weight and lost his tan. Still, she recognized him well enough.
“Would you point him out, please?”
She was pointing at Chandler.
The witness had not permitted herself to sob. But the jurors did.
When the woman left the stand and the judge called a break, several jurors retreated into the jury room and cried. They did not talk about what they had heard – they had been ordered not to discuss the case until all the evidence was heard – but they did not need to. The woman’s pain and the strength she had shown in the face of that pain were more eloquent than anything they could have said.
There was no doubting her testimony. The witness had been completely, inescapably believable. Furthermore, her obvious intelligence led the jurors to ask themselves a crucial question. If this woman had been willing to join Chandler on the water, all by herself, not once but twice, how much easier would it have been for him to persuade a mother and her two daughters to take a sunset cruise?
One morning, Doug Crow stood up at the state’s table and called for Hal Rogers.
The courtroom went silent as Hal walked in. He was wearing cowboy boots, a striped tie and a dark suit that seemed to hang off his thin frame. As usual, his eyes were hidden behind tinted glasses.
“Step over here, sir, please,” said one of the bailiffs, leading him to the witness stand. “Watch your step there.”
Hal settled into the chair and looked out across the courtroom. He hardly glanced at the man accused of taking his family from him. Hal seemed wrapped in stillness.
Slowly, carefully, he answered Crow’s questions, telling the jury about himself and his family, about their farm, about Jo and the girls leaving for their trip to Florida. He described the last time he heard from Jo.
“It was Monday evening, Memorial Day, I believe.”
“Was that a phone call?”
“It was a phone call.”
“Okay. Did she indicate to you what her plans were for the next two to three days?”
“She indicated she was going to the Epcot Center and maybe MGM or Disney World itself. And I says, “Don’t bother with Disney World because it’s just rides and stuff.’ ”
“Did she indicate beyond the Orlando area what her plans were to you at that time?”
“Did you ever hear from them after they arrived in Tampa?”
Hal was trying to remain calm. He did not like the feeling of everyone watching him, so he fixed his eyes on a loose bit of tape wrapped around the microphone before him. He had never seen Oba Chandler in person until this moment. He allowed himself one solid look in the man’s direction, but did not permit himself an emotional reaction. He was determined not to lose his temper or do anything that might help the defense. He told himself that if he lost it here, in this place, the devil would win.
Crow handed him a photo.
“Can you identify that photograph?”
“Yes, that’s my wife, Jo,” he said, still referring to her all this time later in the present tense.
Crow handed him another photo.
“Yes, that’s Michelle in her prom dress.”
“That’s Christe right there.”
At the defense table, Chandler sat quietly, blowing on his hands.
Hal did not stay in Pinellas County for long. He had to get back to the farm. But on the day he testified, while he was sitting in a prosecutor’s office, he looked out to the next room and saw the Canadian woman standing there.
He wanted to talk to her. He wanted to tell her how much it meant to him that she was here, how much he appreciated her courage. But she had already been through so much. So he stayed where he was and gave her some peace and quiet.
Besides, he thought she had some idea of how he felt.
Fred Zinober was giving the case everything he had.
Zinober was an experienced defense lawyer. But when he looked across the courtroom at the lineup of lawyers on the state attorney’s team — lawyers, he knew, whose case was built upon the efforts of dozens of investigators — he could not help feeling overwhelmed.
“I felt,” he would later say, “like I was fighting the Russian army with a peashooter.”
Still, Zinober and his co-counsel, Robert Santa Lucia, fought back as best they could. Eager to point the finger away from their client, they tried to present evidence describing the sexual assaults that Michelle Rogers had allegedly suffered at the hands of her uncle, John Rogers. Specifically, they wanted to show the jury Michelle’s statement to the police, in which she described how her uncle had blindfolded her and tied her hands and how he had threatened to kill her if she told anyone. These allegations, they said, showed that John Rogers could have hired someone to murder Michelle and her sister and mother during their trip to Florida — a theory, the defense argued, that the jury should hear.
But the prosecution disagreed. So did the judge.
“You are not getting into John Rogers. John Rogers is a red herring,” said Judge Schaeffer. “John Rogers was in prison at the time this occurred, and he did not commit this crime, and you have absolutely nothing to suggest or put before this jury that John Rogers hired a hit man to have them killed. So that is a moot issue.”
The defense turned toward other possibilities.
They called a man to the stand, a former busboy at the Gateway Inn, the motel outside Orlando where the Rogers women had stayed before heading to Tampa. He testified that he had seen Jo and the girls in the motel’s restaurant and that the last time he saw any of them, Jo had been sitting alone at a table with a man.
They called two women, both former clerks at Maas Brothers at Tampa’s West Shore Plaza, who said they had seen the Rogers women at the department store with an unidentified man and a young child — a boy, they thought it was — around noon on June 1, the day Jo and the girls disappeared.
They called another woman who insisted that she had glimpsed Christe Rogers later that same afternoon at the boat ramp where their car was found, sitting inside a shiny, black car, laughing and talking with someone the witness did not see.
“And I remember the sunshine dancing up on the car like little diamonds,” said the witness. “Like, on the fender.”
The defense’s point was straightforward enough. Any one of these other people who had allegedly met up with the Roger women — the man in the restaurant, the man at Maas Brothers, whoever may have sat with Christe in the shiny, black car — could have been the real killer.
But there was no evidence to suggest that any of these people had taken Jo and the girls out onto the water. Furthermore, on cross-examination, the prosecutors showed that these sightings may have never occurred at all.
Well-intentioned as these witnesses were, their testimony was vague and inconclusive; in some cases, it was contradicted by other evidence.
Everything the defense attorneys tried — every witness they called, every strategy they attempted — the state was ready to counter.
In the end, there was only person who could possibly salvage their case.
“Call your next witness.”
Zinober turned to the judge.
“Your honor, the defense calls Oba Chandler.”
He walked to the center of the courtroom. He raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth and nothing but. He took his seat in the witness box.
“Good morning, sir,” said Zinober.
“Good morning, sir.”
The courtroom was overflowing with spectators, crammed shoulder to shoulder along the rows of wooden benches. More people stood squeezed in behind the benches at the back of the courtroom. In addition, the courtroom was equipped with two video cameras, and around the criminal courts complex there were closed circuit monitors, wired to show the feed from either camera.
In the state attorney’s office and the public defender’s office and in the anterooms of various judges, people were gathered around the screens, waiting to see a man try to talk his way out of the electric chair.
The man in question did not appear particularly worried. If anything, he seemed pleased to finally have a chance to speak. Wearing khakis, a blue blazer and a tie, he sat forward in his chair, calmly looking out at the courtroom.
Under his attorney’s questions, Chandler began with the basics, telling about himself, his wife and daughter, the aluminum business he owned in 1989.
“Speak up a little bit, sir,” said Zinober.
Chandler pulled the microphone closer. He spoke quickly, in a clipped voice that seemed too small for the rest of him. It was a tinny voice, with a hint of a twang, non-threatening, eager to please. The voice of a salesman, making his pitch.
He confirmed that he had met the Rogers family on the afternoon of June 1. He was returning from giving a job estimate, he said, when he stopped at a gas station off Interstate 4, near the 50th Street exit in east Tampa. He bought some cigarettes inside the station and was coming back out when he saw a young woman — Michelle, it turned out to be — in the parking lot. She wanted to know where the Days Inn was, he said.
For a moment, he said, he thought she meant another Days Inn, not far away on State Road 60. But then another girl – Christe this time – leaned her head out of the family’s car window and yelled, “Rocky Point, Rocky Point.” So he gave them directions, he said, telling them how to get back on I-4 and then to take I-275 south toward the causeway.
“And that was it. I mean, nothing spectacular about it. I mean, total conversation, two minutes.”
“And did you write directions?”
“Yes, I did.”
Zinober looked at him.
“Now, did you see these people again at any time that day?”
“I’ve never seen them again.”
“Never saw them again in your life?”
“Did you kill these people?”
“No, I did not.”
“Did you take them out on your boat?”
“No, they’ve never been on my boat.”
Moving quickly, Zinober took Chandler through the rest of his account. What about Rollins Cooper? Did he tell Cooper that he’d had a date with three women? Of course not, Chandler said. What about the marine phone tolls? Did he recall what he had been doing on the night of June 1? Chandler said he had been out in his Bayliner, fishing near the Gandy Bridge.
“Went out about 9:30, 10, when the tide was running. I like to catch the tide changing. That’s the best time to fish. You don’t want to fish in still water.”
Later that night, when he was done fishing, he said, something had gone wrong with his boat.
He tried to start the engine, but it only sputtered for a second and stopped. He got out a spotlight and tried to see what the problem was. That’s when he smelled gas, he said. He looked closer at his engine and discovered that a fuel hose had burst, pouring the contents of his 40-gallon tank into the space between his deck and the bottom of the boat.
“Did you call home?”
“Yes, I did. … I called home about three times trying to get my dilemma solved.”
He tried to arrange a tow, he said, but had no luck. So he spent the night on the water, waiting for daylight so he could flag someone down. Sometime after dawn, he said, a Coast Guard boat came by, but the crew told him they couldn’t assist him. He eventually managed to put some tape over the leak, but he was still out of fuel and was forced to sit there until finally two men in a boat towed him to a nearby marina. He bought some gas at the marina, he said, and headed home.
“Did you call home again before you left?”
“Yes, I did.”
That was the sum of his story and of the areas where Zinober was willing to tread. The attorney did not ask his client about the Madeira Beach rape, did not ask about the confessions he had allegedly made to his daughter and son-in-law, did not ask about the statements he had allegedly made in front of other inmates during his stay in jail.
“Mr. Chandler, final question. … Did you kill these ladies?”
The witness shook his head.
“I have never killed no one in my whole life,” he said. “It’s ludicrous. It’s ridiculous.”
A few minutes later, Judge Schaeffer called a lunch break. As the courtroom emptied, a man made his way forward, moving through the stream of spectators on their way out.
It was Scott Hopkins, the state’s investigator. He had been watching Chandler’s testimony on one of the monitors in the state attorney’s office and had followed especially closely Chandler’s story about the leak in his boat’s gas tank.
Hopkins owned a boat and knew what it was like to be out on the water, struggling with a fuel leak. More important, he knew the boat in question. Chandler had sold the Bayliner after the murders, but the state had tracked down its new owner and had bought the vessel as evidence for the trial. Hopkins had been to the garage where the boat was stored and had studied it thoroughly, from bow to stern.
Now, listening to Chandler’s account of that night, Hopkins had heard something that didn’t make sense. Something they could use. Something that might finally put a ripple in Chandler’s unshakable calm.
Knowing cross-examination would soon get under way, Hopkins raced up three flights of stairs to the courtroom. He pushed his way to the front, where Doug Crow was pacing, going into a zone of intense concentration as he prepared himself for cross.
Hopkins went up to him and said he had something important. Chandler’s testimony was no good, he said. It was impossible, and they could prove it.
“He’s lying, Doug.”
Crow stopped pacing. He looked at Hopkins, ready to listen.
In the state attorney’s office, Glenn Martin had been watching Chandler as well and noted the same discrepancies in his stories. So Martin got busy, too. Eager to not waste a moment, he picked up the phone and called a boat mechanic he had worked with on an earlier case. Someone good, someone who would know what he was talking about.
Martin told the mechanic they needed an expert to look at the Bayliner itself. It was in a garage at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s office in Tampa, and they wanted him to drive there and examine it closely, paying special attention to the fuel system.
Could he do that for them? Could he drop whatever he was doing and go right now?
Sure, said the mechanic.
Chapter 7: The Magic Kingdom
On the day he was to cross-examine Oba Chandler, Doug Crow was up before dawn, pacing his bedroom floor. His wife woke to find him moving in the darkness, back and forth, back and forth. Barbara Crow was not surprised. She knew he had been waiting for this moment, almost counting the hours until he got to grill Chandler face to face. Doug was always tightly wound when he was deep into a case. But this trial was different. Barbara had seldom seen him so consumed, so driven to not make a mistake, to do everything possible to secure a conviction.
Doug had been at the dock on that Sunday five years ago when the bodies were recovered from the water. He had seen for himself what remained of Jo Rogers and her daughters, had seen the ropes tied around their hands and feet, the concrete blocks hanging from the lines around their necks.
For Doug, as for the others working the case, there was no luxury of distance. This was not some drama on TV. If they failed to put Chandler away, a hole would open inside them and stay there for the rest of their lives.
So on this morning, Doug woke before the sun and walked his bedroom, talking aloud to himself. He had to be ready for Chandler, had to know what to ask and how to ask it, had to make sure there was nothing he had forgotten.
Barbara sat up in bed and watched him. She would have said something to him, would have tried to reassure him. But she knew he couldn’t hear her anymore.
He was already in the courtroom.
The judge nodded toward the prosecution table.
“State may inquire.”
“Thank you,” said Crow, springing from his chair and walking briskly to the lectern.
He did not bother to say hello to the man on the witness stand. Instead, he looked at him with naked contempt and launched his first question.
“How many times have you been convicted of a felony?”
Chandler looked back at him.
“Six times, I believe, sir.”
“You believe six times?”
“I believe so.”
Crow turned to the testimony of Chandler’s daughter, Kristal Mays. Hadn’t she told the jury that she had heard Chandler admitting to murder? And yet, Crow pointed out, Chandler had not said a word about those accusations during direct examination. He hadn’t contradicted his daughter, had he?
“I have not had a chance to, sir.”
“Didn’t you testify on direct?”
Chandler looked confused. “Pardon me?”
“You didn’t have a chance to say that under direct?”
Chandler didn’t know what to say. Already, the composure he had shown during questioning from his own attorney was giving way. He looked toward the judge. He looked toward his attorneys. In his eyes, panic flashed.
Crow turned to the testimony of Kristal’s husband, Rick Mays, who had also described hearing confessions from Chandler. What about those accusations? Had Chandler contradicted them?
What about the Canadian woman? Had he contradicted her testimony as to the rape?
Chandler shook his head.
“Not here to discuss the rape trial,” he said, his face growing red. ”Won’t answer questions regarding the rape trial.”
Crow stopped. He asked Chandler if he was invoking the Fifth Amendment.
“Yes, I am.”
“You are afraid your answers may incriminate you? Is that why you refuse to answer?”
“You are not afraid they will incriminate you?”
“Then you can’t take the Fifth Amendment.”
At the defense table, Fred Zinober was standing. His client, he said, did not wish to talk about the rape case.
Judge Susan Schaeffer said that was too bad. Chandler, she said, did not get to control how this cross-examination unfolded. Either he answered the questions, or he invoked the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
“I invoke the Fifth Amendment,” said Chandler.
Crow moved on.
“Let’s talk about June 1, 1989. If I understood your testimony, you met the Rogers women in Tampa, correct?”
“Approximately what time did you meet them?”
Chandler shrugged. “I don’t remember.”
“Give me your best estimate.”
“Was it morning?”
“What were you doing?”
“I don’t remember, Mr. Crow.”
Chandler was staring at the prosecutor now. His face was growing more and more red.
“You met the Rogers women,” Crow was saying. “You wrote directions on a pamphlet, correct?”
“They went on their way?”
“As far as I know, they did.”
“You saw Christe. You saw Michelle. Correct?”
What about their mother? Did he see Jo Rogers? No, Chandler said. He saw only the girls. What about a week or so later, when the bodies were identified and Michelle’s and Christe’s pictures were published in the paper? Did he recognize them as the girls he had met? No, Chandler said. Not at first. Not until that November, when the police made the connection between the murders and the Madeira Beach case and the composite drawing of his face appeared in the paper. It was then, he said, he realized that the two girls he had given directions to had been murdered.
“That’s when for the first time you realized those were the women you gave directions to the Days Inn?”
“Five months after the crime.”
Crow’s questions were elliptical, gliding from one area to the next and then the next and then back to the earlier areas. He was circling, looking for the holes.
He kept in mind his conversation with Scott Hopkins just before cross had begun, when Hopkins — an investigator for the prosecution — had explained the problems in Chandler’s account of his boat and its broken fuel hose. Crow had already factored those contradictions into his questions. At the same time, a boat mechanic had been dispatched to examine the Bayliner at the Tampa office of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
But Crow was not ready to tell any of this to the defense. Eager to keep the witness on edge, Crow did not want to reveal how he and the rest of the prosecution team knew Chandler’s story was impossible, or how they were going to prove it.
But he did need to pin Chandler down. So he pressed for details. About those engine difficulties that night, he said. What had been the problem again? Just as he told his own attorney, Chandler explained that he’d had a fuel leak and had run out of gas. His 40-gallon tank had been full when he left, he said, and all of it had leaked out into the bottom of the boat and into the bay. He tried to find the leak that night, he said, but had no luck.
“You were out in the middle of the bay, leaking, at 1, 2 a.m.,” said Crow. “Did you just sit there for six hours, or did you use your lantern to see where the leak was coming from?”
“I used my lantern to try to find out what my problem was, to start my boat. I couldn’t get it started. I called home.”
“Well, after you called home, there’s another six or seven hours before –”
“Let me finish the question.”
“Did you use the light to try to figure out what was wrong with the engine?”
“Yes, I did.”
“And did it provide sufficient illumination for you to see there was a line busted?”
“Yes, it would have. But I didn’t find it at that time.”
“Did you call a towing service?”
“No, I did not.”
“Did you try to call any of your friends who have boats?”
And once it was daylight, he had discovered the location of the leak in the fuel line? Yes. And he put tape over the leak? Yes. And by that point the gas tank was empty? Yes. And what did he do next? Chandler said he tried to flag down another boat.
That’s when he saw the Coast Guard crew, he said, in one of those inflatable boats. He waved the crew members over with his shirt and asked for a tow, but they couldn’t stop. They told him they were looking for a body on the rocks or something like that, he said.
Ten minutes or so later, he said, two men in a boat stopped and gave him a tow to a marina. Then he went home. Then he went to the house in Tampa where his subcontractor, Rollins Cooper, was doing some aluminum work for him.
Crow zeroed in on the time sequence of these events. Cooper, after all, had testified that he saw Chandler at the job site that morning around 7:30. Ileana Capo, the woman who owned the house where the work was taking place, had testified that she also saw Chandler around the same time.
“Do you recall her testimony?”
What about the marine phone tolls? Didn’t the phone records show that Chandler made two calls that morning from the water, one at 8:11 and another at 9:52? Yes, Chandler said. Well, had Chandler made those calls before or after he got the tow to the marina and went home? Before, Chandler said. He made them while he was still out on the boat.
“If you made those calls before you came back in, Mr. Chandler, how could you have been at Ms. Capo’s residence between 7:15 and 7:30?”
Flustered, Chandler shook his head.
“I was — I didn’t say I was there at 7, 7:15 or 7:30 in the morning. . . . I said I do not remember what time I got there. I don’t know.”
His composure was almost gone. He was sighing and wiping his mouth. He seemed transformed from the congenial salesman who had testified on direct; now he came across as someone combative, controlling, angry. He argued with Crow, glared at him, complained to the judge about him.
Judge Schaeffer told Chandler to calm down.
“You won’t do yourself any favors by trying to spar with this man,” she said, nodding toward Crow. “He’s experienced. Your best bet is to answer his questions. . . . Okay?”
Chandler nodded. “He just gets under my skin, judge.”
That was exactly Crow’s purpose. He wanted to break Chandler down, not just to expose the falsehoods in his testimony, but to expose the lie in the facade of detachment he had affected throughout the trial.
So the prosecutor kept pushing. He returned to Chandler’s visit to Cincinnati in November 1989, after the composite drawing of the Madeira Beach rapist was published. Crow wanted to know why Chandler had made the trip.
“Did you flee the state?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Because you were afraid?”
“Because I was afraid of the Madeira Beach case, yes, I was.”
“The connections to the homicide had nothing to do with it?”
“Didn’t worry me that much.”
“The connection with the Rogers case didn’t concern you?”
Chandler said it had concerned him, but not too much.
“I figured you people would find out who did it.”
Crow paused, staring at the witness.
“Well, perhaps we have, Mr. Chandler.”
The cross-examination was still going when the mechanic called from the FDLE office. He had studied the Bayliner and its engine, and it was just as Scott Hopkins had remembered. In fact, it was all exactly as the prosecutors had hoped.
The fuel line.
Everything they needed.
They got the word to Crow during a break in the testimony. And when cross resumed, Crow ran with it.
“May I approach the witness, your honor?”
“You may,” said Judge Schaeffer.
Crow handed a photo of the Bayliner to Chandler and asked him to show exactly where the broken fuel line had been.
“It’s in the front of the engine, up in the front.”
“Okay, where?” said Crow, looking with him at the photo. “Up in here?”
“Well, no. . . . Your gas line is coming from the gas tank, which is under the floor here.”
“And the gas lines come from the top of the gas tank, don’t they?”
“I don’t know. You can’t see the gas tank.”
Chandler, apparently sensing the trap he had set for himself, was growing more vague with his answers. But Crow had him cornered. Hadn’t Chandler already testified that he did a great deal of work on the boat, replacing all the hoses and other lines in the engine? Wasn’t he familiar with those lines? Most of them, Chandler said. But not necessarily all of them. Well, Crow said, what about the leaking fuel line? Didn’t it feed into the top of the gas tank? Chandler said he wasn’t sure.
“You fixed the line, right?”
“Was it above the gas tank or below?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see the gas tank.”
Chandler was squirming now.
“Have you ever heard of an anti-siphon valve?”
On this point, Crow pressed hard. Chandler was unaware of any such device? Didn’t he know that an anti-siphon valve would close off a leak in a fuel line? Yes, Chandler said. He had heard about a valve like that. But it only worked on another part of the fuel system, near the pump, where the line goes over the tank.
So was Chandler saying he did in fact know where the fuel line entered the gas tank? A few moments before, he had told the jury exactly the opposite.
“I don’t know whether it’s the top or bottom or where it is,” said Chandler, going round and round. “I can’t see the whole gas tank. I . . . ”
In the state attorney’s office, Glen Moore was watching the whole thing on TV.
Moore, the St. Petersburg police sergeant who had led the long investigation into the murders, was impressed with what he saw unfolding before him on the monitor with the live feed from the courtroom. Crow was putting the case away. He was boxing Chandler in, forcing him to produce detail after detail that could be checked, leaving him with less and less room to wriggle away.
The sergeant noticed something else. There were two feeds available on the monitor. One was from the back of the courtroom, showing Chandler straight on; the other was from a camera positioned above and behind the witness. Switching to the second feed, Moore saw a detail that was hidden from the people in the courtroom. In his lap, Chandler was holding a tissue, nervously wiping his hands. As the questioning went on, Chandler kept rubbing the tissue, gradually tearing it into pieces. By the time the cross-examination was over, there was nothing left of the tissue but a few shreds.
As Moore would later put it:
“Doug filleted him.”
The jurors could not stomach Oba Chandler.
Some of them, sick of the smile he had worn through so much of the trial, wanted to slap him. Others were terrified of him.
Especially the women.
Linda Jones, an office administrator seated in the back row of the jury box, could hardly make eye contact with Chandler. If he looked her way, she averted her gaze. Evelyn Calloway, a school bus driver who sat in the front row, next to the witness stand, had looked into Chandler’s eyes as he testified and had seen such coldness in him, she did not think he was human. Calloway began to worry that he might actually lunge for her from the witness box.
Rose Welton, a grandmother at the other end of the front row, was also struck with the chill in Chandler’s stare. When he looked into her eyes, Welton thought she could feel his spirit, crawling inside her body.
A single word went through her, over and over:
Devil, devil, devil.
After the defense had rested its case, the prosecutors went for the knockout punch.
The day after Chandler testified, they called in another jailhouse inmate who had shared a cell with Chandler and had overheard him talking about a note and a car. The witness said he had not heard Chandler say exactly what note or what car he meant, but the meaning was clear enough.
“What statement did you hear the defendant make?” asked Assistant State Attorney Jim Hellickson.
“That his biggest mistake was leaving the note in the car.”
They called Robert Shidner, who had been with the Coast Guard’s Bayboro station back in June 1989. Shidner had kept track of the station’s only inflatable boat. Shidner was asked to think back to Friday, June 2, the day Chandler claimed to have talked to a Coast Guard crew in an inflatable out on Tampa Bay.
“Did you have occasion to be in Tampa Bay, looking for a body on a rock?” asked Bob Lewis, another prosecutor.
“No, sir, we did not.”
“Did your boat go out that day at all?”
“No, sir, we did not.”
Then the state called James Hensley.
Hensley was the mechanic who had looked over the Bayliner the day before. His credentials were outstanding. Employed by the Florida Marine Patrol and in private industry before that, he had worked on boats for two decades and had designed fuel systems for all sorts of vessels, from fishing boats to race boats.
He was perhaps the perfect witness. It helped that he had a straightforward, unpolished, unpretentious manner, with an open face and a calm voice. It also helped that he so obviously knew what he was talking about.
Seated in the same witness chair where Chandler had sat, Hensley obliterated the defendant’s account of how he had spent the night of June 1, 1989, on Tampa Bay, of how he lost all his gasoline, of how he had used tape to repair the leak.
“Have you ever had experience with duct tape around gasoline?” asked Lewis.
“Never had much luck with any kind of tape around gasoline,” Hensley said.
“The fuel itself dissolves the tape.”
Chandler had testified that the burst fuel line spewed close to 40 gallons of gasoline into the bottom of the Bayliner and out into the bay. But Hensley pointed out that the boat’s fuel system was equipped with an anti-siphon valve that would have prevented such a leak. Hensley had tested the valve to make sure it worked.
“How long have anti-siphoning valves been required to be in boats?”
“I believe it was in the early ’70s it was implemented as a safety feature.”
Even without the valve, Hensley said the leak still could not have occurred as Chandler had described. The fuel line was located above the fuel tank, which meant that for the gas to escape, it would have had to travel upward, defying gravity.
On cross-examination, Fred Zinober tried to counter the damage. But every question he asked only seemed to make things worse for his client. What if there was a leak in a different part of the fuel system, he asked? What if the leak was in the part of the fuel line between the pump and the carburetor? Hensley said gasoline would have spilled out onto the engine.
“It would be a fire hazard,” he said.
When it was the state’s turn to ask more questions, Lewis wanted to know more about the nature of this hazard. Hensley explained that the starter on the Bayliner’s engine had a solenoid switch that sparkedwhen the ignition key was turned. Okay, Lewis said. So what would happen if, by some miracle, 40 gallons of gasoline had reversed gravity and got past the anti-siphon valve and sprayed over the engine, as the defense was suggesting. What would happen if you had done as Chandler had testified and cranked the boat at that point, setting off those sparks?
“You would have a serious problem.”
“We might not be here?”
A few minutes later, after the jury had been taken from the courtroom, Zinober complained to the judge that he had been caught off guard by Hensley’s testimony. Schaeffer asked Zinober why he hadn’t been more prepared. Why didn’t his list of possible witnesses include a mechanic of his own to back up Chandler’s story?
“I don’t have an answer for the court,” said Zinober.
Doug Crow stepped forward. The reason Zinober had not listed a mechanic as a witness, Crow suggested, was because he had not wanted to tip off the prosecution that Chandler would be claiming to have spent the night on the water with engine problems.
“Judge, it seems to me that what happened is Mr. Zinober made the mistake of perhaps taking the accuracy of his client’s statements without checking it out. And if there is a trap that he’s caught in, it’s of his client’s own making.”
Across the courtroom, Chandler shifted in his chair. His face was bright red.
Late the next afternoon, after the lawyers delivered their closing arguments and the judge gave instructions on the law, the 12 jurors were sent into the jury room to begin their deliberations. They sat down at the table and picked a forewoman — Linda Jones, the office administrator — and then took a quick vote.
“I think the best way would be to see where we all stand,” Jones said, ”and then go from there.”
They each wrote a verdict on a piece of paper. Jones gathered the papers and opened them and read them aloud, one at a time.
“Guilty as charged.”
“Guilty on all three.”
When Jones had finished, her hands were shaking. Each of the 12 had voted the same. It had taken them all of five minutes to reach a verdict.
For a moment, no one said anything. They couldn’t believe they were already done. They had no doubt about their decision, none of the nagging questions that sometimes haunt jurors after a trial. They had liked Zinober well enough, but as far as they were concerned, there had been an abundance of evidence against Chandler. Most damning of all had been his own testimony, which they found completely unbelievable.
Still, as they sat around the table, they weren’t ready yet to summon a bailiff and announce that they had reached a verdict. After almost two weeks of trial, they wanted to take a little while to talk, to look over the evidence, to hold hands and pray. A couple of people wanted to calm their nerves with a cigarette.
Rose Welton, the grandmother, went to the stacks of exhibits and found photos of Jo and Michelle and Christe while they were still alive. She stared into the three faces. They were so beautiful, she thought; they did not deserve what happened to them. Holding the pictures, Welton broke down and cried.
At 6:18 p.m., almost an hour and a half after they had retired, the jurors knocked on the door of the jury room.
When the 12 of them had left the courtroom to begin deliberations, Chandler had watched with a hint of his old smile on his face. Now the smile was gone. As the jurors filed back into the room and took their seats, Chandler studied their faces.
Linda Jones remained standing, the verdict forms in her hand. Judge Schaeffer asked Jones if she had been elected forewoman.
“Yes. That’s correct.”
“Please hand the verdict forms to the bailiff. You may be seated.”
The bailiff took the forms and handed them to the judge, who read them silently and then handed them to the court clerk, who stood up and read the forms out loud for everyone to hear.
“We, the jury, find as follows as to count one of this case: The defendant is guilty of murder in the first-degree, as charged. So say we all.”
The clerk read from three verdict forms, one for Jo, one for Michelle, one for Christe. Each time, the verdict was the same.
There was no shouting, no clapping. Crow and the other prosecutors barely smiled. Zinober looked downcast but not surprised.
Even Chandler showed scarcely a trace of emotion. As he listened to the verdicts, he did not blink, did not frown, allowed only a hint of what appeared to be interest to flicker across his face.
That evening, as people left the courthouse, the horizon over the gulf was ablaze with a riot of red and orange and purple. It was exactly the kind of sky that had brought Jo and the girls to Florida, that had lured them to their deaths, that would haunt those who loved them, that would always burn with the memory of their names.
The kind of sky that Chandler would probably never see again as a free man.
Sunset. Glorious sunset.
All this time later, we are still on the water with Jo and Michelle and Christe.
Looking back at the case, we are drawn, again and again, to that night. The boat rocks under our feet. The ropes cut into our hands and tighten about our necks. The bay stretches about us, looking so cold, so deep, so unforgivably black.
Perhaps the most horrific aspect to the crime is the way the killer twisted everything around. He took the love that Jo and the girls felt for one another and used it to hurt them, forcing them to watch one another’s suffering. He used the beauty of the water to get them onto his boat — used the waves and the sun and all the promises of Florida — and turned it into something unspeakably ugly.
They came here to visit the Magic Kingdom, and he exploited the power of that fantasy to usher them inside a realm all his own.
Any attempt to get at the heart of that night is made all the more difficult by the fact that the killer has not publicly admitted his crime. He has left it to us to wonder, to fill in the blanks, to conjure what details we can from the outermost boundaries of our imagination.
Still, we are compelled to try.
Judge Schaeffer talked about this a month after the trial, when Chandler was brought before her for sentencing. She spoke powerfully about the Rogers women and what they must have endured at the hands of Chandler.
“One victim was first; two watched. Imagine the fear,” the judge said. ”One victim was second; one watched. Imagine the horror. Finally the last victim, who had seen the other two disappear over the side, was lifted up and thrown overboard. Imagine the terror.”
From the bench, she looked down on Chandler, standing quietly before her in a blue jailhouse uniform, holding his reading glasses.
“Oba Chandler,” Schaeffer said, “you have not only forfeited your right to live among us, but under the laws of the state of Florida, you have forfeited your right to live at all.”
With that, the judge ordered him to die in the electric chair. Following the unanimous recommendation of the jury, she condemned him three times, ordering a separate death sentence for each victim.
“May God have mercy upon your soul.”
In the long years after the murders, more than 200 citizens devoted themselves to seeing that Jo Rogers and her daughters were not forgotten.
To these people — the investigators, the neighbors, the prosecutors, the witnesses and the jurors — justice was not some abstract concept to be discussed in a high school civics class. It was something complicated and confusing and often frightening, something that required their attention and care if it was to prevail.
Once the trial was over, the jurors returned to their homes around Orlando. But the case followed them. Several had nightmares about Chandler; at least three of the women began to keep a gun close at hand in their homes.
Linda Jones, the jury forewoman, was tormented with the notion that evil could be all around her. She would go to the store and find herself studying other customers, wondering if they were capable of murder.
“I’m looking at people’s faces, thinking, “You could be one of them,’ ” she explained. “How could someone tell? How could you tell?”
The woman whose report of the rape in Madeira Beach — and whose willingness to testify in court — proved so crucial to the case still lives in Canada. To spare her the trauma of testifying again, the state attorney’s office dropped the rape charge against Chandler.
Jo Ann Steffey, whose suspicions of Chandler were triggered by the Canadian woman’s description, lives in Tampa. After a dispute over how the $25,000 reward should be split, the money was divided among Steffey and her neighbor Mozelle Smith and two others who aided the police in finding Chandler.
James Hensley, the Florida Marine Patrol mechanic whose testimony was so devastating to Chandler’s alibi, died of cancer several months after the trial at age 43.
Susan Schaeffer, the trial judge, was named last month as one of five finalists to fill a vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court. The lawyer who headed the nominating commission praised Schaeffer for the eloquence of her words at the Chandler sentencing.
The law enforcement officers who worked the Rogers case still think about Jo and her daughters, talk about them, remember them whenever they drive across the blue expanse of Tampa Bay. Though no one knows for sure, detectives believe today that Chandler murdered the Rogers women on his own, without an accomplice. No evidence has been found proving the existence of a second assailant. In addition, the facts of the Madeira Beach rape, where Chandler tried to take both the Canadian woman and her friend on his boat together, suggest that he was both willing and able to approach more than one potential target on his own.
John Halliday, the investigator who ultimately arrested Chandler, still works as an agent for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Jim Ramey, the FBI agent who escorted Chandler on his way to jail, now works in the bureau’s Orlando office.
J.J. Geoghegan, one of the many St. Petersburg police detectives who toiled on the investigation, eventually left the department after a protracted dispute with the city. Jim Kappel, the detective who established the connection between the murders and the Madeira Beach rape, works as a school resource officer at a middle school in St. Petersburg. Larry Heim and Cindy Cummings, who immersed themselves in the case during the two years leading to the arrest, both continue to serve as homicide detectives for the department. For her efforts on the Rogers case, Cummings was chosen for a Ned March award, one of the department’s highest honors.
Sgt. Glen Moore leads homicide investigations at the department. Moore still consults his wife on cases, carries his Bible to work every day, believes that angels and demons are waging battles all around us.
Fred Zinober, Chandler’s defense attorney, maintains that his client is innocent of the Rogers murders. Although he will not discuss the case in detail, Zinober points to the close relationship Chandler had with his young daughter, Whitney. Chandler’s devotion to his daughter, Zinober says, made it impossible for him to accept that his client could have done such terrible things to Jo and her daughters.
“He absolutely adores Whitney,” says Zinober.
Shortly after the trial, Debra Chandler filed for divorce. The marriage was formally dissolved last year, and today Zinober reports that Debra is eager to move on with her life and is trying to shield herself and her daughter from publicity.
Oba Chandler is on death row at Union Correctional Institution. His appeals continue, but just three weeks ago the Florida Supreme Court upheld his three convictions and death sentences.
He is no longer allowed to see Whitney. In accordance with his ex-wife’s wishes, he is not even allowed to see current photos of his daughter.
In Van Wert County, Ohio, another fall harvest is nearly over.
As always, cows graze in the fields; farmers stare at the skies, wondering if it will rain; 4-H kids hang their ribbons from the county fair. Yet something has changed. Eight years have passed since Jo and Michelle and Christe died, but their loss is still vividly etched inside many of the people who live there.
Jeff Feasby, Michelle’s former boyfriend, will not visit the three graves at Zion Lutheran cemetery. He has never been able to bring himself to go near either the cemetery or the church across the street where Michelle and the others were eulogized. Though he has had other girlfriends, Jeff says he has never met anyone like Michelle. He thinks about her all the time.
“I think things would have worked out pretty well between us,” he says.
Ginny Etzler, Jo’s mother, has kept the little blackboard marked with Michelle’s handwriting in her basement. On the wall of her living room, Ginny has hung a family portrait, completed after the murders, which shows Jo and the girls posing with the rest of the family.
The portrait was a long and complicated project. The surviving members of the family posed first, leaving three spaces; old photos of Jo and her daughters were then superimposed into the spaces.
The end result is slightly surreal, but extremely comforting to the family. Ginny often sits in her chair, gazing at the portrait and admiring how nice they all look together.
“The world keeps going,” she says, “so I guess we’re just gonna have to keep trudging along.”
Colleen Etzler, married to Jo’s brother Jim, sips coffee at her kitchen table and talks about how the effects of the murders keep washing through their lives. She knows they will never fully recover from such an immense loss.
“There’s no protocol here,” she says. “There’s no Murder 101 class. No Grief 101 that anybody thinks to give you.”
Like so many others, Colleen has tried to understand why Jo and the girls were taken so cruelly. She knows that a few residents of Van Wert County place some of the blame with Jo and cling to the notion that she and her daughters somehow invited their deaths.
“I’ve heard people say, “Well, they just shouldn’t have went without a man.’ ”
Colleen doesn’t buy it. The three of them died, she says, because they had the bad luck to stumble across something so dark it defies comprehension.
After years of struggling with the murders, Colleen has finally achieved clarity of vision. She looks around her at the lives so many people are leading. She sees them staying on their farms, doing their chores, going to church, doing everything they can to follow the rules and keep the dangers of the outside world at bay. But there is no hiding, she has learned. No matter what you do or where you go, the world always finds you.
And she asks herself:
What then? Once the world has tracked you down and shown you its worst, once three members of your family have been snatched away, what do you do next?
At last, Colleen has her answer.
Jo and the girls will always live on inside her heart, she says. But she plans to keep going, fighting to enjoy every moment of every day, to relish every gift laid at her feet.
“I was not murdered,” Colleen says defiantly. “I’m still alive. And I will not give up until the hearse pulls up.”
Finally, there is Hal Rogers.
Today Hal lives and works on the same dairy farm where he watched his wife and daughters drive away forever. He has hired hands to help him now, but he still gets up before dawn every morning to milk the cows and then milks them again every afternoon.
After all this time, he continues to have trouble sleeping in the bed he shared with Jo. Some nights, he sleeps out in the Calais, listening to the radio; other nights, he prefers his burgundy recliner in the living room. Often he eats his dinner in the chair, and then drifts off in the same spot, in front of the TV.
“I’ve just kind of wandered through life,” he says. “I’ve just done enough to get by.”
While he admits to years of deep depression, Hal has never sought counseling. He once went to a meeting for an organization that caters to parents whose children have been killed or died unexpectedly. But even there, he felt like an outsider. When the other people at the meeting heard his story, they seemed overwhelmed by the size of his loss. Uncomfortable with the attention, Hal left the meeting and never went back.
Instead of therapy, he has relied on his friends. Again and again, he has turned to them when he felt alone.
“Friends,” he says, “were the only thing I had.”
With their help, Hal says he is doing better. But sometimes he can’t believe how far he has yet to go.
“You step back, and you say, Jesus Christ, it’s been eight years. It don’t feel like I’ve done anything or made any progress. . . . I know I have, but it don’t feel like it.”
Now 45, Hal remains estranged from the members of his family who took sides against Michelle when she made her allegations about her uncle John. As angry as Hal is toward Oba Chandler, his real fury is reserved for his brother, who is still serving his sentence in an Ohio prison. If John had not raped Michelle, Hal says, his family would never have thought of going to Florida and would never have run across Chandler. Hal has not spoken to John in nine years.
“I figure he’s the cause of all this,” he says.
Still, Hal has done his best to move forward.
“I’m not gonna go down in a hole,” he says. “I been there enough.”
His days of heavy drinking and self-destructive behavior are behind him now. And he has put aside his earlier, half-hearted attempts at killing himself. Suicide, he says, would be too easy.
“That’s the way the devil wins,” he says. “I made up my mind — I’m gonna spit in his eye all my life.”
Hal’s friends have noticed the progress, especially over the past year or so. At their urging, he agreed to see a doctor about his depression and has begun taking Prozac. The improvement in his spirits has been dramatic. He’s keeping busy, going out, having fun. He throws for a dart ball team in a church league. He plays pool with friends at the Wren Tavern. Not long ago, he listened to an audiotaped version of the book Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars.
He has dated several women over the years, and once went so far as to get engaged. He and his fiancee took out a marriage license, but broke up before they ever got around to using it.
“The way I figure it,” he says, flashing a wry smile, “it’s like a hunting license. Just because you have one don’t mean you have to use it.”
Since earlier this year, Hal has been dating a divorced woman who lives outside Fort Wayne, Ind. Her name is Jolene Keefer, she has four children — three girls and a boy — and they all seem to get along well. Jolene and the kids have been out to the farm, helped Hal in the milking parlor, cooked him some meals.
“It just feels like my life is halfway back to normal,” he says. “I got someone who likes me.”
As happy as his new relationship has made him, Hal has made no attempt to put aside his thoughts of Jo and the girls. He is learning, he says, to make room inside himself for both the past and the future.
He likes to leave the light on in the family room, near the portraits of Jo and the girls that hang on the wall. He still talks about the three of them in the present tense, keeps an old Easter bunny of Michelle’s in his living room, carries photos of Michelle and Christe in his wallet. While he knows they are gone, he sometimes slips into moments of denial. Last November, when Jo’s birthday rolled around, he wondered if he would hear from her.
“I just thought maybe she was still coming back,” he told his sister-in-law, Colleen.
In spite of his reluctance to get rid of anything belonging to Jo and the girls, he did eventually allow Jo’s mother and Colleen to come into the house and clean out most of his family’s clothes and other belongings. While they worked, Hal stayed outside the house, unable to watch. Afterward, he went through the bags and picked out items he could not bear to part with. One of the items he kept was a red dress that Jo used to wear.
“I just liked her in it,” he says.
Hal is convinced that the ghosts of Jo and the girls are with him, there in the house. He is not frightened of the ghosts; he finds them comforting.
“I’ve felt them before,” he says. “I know they watch over my little sorry butt.”
Their spirits, he believes, do not merely inhabit the house. They live inside him. Since the murders, he says, he has taken on some of Jo’s more outgoing traits. As she so often urged him to do, he has learned to meet new people, to try new experiences, to get off the farm and see what awaits him down the road.
Something else in him has been transformed. His eyes, he says, are changing color. Before the murders, they were brown. Now they look more hazel on some days, slowly shifting toward the color of Jo’s eyes.
Hal no longer tries to understand why Jo and the girls were taken from him. He believes there must have been a reason, but accepts that the reason may never be revealed to him.
“We ain’t gonna know,” he says. “There’s some things there’s just no answers to.”
He has finally purchased headstones for the graves. He likes to go the cemetery at night and sit with his family. He talks to them, tells them his problems, whatever is on his mind. He especially likes to visit on summer evenings. He lies on the grass and leans against the dark stones, feeling the warmth of the day and of his memories radiating through him.
It is the closest thing to peace he has been granted.