Every winter, a group of hippies, left over from the sixties and their minds long ago burnt out on drugs, descend on the place like a plague. Thousands of them camp out and smoke dope and pilfer from the locals. They seem to think taking a bath is a mortal sin. They call themselves the Rainbow Group. As soon as they arrive, local shop-owners nail down everything in their stores.
The Forest even has its own bombing range. Every year thousands of fighter jets from the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville swoop in and drop tons of explosives on the long-suffering landscape. Sometimes the bombs set off forest fires. Other times they merely shake the residents of nearby towns.
The Forest, as it is called by locals, covers more than 600 square miles. Hundreds of lakes and ponds dot the area. Rivers, creeks, and swamps add to the mix. Huge cypress trees and wild palmetto grow thick in the marsh. In other areas, sandy scrub-lands create trees and plants that look like thin ghostly apparitions. In this wilderness, bear and whitetail deer and wild boar roam about. Bobcats, coyote, foxes, and other predators are prevalent, along with the ever-present alligators. Rattlesnakes, water moccasins, including the deadly cottonmouth, and dozens of species of non-poisonous snakes, live in the Forest.
Like much of Florida, paradise has been spoiled by an influx of too many people. And where there are people, there's violence. I’ve listed a few of the Forest’s killings, disappearances, and unidentified bodies.
October 2, 1966. Two beautiful girls vanished from a crowded recreation area, never to be seen again. 20-year-old Pamela Nater and 21-year-old Nancy Leichner were snorkeling with their boyfriends in Alexander Springs when they decided to go for a walk. They never returned and no trace was ever found to indicate what happened to them. In 2007, authorities located a long-lost letter that convicted serial killer Gerard Schaefer had written in which he confessed to abducting and murdering the two girls. The crime certainly fit his M.O. Schaefer enjoyed doing “doubles.” He liked to abduct two girls, take them into a swamp, and tie them to trees. Then he would force his victims to decide which one would die first. The psychological torture thrilled him. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1973. Schaefer was murdered by another inmate in 1995. Due to Schaefer's alleged confession, authorities recently closed the case.
July 22, 1976. Twelve-year-old Dorothy “Dee” Scofield was abducted from a parking lot in Ocala. She was last seen in a car with two men heading into the Ocala National Forest. Although the Forest was searched extensively, her body was never found. Many law enforcement officials think she was murdered and her body dumped in the Forest. [For more information about this case, read my blog entitled, “All American Girl.”]
April 18, 1984. The unidentified body of a woman was found in the Lake Dorr Recreation Area in the Forest. She was in her early twenties, weighed about a hundred pounds, and wore a black T-shirt with the prescient moniker “Here Comes Trouble” written across the front. The medical examiner estimated that she'd been dead for two-to-four weeks and had been murdered. In 2002, a traffic ticket was found dated April 17, 1984 written for confessed serial killer Michael Running. The convicted murderer lived in nearby Umatilla at the time and had a habit of dumping his victims in wooded areas near his home. Running, who is serving a life sentence in Arkansas for another murder, has never spoken to officials about the case and the girl has never been identified.
July 30, 1990. Troy Burress was a truck driver for Gilchrist Sausage Company in Ocala. When he disappeared, a search was launched. Five days later, his body was found by hikers in the Forest. He had been killed by two shots from a .22-caliber handgun. Serial killer Aileen Wuornos later confessed to the murder. She stated that he picked her up and proposed that they have sex and she became enraged and shot him. A more likely scenario is that Burress felt sorry for a lone, pathetic-looking woman hitch-hiking the dangerous Highway 40 that runs through the Forest and decided to give her a lift into town. As she did numerous times, the notorious man-hater simply decided to kill Burress for the few dollars he carried.
February 20, 1994. College students John and Pam Edwards decided to camp out in the Ocala National Forest for a couple of days. The clean-cut brother and sister were accosted by two career criminals who were squatting on Hopkins Prairie. Loran K. Cole and William Christopher Paul used a baseball bat-sized stick to beat John unconscious. Then Cole slashed John’s throat and he bled to death. He raped Pam twice and tied her to a tree in a remote location. Fortunately, she escaped and testified against him in court. Cole now sits on Florida’s death row while Paul was sentenced to life in prison. A chronic whiner, Cole continues to publish illiterate anti-death penalty “essays” on the Internet.
March 5, 2000. A few months after Alicia Eakins was reported missing from St. Augustine, her boyfriend, Ralph John Faba, Jr., was discovered near the strangled body of 16-year-old Angela Durling. Faba pled guilty to murdering the girl and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Fast-forward to March, 2008. The body of Eakins was discovered in the Putnam County section of the Ocala National Forest. Faba admitted murdering her and to hanging his own father, which was staged to look like a suicide. His current release date is listed as 2063.
Febuary 9, 2005. Lake County Deputy Wayne Koester and other officers responded to a domestic disturbance in the Ocala National Forest. Little did they know that Jason Wheeler was waiting behind a group of trees to ambush them. As the deputies walked toward the house where the call had originated, Wheeler opened fire. Deputy Koester was killed and another deputy wounded. Wheeler escaped but was tracked down by deputies and was shot in a gun-battle. Wheeler was paralyzed from the chest down. He was later convicted of murder and sentenced to death. (As far as I know, he's the only paraplegic on Florida's Death Row.)
January 4, 2006. Two college students, Amber Marie Peck and John Parker, were camping in the Forest when a man walked up and gunned them down. Leo Boatman had been in trouble most of his life and had been arrested numerous times. A few days after Christmas, he dreamed up the idea of randomly murdering someone in, of all places, the Ocala National Forest. He hitched a ride to the Forest and walked up on the unsuspecting students. Without warning, he shot them. Boatman was sentenced to life in prison.
August 27, 2006. Two-year-old Trenton Duckett was last seen in Lady Lake, Florida with his mother, Melinda Duckett. Later that day, Melinda reported that her son had been kidnapped. Because of inconsistent statements, Melinda became a suspect. According to the website on America’s Most Wanted, “Police spent several days using dogs, ATVs, and helicopters to search through the saw palmettos and slash pines of the Ocala National Forest. Dive teams searched muddy lake bottoms...” They were acting on a tip from Melinda’s lawyer in which she implied that she killed her son and discarded his body in the Forest. Trenton may well be buried in a lonely grave somewhere in that remote wilderness, but he was never found. Melinda later committed suicide.
April 21, 2007. 41-year-old Christine Wiles was last seen leaving a Belleview tavern. Later, her 1995 Chrysler New Yorker was found near Wildcat Lake in the Forest. A pool of blood in the car was matched to Wiles’ DNA. Police believe she was murdered and disposed of either in the lake or near it. Her body has not been found.