Monday, August 31, 2009

UNSOLVED SERIAL MURDERS -- The Arcadia Street Graveyard by Robert A. Waters

Reconstruction of Victim B. Based on the remains, experts think this white male was about 20-30 years old, was very tall, was very active and had bone fractures in the right calf.

In fiction, there’s Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter--in real-life, Bundy, Gacy, and Dahmer. There are novels, true crime books, comic books, trading cards, television series, and movies chronicling the lives of serial killers. We fear monsters we can’t see, and these deranged humans lurking in the shadows fit that bill. Over the next few months, I plan to examine some recent and past cases of serial murders that have gone unsolved.

Thirty feet into the undergrowth of a dense melaleuca forest, a surveyor stopped in his tracks. The fast-growing trees had been brought from Australia to Florida years before, and they formed a canopy over the ten acre forest. The surveyor had spotted something: the skull of a deer or wild boar, so he thought. Looking closer, he realized it was human. The area, just three miles from downtown Fort Myers, was off a remote dirt road known as Arcadia Street.

By late afternoon, on March 23, 2007, a swarm of police investigators had sealed off the whole thicket. Before darkness fell, detectives, with the aid of cadaver dogs, had uncovered eight skeletal bodies. The experienced detectives could tell that the remains had been there for years. Time and animals had stripped all the flesh from the bones.

John Douglas, former FBI profiler and author, later said: “To find eight bodies in one place--that’s really bizarre. If you’re in the killing business, that’s a great disposal area. You’ve got the remoteness, the elements, the insects, animal predation. You put a body out there and probably within a week or so, there’s not going to be much left.”

Who were the victims? How did they get there? How did they die? Who killed them? These questions would haunt investigators as they attempted to piece together the lives of eight lost souls.

Except for the skeletons, there were few clues. The killer had removed the clothes and personal effects of each victim. The elements had long since eliminated any trace of the murderer. A forensic anthropologist was called in. Heather Walsh-Haney and her team used archaeological methods to remove the bodies and preserve the bones.

Dental impressions and DNA were taken from each victim. They were all males, between 18 and 49, and had been dumped there between 1980 and 2000. The television show “America’s Most Wanted” arranged for a forensic artist, Sharon Long, to reconstruct the faces of each victim.

Police had a possible suspect. Daniel Conahan, the so-called “Hog Trail Killer,” was currently sitting on Florida’s death row. He’d been convicted of murdering a drifter named Richard Montgomery. According to court documents, Conahan picked up homeless men at Port Charlotte shelters. He would take each man to a remote, wooded area where he would rape and strangle his victim. Although he was convicted of only one murder, Conahan was suspected of at least five more. Several of the murders involved castration and mutilation.

Even though Conahan lived in Chicago from the late 1970s until 1993, many local investigators continue to view him as a suspect in the Ft. Myers murders.

Three of the bodies have been identified. John Blevins, 38, and Erik Kohler, 21, lived in the area before they disappeared. According to family members, they both lived transient lifestyles and had minor police records.

Jonathan Tihay, 24, was recently identified. His life seemed to mirror those found at the Arcadia Street graveyard. Originally from Illinois, he developed a drug addiction and had several scrapes with the law. He spent six months in jail for burglary and served a brief sentence in the Joliet Correctional Center for destroying property. After he got out, Tihay wandered the country, finally landing in Ft. Myers to be near his mother. In 1995, he disappeared.

Serial murderers often choose the most vulnerable: the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, and others living on the fringes of society. The lives of the Arcadia Street victims seem to fit that pattern.

A killer has lived among us for years. Was he bold enough to go back to the shadows beneath the melaleuca trees and relive his sick crimes? Did he keep souvenirs such as clothing or watches or shoes? Does he still follow the case in the news, secure in the knowledge that he will never be caught, that he’s smarter than the cops?

The website of “America’s Most Wanted” has the facial profiles of each of the five remaining unidentified victims. Check it out. If you have information about this case, contact the Fort Myers Police Department at 239-321-7700.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Unsolved Murder of Jennifer Lynn Stone

The Unsolved Murder of Jennifer Lynn Stone
by Robert A. Waters

In 1983, I received my Master’s Degree from the University of Georgia. Even though it’s been two-and-a-half decades since I last returned, I have fond memories of the place. At the time, Athens was a beautiful city with narrow roads, centuries-old trees, and antebellum homes. Downtown had a typical collegiate flavor. I remember that there was a bookstore beneath the sidewalk on Main Street and artsy, trendy businesses all along the road. It was close to that location in 1992 that a student named Jennifer Lynn Stone was murdered. Even though police obtained a DNA profile of the killer, he has never been caught.

Jennifer Lynn Stone was a pretty advertising student at the University of Georgia. Her drive, personality, and intelligence made her a sure success in her chosen field. In the early morning hours of April 23, 1992, Jennifer stepped outside her home on North Hull Street. A few minutes later, she returned to a nightmare.

Athens-Clarke County police investigators later surmised that a burglar entered her house during the brief time she was away. When Jennifer came back inside, she was forced to her bedroom and raped. Then the rapist strangled her to death.

The assailant left Jennifer’s home, described by an Athens Banner-Herald reporter as a “carriage house,” and walked down the street to where a crack dealer waited. “We know that Jenny was...alive at 1:00 a.m.,” former investigator J. W. Smith said, “because that’s when her boyfriend called to check on her...Her cameras were being sold or traded for dope at around 3:00 a.m.”

During interrogations, local dope dealers told cops the assailant was a stranger to them. Investigators figured he was passing through. He was described as a light-skinned African-American with a thin mustache. DNA collected from the scene confirmed that he was of mixed race. Investigators later took samples from dozens of people, but none matched.

After murdering the innocent coed, the killer calmly walked down West Hancock Avenue and ended up at a pool hall “where the dopers hung out.” According to the Banner-Herald, “the man traded one of Stone’s cameras there for a rock of crack cocaine, then crossed West Broad Street to trade the other camera for more crack at the Parkview Homes housing complex.”

The next morning, Jennifer was scheduled to meet several classmates to work on a project for their advertising class. After she failed to show up, friends stopped by to investigate. They found Jennifer lying motionless on the floor in her home.

Most investigators think the killer was a transient who quickly left Athens behind in a Greyhound Bus. The depot was close by, and it would have been easy for him to catch a ride and never be seen again.

Each month, year after year, police submit the murderer’s DNA profile into the FBI’s national database, hoping for a match. Someday they might get lucky: the killer no doubt was a crackhead who has probably been arrested numerous times--that is, if he’s still alive.

The Athens Banner-Herald once sued the department to obtain files from the case under Georgia’s open records law. They lost the suit, however, so much of the information obtained by police will remain secret until the culprit is caught. Or until investigators determine that he may have died of old age.

Anyone who has information on this case should contact the Georgia Bureau of Investigation at 1-800-597-TIPS.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Down for the count

Corbett vs. Mitchell (This inaccurate painting shows the two pugilists with bare knuckles in their championship match. Actually, they wore gloves under the recently adopted Marquess of Queensberry rules.)

Down for the count
by Robert A. Waters

The morning of January 25, 1894 broke in Jacksonville, Florida with thunderous claps of lightning and a heavy downpour. Not exactly what the members of the Duval Athletic Club had hoped for. At two-thirty that afternoon, a heavyweight title fight was scheduled. Because of the political overtones, the whole civilized world would be watching.

“Uncivilized.” The catch-phrase rang from newspaper to newspaper as editors and politicians and the intelligentsia lined up against the public in a fight to the finish. Boxing, the high-hats grumbled, is not civilized. In addition to violence, it breeds gambling and liquor. (At the time, even popular sports such as football and baseball were frowned on by many elites.)

Members of the Duval Athletic Club countered. Boxing is a sport, they contended, a “scientific glove contest.” In fact, the Marquess of Queensberry rules had been adopted a few years earlier, doing away with the brutal bare-knuckles bouts of the past. Now each fighter was required to wear five-inch boxing gloves and could no longer foul an opponent or strike him while he was down. Californian Corbett had recently defeated the venerable John L. Sullivan in a bout that lasted 26 rounds. Now he was matched against English heavyweight champ Charles Mitchell.

The Duval Athletic Club was supported by local businesses and the general public. In fact, when two militias--the Ocala Rifles and the Gates City Rifle Company of Sanford--were called in to quell an anticipated riot, they were roundly booed and pelted with eggs.

Despite the political uproar, the fight moved inexorably closer. Corbett set up training camp in nearby Mayport while Mitchell worked out in St. Augustine. Both fighters remained detached from the furor.

As soon as the match had been announced, a horrified Florida state legislature had passed a law outlawing “prizefighting, pugilistic exhibitions and kindred offenses.” The day before the match, however, the statute was struck down as unconstitutional. But that didn’t keep newspapers such as the New York Times from touting the law as a model for other states to follow.

Despite the driving rain, large crowds began to arrive at the gate. The Athletic Club charged $25.00 a head, and ended up with nearly two thousand paying customers.

At two-thirty that afternoon, the fighters stepped into the ring. While receiving instructions from the referee, the British fighter began to curse and scream at the champ. This caused great excitement--frenzied spectators cheered and hissed as tension throbbed in the throng.

Corbett was not intimidated by the tactics of his opponent. Near the end of the second round, the champ landed a series of punches that sent Mitchell reeling. The stunned fighter dropped to the canvas just before the bell sounded.

Early in the third round, Corbett continued his assault. He again knocked his opponent down, but Mitchell rose at the count of nine. Finally, a vicious right hand sent the Englishman down for the last time. When he was unable to get up, the victorious Corbett raised his gloves in victory.

State and county officials were enraged by the success of the match. Instead of accepting their loss graciously, the powers-that-be prevailed on Duval County Sheriff Napoleon Broward to arrest the two combatants. Both were charged with assault. The fighters quickly posted bail and left Jacksonville. But not before Gentleman Jim Corbett collected his $20,000 winner-takes-all purse plus an extra ten grand in bets he’d placed on himself.

In February, Corbett was hauled back to Jacksonville to stand trial for his part in the match. Once again, fight fans lined the streets leading to the courthouse. Within hours, the pugilist was once again victorious. He was acquitted.

Mitchell was never tried. After Corbett’s second victory in Jacksonville, all charges against the Englishman were dropped.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Missing in Marion County

Photos of Christine Blackburn Wiles and her daughter, Tobi Callaway

As readers of my blog know, I’m a native of Marion County, Florida. A local mystery has gone unsolved for more than two years. In the spring of 2007, Christine Blackburn Wiles left a bar near Belleview and went missing. The mother of a son and daughter, Christine has never been found.

On February 29, 2008, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office released the following statement: “A search is scheduled to take place in the Ocala National Forest on Saturday, March 1 for Christine Wiles, W/F, 11-02-67. Wiles was last seen April 21, 2007 and was reported missing by her father in early May, 2007. An ongoing investigation supports the possibility of foul play in Wiles’ disappearance. DNA evidence found in the trunk of a 1995 Chrysler New Yorker, which may have been seen in the Ocala National Forest in the area of Wild Cat Lake, has led detectives to conduct the search scheduled Saturday. The Marion County Sheriff’s Office hopes to bring closure to the family of Christine Wiles and possibly locate additional evidence that may aid in the investigation of her disappearance.”

That search, as was the case with other searches, ended with no evidence being found.

Christine’s mother, Connie Blackburn, emailed me recently describing the events that occurred on the night Christine went missing. “On the evening of April 21, 2007,” she wrote, “Christine and her sister [Leah] went out together for a few drinks. Sometime during the evening they met up with Billy Ashton whom Christy was living with at the time. At one point during the evening, the girls left him at a bar just wanting to have girl time, but he ended up following them in a Chrysler New Yorker.”

Although Christine may not have known it, Ashton had a lengthy criminal history. In 1998, he’d been convicted of kidnapping and assaulting a former girlfriend and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Ashton had just been released from prison a few months before he met Christine.

“Fearing Ashton was going to run her off the road,” Christine’s mother wrote, “Christy’s sister pulled over. She begged Christy not to go with Ashton but to spend the night with her at a friend’s home. At the time, Christy had stitches in her eye where Ashton had elbowed her. Unfortunately, Christy did get in Ashton’s car and was never seen again. The car was later recovered at the home of his mother where he and Christy had been living.”

Leah believed that Ashton would have run them off the road had they not stopped. She stated that she thought he was angry because the sisters left the bar without telling him.

Marion County Homicide Detective Rhonda Stroup, who is in charge of the investigation, said, “I do believe that this is a solvable case, and we can bring this to an end.”

Anyone with information about this case should call Detective Stroup at 352-368-6845. Crime Stoppers is offering a $ 1,000 reward leading to the location of Christine Blackburn Wiles.

While Billy Ashton is a suspect in the disappearance of Christine, he has not been charged. He is currently in jail on other charges.

NOTE: On March 1, 2013, the Ocala Star Banner reported that all charges against Billy Ashton have been dropped: "The State Attorney’s Office has dropped its murder charge against Billy Joe Ashton, the man accused of killing Christine Blackburn-Wiles six years ago.
"State Attorney Brad King, in a three-page explanation, wrote that much of the evidence linking Ashton to the death was entirely circumstantial.
"'That is,' King wrote, 'there is no direct proof by either witnesses nor admissible statements of the defendant that Ashton killed the victim, and the victim’s body has never been located.'"


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

20 Years and More - Tiffany Sessions

On a cool evening in February, 1989, Tiffany Sessions stepped outside her Gainesville apartment and vanished. It is one of central Florida’s most enduring mysteries. What happened to the pretty University of Florida student?

In the 20 years since her disappearance, the world has changed. Computers and cell phones are used by nearly everyone. In fact, without these electronic marvels, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has introduced many innovative measures in their attempts to deter crime and capture those who commit violent acts. One such method is to distribute playing cards to inmates in Florida’s prisons. The cards summarize cases like that of Tiffany Sessions. It is hoped that prisoners will remember something and come forward. Several cases have indeed been solved by these playing cards.

20 years later, where is Tiffany Sessions?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Recommendation: The Susan Gonzalez Story on the Biography Network

I SURVIVED—The Susan Gonzalez Story on Biography Network
Sunday, August 09 @ 9 pm ET
Rated: TVPG
Running Time: 60 Minutes

Summary: "After finishing a surveying job in a remote forest area, Brent finds himself face to face with a massive seven-foot-tall grizzly bear that begins to attack him. In a desperate attempt to save her and her husband's life, Susan grabs the .22 caliber pistol in her bedroom and engages in a gun battle with three masked men who invade their house late one night. And Denise must fight for her life when she is brutally assaulted by a man who gains entrance to her apartment by claiming to be a maintenance man."

In 1998, I published my first book, The Best Defense: True Stories of Intended Victims Who Defended Themselves with a Firearm.

My second book was a companion piece entitled Guns Save Lives: True Stories of Americans Defending Themselves with Firearms. For that book, I drove to Jacksonville, Florida to interview Susan Gonzalez. We sat on her sofa sipping sodas while my tape recorder ran and Susan told the horrific story of how she and her husband were nearly murdered by home invaders. Susan informed me that before the incident, she hated guns and didn’t even want her husband to keep one in the house. After using his Ruger .22-caliber handgun to save both their lives, now Susan never goes anywhere without her weapon.

On Sunday night, the television show “I Survived” will carry Susan’s story. I highly recommend it.

By the way, my third book, Outgunned, was published in 2004 and my fourth book, Sun Struck, will hit the book shelves in November.

It is because of stories like Susan’s that I’m a firm believer in the right to own and carry firearms. Regardless of all the arguments pro and con, the bottom line is that if I’m ever attacked, I demand the best defense available, which happens to be a gun.