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.