Monday, June 14, 2021

The Sentencing of Elizabeth Rodriguez

“Hitting a lick”

By Robert A. Waters

Elizabeth Rodriguez told reporter Tina Whitworth, “I feel guilty, but not responsible” for the deaths of Maxwell Cook, 18, Jacob Redfearn, 18, and Jaykob Woodruff, 15.

The March 27, 2017 home invasion near Broken Arrow, Oklahoma had gone incredibly bad. Rodriguez, single mother of three children, had planned the heist and coerced the trio to go along with her plan. (Earlier that morning, they had broken into the home’s detached garage and stolen electronic equipment and liquor.) Now, in the mid-afternoon, they were back to ransack the main dwelling.

Later, a Wagoner County probable cause affidavit stated that “Rodriguez planned the burglary and took the three suspects to the residence on two separate occasions on today’s date wanting to steal items. [She] instructed the three suspects to burglarize the residence while she waited in the driveway in her vehicle...”

After kicking in a back door to the large brick home, the masked intruders entered the kitchen. 

Zachary Peters, 23, lay sleeping when he heard “loud bangs” and glass breaking. Frightened, he grabbed his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and stepped into the hallway. He saw three men standing in the kitchen. Each wore masks, gloves, and dark clothing. After a brief verbal exchange, Peters opened fire. He then retreated to his bedroom and called 9-1-1.

Outside, Rodriguez heard the gunshots. Seconds later, Jaykob Woodruff stumbled out to the getaway car. He informed Rodriguez he’d been shot, then fell to the pavement. Rodriguez sped off.

Peters told the dispatcher that “one [invader is] in the kitchen, one crawled into the northeast corner bedroom, and the third one I did not shoot. He ran outside.” Peters was mistaken, all three died at the scene.

He later testified that he was afraid for his life. When asked if the suspects had harmed him, he said, “I didn’t give them time to.”

This was not the first break-in the group had committed. Rodriguez admitted that they had done other “licks” in the area. Often, they drove around casing homes in expensive neighborhoods, then fenced the items they stole. She informed investigators that the three teens had not wanted to go back to the Peters residence that day, but she talked them into it.

Even though the Wagoner County District Attorney stated he felt bad for the parents of the deceased intruders, Peters was not charged with any crime. In fact, it was an open and shut case of self-defense.

Rodriguez pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder and received three consecutive 45 year sentences. 

In an unusual twist to this story, none of the teens had police records. In each case, they had strayed from the teachings of loving parents. Max Cook, for instance lived with both parents in a traditional family setting. He played guitar, went to church, and graduated from high school. Yet, even though Rodriguez was five years his senior and had three young children, Max became enamored with the California native. He moved in with her and they began stealing for living.

The deaths of the three teens rocked Oklahoma. Many residents wondered how normal teenagers who grew up in loving homes could make such bad choices. Others asked why the victim (Peters) needed to use a semi-automatic weapon to defend himself. Some questioned the Castle Doctrine law prevalent in Oklahoma and many other states. A handful disapproved of the Felony Murder law that allowed Rodriguez to be charged with murder even though she didn't kill anyone.

One thing is clear. Oklahoma is better off with Elizabeth Rodriguez in prison for the rest of her existence. Her negative influence on three teenagers cost them their lives. For that, she should not be forgiven. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Man Hanged Hero Dog

The Cruelest Act

By Robert A. Waters

 On December 1, 1937, Daniel Bartlett, 15, and his brother, Bernard, 13, were playing around the old Glen Haven Line Bridge in Irondequoit, New York, when they came upon a gruesome sight. Dangling by a rope from bridge rafters was Laddie, described as a “mongrel collie-shepherd.” Claw marks on the concrete showed that the dog had not gone to his death gently.

Laddie had achieved a degree of renown in the small community for saving the lives of three children over a five-year period.

Superintendent William J. Boyink of the Humane Society told reporters that “for inhumaneness, this is one of the worst cases that [has] ever come to my attention.” He stated the Society would push local police to press animal cruelty charges against the perpetrator, if caught.

Roy McLean, 13, was one of those saved by Laddie. “It was four years ago,” reported the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, “that [Roy] was caught in the swift current of the Irondequoit Bay outlet and realized he couldn’t make the shore. As he cried for help, Laddie plunged into the water, swam to the side of the youngster, and then made for shore with Roy clinging to his collar.”

Police, sheriff’s deputies, and members of the humane society began trailing the killer. They got a clue when they discovered the pet’s owner, Mr. Robert McLean, had found Laddie’s collar tied to the doorknob of their home. McLean, who owned a business in town, had recently fired fifty-year-old Ferdinand Gagnon for incompetence and told police this might be the man’s way of “getting back.”

Police located Gagnon, who quickly admitted to the cruel act. He stated that after being terminated, “the dog followed me out and, since I never did like it and knew the family did, I cut a piece of clothesline down and hanged it.”

The newspaper recounted another time the dog saved the lives of two children at once. The boys were out in a boat when one, Jackie Reeves, tumbled into the water. The second child dove in to save his friend but Reeves panicked and begin pushing his friend under. Laddie jumped in and swam toward the boys. They each grabbed his collar and he towed them to safety.

After being informed of Laddie’s brutal death, Roy McLean began sobbing. “Laddie’s dead now,” he told reporters. “But I would like to know who did it. Laddie never hurt anyone. Only Friday he was playing with us boys on the lawn while we were waiting for Santa Claus to appear.”

Ferdinand Gagnon pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Many residents thought that was not enough.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Hanged as a spy, then comes back to life...

How it feels to die...

On June 22, 1906, Rev. J. T. Mann gave an interview to a reporter from the Pensacola Journal describing the sensations he felt as he was being hanged 42 years earlier. This interview was made into a booklet that Mann sold as he traveled about telling his story. A copy of the booklet found its way to the Florida Memory Project. I felt his story was interesting enough to excerpt some quotes from it for my blog.

“You ask me to tell you how it feels to be hanged,” said Rev. J. T. Mann. “Well, I suppose if there’s anyone qualified to do so, it is myself, as I spent four minutes of my career at the end of a hangman’s rope near [Pensacola, Florida] during the civil war. It occurred at Fort Barrancas where I was captured as a Confederate spy, and but for the fact that a sergeant ordered me cut down as he thought the wrong man was being executed, I would not now be here telling you of the sensations a man feels dangling at the end of a rope.”

Soon after the Civil War broke out, Mann enlisted in Company C, Bogart Guards, of the Third Louisiana Battalion (CSA). He quickly learned the realities of war. In the Seven Days’ Battle he received a “slight” wound in the hand, then at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, Mann was shot in the neck. In the Second Battle of Manassas, he was wounded in the right hip and left thigh. After being released from the hospital, Mann became a spy for the Confederacy. Near Fort Barrancas, Florida, he joined a group of union army Vermont Volunteers, posing as a Confederate deserter. He became close friends with a Vermont sergeant and was able to obtain and relay information to General D. H. Maury (CSA) about Federal gunboats in Mobile Bay.

Learning that a ship carrying a Union payroll would be arriving near Fort Pickens, General Maury and Col. Page Baker (CSA) decided to try to capture it. The plan quickly went awry and Mann was captured by the Vermont troops.

“I tried to escape back to the Confederate lines,” Mann said, “but I was captured and taken back to the fort.  There was where I had the experience of being hanged. A crowd of infuriated [Union] soldiers surrounded me, and realizing they had captured a Confederate spy, proceeded to hang me without further ado. A rope was slipped around my neck and the other end suspended over a projecting joist of a building one and a half stories high over which they pulled me up by hand until I was about a finger’s length above the earth.

“…When life was nearly extinct the Vermont sergeant interfered, and ordered my body let down, insisting I was the wrong man. Restoratives were applied and by vigorous friction I was resuscitated.”

Mann recounted to a reporter of the Pensacola Journal about how it felt to be hanged. “The first sensation,” he said, “was as near like that of a steam boiler ready to explode as anything I can call to mind. Every vein and blood vessel leading to and from the heart seemed to be charged with an oppressive fullness that must find an avenue to escape or explode. The nervous system throughout its length was tingling with a painful, pricking sensation, the like of which I had never felt before or since.

“Then followed the sense of an explosion, as if a volcano had erupted. This seemed to give me relief, and the sensation of pain gave way to a pleasurable feeling—a feeling to be desired by everyone could it be arrived at without hanging. With this sensation, a light broke in upon my sight, a light of milky whiteness, yet strange to say, so transparent that it was easier to pierce with the eye than the light of day. Then there came into my mouth a taste of sweetness the like of which I have never known. Then I felt as if I was moving on, and leaving something behind, but there was a consciousness which seemed to say goodbye to my body…”

Mann claimed to have had a religious experience in which he heard voices singing hymns.

Being brought back to life, Mann stated, was just as excruciatingly painful as being hanged. He was court-martialed but the Vermont sergeant testified in his behalf and he was acquitted.

After the war, Mann settled in Fitzgerald, Georgia and became a Baptist minister. Later in his life, he traveled the country telling his story. Before visiting a certain city or town, he would enlist newspaper reporters to interview him and write stories that would draw crowds to hear him. He charged a dime for each booklet.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Savage Murder of Mill Girl

The Crime that Should Not Have Happened

By Robert A. Waters

Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lausch worked as a knitter at the Hope Hosiery Mill in Adamston, Pennsylvania. On Friday, May 25, 1918, she got off work at 5:00 P.M., boarded a trolley car, and headed toward Swartzville. Getting off in front of the Post Office, about a mile from her home, Lizzie retrieved her mail, stepped out of the building and vanished.

America had recently entered World War I. Troops poured from cities, towns and villages across the country toward Europe and horror. The Germans were desperate to stop the flow of U. S. soldiers and, on the day Lizzie vanished, newspapers reported that a U-boat had appeared in American waters for the first time.

The day before, three convicts, Samuel Garner, Albert J. Langer, and Frank Hurst, had escaped from the Lancaster County Jail. According to local newspaper reports, the jail had long been a den of corruption. The Lancaster Examiner reported that the jail’s “management is a menace to public safety, and the conduct of some of its under officers have made a travesty out of justice and turned a supposed place of reformation into a brothel.” The implication was that these prisoners blackmailed guards into turning a blind eye as they escaped.

Lizzie’s walk home took her down a mile-long trail through dense woods. When she didn’t make it that night, her parents thought she had stayed with her brother in Adamston, as she often did. They didn’t raise the alarm until the following afternoon when she failed to arrive. Townspeople immediately began searching for her and, within an hour, found the teenager’s body. Lancaster police detectives as well as the Pennsylvania State Police rushed to the scene.

The Lebanon Daily News reported that “the girl’s body was a gruesome sight, with her head almost severed from the rest of her body and the dead form lying in a pool of blood. Her clothing was badly torn, giving evidence that the girl struggled with whoever attacked her.” Her shoes and stockings were found next to her body, and she had suffered a black eye, bruises and scratches all over her torso. Investigators determined that Lizzie had been violently raped.  The attack had been prolonged and brutal. A bloody razor was recovered about ten feet from the corpse.

Lemon Lausch and his wife, Elizabeth, were stunned by the murder. As the coroner’s inquest began, Mrs. Lausch collapsed. After receiving a sedative, she was bedridden for several days. (Exactly two years to the day, the still-grieving mother would fall dead from a heart attack. She was only 59.) The coroner ruled that the girl’s death was caused by “having her throat cut.”

Soon after the convicts escaped from jail, residents began reporting break-ins. The items stolen from homes in the area were miniscule, including small amounts of pocket change, food, clothing, and, in one case, a razor. Investigators from the Pennsylvania State Police soon discovered that the razor found near Lizzie’s body had been taken from Levi Haldeman’s home the day before. He identified it as well as a pocket watch found on Sam Garner when he was captured. Haldeman’s nine-year-old granddaughter, Elsie, who had been in the home when the convict broke in, identified Garner as the intruder. She said he had struck her on the head with a club and chased her when she broke away. Her younger brother also recognized Garner as the intruder. Several of Haldeman’s neighbors identified Garner as having been in the vicinity.

The Muddy Creek Church community sat less than a mile from the Lausch home. Many nearby residents informed investigators that Garner had broken into their homes. When captured, the convict wore a pair of women’s stockings, identified by Mrs. Jacob Wolf as having been stolen from her bedroom. With evidence building against him, Garner admitted to detectives that he had raped Lizzie but stated he did not kill her. He claimed that Albert Langer cut the girl’s throat. Garner, already serving five years for rape, changed his story numerous times.

Garner’s trial was held four months later. On September 12, 1918, jurors convicted Garner of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

Before his execution in the electric chair on December 4, 1918, Garner confessed to Chaplain T. W. Young “that he and he alone killed the girl and that he now gave his life for the one he took.”

Area newspapers had a field day with the story, accusing the Lancaster County Jail and Pennsylvania Board of Prisons of corruption. According to the Lancaster Examiner, prison auditors and investigators “told of the almost incredible things occurring at the jail, of prison supplies sold to get money to buy whiskey so that convicts and guards could get drunk together…” Other accusations were that prison guards stole from prison provisions, guards were often drunk while on-duty, and that guards let prisoners out of their cells so they could spend the night with their wives. In other instances, guards were accused of shooting at the feet of prisoners they didn’t like, making them “dance.” Finally, guards were accused of hiring prostitutes for prisoners and themselves. Despite these accusations, changes were slow to come.


Immediately after escaping, Albert J. Langer fled the state. He was nowhere near Pennsylvania when Lizzie was murdered. Captured six months later, he was convicted of escape. After serving five years in Pennsylvania, Langer was transferred to a New York penitentiary for the attempted murder of a police officer in that state. There he served another 25 years.

Frank Hurst, who was serving 17 ½ years for arson when he escaped, was never caught.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Florida Men Arrested for Grave-Robbing

Skulls of Heroes

By Robert A. Waters

Underneath a full moon, two men stood over a grave. One, Juan Burgos Lopez, 39, took a swig of gin, gargled it, and spat it on the ground. Then he lit a cigar and handed it to forty-three-year-old Brian Montalvo Tolentino. Swirls of smoke billowed above the men, lingering a moment before fading into the night. After flipping the used cigars to the ground, Lopez and Tolentino chanted a ritualistic prayer.

Spirits awaited them, spirits of heroes, and the two men worked the rest of the night removing skulls from the coffins of strangers.

The crimes occurred on December 5, 2020, at the Edgewood Cemetery in Mount Dora, Florida, in Lake County. Tolentino, according to his own confession, used a crowbar to open the tombs of military veterans because they needed the “skulls of heroes” for their religious practices. Lopez and Tolentino specifically chose interred individuals who had American flags on their graves, thinking their spirits would be more powerful than others.

Edgewood is predominately an African-American cemetery. When visitors noticed the chaotic scene of dug-up graves, they called the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Cops collected cigars from the ground around each burial site and obtained DNA, leading them to Brian Montalvo Tolentino, who had a previous arrest record.

Tolentino and Lopez quickly confessed. After obtaining a search warrant, deputies entered Lopez’s home in Lake Wales and found a Palo Mayombe shrine. Buckets contained the remains of animal bones, the skull of a baby alligator, heads of goats, turtle shells, feathers, sticks, blood residue and seven human skulls. Five were real, two were made of plaster. Four of the skulls were eventually identified, but the identity of the last skull has not been detected.

The skulls belonged to:

Henry Brittain (1929 – 1983). A Korean war veteran, Brittain had been a private in the United States Army.

Elbert Carr (1896 – 1988). A World War I veteran, Carr served his country as a Sergeant in the Unites States Army.

Calvin McNair (1935 – 1992). McNair served in the United States Marine Corps and was buried in his dress blues. He had also served as a police officer in Connecticut.

Annie Faniel (1935 – 1988). Faniel was not a military veteran. She worked as a caretaker and was known as “good Samaritan.”

Laura Italiano of the New York Post reported that “Payo Mayombe is a solitary religion, practiced secretly, with no houses of worship and no way of counting worshippers. Born of the ancient spirit worship of the Congo, it was brought first to Cuba through the slave trade, then later to the United States. ‘Paleros’… as practitioners of this black-magic art are called, need body parts to worship—preferably human skulls.” Proponents believe these skulls can be used to summon and enslave that dead person’s spirit. In the Payo Mayombe religion, paleros use rituals and enchantments to capture the spirits. Once a spirit is captured, it can be transferred to practitioners of the religion.

Lopez and Tolentino have been charged with disturbing the contents of a grave and abuse of a dead body. Lopez was also charged with trafficking in dead bodies. If convicted, each man may receive as much as twenty years in prison.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Chicago Doctor Murders Girl

The dope fiend and the ten-year-old

By Robert A. Waters

On October 7, 1905, the Louisville Courier Journal reported that ten-year-old Irene Klokow “died in a bedroom of the [Dr. Oliver B.] Hart residence, in which she and the physician had been locked for several hours. It is the opinion of the authorities, based on the facts disclosed at the inquest today, that the girl was maltreated and then poisoned to conceal the crime.” It was reported that a violent struggle had taken place and the child’s hair had been “torn from her head.”

Dr. Hart, 28, a morphine-addicted physician who had been disowned by his family, lived in a Chicago suburb with his sixteen-year-old bride, Vera. (The doctor married her when she was only fourteen.) Originally from St. Louis where his father was a wealthy physician, Hart had been given every opportunity in life. He graduated from Missouri Medical College and studied abroad, including in Venice, but several suspicious incidents with underaged girls caused him to flee his hometown. His father provided Hart a large monthly allowance and had purchased the wayward doctor a beautiful home after he moved to the Windy City. Newspapers described Hart as a “dope fiend and a degenerate of the lowest possible kind.”

Dr. Hart and his wife had hired Irene Klokow’s older sister Edith, 13, to live with them as a maid and “companion” to Vera and later adopted her. On the day of the murder, Irene, a resident at the Illinois Industrial School for Girls, had come to visit her sister. Vera planned to take the girls shopping, but Irene complained of a severe headache and remained at the Hart home.

Shortly after Vera and Edith left, Dr. Hart escorted Irene into his room and locked the door. According to The Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper, Hart “admitted having given the child eight hypodermic injections of strychnia sulfate of thirty grains each and that he had given her forty-five drops of bromidiachloral, known on the ‘levee’ as ‘knockout drops.’” In addition to those medications, Chicago coroner Dr. O. W. Lewke, reported that morphine had been administered to her.

While his wife and maid were still shopping, Hart wrote a suicide note and overdosed on morphine. A few hours later, as Irene lay bloodied and passed out on his bed, Hart awoke and called for help. A doctor soon arrived, but found Irene dead. The doctor called police and Hart was arrested.

After an examination of the child’s body, coroner Lewke confirmed to reporters that she had been sexually assaulted and poisoned. Hart was formally charged with murder. In a series of interrogations, the doctor denied all allegations against him, contending that the girl had taken medication for her headache while he was out for a stroll. When he returned, he said, she was ill and he attempted to save her by giving her drops and injections. He denied assaulting her.

Because of his cravings for morphine, the jail physician gave Dr. Hart small doses of morphine every morning. The quantities were reduced as he improved.

Hart’s father, Dr. August B. Hart, arrived from St. Louis and retained Attorney Moritz Rosenthal to “save my son from the gallows.” At trial, the lawyer argued that the defendant was unable to reason with the mind of an adult. Presiding Judge Barnes bought the argument and Hart was convicted of murder and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

The judge explained why Hart did not receive the death penalty. “The question of punishment then arises,” he said. “The evidence of prominent alienists demonstrated that the accused was mentally irresponsible and morally deficient and that his mind and brain capacity was that of a child about 12 or 13 years. If the offenses against this defendant had been against a full-grown man, possessing all his facilities, he could hardly expect any mercy.”

The judge never explained how the doctor could graduate from medical school and receive his license to practice while having the mind of a child.

Irene Klokow was buried in Joliet, Illinois. As was the standard practice in newspapers of the day, little was written about her. A couple of reporters did say that she was “pretty.” We also know her father had died and her mother, unable to care for her and her sisters, shuttled them off to the Illinois Industrial School for Girls.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Hillbilly Hank Williams

From Honky-Tonk to Pop
Written by Robert A. Waters

“These pop bands will play our hillbilly songs when they cain’t eat any other way.” Hank Williams.

Hiram “Hank” Williams was an unapologetic hillbilly.  His rise from selling peanuts on the streets of Georgiana, Alabama to music immortality was as unlikely a success story as you’ll find.  At a fancy hotel restaurant in New York, he smeared ketchup on his steak, causing staff and customers alike to shake their condescending heads.  He once told an interviewer, “You ain’t country unless you’ve walked barefoot through chicken manure.”  In the early 1950s, as his records rocketed to the top of the country-western charts, Hank remained skeptical of city folk.

So it was a surprise to nearly everyone when Tony Bennett recorded Hank’s song, “Cold, Cold Heart,” and even more of a surprise when it topped the pop charts.

According to Colin Escott in Hank Williams: The Biography, Bennett, a New Yorker who sang standard pop songs as well big band and show tunes, disliked the song. Escott writes that Bennett had to be coerced into recording it.  When Mitch Miller, a conductor and record producer who was pitching “Cold, Cold Heart” to everyone he could think of, played Hank’s version of the song for Bennett, the singer responded, “Don’t make me do cowboy songs.”  One New York record producer, on listening to the song, told Miller, “That’s a hillbilly song and there’s no use kidding yourself otherwise.”

Bennett, who at the time had only one hit to his credit, finally relented and “Cold, Cold Heart” shot to number one almost immediately.

Even though everyone except Miller was surprised at the song’s success in the pop music world, Hank was delighted.  The song’s number one ranking in both the country and pop field meant he received songwriter royalties for his own recording as well as Bennett’s version.  In addition, many other pop singers suddenly jumped on the bandwagon and recorded “Cold, Cold Heart.” Hank received royalty payments from recordings by Perry Como, Louis Armstrong, The Fontane Sisters, Dinah Washington and others.

The song, an autobiographical sketch of Hank’s marriage, had a messy beginning.  Hank copped the tune of an obscure country song, and had to pay Dixie Music $7,500 for the rights after the company filed suit.

The lyrics, however, were the product of a sad home-life.

Hank and his wife Audrey fought continually.  Both had extramarital affairs that kept them constantly at odds with each other. Hank could be a mean drunk and Audrey was a nag.  Hank had spina bifida occulta which caused him excruciating, never-ending back pain.  It was especially agonizing while traveling hundreds of miles to and from shows.

Through it all, Hank wrote songs that would change the course of American music.  He would eventually be enshrined in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

He died at the age of 29 on an icy road traveling to yet another show.

Here are just a few Hank Williams songs recorded by pop stars.

Cold, Cold Heart.  Tony Bennett recorded the tune with Percy Faith's orchestra and it stayed on the charts for nearly four months, peaking at number one. 

Jambalaya (On the Bayou).  This Cajun-themed song has been recorded by literally everyone.  Another song that broke the barriers placed on country songs by the tin pan alley crowd, Jo Stafford recorded the tune and it reached number three on the pop charts.  Fats Domino recorded his version in 1961 and it was again a hit.  John Fogarty also charted with the song.

I Saw the Light.  My favorite religious song of all time.  (I asked one of the song leaders at the church I attend to lead it and he replied, “They’ll kick both of us out if I did that song.”  I never quite understood that reaction since it has the standard Christian theme of sin and redemption.)  Almost every country music icon has recorded this song. This version is sung by Roy Acuff and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Your Cheatin’ Heart.  Written shortly before his death, the song became the “anthem of country music.”  Several pop singers including Joni James and Ray Charles made the charts with this tune, as did Frankie Laine.  Pepsi Cola used it in one of their more successful commercials.  It is included in the Top One Hundred Great American Songs.

I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.  In addition to Hank's recording, hundreds of other crooners have recorded it, including Andy Williams, B. J. Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and more.  Elvis called it the saddest song he'd ever heard. This version is by B. J. Thomas. 

It’s ironic that the most country of all country singers brought hillbilly tunes to the pop music scene.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Can This 50-Year-Old Mystery Still Be Solved?

Double Murder in Oak Grove Cemetery

Written by Robert A. Waters

In 1972, Sumter County remained a bulwark against the wave of uncontrolled growth beginning to smother Florida. The mega-city called The Villages still had not invaded Sumter and surrounding counties. Instead, a few small country towns squatted among the farms, ranches, and patches of forest.

Two miles southeast of Wildwood lay the Oak Grove Cemetery. Mostly scrub oak, pines, and sand, it was known for having the remains of 31 Confederate veterans interred there among the locals. But at 8:00 A.M. on February 22, a caller to the sheriff’s office breathlessly stated that two more bodies, uninterred and painted crimson, had joined the others.

Deputies from the Sumter Sheriff’s Department arrived with sirens and blazing lights. They found a dark blue Chevrolet Bel Air next to the victims. All four tires had been slashed. A man lay face down, bloody from numerous stab wounds. A female rested on his legs, wearing only a Union 76 smock. The two were quickly identified: Shirley Elizabeth Whitten, 19, from nearby Coleman, and Roger Dale Higgins, 26, a Fort Lauderdale resident. Cops learned that Whitten was a clerk at the Union 76 Truck Stop in Wildwood, and Higgins a lumper for a south Florida trucking firm.

Having had little experience investigating such horrific crimes, Sumter County Sheriff Fred Roesel called in the Florida Criminal Investigation Department for help. Investigators followed a trail of blood from the crime scene to the cemetery’s entrance road about 100 feet away. The blood-trail then circled back to the bodies. The Tampa Tribune reported that “the keys [to the Bel Air] were not found. There was blood on the outside of the car and...some unidentified fingerprints were found on the car.” Nearby, tracks indicated that another car had left the cemetery at a high rate of speed.

Investigators concluded that the killer was local, and likely obsessed with Whitten. They reasoned that he may have even been stalking her and saw her leave the truck stop hand-in-hand with Higgins. Enraged, he followed them.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that Whitten and Higgins “met over a cup of coffee…Sometime in the night they got into Miss Whitten’s car and drove out about two miles west toward gloomy Oak Grove Cemetery, a strange trysting place.”

An autopsy revealed that Whitten had been stabbed 33 times, six times in the chest. She was still wearing her Wildwood High School class ring when found. Higgins suffered 34 stab wounds, seven to the chest. He had deep cuts on his fingers, indicating he grabbed the knife sometime during the attack.

In 1972, DNA profiling was two decades away. Fingerprint databases did not exist. There were few surveillance cameras in and around businesses. The phrase “serial killer” still had not been coined. And there seemed to be no witnesses to the crime. In small towns, the gossip machine is usually active, but here there was silence.

The investigation quickly stalled. If the theory held by most investigators was accurate, no one came forward to confirm it.

Twenty years later, the Orlando Sentinel wrote that “the murderer hacked the young couple to death, slashing at them repeatedly. Then, with his madman’s fury still unfulfilled, he slashed all four tires of Miss Whitten’s car…The motive was not clear then, and it still is not clear now. Miss Whitten had not been raped. Neither did robbery seem the cause. Police could only speculate that a Jack the Ripper was roaming the tranquil byways of Florida. No solid suspect in the killings has ever been found.” Documents indicate that the killer used a small pocket knife.

While little was known about Higgins, Whitten had a large family. Her father, Herb Whitten, became embittered when police could not solve the case. He conducted his own investigation, and offered a $1,000 reward, which was all he could afford. A former barber, Herb told reporters that Shirley was his first-born, and he acknowledged being partial to her. "I had her out frog-gigging when she was about two-years-old," he said. They hunted together and Shirley loved the outdoors. 

And there it stands. The case has not gone cold. In 1992, the FBI reviewed the case.  Their profile states “that there may have been not one, but two killers. One had a dominant personality and initiated the killings, but managed to persuade the second person to take part in order to bind him to the crime. The dominant killer probably finished school only through the tenth grade [and] may have worked as a mechanic or a service station attendant, maybe even at the nearby interchange at Interstate 75 and State Road 44.”

Even with all the blood and fingerprints, cops in 2020 seem no closer to solving the crime. For nearly fifty years, an unknown killer may have walked the streets of the normally quiet, peaceful town. Or maybe the murderer left the area and made other kills. Perhaps the crimes committed here were random acts by a stranger passing through the rural county. A rumor passed along by many residents was that the cemetery was used by drug dealers late at night and Whitten and Higgins saw something that got them killed.

Nearly fifty years later, can this case still be solved?

If you have information about this case, please contact Detective Darren Norris of the Sumter County Sheriff's Office at 352-569-1600.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Pizza Delivery Driver Assaulted, Fights Back

Ambush on Avery Place Lane

Written by Robert A. Waters

At 10:25 P. M., on March 7, 2009, dispatchers received a 9-1-1 call from pizza delivery driver Christopher Steven Miller:

Dispatcher: Lexington County 9-1-1.

Miller: Yeah, I’ve just been robbed. Shots fired.

Miller (after a brief pause): Are you there?

Dispatcher: Yeah, I’m putting it in now. What’s the address?

Miller: On Avery Place. 332 Avery Place. Four of them tried to rob me. I shot one. He’s going to need an ambulance.

Dispatcher: Is he down there now?

Miller: He’s down. He’s hurt bad, too. They came running out of the woods. Dressed up. They had bandannas on their faces. I took off running. One came running after me. He jumped on top of me. By then I had my gun out and I shot him. I didn’t know if he was armed or not. He wouldn’t stop chasing me so…




Avery Place Lane, a quiet residential street, lay a quarter mile from Irmo High School in Columbia, South Carolina. A few minutes earlier, someone had placed a call to the Pizza Hut on Irmo Drive requesting two large, thin-crust pizzas with extra cheese. The price was $24.95. Two men, Paul Andrew Sturgill, 17, and Jason Todd Beckham, 18, waited on the sidewalk outside the dark, currently-unoccupied home. Carlos Renard Dates, 20, and Justin Towan Roundtree, 18, stood in a patch of woods on the other side of the road.

Christopher Steven Miller, 43, had a wife and five-year-old daughter. He’d worked for ten years as a pizza delivery driver, four years for Pizza Hut. While the restaurant had a policy that forbade employees from being armed, many drivers ignored the rule. Being out on the dark streets at night with even a small amount of cash is dangerous—Miller had concealed a Taurus .45-caliber pistol in a fanny pack.

Deputies arrived to find Sturgill lying on the ground. Miller stood nearby, bleeding from the nose. A small crowd had gathered, watching. Witnesses informed detectives that, after the shooting, three other suspects had run back through the woods toward a condominium complex a few hundred yards away. Cops soon had the names of the three and began tracking them down.

Sturgill, still alive, was transported to Palmetto Richland Hospital for treatment where he was pronounced deceased shortly after arriving. Doctors later said he had sustained bullet wounds to the chest and abdomen.

Miller was taken to the emergency room. He had bruises on his face and a broken nose. After treatment, Miller penned a statement to police in which he described the shooting and events leading up to it. “I had a delivery to 332 Avery Place, Columbia,” he wrote. “When I pulled up to the house, two white males were standing outside the house. I stepped out of my truck and asked one if he ordered that pizza and he said yes. He asked me if I had change for a hundred. I told him no, that I only carry twenty dollars…he pulled out his wallet but did not have any money in it…”

The bizarre interaction made Miller suspicious. He’d been robbed twice before and was on-guard. When he spied two men running toward him from a nearby wooded area across the street, he knew he was in trouble. Not only that, they had masks pulled up over their faces. “I realized I was going to be robbed,” he wrote, “[so I] started running. The one closest to me (Sturgill) started chasing me. I threw the pizza bag containing the pizzas at him hoping they would take the pizzas and leave. He continued to chase me. At that time, I started to retrieve my gun from my pack around my waist because I realized all four of them were chasing me.

“The one closest to me jumped on top of me and threw a punch from behind me hitting me in my right eye and [breaking] my glasses. I pushed him off of me and he threw another punch hitting me in the side of my head. I could not see because of him hitting me in the eye so I could not see if the other three were upon me yet. At that time, I had my gun out and fired two rounds striking the male on top of me…”




Police soon rounded up Beckham, Dates, and Roundtree. At first, the three claimed to be elsewhere when the shooting occurred. However, before long, each suspect cracked and the story emerged. Roundtree, who belonged to a local gang, had befriended the other three. None of the three had much of police record. In fact, Sturgill was an honor student with caring parents who gave him a curfew. He played in the high school jazz band and had already signed up to enlist in the U. S. Army. Dates and Beckham had had minor run-ins with the law, but nothing violent.

They decided to rob a pizza delivery driver and designated Sturgill and Beckham to meet him because “they were white” and they figured he wouldn’t be suspicious. (Without the influence of Roundtree, detectives alleged that the other three would never have become involved in the deadly heist.)

Beckham, Dates, and Roundtree were each charged with robbery and criminal conspiracy. Miller was cleared as his was a case of self-defense.

Miller released a statement, part of which read: “I would like to tell the family of Paul Sturgill how sorry I am about the death of their son. I cannot begin to imagine the pain you are going through and for that I am deeply sorry.

“When I arrived at the house, I was confronted by four individuals [and] believing I was about to be robbed, I ran. All four individuals chased after me. After running about a hundred feet, Mr. Sturgill caught up to me. He jumped on top of me, punching me several times in the face and head, I pushed him away but he continued to attack me. Knowing that the other three would soon arrive to help him and believing I would be gravely injured or killed, I pulled my weapon and fired two shots in self-defense. The other three ran off. I immediately called 911 from my cell phone and told the operator what happened and to send the police and an ambulance…”

Dates served four years in prison for armed robbery. The terms served by Roundtree and Beckham, if any, are not available.

Miller, fearing he would be terminated from Pizza Hut, resigned.

Special thanks to the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department for sending me an incident report on this case.

Robert A. Waters is the author of Guns and Self-Defense with co-author Sim Waters. For 25 years, Waters has researched defensive shootings and written about hundreds of such cases. He has penned four books describing in detail many legitimate self-defense exploits. In addition, he has chronicled numerous self-defense cases on his blog, Kidnapping, Murder and Mayhem.