Wednesday, July 1, 2015

WLRN Review's The Kidnapping and Murder of Little Skeegie Cash

Many thanks to Luis Hernandez of WLRN in Miami for his review of The Kidnapping and Murder of Little Skeegie Cash: J. Edgar Hoover and Florida's Lindbergh Case. Luis also interviewed my brother and co-author Zack C. Waters.

Below is the transcript of the review.  It also contains a portion of the interview and a timeline of the 1938 case.

A Grisly Timeline: Florida’s Lindbergh Kidnapping Case
by Luis Hernandez
June 9, 2015

In the early 20th century, kidnappings were a scourge on the nation.

The Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932 epitomized a time of widespread fear—the taking of the famous aviator’s son resulted in the FBI’s involvement, and later the Federal Kidnapping Act, granting the Bureau jurisdiction in these cases.

Many of the children taken in the 30’s were from wealthy families. Ransom demands ranged from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many times the children were never returned and instead found dead. No one imagined the kidnapping of a 5-year-old boy in Princeton, Fla., would garner national attention.

There were three ransom notes found with specific directions on where to drop off $10,000 for the safe return of Skeegie Cash.

It happened in the late evening of May 28, 1938. James “Skeegie” Cash was taken from his bed on the second floor of his parents’ home.

Within a few hours, dozens of the town’s residents had gathered around the father, Bailey, as he read aloud a ransom note. Before dawn, local law enforcement and the FBI were on the scene.

There would be three ransom notes discovered in all. Bailey Cash would have to make two attempts at dropping off the ransom. Eventually, thousands of people and dozens of agencies searched the Everglades for the boy.

It took only a couple days before newspapers across the country were once again pasting on their front pages headlines of another kidnapping. The nation was enthralled, especially when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself flew down to Miami to oversee the search for the boy and the kidnapper.

As the days passed, hopes of finding Skeegie dwindled. Family members tried to stay positive. The FBI was leaning hard on numerous suspects, but nothing panned out. Hoover was under pressure to keep his heroic image alive and strong in the news.

The unsung hero was Dade County Sheriff D.C. Coleman. With all the attention on Hoover and the bureau, Coleman started trailing a local everyone knew as the preacher’s son, Franklin McCall. After a couple of conversations and some detective work, Coleman was convinced McCall did it. He eventually picked up McCall and without incident drove the suspect to FBI headquarters in Miami.

With pressure from Hoover and other interrogators, McCall eventually cracked and confessed and led investigators to the boy’s body. A coroner’s inquest was held shortly after the funeral. The jury came back within fifteen minutes confirming that the boy had died at the hands of the man in custody.

Many people across Florida wanted a quick trial and a rapid trip to the electric chair. On February 20, 1939, McCall was one of three prisoners listed for execution, but a last-minute call came in postponing the execution for one last appeal.

The U.S. Circuit and Supreme Court justices refused the appeal, and Franklin McCall was executed on Feb. 24.

McCall became the first state resident to die under the Florida Lindbergh Law. These were popular in numerous states as a deterrent to child kidnappings.

Even though Hoover got all the credit in the nation’s eyes for solving the case, locally, many people knew their man Sheriff Coleman had found the kidnapper. The story never stuck in the national consciousness the way other kidnappings did. That may be due to the fact that the year after the kidnapping, bombs dropped in Europe and World War II had begun.

The story has been turned into a book: The Kidnapping and Murder of Little Skeegie Cash: J. Edgar Hoover and Florida's Lindbergh Case.

Zack Waters says his brother was the one who found the story in a 1958 True Detective magazine. Waters says the case was unique for a number of reasons, one of them being that J. Edgar Hoover got involved himself. The FBI director came to Miami because he thought it would be an easy case to solve and he needed the publicity.  Congress was debating just how much funding the bureau should get and Hoover wanted a case to prove that the money was warranted.

Another reason this case was unique was the fact that the Cash family was not wealthy. Many kidnappers in other cases were asking for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. For Skeegie, McCall asked for $10,000. Skeegie’s kidnapping burned the fear into American parents that anyone could become victim to this crime.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

“Bloody” Ed Watson

Florida’s most prolific serial killer
by Robert A. Waters

Edgar J. Watson got his violent nature from his father.  Nicknamed “Ring-Eye” Lige because of a circular scar around one eye that he got in a knife-fight, Lige would fight anybody at the drop of a hat.  Bloody Ed’s mother fled her loutish husband, taking her son from South Carolina to Lake City, Florida.

Soon Ed grew restless and moved to Arkansas.  There he hooked up with the outlaw, Belle Starr. They had a falling-out, however, and Starr ended up on the wrong end of a bullet.  Watson was suspected of being her killer, but by then, he’d high-tailed it back to Florida where he began racking up an impressive string of murders.

In the early 1900’s, he bought Chatham Bend Key, one of the Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades.  According to Florida’s Past by James M. Burnett, “It was not long before [Watkins] had his fertile little island lush with cane crops, produce, and the valuable buttonwood, cords of which he shipped to Key West.  His cane syrup was a popular product and he shipped tons of it in his 70-foot schooner to Fort Myers and to dealers such as Bryan and Snow in Tampa.”

Despite his financial success, Bloody Ed couldn’t keep from killing people.  In Arcadia, he knifed Quinn Bass to death, but since no one could positively identify him, he escaped a charge of murder.  While visiting relatives in Lake City, he had a dispute with Sam Toland, and ended up shooting him.  Bloody Ed was somehow acquitted of Toland’s murder, but was given an ultimatum by the local sheriff: head back to the Ten Thousand Islands and never come back to Lake City.

Watson did just that.

But he could never control his temper.  While attending an auction in Key West, Watson got into an argument with local resident Adolphus Santini.  The hot-headed Bloody Ed attacked Santini, slitting his throat.  He likely would have killed his hapless victim, but bystanders pulled Watson off.  Santini survived, but Bloody Ed was forced to pay him $900 (a fortune at the time) to drop the charges of attempted murder.

Not long after, Watson found two men “squatting” on one of his islands.  They refused to move, and quickly ended up dead.  While there was little evidence, local residents figured Watson was the killer.  But since there were no lawmen to investigate (the nearest sheriff lived 90 miles away), Bloody Ed walked yet again.

But those crimes were just incidental to Bloody Ed’s real murderous spree that had been going on for years.  In Florida’s Past, Burnett writes: “…A young black boy fled [Chatham Bend Key] in terror, racing over river, swamp, and sawgrass, to reach a group of farmers, clamdiggers, and herdsmen near Chokoloskee.  The frightened boy bore witness to a gruesome murder by Watson…”  The boy guided the men to the grave of a woman named Hannah Smith.  At more than six feet tall and three hundred pounds, she was harder to bury than most of Watson’s victims, and he inadvertently left a leg sticking out of the ground.

This was the final straw for the citizens of the Ten Thousand Islands.  They disinterred the remains and soon headed for Ted Smallwood’s Store in Chololoskee, where Watson bought supplies.  The crowd had heard that Watson was on his way.

Once he arrived, a shotgun in his boat, the mob was waiting.  Witnesses stated that, when Watson advanced toward the men with his gun pointed at them, they opened up.  Thirty-three bullets later, Chololoskee’s bad man lay dead.  It turned out that Watson had tried to fire his weapon, but the powder in his shotgun shell had been wet and wouldn’t detonate.  (Smallwood’s wife had sold him the shells, and rumors circulated that she had intentionally tampered with them.)

But the story didn’t end there.  Within hours, a hurricane hit the islands, tearing up the landscape.  When searchers returned to Chatham Bend Key, Burnett writes that they unearthed “about 50 skeletons” on properties owned by Watson.

Investigators soon learned that he would travel to Tampa or Tarpon Springs and hire workers to help load his produce.  He made sure these men had few, if any, relatives who would come looking for them.  When these down-and-outers became insistent that he pay them, he would dispatch them and bury their bodies on one of his islands.  In other cases, it is thought that he dumped many in the Gulf of Mexico.

The actual number of souls murdered by the diabolical madman will never be known.

The county sheriff finally arrived and held an inquest into Watson’s death.  No charges were ever filed against those who gunned down the killer.

Edgar Watson’s remains were interred at Rabbit Key, and the secrets of Florida’s most prolific serial killer were buried with him.   

Friday, June 19, 2015

Frederic T. Suss, Prosecutor of Japanese War Criminals

Atrocities on Chichi Jima Revisited
by Robert A. Waters

I recently published a blog entitled, Atrocities on Chichi Jima.  The story describes a nightmarish tale of torture, murder, and cannibalism.  During the waning days of World War II, American flyers Grady York and James “Jimmie” Dye were captured by the Japanese after bailing out of their disabled bomber.  On the island of Chichi Jima, thirteen Japanese officers cannibalized the flesh and livers of the downed airmen.  Other captured airmen also suffered similar barbaric treatment.

Jennifer Gilmer, whose father, Frederic T. Suss [pictured], prosecuted the Japanese officers, alerted me to the fact that this was his very first trial out of law school.  Jennifer sent me transcripts of his closing argument.  Suss’s words are so powerful that the following excerpts will be quoted verbatim.

Closing Argument for the Prosecution Delivered by Frederic T. Suss, Lieutenant USNR

“Gentlemen, we are assembled here in the name of justice.  We are here to proclaim that justice is not the prerogative of one nation or of one people but is the sacred and inviolable right of every individual, however obscure or exalted or in whatever remote corner of the world in which he may be found.  Upon this principle we have builded a nation.  Although that nation has grown to be a formidable power, her people have never lost sight of the fact that she owes her very existence to the defiance of the tyranny of power.

“We are not a nation of moralists but we have observed that government may learn from religion.  Christianity has taught us of the dignity of men and the sacredness of the individual.  This spirit is found in our laws and proclaimed in our courts.  This is what we demand for our people and this is what America extends to others.

“We do not seek revenge, for revenge is not justice.  We do not repeat the mistakes of the fallen enemy.  We do not punish the innocent…

“In accordance with these traditions the accused have been given a fair and just trial, the like of which has never been seen in their native land.  They have been allowed six defense counsels of their own choosing.  Our officers have been sent on costly journeys to seek out evidence for their defense.  Witnesses have been brought here at the expense of the government to testify in their behalf.  We have extended to them the protection of our laws and indeed we have gone beyond the limits of the law to expand for them the rights of cross-examination.

“And to whom have we extended such fair and impartial treatment?  To the people who have torn and mutilated the living bodies of our defenseless brothers in the most primitive and barbaric fashion.  What more terrible indictment can there be than to accord these inhuman savages a fair and a just trial?  There is a more terrible indictment.  It is the procession of witnesses who have come before this court.  The officers and men who have served with and under the accused.  Their voices surpass the language barrier and still ring clearly and accusingly in this courtroom.  Voices long hushed by cruel power and now crying out for justice.  How shall a man face the indictment of those with whom he has faced death together?”

Later in the argument, Suss addresses the cannibalization of the American airmen.

“Defense counsel has contended that this commission cannot decide what is an honorable burial.  That is precisely what this commission is designed to decide.  What man of genius or what great mathematical mind is needed to decide that it is a dishonor and a shameless travesty on a dead body to remove 16 pounds of its flesh for cannibalism.

“What honest surgeon can ever again without remorse of conscience apply his scalpel to a human body, living or dead when he is haunted by the spectacle of having publicly removed the liver of a dead man to turn it over to cannibals?  Does defense counsel seriously contend that this is honorable burial?  We think not.  Which of us would consider his son honorably buried if his body was savagely bayonetted before interment?  The question of honorable burial, gentlemen, is no great philosophical problem…

“These atrocities were not committed in the heat of battle by irresponsible subordinates but they were deliberately planned by these officers here charged.”

After his opening arguments, Suss delivers a damning indictment of each defendant.  In the end, thirteen Japanese officers were convicted and hung for their crimes against humanity.

The obituary of Frederic Suss is available here:

Monday, June 15, 2015

New York Killers Escape

Should NY reconsider the death penalty?
by Robert A. Waters

In 2004, the New York Court of Appeals effectively abolished the state’s death penalty.  Capital punishment had long been a mere formality since the last execution in the Empire State occurred in 1963.  Now we learn that two brutal killers have escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora and are on the run.

Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, allegedly sawed through the back of their cells and climbed through a labyrinth of tunnels to freedom.  They left a calling card, a smiley face with a note that read: “Have a nice day.”

The lockup, known as “Little Siberia” due to its remote location near the Canadian border, is a maximum security prison.  So Matt and Sweat should have been no threat to anyone except other inmates.  Their escape, perhaps aided by a Trojan Horse inside the prison, surprised many.

Back in 2002, Sweat’s crime stunned New Yorkers.

At about 3:35 a.m., on July 4, Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia spotted a suspicious automobile near Grange Hall Park in the Town of Kirkwood, New York.  Three career criminals, including Sweat, had just burglarized a nearby gun store, walking out with dozens of weapons.  As Tarsia got out of his cruiser, Sweat ambushed him.  Deputy Tarsia, hit by a barrage of gunfire, fell to the ground.  One of Sweat’s accomplices, Jeffrey A. Nabinger, Jr., then pumped two rounds into his head.  Finally, the killers jumped into their car and drove over Tarsia.  In all, the deputy was struck with fifteen rounds and run over.

Investigators quickly zeroed in on known trouble-maker Sweat.  Several years earlier, he’d been sentenced to two-to-four years in prison for burglary—he served only 19 months before being released.  He rarely worked, living by theft and dealing drugs.  He had a few girlfriends, and a child, but no stable home-life.

Investigators arrested Sweat, Nabinger, and the third accomplice.  All three quickly confessed and were sentenced to life in prison.

Richard Matt has spent most of his adult life in prison, including ten years in a Mexican jail for murder.  NBC News described the heinous crime that got him locked up in Little Siberia: “The victim was a food broker named William Rickerson who had hired and then fired Matt.  On Dec. 4, 1997, according to the trial testimony of an accomplice, Matt beat Rickerson with a knife sharpener, bound him with duct tape, tossed him in the trunk of a car, and then drove around for 27 hours looking for a place to kill and bury him.  At one stop on the drive, Matt opened the trunk, broke four of Rickerson’s fingers, hit him in the chest with a steering wheel locking device, then shut the trunk and kept driving.  The accomplice testified that Matt had him turn down a cul-de-sac, stop the car and open the trunk again.  He said Matt told him: ‘You know, I’ve had enough of this.’  He said Matt reached in and twisted Rickerson’s head. ‘I heard a pop,’ the accomplice testified, and the businessman ‘just dropped back in the trunk.’  Matt cut off the arms and legs with a hacksaw, authorities said.  A fisherman discovered the torso in the Niagara River.”

Eight days after Matt and Sweat escaped, New York State Police arrested Joyce Mitchell, an industrial training supervisor.  Accused of being an accomplice and providing tools to the inmates, Judge Mark Rogers set her bail at $110,000.

As of this writing, lawmen across America and Canada are desperately searching for the escapees.  Broome County Sheriff David Harder said, “I think the fear here is who are they going to kill next.”

Phillip Tarsia, Kevin’s father, told reporters: “They said they couldn’t give them the death penalty.  That’s what they told us so they gave [Sweat and Matt] life without parole.  We had to go along with it.  They’re the ones who made the decision.  We followed them but we weren’t happy with it.”

Monday, June 8, 2015

Death by Dope

Celebs who OD’ed…
by Robert A. Waters

After learning that Victoria Seigel, the daughter of jet-setters David and Jackie Seigel, died of a suspected drug overdose, I decided to check out other celebrities whose lives were cut short by dope.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, so I listed a few that interested me.

Len Bias had fame and fortune in his headlights.  The 22-year-old University of Maryland star forward had just been selected as the second pick in the 1986 National Basketball Association draft.  Two days later, he met with the Boston Celtics and later discussed a 1.6 million dollar deal with Reebok.  But after partying all night with friends, Bias suddenly had a seizure and collapsed.  He died before EMTs could get him to the hospital.  The medical examiner reported that his death was due to heart arrhythmia caused by cocaine use.  It was reported that this may have been the first time Bias used cocaine.

At the age of 33, John Belushi overdosed on a “speedball,” (a mixture of cocaine and heroin).  Belushi is best-known for his skits on Saturday Night Live and as one of the Blues Brothers.  In fact, SNL terminated him several times because of his constant drug use.  On March 5, 1982, Catherine Evelyn Smith gave him the shot that ended his life.  She was convicted of manslaughter and served fifteen months in prison.  Although his remains have since been moved to an anonymous grave, a stone at the site of his first burial reads: “I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on.”  Listen to the Blues Brothers version of the iconic song, “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Ken Caminiti also OD’ed on a speedball.  A third baseman, Caminiti had his most productive years with the San Diego Padres, winning the 1996 Most Valuable Player Award.  He later admitted that he took steroids during his best years.  Throughout his life, Caminiti struggled with substance abuse.  On October 10, 2004, he collapsed and died in a friend’s New York apartment.  The cause of death was listed as “acute intoxication due to the combined effects of cocaine and opiates.”  Contributing factors were coronary artery disease and hypertrophy, an enlarged heart.  At age 41, Caminiti was dead, his body worn out by constant drug use.

Whitney Houston sold nearly 200 million records in her lifetime.  She also starred in several successful films and became one of the wealthiest women on the planet.  But on February 11, 2012, at age 48, Houston was found dead in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.  By that time, her life had spiraled out of control.  With husband Bobby Brown, who allegedly abused her, domestic bliss was not to be had.  By 2012, drug abuse had tarnished Houston’s public image, causing many no-shows and sub-par performances.  After her death, the medical examiner pronounced that Houston had died of drowning brought about by the “effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use.”  In addition to cocaine, many other drugs were found in her system.  The last song Houston sang in public was, “Jesus Loves Me.”

Janis Joplin.  So, where do you start with Joplin?  We know where it ended—in a Los Angeles hotel room when, after shooting up with heroin, she puked her guts out and then keeled over dead.  Turns out her dealer had mixed the dope wrong, making it too strong.  Joplin and several of his other lesser-known customers died that night.  But that can happen when you turn to dope.  Pearl, as she was sometimes called, epitomized the hippie culture of rebellion, which usually meant drug use.  On October 4, 1970, at the Landmark Hotel, Joplin died as she lived—hard and loose and fast—becoming a death-long member of the infamous 27 Club.

After his death from “acute multiple drug intoxication,” the medical examiner reported that actor River Phoenix, 23, had cocaine, morphine, and several other drugs in his system.  He rarely used illegal drugs, his family said, and released the following statement: “His friends, co-workers and the rest of our family know that River was not a regular drug user.  He lived at home in Florida with us and was almost never a part of the ‘club scene’ in Los Angeles.  He had just arrived in L.A. from the pristine beauty and quietness of Utah where he was filming for six weeks.  We feel that the excitement and energy of the Halloween nightclub and party scene were way beyond his usual experience and control.  How many other beautiful young souls, who remain anonymous to us, have died by using drugs recreationally? [My italics.]  It is my prayer that River’s leaving in this way will focus the attention of the world on how painfully the spirits of his generation are being worn down.”  His ashes were scattered near his home in Micanopy, Florida.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Wife who Murdered Herself

Dynamite-shotgun slayer pays a gruesome price…
by Robert A. Waters

On the evening of February 9, 1937, in Iowa City, Iowa, a thunderous explosion rocked the home of Walter and Mabel Rhodes.  Walter, crouching behind a basement partition, escaped unharmed.  Mabel wasn’t so lucky—her head was blown almost completely off.  Walter had succeeded with his plan to get rid of his wife, but would go to the gallows because of it.

Walter H. “Dusty” Rhodes had a problem as old as the institution of marriage: an attractive girlfriend and a wife he loathed.  He decided to eliminate the unwanted spouse, and came up with a unique plan.

A part-time quarry worker, Rhodes had repeatedly lied to his mistress, also named Mabel—Mabel Skriver.  He told her that divorce proceedings were under way, and that as soon as he was legally free, he would marry her.  Skriver fell for his lies, and for six months the couple met in secluded spots where their passion could be temporarily sated.  But soon enough, the second Mabel began to press her paramour for a wedding date.  Since he had never even filed for divorce, Rhodes was in a pickle.  It was then that he concocted his diabolical plan to have his wife kill herself.

In his job, Rhodes worked with explosives.  So one night he replaced the gunpowder in a shotgun shell with dynamite and chambered the shell into his antique gun.  The clever Rhodes knew the gun would detonate like a pipe bomb when the trigger was pulled.

The next day, he took Mabel out shooting.  But his plan fell apart when she insisted that he shoot first.  Rhodes and Mabel got into a heated argument, and went home without either of them firing a shot.

Soon, the second Mabel issued an ultimatum to Rhodes.  Get a divorce or we’re done.

On the evening of February 9, Rhodes asked his wife to come into the basement.  He stated that the firing pin of the shotgun didn’t work, and asked Mabel to try it.  She aimed it at the ceiling and pulled the trigger, causing a massive explosion.

When the sheriff arrived, he immediately became suspicious.  The blast was like nothing he’d ever seen.  Most of Mabel’s head was gone, her right hand was missing, and her left hand and left shoulder were badly mangled.  The sheriff’s misgivings arose further when he found no pellets in the wall (Rhodes had removed them from the shotgun shell to pack in more dynamite).  But even more worrisome was the shotgun breach which had passed clean through the basement ceiling, the first story floor, and had become embedded in the first-floor ceiling.

The sheriff sent the shotgun and its components to several firearms experts.  All agreed that dynamite had caused the death of Mrs. Rhodes.

Soon the sheriff interviewed the second Mabel, and learned of the sordid lies that Rhodes had fed her. Investigators also discovered that the suspect had recently taken out a double indemnity life insurance policy on his wife.

Under pressure from investigators, he quickly confessed.  Rhodes was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.

On May 7, 1940, Rhodes went cringing to the gallows at the Fort Madison penitentiary.  According to Dick Haws’ book, Iowa and the Death Penalty, “the eight-foot drop ruptured an artery in Dusty’s neck.  A river of blood saturated his white pants and shirt and dripped onto the sawdust beneath.  Three of the hundred-plus witnesses collapsed.  Rhodes was pronounced dead after 12 minutes.”

Before dying, Rhodes handed reporters a 500 word treatise that, among other things, blasted the death penalty as immoral.  Not one word of his statement mentioned the immorality of blowing his innocent wife to bits.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Caitlyn Williams Missing

NOTE: Caitlyn Williams was found alive in Bossier City, Louisiana.  Her alleged abductor was killed in a struggle with FBI agents.  The AMBER ALERT was said to have contributed to locating the pair.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

BENBROOK TEXAS— Police in Benbrook issued an Amber Alert Monday afternoon for a nine-year-old girl who was last seen on Friday.

The parents of Caitlyn Williams told investigators that she left home on her bicycle around 3:30 Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with a friend just a few blocks away. She had been expected to return on Sunday.

Police were summoned on Monday after the Benbrook Elementary School student did not come home. The FBI has joined the investigation of her disappearance.

“The investigators are talking with the parents, they’re talking with relatives, they’re talking with friends, they’ve been out canvassing neighbors, fliers have been printed up,” said police spokesman Officer Sandy Eubanks. “We hope that maybe there’s some information out there that someone has that they don’t know that’s important that the investigators may turn up.”

Caitlyn was last seen wearing a yellow T-shirt with a “Benbrook Field Day” logo, blue jeans, and pink-and-black tennis shoes.  She was riding a pink, purple and white bicycle in the neighborhood near her home in the 1100 block of Wade Hampton Street, about a mile north of Benbrook Lake.

Caitlyn is described as white, and four feet, four inches tall.  She weighs 95 pounds and has brown, wavy hair to the middle of her back.

If you have any information about Caitlyn Williams, contact Benbrook police at 817-249-1610 or call 911.

(This article was published by WFAA.COM)