INVESTIGATIVE TRUE CRIME SAMPLER
And the two-book Box Set series
FLOWERS FOR MRS. LUSKIN begins with a flower delivery to the best house in the best part of Hollywood, Florida. Inside, Marie Luskin was cautious; her husband Paul used to send her flowers but those days had ended more than a year before when she filed for divorce. She thought it was safe to open the door just enough to accept the pot of azaleas.
She was wrong. The delivery was a ruse; the man pointed a gun at her and demanded her money and jewelry. When he left, she fell to the floor, bloodied, thinking he’d hit her with the gun.
Over 40 years, Paul’s family had built a business called Luskin’s from one store in Baltimore into a chain of consumer electronics stores in Florida. Coming of age, Paul was taking it over, to run. He’d already made his first million, and he and Marie were living a life their friends admired. But between them all was not well. Then Paul’s high school girlfriend moved to town with her husband, and sparks rekindled. When Marie discovered it she threw Paul out of the house. For a moment it looked like they would reunite. She asked Paul to move back in at the end of the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest sale day of the year. But that was a ruse, too. That day at the store, her attorneys served him the divorce.
Marie’s attorneys were aggressive. Accusing Paul’s parents of shielding his assets, they asked the judge for everything he—and his parents—had. A year later, it looked like Marie would get it all.
The divorce was overwhelming and compound stress. Three times Marie had him arrested for not paying his very high support payments exactly on time; the judge had frozen his assets, and his dad had asked him to leave his high-paying job because he couldn’t concentrate both on it and the divorce. Marie’s attorneys wanted Paul’s mom to testify for days about the business’s finances, but because she had a blood clot that stress could loosen and become lethal, Paul’s family asked them to lay off her. They refused. Not long after came the flower delivery.
The Feds indicted Paul for attempted murder-for-hire. They told the jury:
A Luskin’s employee called his brother in Baltimore who was a mob guy, who got someone to come to Hollywood to kill Marie. Although she thought the gunman hit her with the gun, he really shot her—his bullet grazed her head. Paul was convicted and sentenced to prison for 35 years.
In prison, Paul married his high school girlfriend. To me, they protested so insistently that there was no murder-for-hire that it seemed something was truly wrong. I eventually found there had been a murder plot—but the real question was, who had asked the Luskin’s employee to call his brother in Baltimore?
Testimony said “Mr. Luskin” ordered the murder; the prosecutor naturally assumed that meant Paul. But there was a better case that “Mr. Luskin” was Paul’s dad. As a result of his son’s divorce he lost his whole business, owed Marie $11 million he didn’t have and was facing jail for contempt of court for not paying her, and so had to leave the country.
At the story’s turning point, “Mr. Luskin” had to choose between two untenable outcomes: the death of the elder Mrs. Luskin or the younger. But prosecutors also were forced to make a tragic choice. Without certainty of which “Mr. Luskin” it was, did they choose the wrong one?
SPEED KILLS opens with the stunning daylight murder in 1980s Miami of boatbuilder, boat racer, and wealthy bon vivant Don Aronow. He invented, raced, built and sold Cigarette boats, the fastest thing on the water. Everyone who worshipped speed and could afford one, wanted one; his clients were royalty, U.S. presidents, CEOs, intelligence services, and—most of all, eventually—dope smugglers. Don took everyone’s money and traveled between all those worlds.
You could also see it as Don playing all sides. When the Feds needed faster boats to keep up with the Cigarettes that Don sold to dopers, they came to him. It was sort of the same with his wife and girlfriend (and girlfriend and girlfriend).
How long could anybody get away with that? Confidence men are known as con men; Don wasn’t that, but he was a supreme self-confidence man, that is, he was his own victim.
Finally he was cornered. Don’s protégé in racing and boatbuilding was also the largest pot smuggler in America. The Feds needed Aronow to testify against him. For leverage, they apparently threatened Don with a tax evasion case. The quintessential free-spirit boat racer could go to prison—or he could risk the wrath of a major criminal organization.
Aronow made his decision. Days later, he was killed.
UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT begins with a night 911 call from a woman gasping her last breaths. When police arrived at the house they found her dead, stabbed, and her husband, infant, and father-in-law all shot point-blank. They would survive.
Minutes later, a man also called 911, a gunman had released him from a robbery at the same house. He said he knew of no violence before he left. Yet he was the only one who the gunman hadn’t tried to kill. Police instantly suspected him.
That night and long after, police tried to shake the man, Chuck Panoyan, who insisted he didn’t know who the gunman was.
Police guessed right. A tip led them to the gunman, and that led to a trip Panoyan took to see him. Both were arrested, and prosecutor Brian Cavanagh won a death penalty indictment against them both.
But in pretrial, Panoyan’s attorneys unraveled Cavanagh’s case against their client. No longer certain Panoyan was guilty, Cavanagh reached No Man’s Land: his choice was to let the jury sort it out, or admit he was wrong about Panoyan for now three years.
Cavanagh’s dad Tom was a retired NYPD lieutenant who’d had a double murder he couldn’t solve, then at another precinct a suspect confessed. Tom recognized it had been coerced and quietly asked his detectives if they could prove it wrong. When they did, the case became famous for police integrity. A TV movie renamed Tom’s character: Kojak.
Years later, son Brian was at a similar turning point. Like his dad, he would not leave it to a jury to unscramble. He moved to release Chuck Panoyan from jail. But Panoyan had to tell his story: he’d lied to police because the gunman had threatened to kill his family if he spoke up. Once before, the gunman had killed a small child and went to prison.
Who was the only one could make Panoyan comfortable enough to talk? The old man, the real-life Kojak, Tom Cavanagh.
THE UNSOLVED MURDER OF ADAM WALSH: The famous missing child case of Adam Walsh, a 6-year-old last seen at a Sears in a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida, in July 1981 was the worst nightmare imaginable. Two weeks later, a child’s severed head was found and identified as Adam. No one has ever been arrested for the crime.
For the most part, the case’s narration has been told by the victims, Adam’s parents Reve and John Walsh. However, there has been another voice, independent investigative journalist and author of five True Crime books about Florida, Arthur Jay Harris, who has continued to write about it for two decades, and has worked on it with ABC News, The Miami Herald, and others. The deeply-researched story he tells disputes almost everything that everyone in the public has been led to believe.
IN BOOK ONE, Harris shows that the taker of Adam was most likely not the drifter Ottis Toole, as police now say, but rather the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was arrested ten years later with eleven severed heads in his apartment. Harris documented him by a police report living near Hollywood as a transient about when Adam disappeared. That report had him supposedly finding a dead body in an alley behind where he worked. The report referred to a meter and storage room steps away where Harris and ABC News found blood droplets rising up a wall next to a lumberman’s axe and a sledgehammer. Was this Dahmer’s doing?
Further, Dahmer was identified by seven police witnesses who said they saw him at the mall with or near Adam when he was taken. One of those witnesses said he saw him throw Adam into a blue van and get away. Where Dahmer worked there was a blue van, easily and often taken for personal use, without permission. Early on, a blue getaway van was Hollywood’s first, best clue.
Also, a police composite drawing of a suspect in an attempted kidnapping of a similar-age child at a Sears in the next county, two weeks before Adam’s disappearance, closely matches a mug shot of Dahmer taken a year later. The similarity was confirmed by the near-victim, a witness who helped make the drawing, and the police artist who drew it. The photo comparison is in the book.
IN BOOK TWO, more shocking, Harris shows that all the official files are incredibly missing the most customary documents that would prove the identification of the found child who was said to be Adam. Among the documents missing are the autopsy report, a forensic dental report (considering that the ID was strictly based on a tooth comparison), and Adam’s dental chart and dental X-rays. An investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed his finding.
In fact, the ID was not only shoddy and inadequate but is overwhelmingly likely wrong. In Adam's last photo he was clearly missing both his top front teeth. A police crime scene photo, never before published, shows the found child had a mostly-in buck tooth -- a top left front tooth. Harris consulted a number of pediatric and forensic dental and medical examiner experts who confirmed the obvious: there wasn't enough time for Adam to have grown it in that far.
All that would have been exposed at a court trial -- but more than 30 years after Adam's disappearance, there has never been one.
Yet another remarkable finding Harris made is that more than 20 years after the incident, the Walshes consented to police forensic testing that presumed a doubt about the found child’s real identity.
Did police end the search for Adam too soon? Could Adam still be alive? In fact not so impossible, Harris found…
Who ordered the deadly delivery for the millionaire’s wife?
A True Story
FLOWERS FOR MRS. LUSKIN is a journalistic account of the actual investigation and conviction of Paul Luskin for an attempted murder-for-hire of Marie Luskin in Hollywood, Florida in 1987. The events recounted in this book are true. Research has been done using author interviews, law enforcement and other public records, published and broadcast news stories, and books. Quoted sworn testimony has been taken verbatim from transcripts.
Copyright © 1997, 2013 by Arthur Jay Harris
Published by arrangement with the author.
Originally published by Avon Books
All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law. For information, please email the author at
Marie and Paul, 1983. Photo courtesy Paul Luskin
Undated photo of Luskin’s flagship Florida store, in Hollywood. Photo courtesy Paul Luskin
The foyer entrance to the Luskin home, March 9, 1987. Note the scattered flower petals. Crime scene photo courtesy Hollywood Police Department
Flowers for Mrs. Luskin
10 A.M. MONDAY MARCH 9, 1987
2831 PALMER DRIVE
Marie Luskin had just gotten her four-year-old Diana to sleep on the sofa in the family room, a little pillow underneath her head and a blanket covering her. She had been awake all night, throwing up, but Marie had given her children’s CoTylenol and it had helped knock her out. She had an appointment later to take her to the doctor.
Diana’s illness interrupted Marie’s normal routine. Every weekday for the past six months, after the school bus picked up both Diana—who went to nursery school—and ten-year-old Shana at 8:10, Marie met her sister Joyce Elkin by nine to join a walking club at Hollywood Mall, a ten-minute ride away. It ended at ten when the stores opened, then most of the time the two women returned to Marie’s house and ate breakfast together. But this morning, Marie called Joyce and said she couldn’t make it. Marie told her not to come over, she didn’t want Joyce’s four-month old to catch whatever Diana had.
While Diana slept, Marie sat across from her and opened the newspaper.
The doorbell rang. Marie got up to answer it.
Since her live-in housekeeper Silvia Mexicanos was off from Sunday morning to Monday afternoon, Marie was home alone, and she knew not to open the door. Instead she went to the intercom.
It wasn’t Joyce. It was a man with a rough voice.
“Flower delivery for Marie Luskin!”
That was a curious surprise. Her husband Paul used to send her flowers all the time, but those days had passed forever. A year and a half before, following Paul’s affair with another woman, Marie kicked him out of the house his parents had helped them buy, then filed for divorce.
And what a spectacular divorce. If nastiness could be judged quantitatively, the civil war of the Luskins was the meanest, most aggressive divorce Broward County had ever seen. No other divorce file in the history of the county had produced as much legal paper. Its ceiling high stack of boxes owned a corner of the clerk’s office.
A few years before, none of Paul and Marie’s friends would have predicted it. Most thought they had a model marriage. They were young, rich, socially up-and-coming, intelligent, and living in warm south Florida. That beat Baltimore, where Paul grew up and his family was prominent as TV and appliance retailers. When his dad came south, he began his own business and called it Luskin’s, like the Baltimore store he had just left. In both places, Luskin’s advertised heavily, so everyone knew their name.
Paul and Marie had married sixteen years earlier, after meeting at University of Miami. Marie was a long blond haired pretty girl from a middle class family in Wilmington, Delaware. But as Paul took over management of his father’s business, and his pay increased dramatically, she found a taste for expensive things, which Paul indulged. They had a $130,000 house in North Miami Beach, but when Marie called the neighborhood “the slum,” they paid $600,000 for the biggest house in Emerald Hills, which was the most luxurious section of Hollywood—a town in between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Of course, there were no hills in Emerald Hills, or anywhere close. At its breathtakingly highest vantage point, south Florida is probably no more than ten feet above sea level.
Marie told her friends the house was “Georgia antebellum,” which sounded like a reference to Tara in Gone With The Wind. Actually its exterior was a square, imposing, uninspired two-story brick box enhanced with white wooden columns and a front door framed in Colonial motif. The backyard abutted the second tee of the Emerald Hills Golf Club. The community’s winding streets were cutesy theme-named for famous names in golf; to reach Palmer Drive, you had to travel St. Andrews Road to Casper Court to Sanders.
“Who is it from?” she asked the deliveryman.
“There’s no name on the card.”
“What florist are you from?”
“Emerald Hills Florist.”
She’d used them before to send flowers. “Oh, okay. I’ll be right there.”
But first she went to the front window, moved the white curtain aside, and peeked out. It was clear and sunny, just a perfect late winter day. Standing on the porch was a thin man in his thirties, taller than her, handsome, she thought, with shaggy sandy brown hair, but he needed a shave. He was wearing a T-shirt and light colored blue jeans, and he held a pot of pink azaleas, nicely wrapped in pink foil with a ribbon, obviously from a florist. His car was right in front of the door in the circular driveway, sky blue and new, one of those compacts that basically looked all the same, but with no commercial markings.
Still apprehensive, she cracked opened the wooden door just enough to see him. The temperature outside was warm, indistinguishable from room temperature.
With a sudden incongruous movement, the man stuck his foot in the doorway and thrust the flowers at her with his left hand, which obscured her vision of his head. As she reached to take them, he stuck a silver pistol in her face.
Marie started shrieking uncontrollably. She tried to run inside but the man grabbed her, one arm around her neck, grasping for her mouth with his hand. The flowerpot fell to the black-and-white marble parquet floor and shattered, pink petals scattering near the foyer throw rug that read “Luskin” in the same design as the stores’ logo. The wrap kept the clay shards in place.
“Shut up! Shut up!” he yelled, closing the door behind him. “I’m not going to hurt you. Shut the hell up, stop screaming!”
She finally stopped when his hand formed a gag hard around her mouth, and she realized the gun was at her temple. She couldn’t stop looking at the gun, which framed his cruel eyes.
“Give me all your cash! Give me all your cash! Show me where you keep your cash! Just cooperate and I won’t hurt you. I just want all your money!”
“Okay, okay. Please put the gun down if you’re not going to hurt me,” Marie pled repeatedly. For a moment, the man did drop the gun to his waist.
“Now take me to your money!”
Marie thought, Maybe he wants my jewelry. She had a locked jewelry box upstairs, although it didn’t have any really good stuff, like her seven-carat diamond ring, which was hidden elsewhere in the house. As she took him past the elevator, up the grand winding stairway with its dark-stained wood railings on both sides, a chandelier above, he followed in back of her, clenching her long blond hair close to the scalp, with the gun to the side of her head.
“Please put the gun down.”
“I’m not going to hurt you, but if you don’t cooperate, I’m gonna blow your fucking brains out!”
Together they went into the splendid master bedroom—seventeen hundred square feet large—and then to her ten-by-twelve-foot dressing alcove. There were three walls to the area and all of them were mirrored to some extent; as they walked in, the wall directly in front was mirrored from floor to ceiling, and slid open into closets. The wall on the right had entries to his and hers bathrooms, both doors mirrored.
The third wall had a built-in peach-color Formica cabinet topped by an eight-foot long, two-foot-deep red countertop. Over it was a full mirror framed by frosted bare bulbs, to resemble a backstage makeup room. In fact, it was a three-sided mirror, to cover the recessed areas perpendicular to the main mirror.
Marie stooped down and opened a cabinet door where she kept the box, pulled it out and placed it on the thick pile cream-colored carpet. It was a large index card box—black metal, about eight by six inches, five inches high. Then she stood up and searched the counter, cluttered with her fragrance bottles. When she found a cup filled with Q-tips, she chucked the Q-tips on the floor, revealing a little key at the bottom of the cup.
Kneeling down on the carpet, she opened the box with the key.
“This better be loaded with cash,” the man warned, standing in back of her.
But Marie knew there was no cash in it. “I don’t know what I have in here, it’s mostly my jewelry.” She hoped he’d be satisfied.
Frantically, she started throwing things out of the box. She pulled out some U.S. Mint coin sets, a passport, two oriental brocaded purses and a blue velvet Chivas Regal drawstring pouch. She also found a folded hundred-dollar bill her parents had given her for her last birthday, in November, that she had forgotten about.
She handed him the bill over her shoulder, but he let it flutter to the floor. She told him her diamond necklace and other good jewelry was in the Chivas Regal bag.
“Take it,” she said, but again she had to let it drop when he wouldn’t handle it. She told him she had $40 in her pocketbook, on the floor in the corner, but he didn’t want that either.
Instead he got even angrier. “Where’s all your cash? Give me all your cash!”
“It’s in the bank!” she whined. “It’s in the bank! This is it. This is all I have at home, I keep all my money in the bank!”
As the crescendo of voices in the Luskin house rose to a climax, exactly what happened next remains in dispute:
Marie fell to the floor, a terrible pain in the back of her head. She didn’t see what had happened to her, the man was behind her the whole time. She didn’t lose consciousness, but pretended to. She covered her face with her hands, trying to stop from hyperventilating. She literally saw stars.
Defenseless, she waited for him to shoot and kill her. But in the next moments she heard only profound silence, except the sound of her own self crying softly. A moment later the front door slammed. Meekly, she opened her eyes, and didn’t see him. That’s when she noticed there was blood all over her. She thought she was going to die.
She managed her way to the telephone. She called her sister first, so she could come over and get Diana. If she was going to die, she thought, she didn’t want Diana to see her in that condition. But Joyce wasn’t home, so then she called 911.
Barbara Alleva was the first Hollywood Police officer on the scene. She was on road patrol nearby in Emerald Hills, and got to the house within minutes after dispatch made a radio bulletin.
Marie opened the front door for her. She had a towel over the back of her head, and there was blood all over her shirt. She wasn’t crying, but she was a little hysterical. She said when she thought she heard the intruder leave, she crawled to her bedroom door, pushed it closed and locked it. Then 911 kept her on the phone until she heard the police siren arriving in her driveway.
The first thing Marie asked the officer to do was to check on Diana. Alleva went alone into the family room, and found she was still asleep. To make sure she was all right, Alleva woke her up. Then Marie and Alleva went upstairs, and Marie asked if she could change her shirt, it was all bloody and sticking to her skin.
Alleva asked for details of what had happened. She took a description of the assailant, then gave it to Officer Walter Schatzel, the second officer to arrive, who broadcast it on the police radio as a BOLO—be on the lookout.
About five minutes later, Hollywood Police ID technician Marjorie Hanlon arrived to process the crime scene. She also talked briefly with Marie to get an idea where she might find latent fingerprints to lift. Marie told her she was pistol-whipped. When she showed Hanlon her wound, Hanlon thought it was the size of a key lime.
As Marie prepared to leave the scene in an ambulance, she asked Alleva to call her sister Joyce to take care of Diana; her mother Dorothy to pick up Shana from school later; and her divorce attorney Barry Franklin to meet her at the hospital. Alleva told Marie she would join her at the hospital later.
Leo Soccol, a detective in the robbery division, arrived at about 10:45 and Alleva told him Marie’s wound was the size of a golf ball. Soccol talked to Marie for a moment, then the ambulance rushed her off.
Soccol roped off the area. Inside the house, Marjorie Hanlon went to work preserving the crime scene evidence. She photographed the entranceway, taking note of a card entitled “How to Care for Your Azalea (Rhododendron hybrids)” she found on the bare floor next to the errant flower petals. Then she took it into evidence, hoping that a latent fingerprint could be developed from it.
Upstairs, she photographed the dressing room, highlighting blood on the carpet and the metal jewelry box and its contents strewn about. Next she photographed some bloody spots leading to a telephone in an office area.
In her attempts to lift fingerprints, Hanlon dusted the jewelry box, the wooden railing leading up the steps, and the front door.
DETECTIVE LEO SOCCOL
While Hanlon worked inside the house, Leo Soccol worked outside, canvassing the neighborhood. He found three witnesses across the street at 2830 Palmer Drive: David Warner, a young man who lived there with his parents; and two gardeners, Daryl Brown and Ricky Jesel.
Warner told Soccol he was working on an automobile in his garage when he noticed a navy blue car—he thought a Honda Prelude—in the Luskins’ driveway. He described the man who got out and stood at the Luskins’ doorstep as wearing a blue short sleeve shirt and possibly jeans, but Warner only caught a glimpse of his face.
Brown and Jesel saw what happened too. They were planting cactus near the roadway, and therefore were just a few yards from the Luskin house. Brown thought the car was a Toyota or a Honda. He saw the man carrying flowers, and heard Marie’s voice over the intercom talking to him.
Brown said he heard voices again a little later and a breaking sound from inside the Luskin house. It sounded like kids playing, so he dismissed the noise at the time. The man left in his car just after that, in a calm way, he said. It was as he was leaving that Brown got his best look at him, from about fifteen feet away. He was still carrying the flowers.
However, Jesel told Soccol that the man left in a real hurry. Warner had walked back into his house, and missed it. Jesel told him he thought something may have happened, and Warner ran across the street to check.
Warner said the Luskins’ door was closed, but unlocked. He walked in the house, and noticed flower petals on the floor.
“Mrs. Luskin?” he called.
The rest of Warner’s story contradicted Marie.
Warner said he walked into the kitchen and found Marie sitting on a chair in the corner, her hand on her badly bleeding head. She put down the telephone and told him she had just called the police.
“He hit me over the head with a gun,” she told him. “He tried to kill me. Didn’t you hear me scream?”
“I didn’t hear anything,” he answered.
Warner said he asked Marie where her kids were, and she told him one was gone, one was asleep. He helped her walk upstairs to her bedroom, and saw a hundred-dollar bill, a metal box, and some of its contents laying on the blood-stained carpet. Then the police arrived.
HOLLYWOOD MEMORIAL HOSPITAL EMERGENCY ROOM
About 11:15 A.M.
Marie told nurses she was hit with a gun to the right side of her head. She was a little nauseous, had a terrible headache, and bone was exposed, but she was lucky; she didn’t have an acute fracture. Although she felt dazed, she stayed alert and her speech was clear.
Barbara Alleva had stayed on the scene until Marjorie Hanlon finished her crime scene work, then Alleva left for the hospital.
By that time, Marie’s head had been X-rayed, revealing foreign bodies embedded in the wound. Before the nurse shaved the palm-sized area of Marie’s scalp surrounding the wound, Alleva called Hanlon back to photograph the action.
The photographs turned out grotesque. Skin exposed, Marie’s injury looked like a liver-shaped gash with three deeper cuts through it. Below it, her blond hair was stringy—soaked in still-wet blood.
An emergency room surgeon told Alleva he thought the foreign bodies were from the gun that hit her. He checked for black powder on the edges of the wound—which would have indicated a close-range gunshot—and found none. But when Marie told him she was wearing a hairpin at the time, he reasoned that was the origin of the metal fragment.
Doctors decided closing Marie’s wound would best be done by a plastic surgeon, so they searched for one on Marie’s health plan. They wrapped her head in gauze and sent her to the recovery room in a wheelchair. By this time, Barry Franklin had arrived.
Marie told Franklin and Alleva it was odd that the robber kept screaming, “Give me all your money!” but took nothing. Then, she informed Alleva, she was in the middle of a bitter divorce, and that her husband Paul or his family must have been responsible because he was being investigated for continuous failure to pay child support.
The intruder’s demand for cash was curious, Marie thought, because Paul had kept a lot of money at home in the bedroom closet while he still lived there. The money was cash from the business, she said. But ever since he left and refused to pay support, she had had financial problems. The hundred-dollar bill and small change was the only cash in the house.
Sometime between 11:30 A.M. and Noon
2831 PALMER DRIVE
Marie’s seventy-year-old aunt Ruth Wapner from Wilmington was visiting her youngest sister Dorothy—Marie’s mother—in her Miami Beach home when police called to say Marie had been in an accident.
Dorothy was too upset to drive, so Ruth drove them to Marie’s house, an hour’s ride north through city traffic. By the time they arrived, all the police had left the scene, but Joyce was waiting.
Joyce assigned Aunt Ruth to stay at the house, look after Diana, and wait until Shana came home. Then Joyce drove Dorothy to Hollywood Memorial, promising to call with details of Marie’s condition as soon as they learned it.
Still short on details of what had happened, Aunt Ruth talked to one of the young men across the street before she went inside the house. She learned Marie had been attacked.
When Dorothy called, the news was that Marie was woozy, but okay. She also told Aunt Ruth not to touch anything in the house until after the police called her to say it was okay.
If it was up to Aunt Ruth, she would have cleaned up everything immediately. When she went upstairs—careful not to touch anything, she said later—she saw blood all over the dressing room carpet. She thought, This is a job for a professional carpet cleaner, and she got on the phone to find one.
DETECTIVE LEO SOCCOL
EMERALD HILLS FLORIST
3343 SHERIDAN STREET
Since the assailant had mentioned he was delivering flowers from Emerald Hills Florist, Soccol decided to visit there. It was a store in a strip mall called the Park Sheridan Plaza, about two miles east of Marie’s house, the first flower shop west of I-95 on Sheridan Street. Soccol found owner Denise Keltz, who remembered selling a potted azalea plant for cash at 9:45 that morning to someone close to the assailant’s description.
He was the first customer of the day. They didn’t make any particular conversation, but he did appear nervous. He browsed at the cooler in the front of the store, and when Keltz walked forward from the back of the store, he pointed at the plant he wanted to buy.
She remembered the exchange at the counter:
“Would you like a card to go with that?”
“No, I’m going to deliver it myself.”
Keltz told Soccol she got a good facial view of the man. She described him as five-ten, slim build, late thirties, with sandy or brown hair parted on the side. He had fair skin, very smooth and hairless—like Don Johnson, the cop on Miami Vice. She thought she could identify him if he was caught.
From there, Soccol went on to the hospital, hoping to speak to Marie. He began an interview, but because of her blood loss, she was too weak to continue.
A doctor showed Marie’s wound to Soccol. “My God, that’s a big hit,” Soccol reacted.
“She must have really gotten walloped,” the doctor said.
In the waiting area, Soccol spoke to Barry Franklin. Franklin repeated that her husband Paul might have been behind the attack because Paul, his family, or his associates had the potential of lining up something like this. He suggested Soccol look up the various reports of vandalism and disturbances that Marie had filed with Hollywood Police in the previous year and a half, since the divorce was served.
OFFICE OF DR. ROSS CLARK,
5012 HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD
At 3:40, the hospital had released Marie to Dr. Clark’s care.
When Clark did the surgery, a Hollywood Police officer watched from behind glass. Clark cleaned the wound, removed the foreign body, and placed it in a clear plastic biopsy vial. Then he gave it to his nurse, Mary Anne Hartman, and then sutured the wound closed. The whole procedure took just thirty-four minutes, and required only local anesthesia.
When the surgery was done, Hartman put the vial containing the fragment in a tin box, then locked it in the doctor’s safe, next to his computer diskettes.
In his medical report, Clark described the foreign body as either plastic or metal. His first impression, too, was that it was a fragment somehow related to a gun.
Sometime that afternoon
2831 PALMER DRIVE
While waiting for calls back later that afternoon, the phone rang. Ruth thought it was sometime like three o’clock or earlier.
“Hello, is Marie there?” asked a male voice she didn’t recognize.
“No, who’s this?”
“This is Paul, who am I speaking to?”
“Oh, hi, Paul, this is Aunt Ruth. Marie isn’t here, can I have her call you back when she gets in?” she said, deciding not to tell him what had just happened.
“No, I’m leaving, I’m going out on a boat with some friends,” she recalled him saying.
“I’ll tell her you called,” she said.
Later, Paul remembered the conversation much differently. He said he had called to talk to his children, and Aunt Ruth said they weren’t home. They talked for another minute that Paul was coming to Florida at the end of the week for Shana’s birthday. He didn’t ask for Marie at all.
At the end of this very long day, Marie returned home.
TUESDAY MARCH 10
That morning, Soccol found the slew of Hollywood police reports that both Marie and Paul had filed against each other.
The first was November 29, 1985—the day Marie served Paul with the divorce. Soccol read:
“Dispatched reference a possible vandalism, at the above location. Upon arrival, contact was made with the victim, who advised while she was out away from home, the suspect, being her husband, entered their residence and vandalized numerous articles inside said residence.
“Further investigation revealed both subjects had been living apart for the past three weeks. The victim advised she believed this incident to be the result of divorce papers which were served to suspect this date.”
Two weeks later, on December 11, it was Paul’s turn to call police:
“Upon arrival, contact was made with reportee Luskin who advised he is presently in the process of a divorce from Marie Luskin and requested to ascertain if his children were okay.
“Investigation revealed that reportee Luskin and Marie Luskin are presently in the process of a divorce at which Marie Luskin is in custody of their home, being the above address. Reportee Luskin requested the police department to the scene to ascertain if his children were okay, due to the fact that Marie Luskin has a restraining order and would not allow reportee Luskin into the residence. Marie Luskin gave permission to Sergeant Korn to enter the residence to check on the children, but she would not allow Mr. Luskin into the residence.
“Reportee Luskin requested the undersigned (Officer Paul Yancey) along with Officer Wagner and Sergeant Korn to enter the residence to ascertain if a W/M subject known to him as Gary Davis was inside the residence, but Mrs. Luskin would not allow us into the residence for that purpose.”
On March 14, 1986, Marie called to report that Paul might have taken letters from her mailbox two weeks earlier. Missing, she said, were checks, a bank statement, and correspondence from her attorney.
“The victim stated that she is undergoing divorce proceedings at this time and suspects that her husband may have removed the mail but had no proof at this time.”
On August 30, 1986, Marie again told police something that had happened earlier, this time a week before:
“The reportee advised that she had a verbal altercation with her separated husband, Paul Luskin, on 8/23/86 in the early morning hours on that date. The reportee advised that she felt somewhat threatened by the actions of her husband and he had stated, ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’
“The reportee could not advise any further reference her beliefs that she felt somewhat threatened by his comments, but it should be noted that she stated that he did make the comment with a closed fist and that he did attempt to open her door and keep it open with his foot in the door. However, this was unsuccessful by the husband.”
The last two reports were “Malicious mischief,” the first filed September 17, 1986.
“This officer was contacted by the victim who advised that her doorbell had been broken for the third time at approximately 1800 hours on this date. She stated that her husband Paul Luskin responded to pick up the children and after he left, investigation revealed that the doorbell had been ripped out of the wall.
“She stated that she is in the process of getting a divorce from her husband and he had been causing nothing but grief to her during the period of time she has been seeing an attorney. She stated the doorbell cost approximately $35.00 to replace.”
Then on October 5, 1986, police responded to the house to find two tires slashed on a car belonging to Marie’s brother-in-law, Michael Elkin.
“Mr. Elkin stated that Paul Luskin, his future ex-brother-in-law, slashed his two tires on his 1980 Chevy Citation. It should be noted that Mr. Luskin has been slashing the tires of every member of his family’s vehicles due to a divorce he is going through with Mr. Elkin’s sister.”
2831 PALMER DRIVE
In the late morning, Soccol returned to the Luskin house to continue his interview with Marie. They discussed whether Paul should be considered a suspect in the assault, but Marie answered that she didn’t want to believe Paul would do something like that.
Soccol turned on a tape recorder. After describing what happened, she talked at length about her divorce.
“Do you normally keep large amounts of cash here?” Soccol asked.
“I never did,” Marie answered. “My husband and I are going through a very, very nasty divorce. It’s been going on for over a year and a half now. When my husband lived at home, it was before September 1985, my husband kept very large sums of cash in the house. He would bring it home from work, from the business, sometimes he would go back and forth to the bank, he always kept large sums of cash at home. But since the divorce proceedings, there hasn’t been any cash at home. There just isn’t any cash, my husband had all the cash, I never had any.”
“Was this kept in the metal box?”
“No, my husband usually kept it in a briefcase or a suitcase.”
“In the bedroom?”
“Sometimes he kept some cash in the room next to the bedroom, most of it was in what I call the locked computer room. It was his private room, and he kept a locked suitcase in there with money in it.”
“Do you still talk with him on occasion?”
“Yes. We have two children and he’s always in touch about the children and we’re in court together all the time. Sometimes it has been very nasty. He refuses to pay child support or alimony and he’s had to be arrested twice in order to get child support from him. And it’s become a very, very nasty case.”
“Was he arrested here in Hollywood?” he asked.
“The first time he was arrested, we were in court and the judge had had a hearing with us and our attorneys at the Broward County Courthouse, and at the end of the four-hour hearing, the judge turned to the bailiff and said ‘Take him upstairs to jail, he’s in contempt of court.’ So the first time he was arrested he was in the Broward County stockade.
“The second time he was arrested he was hiding at his parents’ apartment in Turnberry Isle Country Club in Miami and the Metro-Dade Police came and had to batter down the door to get him out, and they took him to the Dade County stockade. That was about a month ago.”
Soccol asked about the vandalism complaints she had filed with police.
“Yes,” she said. “There were times he refused to leave the property. I was afraid, he’s bigger than I am, he’s always had guns. I am in possession of the home, and the judge gave me a restraining order to keep him off my property. The only time he comes on the grounds is to see the children, to pick them up.”
“Has he ever assaulted you?”
“No, he’s never assaulted me.”
“Has he ever pointed a weapon at you, or threatened you in any way holding a weapon?”
“Never, no, he’s never pointed a weapon at me.”
“More or less, it’s been vandalism?”
“Yes, the first time he did about $10,000 worth of damage to the home, when I filed divorce papers. He does things like ride over the flowers, ruin the flowers, back-and-forth over the flowers, riding back-and-forth to ruin all them and… “
“Tires?” Soccol asked.
“He’s flattened our tires, my tires, he flattened my sister’s tires, he flattened my parents’ tires. I can’t think of other things.”
“Is he seeing another woman?”
“Yes, he had a girlfriend, which was the reason that I filed for divorce.”
During the statement, the telephone rang. It was Paul, calling from Pittsburgh, where he had been living for the past few months. They talked for just a few minutes, and Marie didn’t mention her assault the day before. Afterwards, Marie explained she hadn’t yet told Paul or his parents about it.
“He called to inform me that he’s taking the children away next weekend, he’s picking them up Friday and bringing them back Sunday. Which I said would be fine as long as I could have a phone number and an address where he’s going to take them so my oldest daughter can call me. One time he took the children away and I didn’t know where they were and wasn’t able to reach them and I was frantic and I said I’d never let them go like that again.”
“Did he indicate anything else regarding this incident?”
“No. He said that if he was going to take the children and not return them, he certainly wouldn’t clear it with me by a phone call beforehand.”
“Have you had any phone contact with Paul’s parents?”
“No, they have not called me. They were here last week to see the children, but they haven’t called this week. They normally see the children on Wednesday night—that was the normal visitation night that Paul took them—and since he’s been away, his parents come and take the girls out.”
“And the trial is set for June ’87?” Soccol asked, in regards to the divorce trial.
“Yes, June, and the trial against Luskin’s Hi-Fi and Mildred and Joe Luskin is set for August.” That was a separate trial, as Marie had sued Paul’s parents for conspiring to hide Paul’s assets from her in the divorce.
“Have you had any real problems with your husband, other than arguments over the telephone, in the past six months?”
“Well, we’ve been in court many times. At this point, it’s mainly arguments on the phone or my attorney handles it through court, or the police handle it.”
“Over visitation of the children.”
“And no support. He has not given us any child support or any alimony since December. Paul has been in contempt of court now about seven times and the judge arrested him once right in the courthouse, and the second time Paul was hiding in his parents’ apartment and his parents lied to the Metro-Dade police officer saying he wasn’t there, he wasn’t there, but refused to open the door for the police officers, even though the police officers had an order to go in to their apartment. Finally they had to break into the parents’ apartment and they found Paul hiding there and they took him to jail.”
“Mrs. Luskin, how many stores does your husband own?”
“There are eight Luskin’s Hi-Fidelity stores that he and his parents own.”
Before Soccol left, he worked with Marie to draw a picture of the assailant with the use of an “Identikit”—a collection of facial parts that can compose a full rendering. When Marie ran out of steam, he ended the interview, but asked if she’d like to hire off-duty Hollywood cops for security at $14 an hour. Marie said she didn’t have the money for it.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 11
Soccol called Joe and Mildred Luskin at the Luskin’s Hollywood store—where the executive offices were located—to tell them what had happened to Marie. He explained the flower delivery, the assault, the description of the assailant and the car, and Marie’s injury.
Soccol wrote in his report that “upon speaking with them, they were unaware of the incident and seemed quite concerned over the matter.” He also noted that Joe Luskin appeared to be quite surprised, and alarmed when he learned that Paul’s daughter was at home when it happened.
Soccol asked about Paul, and the Luskins said he was in Pittsburgh; therefore he didn’t know what had happened. For that matter, Joe said he had been out of town as well on the day of the assault, in Baltimore.
Soccol asked if he could set up a meeting with the family, and Joe offered to call Paul and have him phone Soccol back.
A bit later, Paul called Soccol. He sounded very surprised that something had happened, and asked how Marie was. When he realized he had talked with her the day before, he asked, “Why didn’t she tell me?”
“Do you know your daughter was there?” Soccol questioned.
“What?” his voice rose.
Paul said he had been working as an attorney in Pittsburgh since January, but had planned to fly home Friday so he could take his children to Disney World for the weekend. He would meet with Soccol and his parents at the Hollywood Luskin’s store, and assist any way he could.
Later that day, Soccol visited Dr. Clark’s office to pick up the foreign body removed from Marie’s head during surgery. Clark told Soccol that Marie was hit very hard, and in fact, she was very, very lucky to be alive.
Clark said he closed the wound with thirty stitches. He expected Marie would make a full recovery.
At the police station, Soccol placed the foreign body into evidence. He wrote on the property record:
“One (1) clear plastic container, whitecap, marked Do Not Destroy + dates 3-9-87. Taken from the laceration of Marie Luskin, one (1) small metal fragment/foreign body.”
The property clerk stamped the sheet “Received sealed.”
FRIDAY MARCH 13
4150 N. 28th TERRACE, HOLLYWOOD
Soccol met the three Luskins for about a half hour in the morning. They reiterated they would assist the investigation any way they could, but Soccol noticed that the father was looking at the son kind of funny.
BROWARD SHERIFF’S OFFICE
After the meeting at Luskin’s, Soccol took Marie to see a police artist, John McMahon, who worked for the Broward County Sheriff. McMahon was a skilled freehand artist who drew with pencil as he asked questions.
After an hour and a half the result was a black-and-white drawing of a rather handsome thin-faced young man. He had a straight nose, large eyes, and medium-length hair parted on the side and falling over his forehead. Marie thought the picture was a little off, but considered it 85 percent right.
Later, Soccol took the drawing to Denise Keltz at Emerald Hills Florist. She thought it was close too, except the man’s hair wasn’t right. It looked too much like a wig, and the man wasn’t wearing one. Also, the man as drawn looked too young.
After McMahon revised the drawing with Keltz’s assistance on March 17, police released it to the press, hoping to generate some leads. In fact, the assault had not made news anywhere, not even the police blotter of the local Hollywood Sun-Tattler.
On March 19, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel ran the story and drawing on page three of the local section, in the “Briefs” column. It was headlined “Police seek suspect.”
HOLLYWOOD—Police are looking for a man who posed as a florist’s deliveryman and then struck a woman with a gun when she told him she didn’t have any money, police said.
“The would-be robber, carrying a floral arrangement, rang the doorbell of a home in Emerald Hills on March 9, police said. The woman, whom police would not identify, allowed the man into her home, police said.
“Police said that once inside, the man pulled out a gun and threatened the woman’s life if she didn’t give him money.
“She told police she gave the man all she had, but the man didn’t believe her and struck her on the back of the head.
“Police described the man as white, between 30 and 35 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall and 180 pounds with sandy brown hair. He was wearing blue jeans and drove a late model, medium-blue, four-door Honda, police said. Anyone with information is asked to call 921-3361 or 921-3911.
Although the newspaper story referred to the case as a robbery, the Weekly Information Bulletin published by the Hollywood Police detective bureau on March 20 called the case a “Home Invasion/Attempted Murder.”
The newspaper story brought a lead. Police in Oakland Park—another suburb in Broward County—had an informant who thought a possible suspect was a thirty-two-year-old man.
Oakland Park Detective Dusty Rhodes thought the man might be a match because he looked like the composite, drove a late-model blue Mustang, and his girlfriend was a florist. To get a picture of the man, Soccol asked the state motor vehicles bureau to send a duplicate of his driver’s license photo.
The photo arrived eight days later, and Soccol showed it to Marie and Denise Keltz, but both were certain it wasn’t the right person.
The investigation stalled. On May 13, Soccol read in The Miami Herald about an arrest that the robbery division of Metro-Dade Police had made in a home invasion. He called Metro-Dade Sergeant Tony Monheim, who said it was related to a home invasion gang working out of Hollywood.
Soccol met Monheim in Miami, showed him his composite drawing, and described the crime. Monheim said it didn’t match any of the gang members, nor sound like the type of crime they engaged in. While talking, the two detectives ruled out robbery as the motive for the Luskin assault. Still, Monheim gave Soccol pictures of his suspects.
Soccol placed the pictures in photo lineups and again went to Marie and Denise Keltz. Again, neither made identifications.
The Magnificent Luskins
A Los Angeles Times story about Baltimore’s renaissance began by recalling the city’s bad old days. Billie Holliday, who had lived there, said she always thought of Baltimore as a town that took pretty girls and turned them into prostitutes. Newspaperman H.L. Mencken, a curmudgeon on every subject except beer and his hometown, said he thought of Baltimore as a ruin of a once-great medieval city.
“Though it was America’s second-largest city in the 1820s, Baltimore eventually came to be known as a place where anyone with all his teeth was a celebrity,” the Times wrote.
For the first half of Baltimore’s twentieth century, Mencken was its chronicler. In the 1980s a chronicler of Jewish Baltimore emerged, and in a new medium: film director Barry Levinson.
In a personal trilogy of films, Levinson went back three generations. Diner was about himself and his friends who came of age in the fifties and hung out at the Hilltop Diner, near Pimlico Race Track; Tin Men was about salesmen in his father’s generation, and Avalon began with homage to his immigrant grandfather who landed at Baltimore harbor at the turn of the century to begin a family.
After the end of World War II, Levinson’s family got into the retail appliance and television business. As Barry portrayed it in Avalon, they had a brilliant idea: sell at below full price. Their store was a smash.
When longtime Baltimoreans saw the film, they asked an obvious question: Was that Luskin’s?
Levinson admitted to employing a certain amount of dramatic license. In real life Baltimore, the first appliance discounters were in fact Jack and Joe Luskin.
The Luskin family had begun in business selling furniture and radios on the installment plan. In 1948, the two young sons Jack and Joe opened their own store, anticipating before anyone else yet another giant new trend: a suburban location.
Their first store was seven hundred square feet, on Park Heights Avenue next to the Pimlico Hotel—which wasn’t a hotel, but the area’s fanciest restaurant. The two brothers were a terrific match. Both handsome, Jack was the consummate salesman, and Joe was the back room tinkerer. Back then TVs were sold in two pieces—picture tube and cabinet. Where other shops took custom orders and delivered weeks later, Joe was the only guy in Baltimore who could assemble a finished set in-house. Luskin’s delivered in twenty-four hours, and besides that, discounted. They could sell a $600 piece for $450.
My dad, too, was in the same biz at the same time. He had a storefront in downtown Baltimore called “TV Club.” He advertised a free five-day trial period; he’d come to your house and install a TV set, with no obligation to buy. If you didn’t want it after five days, he’d take it back, no charge.
He never took back a single one.
The Luskins were better financed than my dad, and by the end of the fifties, when both businesses foresaw changes, the Luskins were in a better position to act. By the early sixties, my dad was out of the appliance business. Luskin’s moved down the block to its present location, a huge store for its day. They bought broadcast time on local TV to sell TVs, and made themselves TV stars in the process. In an era when every business needed a slogan, theirs were “Jack and Joe Will Save You Dough,” and “The Cheapest Guys in Town.”
They did. And they were. And everyone knew it. In the appliance business, they owned the city.
There was enough success for both brothers, but instead they fought.
In the mid-1960s Jack correctly foresaw the next step in the evolution of Luskin’s: a chain of stores around Baltimore. But Joe disagreed. They were making a good living, why risk it? One day in 1966 painters changed the slogan on the store’s exterior wall. From then on it read “Jack, You Know, Will Save You Dough.”
The brothers would never reconcile.
Whatever happened to Joe? Baltimore wondered. The answer was discovered by those who wintered in Miami. Jack had handed Joe $50,000 up front for his half of the business, the rest over ten years, and in 1969 Joe tried to go it alone by opening his own Luskin’s. Jack wasn’t happy about it, especially since the store used the same logo—a crown instead of a dot over the “i” in their name—and the same red and yellow colors, only reversed.
The Florida Luskin’s was a little different. It too, was in the middle of a bustling Jewish area—N.E. 163rd Street in North Miami Beach—but it only sold stereo equipment, cash and carry, no service department, no deliveries, no expensive fixtures.
Until Luskin’s had opened, nobody in Miami discounted stereos at all. So, for years to come, they were the only place to shop for a bargain. Once again, in another time, another place, Luskin’s was a huge success.
PAUL AND SUSAN
Paul Luskin was eleven in 1960 when he first went to work as a stock boy for Luskin’s. He said he did it so he could see his dad, who worked from nine in the morning to ten at night. He was paid, and as a result, always had his own money in his pocket.
In 1966, during his senior year at newly opened Pikesville High, he offered to help a sophomore girl in library study hall with her geometry homework. She had brown hair and bangs, and her name was Susan Pruce.
In the next few minutes she fell in love with him. It wasn’t because he was a math whiz—he claimed to have taken geometry but it soon became obvious he didn’t know the first thing about it. Fudging a tortuous way through a problem, he invented his own logic, then caught her by complete surprise when he solved it. She doubled over in laughter.
Right then Susan knew that Paul was intellectually her match, and Paul realized she was whimsical enough to follow him.
At halftime of a basketball game after school the next day, Paul spotted her in the popcorn line, butted in, bought her the popcorn and asked to sit next to her for the rest of the game.
Nothing could have elated her more. Although Susan was in tenth grade, she was only fourteen since she had skipped a grade. She looked like a junior high kid, too. The next week, on their first date, Paul violated Pikesville’s “three-date rule”—the code of honor that kept boys from attempting a kiss until the third date. And it wasn’t just a goodbye, Grandma kiss, it was the real thing.
Susan didn’t sleep much that night. Did I lead him on? Was he too fast? Is he taking advantage of me? He’s three years older than I am—what will people think?
The sexual revolution was slow to hit Pikesville High.
They dated the rest of the school year although Paul insisted Susan was too young for him. She saw him as a rich kid who didn’t require the trappings, and she liked that. Her family was middle class—her father Irv was a pharmacist, her mother Gloria a Ed.D. schoolteacher, and they lived in a tract house. Paul drove his mom’s car, a big blue Ford with a monster engine and bench seats that only he thought was cool. When he and Susan rode together, sometimes he would let her hold the steering wheel. She never figured out he did it so their bodies could touch.
They continued dating even after Paul began college, at University of Maryland. By the time Susan graduated Pikesville, in 1968, she had blossomed. Her brown hair was now blond, long and straight, and her little-girl look was gone.
Her yearbook spoke to brimming sexual tension. One girlfriend inscribed “To the greatest man chaser of them all.” But another girlfriend wrote the most poignant line, as seen from a distance of years: “I hope your kids and Paul’s kids grow up to be the same people.”
The couple had looked forward to 1968 when they could both live on campus at Maryland. But that was the year Joe Luskin moved south and he had Paul transfer to University of Miami. That was too far away to keep a relationship going.
Paul didn’t see Susan until the next summer, 1969, when he returned to Baltimore. He got a job at a day camp, Camp Milldale, as a counselor for nine-year-olds. He stayed with his older cousin Steve Miles, who lived blocks away from Susan’s house.
That summer, Paul and Susan picked up where they had left off. They went on picnics, to Druid Hill Park, the Baltimore Zoo. Too young to do the bars, they did the delis. At night they took walks together.
Susan’s parents weren’t around much that summer, and it was easier to convince her grandmother that she was going to spend a weekend with a girlfriend when in fact she was going to spend two nights in a hotel room with Paul in Luray Caverns, in the Virginia mountains. Once they arrived, Paul held her hand and Susan imagined what life would be like being married to him. When Paul brought her back exhausted that Sunday night, Susan’s grandmother asked her if she had had a nice time with her girlfriend.
The summer ended early. Paul had cut his foot on the job and was on crutches because it wouldn’t heal. He wanted to go home.
The evening on Earth that men first landed on the moon, July 20, 1969, was the last night Paul and Susan spent together. Susan didn’t want him to go—at least alone.
Susan reluctantly lied to her grandmother again about where she’d be. That night was a milestone in the history of man, and Susan kept waiting for Paul to propose. But when the evening was over, only Armstrong and mankind had accomplished a giant leap. Paul wasn’t ready; he was only twenty-one, and Susan just eighteen. It was too soon.
By morning he was gone.
PAUL AND MARIE
Just weeks after Paul arrived home, he got his draft notice; he was classified 1-A and pre-assigned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army infantry in Vietnam.
To Paul, that was the end of the world. University of Miami was full of Vietnam vets on the GI Bill and it was impossible to ignore their horror stories of death, mutilation, and psychological terror. Paul’s frat house roommate was a Marine whose stomach had been shot out there, and he convinced Paul his chances of coming home in anything but a body bag were slim. He said Second Lieutenants especially were sitting ducks; the Army couldn’t resupply them fast enough because the Viet Cong was offering fifty-five dollar rewards for each one killed.
The buzz on campus was how to beat the draft board.
Paul petitioned it for a student deferment and was granted one, but only month-to-month. He met with a Miami attorney who said for $2,000 he could influence the board into a favorable decision but Paul nixed the idea when others on campus said he was a fraud. He tried joining the National Guard—it worked for Dan Quayle—but they said No because the Army had already assigned him. Paul’s dad Joe didn’t want him to go either—Joe’s brother, another Paul Luskin, had been killed in World War II. Joe suggested his son go to Canada and live with family friends.
It was in the midst of those uncertain times that Paul met Marie Reitzes.
Early that fall term at school, Paul returned from an overnight hunting trip in the Everglades and was informed that frat brothers were required to bring dates to varsity football games. A little later that morning, still dirty and dressed in camouflage, he gave four sorority sisters a lift across campus in his yellow Dodge Charger with a Jolly Roger flag on the antenna. The last one getting out had a pretty face, long blond hair, a great figure, and had been a cheerleader in high school. He asked if she had a boyfriend.
Marie did, but he was in the Air Force, stationed in Guam. Paul asked her to the game and she accepted.
For the first year they knew each other, Paul and Marie stayed just friends. They dated only occasionally, but they did nice things together—day trips to Key West, and seaplane flights to Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
Meanwhile, Marie thought her Air Force boyfriend, who hadn’t returned, was getting bizarre. To help Paul avoid the same fate, she suggested a way to beat the draft—eat himself over the weight limit.
She began baking. On Marie’s sugar diet, he eventually put on fifty pounds—and Marie put on a few herself. Since Paul’s deferment was month-to-month, the draft board had ordered him to take a physical each month. The night before one of them, he, Marie, and friends went to Coconut Grove for dessert. Scanning the menu, Paul ordered five-layer “Victory Cake” then followed that with “The Kitchen Sink.” That night he waddled home, and next morning he flunked the physical.
Although Paul was grateful to Marie, he considered her a “fill-in” girlfriend, and never felt in love with her. Considering his tenuous draft status, it wasn’t fair to marry someone. That’s why he hadn’t asked Susan. But after the summer of 1970 he learned that Susan was engaged to a Latin boy she had met when she was an exchange student in the Yucatan.
Paul was crushed. Susan hadn’t lived with the reality of the draft, and didn’t understand it. In the fall of ’70, his relationship with Marie turned sexual. By the end of the year, with Paul now consistently beating the draft board physicals, they engaged and set a wedding date for June ’71.
The engagement was stormy, probably because it wasn’t anchored by any deep love or passion. Twice Marie returned the ring; the second time she threw it at him.
In April 1971 Paul showed up unannounced at Susan’s house in Baltimore. He told her he was having second thoughts about marrying Marie, what should he do? He was trying to say he wanted Susan back.
Susan was still mad at him for not proposing two summers before, and didn’t want to hear it. She snapped: If you’re so unsure that you have to ask, you shouldn’t. What she didn’t say was that she had broken off her own engagement three months earlier. If Paul had known that, all that followed would have been different.
SUSAN MEETS MARIE
Susan graduated University of Maryland in three years, at age nineteen. That put her two years ahead of herself. She wanted to teach high school, but she realized she wasn’t much older than the kids. So instead, she entered a Master’s program in Spanish linguistics at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, about fifty miles north of Miami.
When she arrived in September ’71, she called Paul and he invited her to dinner at his apartment. He told Marie that Susan was one of the “kids” from Baltimore. Marie didn’t suspect Susan was his old flame.
Susan had met a man at FAU named Gary Davis, from Chicago, and she asked if she could bring him along. Besides, he had a car and she didn’t.
That night, Susan knocked on the apartment door she thought was right. A huge man opened it, and she was about to excuse herself for interrupting when the man grabbed and hugged her like a long-lost friend, scaring her. It was Paul.
In the six months since Susan had last seen him he had put on even more weight and had also let his hair grow long and wild. Susan, a string bean, was stunned. And his bride was almost as tubby. She thought, Look at those fat polkies beneath her tight white cowboy outfit. Revolting.
When Marie showed off her one-carat diamond engagement ring, she had no idea who it really was who was looking at it.
It was a horrible night. Susan knew immediately that Paul had married someone he didn’t have any special bond with. After Gary left her at home that night she had the biggest cry of her life. She resolved never to talk to Paul again.
As Marie had been Paul’s “fill-in” girlfriend, Gary Davis became Susan’s fill-in boyfriend. He was attractive, he liked cats, and seemed like someone she could have a regular life with. When the school year ended, he proposed and asked her to move with him to Columbus, Ohio, where he had taken a computer-programming job. Desiring to be married, she said yes. As she walked down the aisle she thought about Paul. She said to herself, Well, it’s too late now.
MARRIAGE – FIRST YEARS
Paul and Marie’s favorite topic the first year they were married was whether they should get divorced. When University of Miami Law School placed him on academic probation, he transferred to the University of Baltimore. That meant going home.
It was almost the final straw. Marie didn’t want to leave Miami, but at the last moment she agreed to go. They took a $150-a-month apartment in Randallstown, a few miles from Pikesville, Marie got a teaching job in Baltimore City that paid $6,000, and they bought a new Chevy Malibu.
During school Paul interned at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, then the Maryland Public Defender’s Office. On top of that, he created all the newspaper advertising for his father’s store and mailed the art to him every week.
In 1975, Paul got his Juris Doctor degree and was ready to move back to Miami to work for his dad. But now, Marie liked Baltimore and didn’t want to leave. Once again they almost separated.
Paul had always hoped he and Marie could build a love together, but after returning to Miami, he realized it would never happen. By 1977, Paul finally resolved they would both be better off divorced, but that’s when Marie got pregnant. Now it was too late.
Before the baby was born, Susan came to Fort Lauderdale with Gary for a computer software convention. For six years Susan had kept her promise not to talk to Paul, but now she decided to call.
They had lunch. It made Susan think about what might have been. To expunge her anger, she asked why he had left her in 1969. “I’ve been thinking about it every day of my life since then. It changed my life, and I have to know the answer.”
Paul was flabbergasted. She told him her life with Gary was as miserable as the life he described with Marie. That moment they both remembered that love, passion and marriage were supposed to go together. They couldn’t go back, but could they begin again? He suggested an affair.
She wanted to say yes but had to say no as a practical matter. With a new baby on the way he had no way out of his marriage. And if Gary found out she would have no one.
Paul hoped the baby, Shana, would bring out the best in Marie but it didn’t. She had been teaching at a Jewish day school on Miami Beach, about to climb the ladder to assistant vice principal, and resented that now she’d have to pass up the promotion. Paul tried to appease her with a three-carat diamond ring and a fulltime nanny, but neither solved anything. To escape, she locked herself in her room or ran to her mother, who would let her spend nights there, away from the child. She began seeing a therapist. Eventually she quit her teaching job but still didn’t spend more time with the baby.
Instead of putting his energy into the marriage, Paul put it into his work. His dad gave him carte blanche; he could do anything he wanted with the business, as long as they made a profit. And it did; about a million dollars a year by 1980. Paul’s salary rose to $200,000 plus bonuses and perks.
It was ironic that Joe Luskin and his brother had split over the issue of expanding the business, for by the 1980s, the Florida Luskin’s was thirteen stores, from South Miami to Orlando, and they were talking about covering the whole state and farther. Already it was the largest consumer electronics chain in the state, and arguably the most successful. They had sixty thousand square feet of retail space, and it now sold video as well as audio. In 1984 Paul’s parents gave Paul a third of the business as a reward for running it.
After a while, the business began to run itself, and Paul looked for other diversions. He became friends with Gene Hawkins, national rep for Shure turntable cartridges, and husband of Florida Senator Paula Hawkins. Paula suggested Paul run for Congress in 1982 as a Republican. Paul thought about it, then said no because he had watched his friend Alvin Entin get trounced when he tried in 1980.
In 1985, Paula tried to get Paul involved again. When she formally announced she would run for re-election, she made Paul her top fundraiser—a complete surprise to him. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan came to Miami for a fundraising gala, she made Paul a cochair, assigned to greet all the VIPs. He did the same for Vice President George Bush’s dinner.
Paul had always liked to tinker in the back room, like his dad, and Gene Hawkins got him design work testing electronic tolerance levels for Shure cartridges. Following that, other audio-video companies asked Paul for technical, cosmetic and packaging suggestions. Quasar used some of his ideas when they manufactured the first VHS camcorder.
Beyond that there was travel. As sales incentive bonuses, he went on paid trips to Japan, China, India, and Denmark. On a trip to France, he took both his parents and Marie’s parents. But sometimes Marie turned him down, and he went alone. He’d go places on a whim; once a Panasonic rep told him about the Shrimp Creole at a New Orleans restaurant. “Okay, let’s go to lunch there,” Paul said. They did. He called Marie first, but knew she’d say no.
A year after Shana’s birth Paul and Marie moved from their modest $55,000 house in North Miami Beach to a $130,000 house not far away. New next-door neighbor Diane Yariv thought they were the ideal couple. Marie was quiet and cordial, and neither ever raised their voice. “She was constantly getting gifts. I thought, what a lovely relationship, for a husband to want to do that.”
But Diane also noticed Marie never laughed, and didn’t seem to share any of her husband’s pleasures. She loved to talk about dieting. “We dieted together, she lost seventy pounds, and fit into size 10 Calvin Klein jeans,” Diane said. But Marie didn’t stay slim. “When Marie was upset, she’d eat. And Marie was a very unhappy person.”
At a rare moment when Marie confided in Diane, she said she had been an only child until seven, then her mother had twin girls. After getting all the spotlight, her parents’ attitude turned to “Get lost, we don’t have time for you.”
“Marie’s not a loving person. She doesn’t give it, and probably isn’t able to receive it,” said Diane. “Some people equate eating with childhood and mother giving you love for eating. But getting fat makes you feel worse, and then you punish yourself further by eating more.”
When Diana was born in 1982, Paul bought Marie a seven-carat diamond for $18,000. Marie responded by having her tubes tied against Paul’s wishes. Then she declared the new house too small. In 1983 they saw a nine-bedroom house in Emerald Hills. The sellers were separated and would take $600,000, but only if it was in cash and the sale could be completed within a week. Paul and Marie had $200,000, plus the value of their current house, and Paul’s parents offered to write a check as a loan for the difference. Months later, when Paul and Marie sold the old house, they repaid $100,000 of it.
Marie took Diane Yariv on a tour of the new house. She was shocked when Marie pouted, “I wish I could be like you. You’re so happy. You’re so together.”
“Marie, you’re like a princess in a fairy tale. What’s not to be happy? You have a wonderful house, children, a wonderful husband. And you don’t have to work.”
Years before, Diane and Marie had attended a womens’ group meeting and the topic was “Do you know where your husband’s assets are?” The speaker’s advice was to continually better your surroundings, so should you divorce later, your husband will be forced to support you in the lifestyle to which you have become accustomed.
In the big house, Diane saw the first open rift between Paul and Marie. Sitting together on a sofa, Paul tried to take Marie’s hand but she abruptly moved it away. Diane couldn’t believe it. She wondered if Marie had been following the speaker’s advice all this time.
When Paul came home from work every night at eight, Marie locked herself in her room with her Harlequin Romances, leaving him to take care of the children and put them to bed.
Instead of complaining, Paul embraced the “Dad-daughter” time. He invented bedtime stories called “Daddy’s Funky Fairy Tales,” which included “The Pep Monkeys—Manny, Moe, and Jack Monkey,” an inside joke that referred to The Pep Boys, an auto service chain with a cartoonish logo that had a store in Baltimore near the original Luskin’s. When Paul would say Manny Monkey ate peanuts, the girls knew to shout “Monkeys don’t eat peanuts! They eat bananas!”
Paul was a toy buyer—both for the kids and himself. Whenever he saw something for the kids he thought was neat—never dolls—he’d bring it home and they’d all get down on the floor together and play with it. Finger paints, Play-Doh, Paul had no prohibitions about making a mess.
Child discipline wasn’t Paul’s strongest suit.
Every Saturday he spent alone with Shana, every Sunday with Diana. They went to Grand Prix race-a-rama for go-carts and video games, picnics, every church fair, the Space Transit Planetarium, the Miami Seaquarium. If there was nothing else to do, they’d drop in at Paul’s sister Nance’s shop, Le Chocolatier, and they’d dip fresh strawberries in warm chocolate.
Every November, Paul took his kids and Diane’s kids to the Broward County Fair. Marie always stayed home. Paul wouldn’t miss a ride, except the ones adults couldn’t fit onto. If the kids wanted to skip one, he’d go on it alone.
After a while, Paul would ask everyone if they were ready for some serious junk food. “Oh yeah,” said Diane, “you got the right person. They ate corn dogs and cotton candy and Dove Bars till they were sick. The kids loved it. It was a relief for them, because at home Marie always insisted they count calories.” At the same time, Paul said, Marie would eat a bowl of ice cream.
Once Shana said she had never been to Washington, so they flew there and walked in on Paula Hawkins’s news conference. Shana got on TV, and was beaming.
“If you had all the money you needed, and had the time, why not do it?” he asked, blithely.
By 1985 Marie was impossible to live with, Paul said. In May they took a cruise around Greece but Marie wouldn’t leave the boat when they got to the ports, and avoided his parents, who had also come. On their anniversary June 6, he gave her roses but she threw them in the trash and said this year she wanted carnations. She began taking evening tennis lessons at Emerald Hills Tennis Club, but returned without having broken a sweat. She wanted a $22,000 Piaget watch, but when Paul said no, she threw a screaming fit. Paul’s mother Mildred gave Marie a pair of earrings for Shana, but Marie threw them back across the table. “These are inappropriate for a little girl. They’re too big.” Mildred muttered, “Never again.”
SUSAN RETURNS ONCE MORE
In April 1985 Gary Davis got a new job in south Florida, and flew there alone, leaving Susan behind in Columbus to care for the two kids, ages four and six, and to paint and spackle the walls before they listed the house for sale.
That sort of assignment was nothing new. When it snowed, Susan had to shovel half the driveway, and in the summer, mow half the lawn.
They had just had two big fights. When Gary suggested they move somewhere, Susan said Baltimore, but he wouldn’t consider it. Then when Susan’s grandmother died, Gary didn’t want to go to the funeral and couldn’t understand why Susan was angry about it.
Susan had never considered separating from Gary, although she felt her relationship was crumbling. While he was gone she was surprised she didn’t miss him.
In June Susan flew to Florida to see the modest house Gary had picked out. On the last day of her trip she called Paul at work and offered to show him the place. As they drove there, Paul couldn’t believe it—it was in Hollywood Hills, maybe a mile from his house in Emerald Hills. The thought made Paul apprehensive. While he and Susan had been far away, they had controlled their feelings for each other.
As Paul had never told Marie the truth about Susan, neither had Susan told Gary about dating Paul.
That summer, the Luskins put out the welcome mat for the Davises. The Luskin girls and Davis boys were about the same ages, and they played together around the pools at both houses. On weekends, Paul took everyone out on his boat, the Jolly Roger, followed by barbecues afterward. At Paul’s suggestion Marie took Susan under her wing and she graciously introduced her to Hollywood society.
But in the midst of the camaraderie, the inevitable begun. Paul observed that Gary didn’t respect Susan and told her she didn’t have to put up with it. “I don’t?” she asked with an absence of sarcasm. It was then she realized she hated Gary; nor would she be able to stay just friends with Paul.
Almost everyone who saw Paul and Susan together that summer noticed something between them. The most notable exception was Marie, who tried to stay aloof. The giveaway was Paul pushing Susan into the swimming pool. Marie never let him do that to her; it would have messed up her hair and her nails. All the kids saw it and giggled. Richard Jehlen, Paul’s sister Nance’s husband, sniffed something scandalous was up. “Who the hell is she? And where did she come from?” he asked discreetly. Gary, too, had suspicions.
By late summer tensions were ready to boil over. Susan’s six-year-old, Jeremy, asked Shana to come over and play, and Marie said no. Then Jeremy appealed to his mother to ask Paul. Susan did, and predictably he said sure.
That got Marie’s goat. She called Susan and screamed, “How dare you go around me? Don’t you ever go around me again!” To Susan, it felt like Marie was talking to her as if she was the parent and Susan was the child. While Marie continued her tirade, Susan held the phone at arm’s length, paying attention only to the din, waiting for Marie to pause for a breath. When she did, Susan said, “I’m hanging up now.”
Marie said that by August, she and Paul were barely speaking.
That month, when a Miami TV station needed an expert to comment on camera about that day’s U.S.-Japanese trade news, they asked Paul. That night, he and Marie watched the broadcast together, but she was completely disinterested in what he had to say. “You know, on TV you look 10 pounds fatter,” she told him. For Paul, that did it.
In September, the families were to attend Yom Kippur services together, and Susan told Paul she’d like everyone to break the day-long fast at her house. She didn’t realize it was a faux pas to ask Paul, not Marie. Later, Marie called Susan to reproach her that “the social life in the family is my job, and goes through me. Business and moneymaking in the family is Paul’s job.”
The day was a disaster. Gary got bored and left services early to motorcycle to the beach. Susan, who is religious, got steaming mad at him.
Paul was just as angry at Marie. In the early afternoon, he had the honor of removing the Torah from the ark, which his kids wanted to see. Instead Marie took them home because services were running late.
The two couples had sat in separate rows, but now that Paul and Susan were alone, they joined. They knew there was nothing in either marriage to save, and at that moment, they didn’t even care. The week before, Susan had asked Paul if he still had his Pikesville High class ring, gold with a raised panther design and a purple glass stone. He had never given it to her when they went steady. That day in synagogue, nineteen years later, Paul took it off his finger and gave it to her. He admonished her, “if you run into trouble because of Gary, give it back to me, to let me know.”
In early October Paul was asked on short notice to come to New York on business.
He said he asked Marie to go with him, as always, but she wanted to go to Wilmington instead. “Are you going to see Leslie?” he asked, her old boyfriend who was since married.
“I’ll probably see him,” she said. “How big is Wilmington?”
Marie’s version was that she did want to go to New York so she could shop. But for the first time, he absolutely forbade her to go, which raised her suspicions.
That weekend Susan was in Princeton, New Jersey, alone, for an annual computer convention called the Rainbow Fest, selling software Gary had created. She even bought him a “Rainbow Fest” T-shirt.
Paul finished his business in New York early, and showed up totally unannounced at Susan’s booth. “I was in the neighborhood—in New Jersey,” he said.
“Go away, I’m working and you’re distracting me,” she told him. “I can’t work with you here.”
Paul was crestfallen. He stuck out his lip like a deflated puppy dog, so Susan asked him to come back at the end of the day, they’d have dinner. Paul left, but couldn’t stay away. A short while later he returned with a tin of Famous Amos cookies for people who stopped at her booth. He put up a sign: Free cookies and a free smile.
That evening they strolled around the Princeton University campus. They ate dinner at a cafe and danced at the hotel disco. They asked each other why they didn’t marry, the same thing they had asked at lunch in 1977.
He followed her back to her hotel room in the Hyatt Regency. “It didn’t seem unusual for him to come to my room—it was just Paul,” she said.
But once in the room she didn’t want him to leave.
The lost years of emotion and passion filled the room. They were teenage lovers again, grown up. They knew it was wrong in 1969, and they knew it was wrong in 1985.
“I belong here. This is the way everything should have been,” Susan cried the next morning. “I’ve always been drawn to you. It’s always been hard to see you with Marie. Even when I sat next to my own husband.”
“I feel so guilty,” he answered. “Guilty for what I’ve done to you all these years, and guilty because we won’t get away with this.”
“I wasn’t surprised you made an advance,” she said.
“I was,” he said. “I didn’t go when I should have, and you didn’t tell me to go when you should have.”
Paul ordered breakfast from room service. It was a simple thing, but no one had ever done that before for Susan, and she thought it was the height of romance. But after it came, it struck her that these were fleeting moments.
“Oh shit. What are we going to do?”
“We have to pick up our regular lives,” he said.
“I don’t want to go home. The fairy tale will end. Real life’s not so great.”
Paul and Susan never dreamed what would follow…
(You might be surprised by the answer…)
In broad daylight
On a dead-end Miami street of dreams called
A hundred witnesses nearby,
Who got away with killing “The Don” of powerboat racing,
A True Story
SPEED KILLS is a journalistic account of the actual investigation of the murder of Don Aronow in Miami, Florida in 1987. The events recounted in this book are true. Names that have been changed are noted in the text as such. Research has been done using author interviews, law enforcement and other public records, published and broadcast news stories, and books. Quoted sworn testimony has been taken verbatim from transcripts.
Copyright 1998, 2013 by Arthur Jay Harris
Published by arrangement with the author.
Originally published by Avon Books
The heroic spirit has fallen from grace. Time and technology have shrunk the number of acceptable outlets for the daring, aggressive nature that swung the sword and mapped the unknown, until it has come to be associated primarily with criminals.
“HOW WE BECOME WHAT WE ARE”
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY, SEPTEMBER 1994
The psychopath and the hero are twigs of the same branch.
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR AND RESEARCHER
QUOTED IN THE SAME STORY
How do I want to be remembered? You mean after I’m gone? Who gives a fuck?
AUGUST 1985, TO THE ROBB REPORT
(WHICH EDITED HIS LANGUAGE FOR PUBLICATION)
In 1984, Vice President George Bush, who owned a Cigarette, came to Miami to personally test-drive Aronow’s prototype for the Blue Thunder drug interdiction boats for U.S. Customs. From left: Willie Meyers, Bush (in ski goggles), two Secret Service men, and Aronow. Photo courtesy John Crouse
An Aronow family Christmas card photo, with Don, Lillian, and son Gavin. Photo courtesy Newcomb and Fran Green
Don and Lillian in the Winner’s Circle. At left, his trainer Newcomb Green. In 1985, Don’s stable was the top winner at Gulfstream Park. Photo courtesy Newcomb and Fran Green
Helicopter shot of Miami’s N.E. 188th Street, bordered on both sides by canals and dead-ending into Biscayne Bay (to the east, beyond the top of the photo). On left, the boat storage facility of Fort Apache Marina; behind that is Apache Performance Boats. Not in the shot, USA Racing Team is across the street from and east of the Apache facilities. Photo courtesy Metro-Dade Police Department
Don Aronow’s Mercedes-Benz at the spot of the shooting, in front of Apache Performance Boats. Crime scene photo courtesy Metro-Dade Police
Close up of where a bullet exited the passenger door of the Mercedes. Photo courtesy Metro-Dade Police
On an industrial street just behind Loehmann’s that dead ends into Biscayne Bay, a place most Miamians don’t know exists and would need a map to find, Brooklyn-born Donald Joel Aronow made his name, most of his fortune, and satisfied his whims in a way few men ever do. An immigrant’s son, he built boats that went fast—very fast—and sold them to kings, princesses, presidents-for-life propped up by the U.S., CEOs, the CIA, fugitive financiers, oil-wealthy Arabs, the Mossad, big-league dopers, the people who tried to catch big-league dopers, current and to-be U.S. presidents, and every other type of rogue who could borrow a briefcase and stuff it with enough high denomination dinars.
But that was not how he made money, he would tell you. Like the guy who was so impressed by a Remington razor that he bought the company, Aronow tried to impress you with his boats so you would buy his company.
Then you’d sue him after you had.
His door was open to anyone, but he’d cut you off after a few minutes. His boats were gorgeous but his office was ramshackle and disorganized. He didn’t dress well. He owned a Rolls but hated it, and for years drove to work in a fire-engine red Rabbit convertible, too cramped for his six-foot plus frame. But he had his priorities. He built a false wall in an office closet that led to a spiral staircase and an upstairs room where he entertained young ladies in a suite with a large bed, and a shower with more nozzles than most people would find necessary. His friends would one-up each other with stories about him. One said he saw Aronow ascend the stairs with three women, one after another, each one gorgeous. When he came down, he’d light a cigar and say with a big grin, “Nothin’ like it.”
“That’s nothing,” said another Aronow observer on N.E. 188th Street, Thunderboat Row. “I saw him one day with four. The oldest one was twenty-four.” Not bad for a man pushing sixty, ethnic-swarthy with thick eyebrows, and half-blind. No wonder he always complained to his wife that he was too tired to do much in the evenings.
Aronow was the living, breathing personification of what his muscle boats could do for your flagging sex life. For a long time, his primary market was rich men in middle-age crises. His most famous boat company was called Cigarette—which became the generic name for all fast boats—and one blunt full-page ad for the company in a Spanish-language boat magazine said what was too vulgar to properly express in the English-language: “Mas que un objecto sexual… Una tigresa entre gatitos”—“more than a sexual object, a tiger among kittens.”
The chicks flocked. Satisfied Aronow customer Bill Wishnick volunteered a testimonial for a Sports Illustrated profile in 1969. “I was a married, out-of-shape, middle-aged businessman,” he said. “Now I’m divorced, an ocean racer and a swinger. Seeing Don was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Aronow’s most famous picture defined him—smirky grimace, ebullience in the deep lines of his forehead, both cotton sleeves badly ripped at the shoulders, his hand bracing an injured elbow that should have slowed him down at least the six feet he won the five-hundred-mile marathon by, but didn’t.
Even beyond the last day of his life, Aronow’s fans held the moment of that picture as who he would forever be.
No other sport, not even auto racing, causes as many fatalities as powerboat racing. Even beside that, ocean-going powerboaters give their bodies an incredible pounding each time their crafts bisect a choppy wave at high speed. In his career, Aronow broke his nose, an arm, a foot, and his sternum as he tried to control his boat while racing full throttle in the most dangerous seas. Sometimes his boat would lurch a hundred feet out of the water, then crash into the next wave. And for most of his racing years, he refused to wear a helmet.
Aronow was in his thirties and forties when he did all this to himself. What was he trying to prove by this adult ritual of passage? What childhood deficit was he trying to even the score with? Aronow’s friendly competitors those years called him “that crazy Aronow,” who won races not necessarily with the fastest boat, but because he was fearless in the worst of conditions. As he passed boats that prudently slowed down, he smiled. Other racers thought he had a death wish.
When Don was forty and his daughter Claudia sixteen, she wondered out loud, “I wonder what Daddy will be when he grows up.”
By 1987, almost two decades had passed since his last race, and he was planning to make a comeback. Usually, older men don’t put themselves in danger the way they might have as younger men. But Don Aronow had shown few signs of growing up even after age forty, so that rule might not have applied.
Aronow once described himself as “something of a juvenile delinquent” until he was seventeen.
“He was a juvenile delinquent when he was forty,” said his longtime friend Dick Genth, himself a racer and boat builder. “He was a juvenile delinquent when he was shot.” Genth remembered barroom brawls, free-for-alls, and a food fight with tortillas that Aronow instigated in a restaurant in Mexico. “Don was a big laugh,” he said.
Eras can end in a single moment. The flapper Twenties ended the instant the stock market bubble burst in 1929. A similar graphic truth that powerboating’s—and Miami’s—Go-Fast Eighties had met its sudden, sobering end February 3, 1987 was the sight of Don Aronow’s blood pooling onto the bucket seat of his gleaming white two-seater Mercedes, idling at high rev a few hundred yards west of his last big-name boat company.
Don Aronow had sold pleasure boats to celebrate life. Murder was not supposed to be part of it.
In a time when Miami was Murder City U.S.A., Aronow’s was the city’s scariest and most glaring. Up to then, Miami had oddly celebrated its dubious image. Those of us here knew that most of those statistics were rooted in drug deals gone sour, and if bad guys wanted to kill each other, c’est la vie in the big city. Meanwhile, Miami Vice reminded us that drug money had added wealth, elegance, and excitement to the city. And it was true.
But Aronow didn’t have a reputation of involvement with criminals, although his murder certainly exuded those trappings.
The world was about to change anyway. The age of AIDS was arriving. The stock market free-fell 508 points on a single day later that year. Nancy Reagan had repeated “Just Say No” enough to make the message sink in. The public paired Cigarettes and smuggling. So did the Marine Patrol; Cigarettes headed for open water were routinely stopped, on no other suspicion than they were Cigarettes. NBC canceled Miami Vice.
Later the same week Aronow was killed, Carlos Lehder, the head of the Medellin cocaine cartel, was apprehended in Colombia and extradited to Florida to face federal charges.
The Go-Fast business quickly went limp. Nobody wanted them; they were too expensive, they ate too much fuel, they were beautiful relics of a lost time of excess and machismo.
Had Don Aronow died racing even one day before his murder, he would have gone out a hero. But on the closer scrutiny he got after he was gone, it turned out that what made Aronow great and glamorous were probably the same qualities that led to his premature death.
That is to say, if it was a premature death. Aronow might also have been on an inevitable collision course whose day of impact could not be put off much longer. Did the pleasure machine mutiny and kill its creator?
When Elvis Presley died, songwriter Neil Young suggested in the medium that Presley had entered as a raw talent, then helped to corrupt, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away:”
The King is gone, but he’s not forgotten.
This is a story about Johnny Rotten…
There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.
TUESDAY FEBRUARY 3, 1987
February 3, 1987 began like most other perfect, warm, and sunny southern Florida winter days.
Don Aronow was less than a month shy of his sixtieth birthday. Nothing seemed to be wrong that morning, his wife, Lillian, said. He got up at seven, called his office, USA Racing Team, at about nine, and talked to his salesman, Jerry Engelman. He said he reminded Aronow that he had an eleven o’clock meeting at Financial Federal Savings and Loan, of which he was a member of the Board of Directors.
The bank was run by his friend and fellow boat builder Elton Cary. Cary’s wife, Frances, shared half the stock with him, but after they divorced, Cary had enlisted Aronow to help him gain voting control of the board. Frances had since taken Cary, Aronow, and others to court, and at that moment the tide was turning in her favor.
After 9:30 Aronow left his house to check on the new Spanish-Mediterranean bay-front mansion on Miami Beach that he and Lillian had bought for $2.1 million and were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars—much of it in cash—to remodel. Built in 1929, the mansion had 9,900 square feet, eleven bedrooms, nine baths, and a private dock with the most stunning view in town—downtown Miami’s new postmodern skyscrapers, almost all banks, buffered by miles of shimmering blue water. On both sides of the mansion were estates owned by English disco stars the Bee Gees. Don and Lillian planned to move in once the work was done.
But Mike Kandrovicz, Aronow’s longtime jack-of-all-trades, said Aronow got a “threatening” phone call that morning at the new house. He was standing with Aronow when he got it. Aronow got nervous—extremely unusual for him, Kandrovicz said—and wouldn’t discuss it.
At 10:30 Aronow called Engelman again and said he was on his way to the bank. Normally those meetings ended at 1:30.
At almost two o’clock, on his way to his USA Racing Team office, he called his elder son Michael, and got Michael’s wife, Ellen. He was in a good mood, she said. He said he was supposed to have a meeting at the Apache Marina.
At the shop, Patty Lezaca, Aronow’s office administrator, said she saw a car with dark- tinted windows drive into the parking lot. Kandrovicz said he saw it too, and noted it was black. Minutes later, Aronow arrived, bearing the mail. It was sometime after two o’clock. He went straight to his desk, stopping to berate Engelman about a boat engine order.
Within a few minutes came a foreshadow of what was to happen.
Someone entered the front door and walked in front of Engelman’s desk. He was in his thirties, about Aronow’s height—which was six feet, three inches—with collar-length, sandy blond hair, a blond moustache and sideburns, wearing a straw-colored hat, a red pullover shirt and Bermuda shorts. Nobody in the office had ever seen him before.
Could Lezaca help him? He asked to speak with Don Aronow, then looked right at him without recognizing him.
“What do you want?” Aronow said.
He wasn’t a boat buyer, Engelman could tell; he looked more like a truck driver. Kandrovicz thought he looked like a bodyguard.
“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you,” the man said. “I’ve left messages.” He said he worked for a very rich man, with an Italian surname, who wanted to make an appointment to buy a boat.
“I never heard of him,” Aronow answered.
Engelman could tell something else was happening, and he thought Aronow was trying to find out what the hell the guy was doing there. Then the conversation got weird.
He was proud of his boss, he said. “He picked me up off the street when I was sixteen and took care of me. I’d even kill for my boss.” Then he said his name was Jerry Jacoby.
Everyone in the office knew Jerry Jacoby, but this was not the same man. The Jacoby they knew—who was short—had won powerboat racing’s world championship in 1981 and the U.S. championship in 1982. Also in 1982, he had organized a group that purchased Cigarette Racing Team from Aronow, although the deal had since resulted in litigation.
Aronow said he didn’t make appointments, but told the man just to bring his boss to the business and he could be there within ten minutes. Then Aronow asked him for identification.
“Jacoby” reached into his back pocket, stopped, then said he didn’t have it with him. He had it in his car, he said, and went outside to find it, then never came back. For the moment, Engelman, Kandrovicz and Lezaca didn’t think anything more of the incident.
Aronow then returned some messages, and called his old friend and protégé Bobby Saccenti at Apache Boats to ask when he would pay the $16,000 balance of the $24,000 he owed Aronow for engines he had bought ten months earlier. Aronow told Saccenti he would stop by—diagonally across the street—to see him.
Minutes later, Aronow walked out of the office, then Ben Kramer called for him. Lezaca said he had left for the day.
In the previous year Ben Kramer—another Aronow protégé—and his dad Jack had built Fort Apache Marina, a high-rise boat storage facility with a casual waterfront restaurant and wooden patio bar called Apache Landing that was popular on weekends. It had brought some classy looks to a street that sold itself as a boulevard of wet dreams but was really just a bunch of gritty plants loud with buzz saws, its air heavy with the smell of lacquer and dusty with airborne fiberglass.
Ten minutes later, Aronow walked back in. He had been talking in the parking lot to Mike Peters, who had just started as a salesman for him the day before. Aronow then wrote down some numbers.
“Ben Kramer just called you,” Lezaca told him. “I thought you had left.”
“No, I’m leaving now,” Aronow responded, not anxious to speak to him, it seemed to her. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He added that after seeing Saccenti, he would be going home.
Another ten minutes later, Kramer called again. Lezaca explained what had just happened.
Meanwhile, Aronow drove across the street to Saccenti’s shop and walked in back. There, he found Saccenti and Mike Britton—a marine supplier—and George Bacher, a sixty-seven-year-old man who had commissioned Saccenti to build him a boat. Aronow asked Britton if he could help him find a molding for a staircase at his new house and some trim work for one of his boats.
Britton and Aronow then walked to the street, where Aronow had parked his new 1987 white Mercedes 560 sports coupe next to Britton’s blue-and-white 1986 Ford pickup. Britton drove out of his parking space forward, and Aronow backed up behind him.
That’s when Britton saw a dark Lincoln Town Car with tinted windows, about ten yards away, in front of the construction site on the other side of the road from Apache Boats. It was parked half on the dirt and sand shoulder of the narrow street, facing east as Britton was about to head west. The driver’s window was down, and Britton could see the driver looking at him.
Britton said the man was tall, in his thirties, had wavy dark brown hair combed straight back, and was clean-shaven with a day or two’s growth of facial hair. He was white but had a tanned complexion, and wore a white shirt.
At their closest, when they passed, they were just a few feet apart, keeping eye contact the entire time. Then Britton drove on to Fort Apache—a total trip of hardly fifty yards from Saccenti’s.
Then he heard gunshots.
Britton finished parking his truck, then raced back toward Aronow. In a hurry, the Lincoln passed him, going west. It had turned around.
It was just before 3:30—when some of the boat shops sent their production workers home for the day. People swarmed into the street, as they would have had nothing happened.
By the time Britton got to the car, others had arrived. By happenstance, Bobby Saccenti’s personal physician, Dr. Wesley King, was also present. He would have the other onlookers take Aronow out of the car and place him flat on the street; then he would begin CPR.
The car was sitting parallel in front of the painted sign on Saccenti’s building that read APACHE. Britton found Aronow’s driver’s side window nine-tenths down, the automatic transmission in neutral, and Aronow’s foot pressed against the accelerator like a rock, forcing the engine to rev at its most shrill. Apparently, Aronow had stopped for a moment to kibitz with his killer.
Metro-Dade Police Dispatch
Since the shooting had happened in an unincorporated part of Dade County (although its postal address was North Miami Beach), Metro-Dade Police received the 911 call that went out. Dispatch radioed a bulletin of a shooting at 3161 N.E. 188th Street and a BOLO—be on the look out—for a dark Lincoln Continental that was being pursued by an observer of the shooting, who was driving a black 1986 Toyota pickup truck with the word “Cigarette” on the side.
Since Metro-Dade Police District 6 and a fire station next door were just two miles south, fire rescue and a fire engine arrived in two or three minutes. They found Aronow lying beside his car and began applying life support, including an oxygen mask. Meanwhile, Aronow’s blood pooled underneath him, staining the road.
OFFICER OSCAR PLASENCIA
The first police officer arrived. He was Oscar Plasencia, who was cruising on road patrol at about 163rd and Biscayne Boulevard when he heard the dispatch. Immediately, he called for backup.
Onlookers had already begun to gather. Plasencia’s first actions were to clear room for the emergency workers, then secure the crime scene area by roping it off with yellow tape.
A minute later, Corporal Tim Williams arrived. As the two men pushed onlookers back, they began to ask around, “Did you see anything?”
George Bacher, who moments before had been talking to Aronow, approached Plasencia. He was holding a coffee-stained styrofoam cup with six brass-colored spent bullet shells. He said he had heard the shooting and came over to the car. Looking down a few feet south of where Aronow was lying, he said he and Eddie Beato, a twenty-one-year-old Cigarette employee, noticed the shells. Bacher said he collected five of them into the cup using the legs of his eyeglasses so he wouldn’t have to touch them with his hands—he said he had learned that from watching Kojak. But Beato had picked one up with his hands because he wanted to see what kind they were. The brand was Felco.
Plasencia took the cup and put it in his patrol car. He knew the two men were just trying to help; however, it would have been a bigger favor if they had left the evidence where it was and called an officer over to observe it.
The next witness Plasencia found was Mike Britton. He said he had seen the Lincoln’s driver lower his window and fire five rounds into Aronow’s Mercedes.
Another witness, twenty-five-year-old Michael Harrison, told Plasencia that he was in his vehicle traveling westbound in front of Aronow’s car when he saw a black Lincoln Continental driving eastbound. He got a glimpse of the driver: he was dark complected, with dark, bushy hair, and possibly a light beard—or just a couple days of growth.
DETECTIVES GREG SMITH AND JIM RATCLIFF
The first two homicide detectives on the scene were Greg Smith and Sergeant Jim Ratcliff. When they heard the dispatch call they happened to be on Miami Gardens Drive—N.E. 186th Street—and N.E. 6th Avenue, on another case. In the few minutes it took them to arrive, a number of other uniformed officers and Northeast district detectives had also gotten there, and the crowd of onlookers had grown to about fifty.
Some of those officers already had blocked off the west end of 188th Street. Since the east end dead-ended into the Intracoastal Waterway, that meant that everyone on the street had to stay put—even though the work day was over.
Ratcliff found Oscar Plasencia, who described what he had learned in the previous ten minutes. Then Ratcliff radioed for a crime lab unit to respond.
Smith surveyed the crime scene. On the ground near the left front fender of the Mercedes he found four white shirt buttons and a lead pencil with a small amount of blood. He also wrote down descriptions and license plate numbers of five vehicles parked nearby, all of which turned out to be owned by factory workers.
Then he and Ratcliff began working the crowd to find additional witnesses.
First, Ratcliff found Cigarette Racing Team employee Lynda Kirkland, aged twenty-three, who had called 911, but she hadn’t heard the shooting herself.
Next, Ratcliff talked to George Bacher. He said he had talked with Aronow, Britton, and Bobby Saccenti minutes before the shooting. When Aronow and Britton left in their vehicles, Bacher walked into Saccenti’s warehouse, and that’s when he heard either three or four gunshots.
Bacher said he quickly ran out to the street and saw Aronow slumped over his steering wheel. The Mercedes’s passenger-side door was open, and he noticed a bullet hole in it.
Mt. Sinai Medical Center
Metro-Dade helicopter Air Rescue One arrived with Aronow at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. Lillian Aronow, his wife, had already been called by Patty Lezaca, and told to go to the hospital. It was a short ride for Lillian, and she was there when the helicopter touched down.
Chief of emergency medicine Dr. Stuart Lerman immediately began heart massage and other attempts to revive Aronow. He had four gunshot wounds: to the front of the left shoulder, the rear of the left shoulder, his left side underneath the armpit, and his left wrist. Also, he had a graze wound to the right side of the chest, and cuts to the left cheek of his face. There was also extensive internal trauma to his lung and heart, and he had lost a lot of blood. His pulse was being supported artificially.
Dr. Lerman pronounced the victim deceased.
SERGEANT JIM RATCLIFF
Ratcliff interviewed Jesus Haim, aged thirty-four, employed at Apache Boats, who said he heard six gunshots, then ran into the street in time to see a fleeing Lincoln Continental, a newer model, very dark blue or black. But he couldn’t tell anything about who or even how many people were in it.
He said when he got to the Mercedes, the driver’s window was open but the passenger door was closed.
Haim said he saw the shell casings on the ground, and—contradicting George Bacher—Haim said he picked up four of them. He was even able to describe where he had found each: one was directly south of the Mercedes, on the south swale of the street; two were seven feet behind (to the east of) the Mercedes; and one was on north swale of the street.
Mario Alvarez, aged thirty, another Apache Boats employee who was inside working, said he heard either three or four shots. He said he and three or four other employees raced outside, and he saw a black four-door Lincoln Continental, new, leaving the area.
Marcus Brown, aged thirty-seven, also well working inside Apache Boats, said he heard six gunshots. He was standing next to a large exhaust fan with a louvered window that allowed him to see outside. He said he heard the shots, then immediately looked out the window and saw a black, late-model Mercedes sedan with dark-tinted windows approach Aronow’s white Mercedes, then drive around it and leave westbound.
Inside the dark car he saw two silhouettes, but couldn’t describe them at all. He insisted that the dark car was either a 300 or 500 series Mercedes, because he owned a similar one.
David Peña, aged twenty-three, a Cigarette Racing Team employee, said he was crossing 188th Street about a hundred yards east of the occurrence when he heard five shots. He immediately looked west and saw Aronow’s car, which he recognized.
He then saw a very dark blue or black Continental make a wide U-turn around Aronow’s car, then go westbound. He noticed the hubcaps: they had squared-off rims, as opposed to spokes. He also thought he had seen a sticker on the left side rear bumper of the Lincoln, although he couldn’t describe it.
DETECTIVE GREG SMITH
Smith interviewed Mike Britton, aged thirty-three. He said he had known Aronow for about eight years, and had come to 188th Street to speak to Bobby Saccenti. He then briefly described what he had seen happen.
DETECTIVE MIKE DeCORA
Mike DeCora had been at the medical examiner’s office in downtown Miami when his sergeant, Mike Diaz, found him and assigned him to be lead detective on the case. Within a half hour he arrived at 188th Street to find chaos, with the challenge of creating order out of it. Either on scene already, or en route, were ten homicide detectives to conduct interviews or canvass the area, two homicide sergeants, two crime scene technicians, and a Dade County assistant state’s attorney, Gary Rosenberg.
While Smith was interviewing Britton, a call came in from North Miami Police. Responding to a revised BOLO for a black Lincoln four-door driven by a white male, at about 4:45 they had spotted a black Lincoln Town Car with a license tag that had a “Z” in it (which indicated a rented or leased car) driving south on Biscayne Boulevard at about N.E. 110th Street, about five miles from the crime scene. They followed it west for about five minutes until it looked like it might enter an I-95 ramp, then they requested backup officers and stopped it. The driver was a white male.
He said he hadn’t been anywhere near N.E. 188th Street. He had left the Cricket Club on Biscayne and N.E. 114th Street and was on his way to pick up a friend at federal court in downtown Miami, then take him to Miami International Airport.
Archie Moore and Steve Parr were members of the same homicide team as Mike DeCora, all stationed at police headquarters west of downtown. On their way to the crime scene, DeCora ordered them to stop first at where the Lincoln had been detained. Then DeCora ordered Detective Paul Ohanesian, who was at the scene, to take Britton there.
DETECTIVE MIKE DeCORA
On the street, DeCora found Patty Lezaca, aged forty-three, Aronow’s secretary, who was in a panicky state. She described the Jerry Jacoby incident.
Then DeCora spoke to Ray Garcia, aged thirty-six, who said he had known Aronow for fifteen years, from horse racing. He had last seen Aronow the previous weekend at Hialeah Race Track, where Aronow had two horse trainers—Newcomb Green and J.R. Garrard. Garcia said Aronow had seemed to be in good spirits.
DETECTIVE GREG SMITH
Smith found Miguel Fernandez, aged fifty-five, a fiberglass worker for Apache Boats, who didn’t speak English well. He said he was working inside when he heard what sounded like four gunshots. Immediately, he raced out with three other workers—Jesus Haim, Mario Alvarez, and Marcus Brown—and they all ran to the white Mercedes. Fernandez said he didn’t see a car leaving the scene.
Michael Harrison, a stock room manager for Cigarette Racing Team, told Smith he was crossing 188th Street with David Peña—before the shooting—when he looked down the street and noticed both the Lincoln and Aronow’s Mercedes in stationary positions. He also looked at his watch; it was 3:25, almost quitting time.
[However, that contradicted what Officer Oscar Plasencia had written down when he had interviewed Harrison. He said Harrison told him he was in his vehicle traveling westbound in front of Aronow’s car when he saw a black Lincoln Continental driving eastbound, and that he got a glimpse of the driver.]
While crossing the street, Harrison told Smith, he heard about five gunshots, then saw the Lincoln—now he thought it was a black or dark blue Town Car—continue east, turn around the back of the Mercedes using the swale, then go west, although not at a particularly high speed.
Harrison described the Lincoln as a four-door with dark-tinted windows. He said he got a glimpse of the license plate: it was a Florida tag with the letter “Z”. He saw a bumper sticker, too, but he could only describe it as green, and on the left rear fender.
500 N.W. 95th Street
When Mike Britton arrived at North Miami Police’s traffic stop, he said it wasn’t the same car; this car had chrome on the bottom of the doors, and wire wheels. Also, the white male didn’t match the shooter: his complexion was too light; at five feet, six inches tall and 225 pounds, he was too short and too heavy, and he looked Latin, which was also wrong. Britton said the shooter was tall and slender, had a very high forehead, and his hair was combed back. Further, the man had a moustache and full beard—the most the shooter had was a day or so of growth.
Mt. Sinai Medical Center
By the time Detective Danny Borrego arrived at Mt. Sinai, Lillian Aronow had already left. Borrego spoke with emergency room head nurse Leslie Thompson, who said she gave Mrs. Aronow her husband’s wallet, containing $2,000 and credit cards. Then Borrego called DeCora to tell him Aronow was dead.
Borrego then went to see the body, lying on a gurney in the trauma room. Aronow’s shirt was off, but he was wearing light gray slacks with a tan belt, light brown deck shoes, and gray Calvin Klein briefs. Borrego reached into Aronow’s left rear pants pocket and found a key ring and comb. He wasn’t wearing any jewelry.
Borrego took the keys and comb for evidence. He also impounded six tubes of blood the hospital had taken on admission.
Crime lab technicians Carl Barnett and Kim Haney arrived at the scene.
First, they noted Aronow’s personal effects, left in the car: on the passenger seat was a well-worn tan leather portfolio, with a well-thumbed notebook inside; an expandable manila folder, with doodlings scrawled on it; two copies of the Daily Racing Form, one dated February 3, another folded open to a page listing past performances for horses running in the next day’s seventh race at Hialeah; unread copies of that day’s New York Times and Daily News; a medium-weight zippered leather jacket, also tan-colored; a brown tweed sportcoat; and a bright red vinyl windbreaker. In the small foot space behind the passenger seat was a green brochure entitled “Financial Federal.”
In the pocket area on the driver’s side door was a receipt for the visitors’ parking lot at Mt. Sinai Medical Center—ironically, the place where he had just died.
When they opened the glove compartment, out spilled a box of Chooz antacid gum; a package of Mercedes-Benz owner’s information; and about twenty (apparently losing) tote tickets from Calder Race Track, some for $100, some $300, some $600.
Inside the trunk were three boxed bottles of Bacardi silver label rum, two boxed bottles of Seagram’s VO whiskey, and a set of orange jumper cables.
Barnett and Haney also attempted to reconstruct the angles at which some of the bullets had been fired.
Since six casing shells had been found, and the emergency room had located four bullets in the body, that left two bullets unaccounted for.
Using colored rods, they showed that one bullet had struck the plastic molding of the driver’s side rearview mirror, cracking it and part of the glass. That same bullet then struck Aronow on the left wrist, which was probably holding onto the steering wheel (possibly hitting his Rolex watch, which wasn’t on the body or in evidence at the crime scene), then continued through the passenger-side door and exited. They found that projectile, in pretty good shape, outside the car.
The second missing bullet apparently had grazed Aronow’s torso on the right side. It then continued into the backrest of the passenger seat, exited the side of that seat, then hit the passenger door. However, this one didn’t have enough energy remaining to pierce metal; on the carpet in front of the passenger side rear seat, they found a deformed bullet.
Mt. Sinai Medical Center
Crime scene investigators Tommy Stoker and Susan Bowman arrived at the hospital to photograph the victim and swab his hands with cotton and alcohol, for evidence.
WTVJ Channel 4 had reporter Katrina Daniel live at the scene as dusk set, but she admitted she didn’t have much to say. Bystanders had told her the murder victim was Don Aronow, but police weren’t confirming anything. One unidentified person told her he had heard four or five shots; as he pieced it together from what others had told him, a black Lincoln Town Car had pulled up to Aronow’s white Mercedes as though to wave him down. That was when he heard the shots.
DETECTIVE STEVE PARR
When Detective Steve Parr arrived, DeCora asked him to interview Jerry Engelman. Engelman said he had worked for Aronow exactly one year and a day. The first thing he recalled was that on either the previous Friday or Saturday, a woman who said her name was Cynthia Anderson called the office and told him she worked for a wealthy man who wanted to meet Aronow so he could build him a racing boat for pleasure. She wanted to make an appointment for her boss, but wouldn’t give his name.
Engelman said he told her that Aronow didn’t make appointments; to see him they should just call before leaving, and he would be there. Engelman said he could tell it was a long distance call from a phone booth because he heard coins dropped in the phone.
When the man came in who said he was Jerry Jacoby, he said his boss wanted Aronow to build him a sixty-five-foot boat. Engelman replied that Aronow didn’t build sixty-five-footers, would the man’s boss be interested in a thirty-nine-footer? “Jacoby” answered he didn’t think so, however, his boss still wanted to meet Aronow. Could they make an appointment? Engelman told “Jacoby” what he had told Cynthia Anderson; have his boss call first, then come, and Aronow would meet him.
Responding to Parr’s questions, Engelman said “Jacoby” might have mentioned his boss’s name, but he couldn’t remember it. The man was in the office for about fifteen minutes, but didn’t touch anything, nor did Engelman see his vehicle.
Parr asked to look at Aronow’s telephone message pad, and found something intriguing. On January 21, he got a message from Jerry Jacoby, but with no return phone number.
Detectives Moore and Ohanesian took Britton to the nearby Metro-Dade Police substation. On tape, Britton contradicted himself on two major points from what he had told Officer Plasencia three hours earlier.
Britton had previously said that he had seen the Lincoln’s driver lower his window and fire five rounds into Aronow’s Mercedes.
Now he said, “I think I heard three shots. It could have been less or it could have been more, but for some reason I’m picking the number three. It just seems like there were three shots.”
He also added he hadn’t seen the shooting himself; someone named Mike who worked for Cigarette saw it and told him what had happened. That described Mike Harrison, who hadn’t mentioned that to Greg Smith.
“They saw this Lincoln Continental pull up alongside of Mr. Aronow’s car. They saw a hand come out with a gun, fire into the vehicle proceeding then east, and going around the back of Mr. Aronow’s car, turning north onto the grass and then heading west.”
Britton said he had passed the Lincoln before the shooting and looked at its driver. Moore inquired if he saw anyone else inside.
“To my best knowledge, the car was empty other than the one occupant.”
“Can you identify this person if you saw a picture or possibly a live lineup?”
“I honestly don’t know, you know, it’s very hard.”
Haim said he had heard either four or five shots. [Hours earlier, he said he had heard six.] “We took it for granted it was nothing, but we walked out anyway because we still heard an accelerating noise,” he said. The “we” included Marcus Brown, Miguel Fernandez, and Mario Alvarez.
Haim said he first saw what he thought was a Lincoln passing Aronow’s Mercedes on the passenger side traveling west. All of them walked out to the car, found Aronow still conscious; then Haim ran back inside Apache Boats to call for rescue.
Alvarez said he heard either three or four gunshots. When he and his coworkers walked outside, they were “kidding around”; then they saw the black Lincoln go by. He said he couldn’t see inside of it.
Alvarez went back inside the shop to finish what he was doing, then “I heard a car going up in RPMs and it was winding a lot.” That’s when he went to the white Mercedes and saw Aronow bleeding.
Brown was the closest of the fiberglass workers to the street. Instantly after hearing the shots, he looked through the ventilation window. The action happened just in front of him.
He said he heard six shots. “There were two shots, a short pause, and then four shots in rapid succession.
“I saw a white Mercedes Benz coupe stopped in the street, just to the east of the driveway of Apache Boats, and I saw a black late model Mercedes Benz [which everyone else had identified as some sort of Lincoln] approach the rear of the white Mercedes and pull around it.
“It seemed to be just beginning to accelerate but it accelerated rapidly as it went around the vehicle and then it went out of my field of vision. And I ran to the doorway of the glass shop, which has a large overhead door that goes out to the parking lot, to see what had happened.” That parking lot was at the west edge of the building, and led into the street.
“Did you see the occupants of that black vehicle?” Ratcliff asked.
“I saw two silhouettes,” Brown said. But he couldn’t describe them at all, not even whether they were men or women.
“I ran to [Aronow’s] vehicle. Before I reached the vehicle, someone reached in and turned off the ignition switch as the car was revving up because it was in neutral and the victim’s foot evidently was jammed against the accelerator. Then, I believe, Jesus and Mario ran away from the car to go to inform somebody to call the police as quickly as possible. And I went to the victim’s assistance. I raised his head up and felt his carotid artery to see if there was a pulse and I saw that he wasn’t breathing normally. So I held his head up and depressed his tongue with my fingers.
“I spoke to him a couple of times. I encouraged him to breathe, and he responded. The guy was tough. I told him ‘Take a breath. Take a breath.’ And I could tell it was a tremendous effort for him, and he did.”
“Did the victim say anything to you at all?”
“No, he made a couple of sounds, like he was going to say something, but what he articulated was really unintelligible.”
Bacher remembered nothing unusual about his last conversation with Aronow. In fact, they had kidded around.
Bacher then walked back into Apache’s shop area to look at his boat, talked for a moment to a worker, walked away, and then heard shots. He thought it couldn’t have been much more than a minute after he said “So long” to Aronow.
“It seemed like the first two were real quick, ‘bang, bang’ and then a split second or something, and then two, three or four more,” he said.
[Earlier he had told Sergeant Ratcliff he had heard only three or four shots, total.]
Bacher then ran to the car, but Marcus Brown had gotten there first. Bacher opened the Mercedes passenger door so Aronow could get more air.
[That also contradicted what Ratcliff had written down earlier. Bacher had said when he approached the Mercedes the passenger door was open.]
“I saw shells lying on the street pavement and I asked for people not to touch them. Jesus and Mario and I asked [someone around them] to get a piece of paper. We picked them up with the earpiece of my glasses, and Mario used a pen, and we got five or six shells and I gave them to a police officer,” he said.
Still at the crime scene, Mike DeCora asked six detectives to canvass shopping centers near the scene to look for a dark-colored Lincoln with tinted windows and a green sticker on the left rear bumper. In addition, he asked that security patrols at the parking lots of both Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports also be alerted to look for the car.
Further, DeCora asked detectives to check Biscayne Boulevard from downtown north to the nearby Broward County line, and all of Collins Avenue, on Miami Beach. While cruising Biscayne Boulevard southbound in North Dade, Detective Borrego spotted a Lincoln that matched the description, except for the lack of a green bumper sticker. When he checked its tag number, he found it was a 1985 Town Car, titled to Ford Motor Credit Company. He made a note of it, but didn’t stop it.
Metro-Dade Police Headquarters
Mike Aronow, the victim’s eldest son at thirty-seven, had learned of his father’s murder earlier in the day when Patty Lezaca called him at his home on Long Island, New York. He immediately flew to Miami, and he when he got there, he called the Metro-Dade Police homicide department, hoping to learn more.
Detective David Kosloske took the call and asked him to come to their offices.
When he arrived, with Elton Cary, Detective Sheldon Merritt interviewed Aronow, and Kosloske took Cary.
Mike was in a wheelchair. He explained that he had lost the use of his legs in a traffic accident while attending the University of Florida in the early ‘70s.
Since then, he said, he and his father had gotten involved in horse racing. Mike owned two horses himself, and trained them at Belmont Park, in New York. But his father owned more than a hundred horses at a farm called Aronow Stables, in Ocala, Florida, and he frequently raced them at south Florida’s three tracks: Calder, Hialeah, and Gulfstream. He was also a heavy gambler, usually betting $500 any time he’d place a bet. Often he used bookies; he’d give the bet to his confidant Norman Moffett, who would contact the bookies for him.
In fact, earlier that day, in the third race at Hialeah, his father had probably made a big score, he said. A horse trained by Moffett had won, paying 33-to-1. Mike had also placed a winning bet on it.
[The horse’s name was Lu Chano, and at Hialeah’s windows it paid $44.60 to win, crossing the finish line two and a half lengths in front. (Perhaps Mike had gotten 33-to-1 from a bookmaker.) The morning line in the newspaper had been 8 to 1, but at post time, it was 21 to 1, the third-longest shot in a claiming race for maidens—horses that had never won before. The race went off at about two o’clock, an hour and a half before the murder.]
Merritt asked if Mike knew any other of his father’s associates, and he answered Hal Halter, from New Orleans, who owned Halter Marine. Mike said his father had recently bought two very large boats from Halter for more than $100,000 each, which he planned to resell to a waiting buyer. But then the customer backed out of the deal, leaving Aronow holding the merchandise and upset. However, there was no way Halter could have been involved in his father’s murder, he said.
Then Merritt pursued the femme fatale angle. Mike said his father had fooled around a little with an old girlfriend named Missy Holiday who lived at Turnberry Isle—an exclusive development minutes away by boat from 188th Street.
Mike said his father had dated Missy in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but they had since broken up. During that time, he married Lillian Crawford, who had recently inherited a million dollars of her own money. Mike didn’t feel that Lillian could have had anything to do with his father’s murder, either.
Mike said his father had seemed upset over something in the previous week or two, but he didn’t know why. Earlier that day he had told Mike’s wife, Ellen, he was supposed to have a meeting across the street at [Fort] Apache Marina, but Mike didn’t know what for.
Merritt asked Mike if he felt [Fort] Apache Marina was somehow involved in the murder. To that, Mike answered strongly, yes.
But when Mike detailed Apache’s corporate history, as he knew it, he got very confused. He said his father had owned Apache and sold it to Bobby Saccenti, who had once worked for him as a carpenter.
[The real story was that Saccenti owned Apache Performance Boats, but not Fort Apache Marina. Further, although Don Aronow once owned the land on which both Apache Performance Boats and Fort Apache Marina stood, he had never owned any part of anything called Apache, of which—more confusingly—there was even a third separate entity, Apache Powerboats, in Hollywood. That and Fort Apache Marina were both owned by Ben and Jack Kramer.]
Then Mike said Apache had changed hands back and forth several times between his father and other owners due to financial problems brought on by Saccenti. [That part was true, with two corrections: Mike was talking about Cigarette Racing Team, a company that had been started by his father—not Apache; and therefore it had nothing to do with Saccenti.] Mike said he had last heard that Apache [read: Cigarette] was since doing better because financiers from Cleveland had taken over.
Then Mike added that Ben Kramer, the principal owner of [Fort] Apache [Marina], was a small-time organized crime member.
Mike said his father had owned a number of boat companies—perhaps that warranted his confusion—but at the time of his death, he had only one, USA Racing Team. He estimated his father’s net worth at between $18-25 million.
Before ending the interview, Mike said he had been told that two separate people had called Mt. Sinai Hospital’s emergency room wanting to know if his father was dead. Merritt answered that those callers might have been homicide detectives; however, he couldn’t say for sure.
Meanwhile, Kosloske had been interviewing Elton Cary. He said he was a close friend of both Don and Lillian, had known Don since 1959, and had been a fellow boatbuilder until 1973. They talked two to three times a week and met once a week. Aronow was a member of the board of directors of two of Cary’s companies: Financial Federal and General Insurance Corporation. Although Aronow had attended the weekly Financial Federal board meeting earlier in the day, that was unusual for him, he said.
“Good evening. Who killed multi-millionaire sportsman and powerboat designer Don Aronow?” asked Susan Lichtman of WTVJ Channel 4. The station reported that police had finally confirmed later in the evening that it was Aronow who was the victim, long after the station had gotten the same information from Mt. Sinai Hospital.
Still on the scene, Katrina Daniel reported bystanders saying that Aronow’s car had been ambushed by one or two men in a black Lincoln. They also interviewed boat salesman Richard Conti, who said he heard five rounds from a .45. “I shoot guns, I know the sound of a .45 caliber pistol,” he said.
Ray Garcia, earlier interviewed by the police, said, “He was a friend to everybody. I don’t know anyone who would speak bad of him or had anything bad to say about him.”
WCIX Channel 6 reported that the murder weapon might have been a machine gun. They also interviewed Aronow’s friend Don Soffer, developer of Turnberry Isle, who described Aronow as “smart, charming, handsome, tough as nails, and liked by everyone he came in touch with.
“I guess when you’re too much of a person, people get envious and that’s why these things happen,” he said.
WSVN Channel 7’s Michael Williams reminded viewers that Aronow’s boats had become popular with drug smugglers, but “in recent years, Aronow tried to help turn the tide on them by building highly powerful catamarans for the U.S. Customs Service.”
“He’s bigger than life in the sense that when you talk about these boats, this sport, he is it,” said Jay Busciglio.
“Don was the grand-daddy of powerboat racing. We all held him in very, very high esteem,” said Vic Spellberg.
1717 North View Drive
When DeCora and Steve Parr finally left the crime scene, they went to see Lillian Aronow at her home. Also there were Don’s two other children from his previous marriage, twenty-eight-year-old David, and thirty-four-year-old Claudia, who had both just arrived from the New York area.
DeCora asked that they speak to each of the family members alone. Lillian, aged thirty-six, invited the detectives into her living room. She said she and Don had been married eight years; before that, he had been married thirty years to Shirley, his first wife. They had lived together in Coral Gables, but now she lived out of town.
Lillian told them that for the previous month, they had gotten eight to ten hang-up calls a day, at all hours of the day and night—even more within the past two weeks. Something else disturbing her was that a man had called the hospital while she was there, asking if Don was alive or dead.
DeCora asked if her husband was much of a socializer. No, she said, he usually stayed home. Asked to list his closest friends, she named Dr. Bob Magoon, Elton Cary, and Jerry Jacoby.
DeCora also asked if she had any idea who was behind the murder. She named Ben Kramer. It was just a gut feeling, she said; she couldn’t prove it, mainly because Don had kept her away from all his business matters, but she just didn’t like him.
DeCora then turned to David Aronow. He said he was living in Lakewood, New Jersey, and owned a construction company that built houses. His father had helped him get started in the business, but about seven years before, they had fought, and David moved away. However, he said, in the last two years they had begun speaking, and become close again.
David volunteered that his father had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and as far as he knew, it was true. He had had affairs with women while he was still married to David’s mother. After they were divorced, his father even bragged to him about the various women he was seeing. But he knew of no problems between Lillian and Shirley, nor was there any friction between himself and Lillian.
DeCora asked David if he knew any reason why his father might have been murdered, or by who. He didn’t know, he said.
CLAUDIA ARONOW CAMPBELL
Claudia lived in New York City. She said the last time she had talked to her father was a week prior, when she was making plans for her son’s bar mitzvah. She said that the last time she had been in Miami, within the last few months, she had stayed with her dad and Lillian and seen no problems.
But her father did have a reputation for having affairs, although she didn’t know of any at present. She told DeCora that people were very jealous of his lifestyle and business sense, and that he had seemed to be intrigued with underworld-type people. He liked living on the edge, cheating death, she said. But she had no idea of who specifically would have murdered him.
Alexander Hotel, Miami Beach
MICHAEL AND DAVID ARONOW
At two in the morning, Mike called Detective Merritt back and asked him to come to his hotel room to talk further. Merritt and Steve Parr came.
Mike was there with his brother, David. He wanted to talk more about Apache, and a specific transaction between them and his father.
Mike did most of the talking. He said that people in Apache were definitely involved in narcotics smuggling. One of the times Apache had bought back the marina from his father [again, Mike was vague or confused on the actual transaction, as well as which Apache entity], Apache paid in cash that smelled of marijuana and had sand on it.
Mike described the deal; approximately a million dollars cash had passed under the table. He didn’t know what his father had done with the cash, nor whether he had had any numbered bank accounts.
He wasn’t sure if it was Apache or his father, but someone hadn’t made out as they had expected in the transaction, and hard feelings over money had followed.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 4
The lead banner headline in the morning Miami Herald was BOAT RACING LEGEND ARONOW SHOT TO DEATH.
“Offshore powerboat pioneer Don Aronow, a legend of speed at sea, was murdered Tuesday on a North Dade street lined with boat manufacturing companies he founded.”
The story quoted Patty Lezaca, Aronow’s secretary:
“I’ve been with him so long, I’d know if there were any problems… To me, Mr. Aronow had a good heart. I can’t say anything bad about him. He had no enemies.”
Mike Thaler, who told the Herald he used to do odd jobs around Aronow’s boat shops, said, “You can’t say ‘powerboats’ without using his name. He is the one who started it all. He is powerboat racing.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, Ana Barnett, said, “It sure sounds like a hit to me.”
The banner headline of the newsstand edition of the afternoon Miami News read VICE PRESIDENT, MECHANICS GRIEVE FOR ARONOW. It reported that Vice President George Bush was a speedboat-racing fan who knew Aronow personally.
“‘The vice president contacted Aronow’s wife and expressed his and Barbara’s sympathies,’ Bush’s press spokesman Steve Hirt told The Miami News last night. ‘He was concerned over the tragic and violent death and expressed his hope that those responsible would be brought to justice quickly.’”
Later that day, the final home edition headlined DETECTIVE CALLS ARONOW KILLING GANG-STYLE ‘HIT’.
“The killing of Don Aronow is being described by one [unnamed] police detective as being characteristic of a gangland-style murder, but friends of the offshore powerboat magnate say they are baffled about any possible motive.”
Since Aronow had built and sold Cigarette-style fast boats that smugglers used, as well as Blue Thunder catamarans for U.S. Customs to catch those Cigarettes, the News asked whether the U.S. Attorney was investigating Aronow, or whether he had been an informant for any government agency.
Ana Barnett said he hadn’t been under investigation, nor was he an informant, as far as she knew. Clifton Stallings, a U.S. Customs spokesman, answered a firm no to both questions. Barnett said that when Customs contracted for drug interdiction boats, they would have been very reluctant to deal with anyone under that kind of suspicion.
It was a quirk that just two hours before the shooting, Miami News reporter Jim Steinberg had talked to Aronow briefly by telephone for an upcoming business section article about the local boating industry, in advance of the forty-sixth annual Miami International Boat Show.
Steinberg was quoted in the main story that Aronow had given him no indication he knew his life was in danger. He was “jovial and ebullient,” and talked about building new styles of boats and getting back into racing.
Steinberg also wrote a sidebar story illustrated by a posed shot of Aronow taken the previous Friday afternoon for the business section. He stood on N.E. 188th Street, arms folded; the frame also revealed the spot in the distance where in a few days he would be murdered.
“Just hours before offshore powerboat racing champion and boat designer Don Aronow was gunned down, he answered his last questions from a reporter.
“Asked by The Miami News about 2 P.M. yesterday whether drug smugglers had ever tried to buy one of his famous high-speed boats, Aronow replied, ‘I suppose they have. It’s hard to tell… you can have your suspicions… My business is with law enforcement.’”
Aronow said of the twenty $150,000 Blue Thunders he had sold the previous year, U.S. Customs had bought thirteen. “He then quipped, ‘So they could catch smugglers using boats my other companies have made.’
“Aronow planned to come back into competition this summer, [boat-racing promoter and former Aronow public relations man John] Crouse said, and enter the grueling 362-mile Miami-Nassau-Miami Searace when a contract prohibiting competition with Cigarette expired.
“Time and again over the past twenty years, Aronow would found a company, develop a racing boat, build the company’s reputation by winning races, and then sell the company.
“‘Finally they (the buyers) got smart and started putting non-compete clauses in the purchase contracts,’ Crouse said.
“[F.M. ‘Ted’] Theodoli [owner of Magnum Marine] said Aronow’s macho style made him ‘a lot of friends and a lot of people who didn’t particularly care for him.
“‘I found him to be a difficult person to deal with,’ Theodoli said.
“Aronow had told several people that he would buy Magnum back from Theodoli at ‘ten cents on the dollar,’ Theodoli said, adding that Aronow seemed to resent the company’s success since he sold it.”
Could the real-life Kojak help save
a man from the electric chair?
A True Story
By ARTHUR JAY HARRIS
UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT is a journalistic account of the actual investigation of Dana and Rodney Williamson for the murder of Donna Decker in Davie, Florida in 1988. The events recounted in this book are true. Research has been done using author interviews, law enforcement and other public records, published and broadcast news stories, and books. Quoted sworn testimony has been taken verbatim from transcripts.
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
—Sherlock Holmes to Watson
The Sign of Four
Usually homicides are easy to solve. One person doesn’t kill another for no reason.
—Det. Kelly Woodroof
Davie Police Department
Donna and Bob Decker. Photo courtesy of Jo Zazzo
Inside the walk-in closet where police found Donna Decker. Note the bloody telephone handle and the assailant’s left-behind straw hat, later identified by witnesses as belonging to Dana Williamson. Photo courtesy Broward County Sheriff’s Office
Charles Panoyan, photographed at Davie Police at the end of a very long night, after the shootings. The C.R.D. on his shirt stands for Clyde Robert Decker—Bob Decker’s company. Photo courtesy Broward County Sheriff’s Office
Outside the courthouse, father and son Tom and Brian Cavanagh. Photo by Arthur Jay Harris
Davie, Florida is an orange grove and horse town turned suburb.
At the turn of the century, it was virgin swamp. The development of Florida had been stunted in the 1800s by the Seminole Wars, then almost immediately following, the Civil War. Long before all the modern conveniences of land development were even imaginable, the summer heat and mosquitoes in the Florida swamps made the place unlivable to all but the Native Americans. An often repeated U.S. soldier’s joke of the period suggested that if he owned both Hell and Florida, he’d live in Hell and rent out Florida.
But in the 1890s, Henry Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railroad south to Palm Beach, then on to Miami, which incorporated in 1896. The first Florida land boom was on. Great dreamers, as well as con men, envisioned swampland as grand cities merely not yet built.
In 1906, a Colorado millionaire named R.P. Davie bought 27,500 acres of Everglades swamp west of Fort Lauderdale, which itself had only a few hundred residents. There were no roads west at the time; the only way to get there was via the New River.
In 1909, Florida’s governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward—for whom Davie’s county was named after—commissioned the swamps drained for the future development of Florida’s interior. It was done by creating a network of canals connected with Lake Okeechobee and the Intracoastal Waterway.
Davie, Florida, was incorporated in 1925 as an agricultural town. In 1930, a horseman who raced at Hialeah Park in Miami discovered it and built up a breeding industry, which gave the town its Western feel.
From then on, Davie prided itself as a rough, tough cowboy town, complete with rednecks and a rodeo. It couldn’t have been more different than genteel Miami Beach or Palm Beach, most of whose visitors never knew Davie existed.
Today, Davie is different. Although cows still graze on some of its acreage, equestrians share trails with bicycles and pedestrians, and some country roads remain two-laned, suburbia has transformed this little outpost. In 1960 the population had been 2,000; in 1980 it was 20,000; by 1990 it passed 50,000. As country towns go, it’s now a suburb. As suburbs go, it’s in the country.
In the mid-1970s, faced with a deteriorating downtown inappropriate to its new inhabitants, the town council voted for gentrification. But when they suggested tearing down the rodeo arena, dozens of angry cowboys stormed Town Hall.
City fathers compromised. They agreed to rebuild downtown anew; but following the 1960s example of the Mouse that put Orlando on the map, they zoned in a 1860s Wild West theme. Once again in Florida, kitsch ruled the day.
The Decker homicide was the biggest case in the town’s history. It happened in this atmosphere of conflict between those remaining few who were proud to be Davie rednecks and its many come-lately suburban slickers, who saw the town as charming.
What tipped off that the conflict might be an issue was a well-worn cowboy hat found next to Massachusetts-born Donna Decker, wife of a wealthy home builder.
Friday, November 4, 1988
The woman’s breathless call to 911 interrupted a quiet Friday night in the horse country suburbs.
“1-6-5-1 Southwest 1-1-6 Avenue. I’m stabbed to death. Please.”
Broward County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Andrea Guess took the call. On a screen in front of her was a myriad of information describing her caller: her phone number, address, city, the name the phone was listed under, and the nearest Emergency Medical Services (EMS) unit.
“Did somebody stab you?” she answered back calmly and efficiently.
“Yes… and my husband—my baby.”
“Your husband? Is he still there?”
“Stay on the line,” Guess ordered. Immediately she got on the radio, assigning the distress call to local police in the town of Davie. In the code language of police dispatch, she radioed out that the husband stabbed the wife, husband still 10-97—at large—with a Signal Zero knife—meaning he was armed. A call to EMS went out as well.
“I’ve got a woman in Davie. She said her husband stabbed her.”
10:14 – 10:16 P.M.
Four Davie road patrol officers radioed back they were close by and en route. They put on their lights and sirens, cutting their sirens as they approached the quiet residential neighborhood. They were Robert “Dusty” Banks, William Bamford, David Pavone, and K-9 officer Greg Mize. A fifth officer, Sergeant Michael Allen, in charge of road patrol officers on the 3-11 P.M. shift, radioed from Davie police headquarters that he was en route as well.
When the dispatch operator came back to the telephone line, there was no response. Fearing that the caller was dead, she put out a Signal 5—meaning a murder had most likely taken place. It went out as “Two victims, one Signal 5.”
10:18 – 10:19 P.M.
Believing they were responding to a domestic with a stabbing, the four road patrol officers all arrived at the scene, adrenaline rushing. It was a wealthy neighborhood, where police weren’t often called. The ranch houses were set back from the street, a wooded acre apart from each other. The street was dark, and the officers searching for street numbers posted on the houses or mailboxes couldn’t see them from the road. It wasn’t at all obvious which house was 1651.
They spotted a lit-up house on the east side of the narrow street. The windows were open, and Mize and Bamford found the doors unlocked. They yelled for someone to come to the door; then, when no one did, they went inside, as far as the living room.
No one was home except for two pit bulls. It was the wrong house. The house number was even.
Advised of the officers’ arrivals, dispatch broke off the 911 telephone line, which had been silent for the previous seven minutes.
Sergeant Allen arrived at the scene.
The officers located 1651, across the street, by the number on the mailbox. There were three vehicles in the twenty-five-yard-long driveway. It didn’t lead to an obvious front door.
Mize took charge of the scene. He ordered Banks and Bamford to set up a perimeter around the house, in case someone armed was still inside. Banks radioed that he was observing the front of the house—the northwest side—while Bamford covered the southeast side—closest to the street. Neither saw any open or broken doors or windows.
Mize and Pavone joined Bamford on the south side. Finding the front door, one of them knocked but got no answer. Bamford saw lights on inside the living room window but no activity.
There was another wooden entrance door to the house next to the garage. They knocked again on that door and got no response. When Mize turned the doorknob, it was open. There were no signs of forced entry.
Mize decided they should enter. He led, followed by Pavone, then Bamford and Sgt. Allen.
“Davie police!” Mize called out. “Anybody there?”
This might be more than just a domestic, they thought. All drew their guns, believing the suspect most likely was still in the house. It had only been minutes since the 911 call.
The foyer beyond the door was dark, but there was a light up ahead. On the right was another door. When they opened it, a huge dog jumped on its hind legs and pounded against the door. It startled Bamford, and he quickly closed the door.
Through the darkness they passed the first room, which looked like a home beauty shop, undisturbed. At the entrance to the main part of the house, which was partially lit, Allen and Bamford stayed behind, assuming a ready-to-fire position, guarding their colleagues’ backs.
Now it was just Mize and Pavone. With Mize leading, the two men, back-to-back, tensely proceeded through a hallway on the left. Mize decided to go by the book and systematically “clear” the house, for their own safety. The hallway led to a bedroom and bath, but there was nothing disturbed there, either.
Returning to the main area they saw a long counter separating the kitchen from the large living room. The only light in the room was the indirect glare from a television that was on, the light moving with every scene change. Looking into the living room, one of them spotted a pump shotgun laying on a throw rug directly in front of the fireplace. The barrel was pointing toward them.
Nothing else seemed out of place, other than a coffee table that seemed to have been moved.
Then they heard the screaming.
It sounded like the cry of a baby. It came from the far side of the house.
They couldn’t run toward the cry quite yet; first they had to clear the rest of the house. Against otherwise better judgment, they split up, Mize taking rooms back toward the master bedroom and Pavone checking rooms nearer to the door where they had entered. They arrived at the master bedroom together, with Allen behind them. The door was partially open and they could hear the baby wailing.
What they found they couldn’t have prepared for.
“Oh God, get rescue in here quick!” Mize screamed back to Bamford.
The room was lit. On the plush carpet was a two-and-a-half-year-old child curled up, lying next to his father’s head. The father was on his stomach, facing the wall. He was totally immobile and helpless—his wrists manacled behind his back to his ankles with yellow nylon rope. There were handcuffs on his wrists as well, and a black cloth gag stuffed in his mouth.
Looking closer, Mize saw he was unconscious and bloody. He had been shot twice, in the back of the head.
First thing, Mize removed his gag. Surprisingly, the man regained himself.
“My son’s been shot! My son’s been shot!”
Mize picked up the baby and started to run out of the house. But before he got much further than a step, he stopped, realizing that the perpetrator might still be in the house. He laid the baby back down next to his father and shouted at Pavone to keep looking through the rest of the house for the shooter or more victims. Then Mize untied the father, thirty-six-year-old Bob Decker, so he could help his son. But for the moment Mize couldn’t do anything about the handcuffs.
On the wood console waterbed was another man, the baby’s seventy-six-year-old grandfather, Clyde Decker. He had been shot in the face, a large pool of wet blood next to him staining the salmon-pink sheet and dark red comforter. At arm’s distance were fragments of violently shattered dentures. He lay on his back, head against the headrest, still conscious. Like his son Bob, his hands and feet were tied together behind him, all connected by a single cord.
There was confusion as to whether the child, Carl Decker, was injured. He hadn’t been tied up, and Pavone didn’t think anything was wrong with him. Bamford noticed only that he was holding the right side of his face.
When Pavone returned to the unlit hallway leading to the bedroom, he and Bamford found a door locked from the inside with light leaking out underneath. They called over Sgt. Allen, whose first thought was that a suspect could be hiding behind it.
Allen ordered Mize, the burliest officer there, to kick the door open while everyone else poised their guns once again. Mize placed his kick just under the door handle, breaking the door frame. The door swung open partially, stopped by something inside the door.
“Oh shit,” said Mize.
He saw her first. They had found their 911 caller.
She was Donna, according to the brown plastic J.C. Penney salesman ID badge she wore on her dress. She lay face up on a strewn pile of papers and correspondence, her brown eyes wide open. There was blood all over her hands and the front of her pink dress, which was pulled up to her waist, revealing her hose and panties. Both ankles were tied; her right ankle with electrical cord, the plug dangling, her left ankle with natural colored rope. A very bloody telephone handle lay off the hook next to her on top of a color brochure entitled “Colorado Ski Country,” inches from her foot, which covered a receipt from a tire store. There was blood on the Panasonic wall phone numeric pad as well.
Allen checked her pulse, but everyone who saw her knew it was too late. Her complexion had already turned pallid.
“She’s gone,” someone said.
Allen radioed that there were two victims Signal 5—murder. Then he grabbed the shotgun lying in the living room and took it outside to the driveway. That was just in case the killer was still in the house, so he wouldn’t be able to use it on the police. It didn’t appear as if it had been recently fired.
Bamford’s first thought was that Donna Decker had been sexually assaulted, but her undergarments were intact. He saw a striking fear in her face and even in the clutched fingers of her bloody left hand, which still grasped a knotted dark pink terry bathrobe belt around her neck that she apparently had been able to rip from her mouth. Her blood was the glue that stuck a Visa card receipt to the same hand.
The room where she lay was a walk-in closet used as an office. It looked ransacked and was a disarray in itself. Receipts, canceled checks, account statements, bills, correspondence from an attorney about a mortgage loan, a package of papers from a title company—most with smudges or drops of blood on them—were scattered. Her left elbow pressed against the wall and a six-inch smudge of blood trailed from it. The back of the door was bloody too. A well-worn beige straw cowboy hat with a feather and a brown headband lay upside down on the floor next to her, just beyond the telephone.
The first Emergency Medical Services ambulance had arrived at 10:23, nine minutes after being called. They had sat in the driveway, awaiting instructions. Now police wanted them inside, even though they hadn’t yet issued an all-clear signal. That didn’t ever happen, thought paramedic Meyer Marzouca as he raced inside.
To get to the back of the pitch-black house, Marzouca ran crouched like a duck following armed officers. He passed the closet and saw the dead woman and figured that was it. Then an officer yelled “Over here!”— pointing to the bedroom.
When he entered the room, he was stunned; he had never seen anything like it. Focusing on the father, he almost tripped on the little boy, thinking he was a doll until doing a triple take. Even after Marzouca knelt beside him and turned him over, Carl still didn’t look real, his color was so ashen.
Marzouca picked the child up, saw some blood trickling down from his nose, then realized he wasn’t breathing. Marzouca did what came automatically to him—he shook the child. It worked: he pinked up and started breathing. Had Marzouca come in even a minute later, Carl would have suffered brain damage from lack of oxygen. Another minute or so later and he would have died.
“Don’t hurt me! Don’t hit me!” the child screamed. Then he vomited.
Sgt. Allen ordered Officer Paul Brugman to open Bob Decker’s handcuffs with his police-issue keys, however to be careful not to contaminate them with his own fingerprints. But Brugman’s keys didn’t fit because the cuffs weren’t police-issue. They were toy cuffs, he thought. The cuffs never were removed at the scene, but a few minutes later paramedic Ron Vargo snapped them apart at the chain with a bolt cutter.
Meanwhile, Bob Decker went in and out of alertness. Mize, back in the room, tried to get some details about the suspects before he was taken away. He asked, “Do you know who did this?”
“Yeah, I know who did it,” Bob answered, without hesitation.
Allen ordered Mize to search the adjacent grounds and woods with his German Shepherd police dog, in case suspects were still nearby. Two or three other K-9 officers and their dogs joined the search later. But the animals picked up no scents, which probably meant that the perpetrators had left the scene using the asphalt driveway, which had been contaminated by all the police traffic.
Bamford, then later Mize too, was assigned to canvass the neighborhood. Not surprisingly, no one had heard anything, except for the Deckers’ next door neighbor who said he had heard a sound at about 10 P.M. He thought a garbage can had been knocked over.
That day, Detective Kelly Woodroof had felt the onset of a cold. Expecting a quiet night, he took a Drixoral, which he knew would help him get to sleep early.
It was not to be. At 9:30 P.M., he got an emergency call to come to the police department and interview a twelve-year-old male victim of a lewd and lascivious assault. At the station, Woodroof told his superiors he had no experience on that sort of case, and instead they should call in one of the detectives specially trained to handle sex crimes.
Just before 10:30, as Woodroof was ready to go home and take the sleep that his cold and the medicine demanded of him, Det. Gary Killam asked him to hold up for a minute. There had been a stabbing on the police radio. Minutes later, Killam drove Woodroof to the Decker house.
Mike Allen had had his differences with Woodroof in the past, but now he was very pleased to see him, so that he could relinquish control of the scene. Woodroof thought Allen looked like he was either going to cry or be sick.
“It looks like a professional hit,” Allen said.
First thing, Woodroof radioed for backup from Broward County Sheriffs’s Office (BSO) crime scene detectives. At the same time, Mize put a BOLO (Be on the lookout) out for a blue Ford van with temporary tags stolen from the residence. Bob Decker had told him it might be gone.
BSO Crime scene detectives radioed they were en route.
When he saw the man in the banged-up blue pickup truck who was barreling through the parking lot at fifty miles an hour and then flagged him down, Jay Greenfeder thought the guy was drunk. Definitely. Greenfeder was the outdoor security guard on duty at Sybar Plaza, a Davie strip mall which had a Walgreens and a twenty-four-hour supermarket called Xtra. He first saw the truck as it turned into the mall entrance on Hiatus Road, a block short of State Road 84. Hiatus Road was a divided highway, and to make the left turn into the mall required illegally crossing the grass median, something the truck driver didn’t seem to think twice about.
Greenfeder was the only guard on duty during the 4 P.M. to 1 A.M. shift that Friday night. It wasn’t a high crime neighborhood, and nothing had happened earlier. Nor was the strip mall busy then.
When the man spotted Greenfeder walking around the parking lot in front of Walgreens, he hit the brakes and jumped out of the truck without bothering to park it in a space. For a moment the man seemed to think Greenfeder—dressed in his blue security outfit complete with handcuffs, flashlight, and radio—was a cop. Only after the man got closer did he realize that he wasn’t.
“Call the police. I’ve just—my buddy and I have just been robbed,” Charles Panoyan shouted frantically.
Greenfeder had been a security officer for eight years, and a military policeman before that, so he was trained to be an observer. The man was shaking. He couldn’t calm down and wasn’t able to answer his questions. He was badly dressed in an old blue T-shirt that read “CRD Homes,” baggy brown pants, and dirty work shoes. He was perspiring profusely, and you couldn’t miss his extraordinarily bad smell. His dilated eyes were another indication to Greenfeder that he had been drinking.
“Where did it happen?” Greenfeder asked.
“You don’t understand,” burst out Panoyan, trying to get across the message that the crime was still in progress. Looking over his shoulder, he repeated, “I’ve just been robbed! You don’t understand! They’re following me! They have my tag number! They know where I live! They’re gonna get me!”
Greenfeder explained that all he could do was use his waist-mounted walkie-talkie to radio his dispatcher, and they would call Davie Police to respond.
“I need P.D. at Sybar Plaza. A man was just robbed,” Greenfeder told the radio, and a moment later, the radio message came back that police were en route.
“They’ll be here in a minute,” Greenfeder told him, but that wasn’t fast enough for the guy.
“I don’t have a minute,” he implored. “I need them now. Look, can’t you do anything for me?”
“I’m not a cop. I can’t leave my area, there’s nothing I can do.”
Panoyan looked behind again. “I don’t care about you not being a policeman, let me have your gun.”
“My gun? I can’t give you my gun.”
“Well, let me borrow it then.”
“I can’t do that.” The guy was whacked out to think he’d let him borrow his gun, he thought.
“What’s wrong with the police, why haven’t they come?”
“They’re coming,” Greenfeder said.
While they waited, Greenfeder asked what the robber looked like.
“I couldn’t see his face. He had a stocking over it and he had a big white hat with black trim.” That was all the description Panoyan could provide.
Greenfeder noticed that the man’s hands were in his pockets. He was searching for something. A quarter, it turned out, so that he could call his wife. He said the robber had stolen his wallet and he didn’t even have a quarter for the telephone. Greenfeder volunteered a quarter and walked him over the phone bank, next to the store’s main entrance. But first he made the man move his truck into a parking space.
Panoyan had the same breathless telephone conversation that he had just had with Greenfeder. “Get the kids out of the house and drive away as far as you can!” Greenfeder overheard.
Panoyan then asked to use a bathroom, and Greenfeder said one was inside the sliding glass door and immediately to the left.
But before Panoyan got inside, a dark blue car with a white top pulled into the space immediately to the left of the truck. It struck Greenfeder as odd because the truck was the only vehicle parked in the entire section, and there were spots much closer to Xtra, where the two men who got out quickly walked toward.
One was a tall black man, the other white. They didn’t touch the truck, but Greenfeder noticed they made eye contact with Panoyan as they walked into the store, then immediately turned their heads away. Panoyan had been paranoid that he had been followed; were these the men?
By the time Panoyan came out of the bathroom, Davie Police detective Jo Ann Carter had responded. She was assigned to narcotics, but was off duty that night, working security in police uniform for an apartment complex called Scarborough, just across the street from Xtra. She had heard the police radio calling all available units to the Decker home.
When the Xtra call came in—a possible robbery in progress—and Davie didn’t have anyone left to send, she was asked to respond, since Davie police officers are technically on duty whenever they are inside town limits. She got into her marked police cruiser and drove across the street. It only took a minute. She routinely recorded the time of arrival with dispatch at 10:47 P.M.
Carter first found Greenfeder, in front of Walgreens, who pointed out Panoyan, now running toward them. Greenfeder told her the robbery was elsewhere than the shopping mall.
Carter also saw that Panoyan was upset. He was jumping around like he was nervous or speeding, using his hands a lot. She stayed in her car.
“They’re watching my house,” Panoyan said.
“Who’s watching your house,” asked Carter.
“I don’t know.”
“Why are they watching your house?”
“I think my friends are being robbed,” he said. “They know where I live. They know the address. I have to get my wife and kids out of the house.”
“Where are your friends?”
“At home!” said Panoyan, frustrated at having to explain everything.
“Where do they live?”
“Over there.” He pointed south into the residential woods.
“Over there where?” It was equally frustrating for Carter, who didn’t think Panoyan was making much sense.
“I don’t know the address.”
“How do you know what happened, where were you?”
“I was there sitting at a table with my friend and he came in and told me to leave. They were watching my house.”
“Who came in? What did he look like? What was he wearing?” asked Carter, desperate for coherent details.
“I don’t know! He had something over his face!”
“Did he have any weapons?”
“A knife,” Panoyan said.
Carter told Panoyan to get in the back of her cruiser so that he could guide her to the crime scene. At first Panoyan didn’t want to go back. On Carter’s prodding, he entered the car hesitantly, whining once more that he needed to call his wife again, that she was in danger. Before they left, Carter put on her bulletproof vest.
Paramedics had taken twenty minutes to prepare Bob and Clyde Decker for transit; then they rushed them out of the house on stretchers. They passed Robert Banks, who was monitoring the residence door and writing down the names of everyone entering. Banks realized that no BOLO describing any suspects had gone out, so he asked both men for descriptions. He spent only a hectic moment with each before they left.
“Sir, I’m sorry. I know you’re in a lot of pain,” Banks began, speaking first to Bob. “But I’d really like to get a description of this person out. Can you please answer a couple of questions for me?”
Both victims were able to talk coherently, but Clyde was in better shape, so Banks got most of his information from him. Banks asked if he would be able to recognize the suspect if he saw him again, and Clyde said yes. He also said that the shotgun—an Ithaca Deerslayer 12-gauge—found in the living room was his.
About 11:00 P.M.
It was less than a five-minute ride from Xtra to the crime scene, but Panoyan fidgeted and jumped around in the backseat of Detective Carter’s car the entire time. Carter followed his directions until they spotted an ambulance near the house, then she trailed it the rest of the way. Only then did she realize that this was the same scene where everyone had been called to a half hour earlier.
In and around the Deckers’ driveway there were two other ambulances and numerous police cruisers, blue police lights flashing. When Panoyan saw it, he began to get even more emotional.
“Oh my God. Oh my God. Is everybody all right?” He put his hands up to his head.
Carter had to open the rear door, and Panoyan got out immediately. He was stunned to see so much activity at the place he had just left minutes before. The front of the house was cordoned off with crime scene tape. He asked a group of neighbors what had happened.
“Bob went crazy. He stabbed his wife, shot his baby and his dad, and his dad took the gun away from him and shot him.”
“No. That’s wrong. That’s not what happened,” said Panoyan, now searching for an officer to tell his story.
Panoyan followed Carter until she saw Officer Bamford, to whom she turned over Panoyan. Then Corporal Russell Elzey told Bamford that Panoyan should speak to Greg Mize and Det. Robert Marseco.
While Bamford went to look for Mize and Marseco, he suggested Panoyan might want to sit down, and for them to put him in a patrol car. But then he closed the door.
“Why am I locked in the back of a patrol car?” Panoyan asked.
“For your own protection,” said Bamford.
“Nothing’s going to happen to me in front of all these people.”
“Well, you’re probably right,” said Bamford, reopening the door and letting him out.
A moment after Bamford walked away, Panoyan saw paramedics bring out a victim. To see who it was, Panoyan raced toward him, through the yellow “Do Not Cross” tape. “You can’t go over there,” said an officer. Panoyan broke his grip, but another blocked him before he could get much closer. All that he could see was that whoever it was, they were a bloody mess. Shocked, Panoyan tried to get information from the ambulance driver.
“I can’t talk with you. I’ve got to go,” the driver shot back.
It wasn’t until paramedics secured Carl on a stretcher that someone realized that he had been shot too, as his father had insisted. Remarkably, he had stayed calm, sitting next to his grandfather.
All three ambulances left the scene, carrying each victim to different hospitals. Fearing that Bob Decker was on the verge of death, Woodroof assigned Detective Gary Killam to follow his ambulance and take any statement at the hospital he could give.
Banks radioed a second BOLO, based on how the Deckers had described the suspect: white male, forty years old, medium to muscular build, about 165 pounds, wearing a hat, possibly straw, not a baseball cap, armed with a black revolver or black handgun. Subject last seen on foot in area.
The BOLO for the blue van with temporary tags was canceled when the vehicle was discovered in the driveway.
BSO crime scene detectives James Kammerer and John Alderton arrived.
Robert Marseco was a narcotics detective, working undercover with Det. Gary Sylvestri. When they were called to the Decker house, they had been surveilling a nearby shopping mall parking lot (not Xtra), watching for small marijuana and cocaine transactions. As a result, they had arrived at the scene relatively quickly. Marseco had been inside the house and was the first to search the upstairs loft bedroom, accessible only by a ladder. It had been undisturbed.
After a while, it appeared to Marseco that he was only making the house more crowded, so he requested to go outside, where he walked to the edge of the long driveway leading to the house. When Carter spotted him standing there, she brought over Panoyan, who introduced himself as Charles.
While Marseco and Mize talked with Panoyan, Kelly Woodroof walked out of the house toward Mize’s police car. The Drixoral he had taken two hours earlier made him thirsty. Since he didn’t want to disturb anything in the house, the only water available was a gallon jug Mize kept for his dog. All night Woodroof would borrow the dog’s tepid water.
On his way past Mize, Woodroof briefly talked to Panoyan. At that point, police still didn’t have the names of the victims. Panoyan furnished him with that, then asked whether they were all right and if he could go inside the house. Woodroof told Panoyan he couldn’t cross the crime scene tape, and didn’t respond to how the victims were.
Panoyan continued talking with Marseco for about fifteen minutes. To Marseco, Panoyan appeared frightened. He said he was a friend of the people in the house, and he had been inside, in the living room watching television, when a six-foot tall man wearing a mask, gloves, and a cowboy hat entered the house carrying a .22. Beyond that description, Panoyan couldn’t answer whether the man was white or black, nor estimate his weight.
“I thought it was a Halloween joke,” Panoyan told Mize. “I started laughing.” Halloween had been the previous weekend.
But then the assailant had pulled back the hammer of his pistol. He ordered everyone to lie down on the living room floor, then tied them all up. Then he led them all into the bedroom, where he further tied and handcuffed them all. But for some unknown reason, the assailant later removed Panoyan’s handcuffs, untied him, then told him to leave.
But before he did, the masked man threatened him. Panoyan quoted him: “I know where you live and I have your family under surveillance.”
“How did he know where you live?” Marseco asked.
“I don’t know. He took my wallet,” said Panoyan.
Panoyan asked Marseco a few times to let him call his wife. When Marseco walked away, he set in motion an order to send an officer to check on Panoyan’s family.
Marseco told Lt. James Wollschlager, the shift supervisor, that Panoyan might be of value. Marseco repeated some of what he had said, including the reference that the assailant had been wearing a cowboy hat. Marseco himself had seen a cowboy hat in the room where Donna Decker’s body lay.
Listening in were detectives Dennis Mocarski, Robert Spence and William Coyne. Wollschlager ordered Spence and Coyne to take Panoyan to the police station in their unmarked Chevy Cavalier and interview him there.
Spence and Coyne had been the last two Davie detectives to arrive on the scene, at 11:18 P.M. Assigned to burglary investigations, they had worked a full day until 9 P.M., then had gone to dinner together.
Before the two men talked to Panoyan, they toured the crime scene and saw the body. Coyne noticed a Burger King bag full of food sitting on the kitchen counter. It would strike him later as suggesting a problem.
As Spence ushered Panoyan into his car, Panoyan spotted Carl Fitzgerald, a Davie officer he knew.
“Please call my wife. Carl Fitzgerald is my neighbor. Have him go to my house immediately,” he pled with Spence.
After midnight, Officer Bob Frank did visit Panoyan’s house, which was about ten miles from the Deckers. First he rang the doorbell, but no one answered. Then Chuck’s wife Darla, apparently watching, pulled up in the driveway behind the patrol car. She told Frank that her husband had called and told her to drive down the street and wait for police to arrive.
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
Frank told her about the shooting, although he didn’t know many details.
“Was my husband involved?”
“He was there.”
“Is he a suspect?”
“I don’t know anything more than that,” he said.
It didn’t seem that anything had been disturbed at Panoyan’s house, but Frank took a look around. Back sitting in his vehicle, talking to Darla, Sgt. Richard Rein—who had just come on duty during the midnight “Charlie” shift—called on the police radio and asked whether Frank had made contact with Darla.
“Don’t tell her anything about the case. Her husband will phone her later,” Rein said. Unknown to him, Darla heard that.
11:10 P.M. and after
Inside the house
Broward Sheriff’s Office crime scene detectives Kammerer and Alderton’s job was to document everything in detail of possible crime-solving value in and around the house. Their job was to be detached, not to make crime-solving conclusions.
Their task would take the next six hours. They began by inspecting the scene with Woodroof, who briefed them on what police knew. Then Alderton began looking for latent fingerprints, while Kammerer collected evidence and shot still pictures. In addition, BSO Deputy Robert Cerat shot video and sketched the crime scene.
Methodically, they started from the outside of the house, noticing no evidence of forced entry. On the otherwise clean kitchen table they noted a brown paper Xtra grocery bag with four six-packs of Bud Light cans, one six-pack of Miller Lite cans, and a bottle of Riunite wine. Next to it was the Burger King bag and a woman’s brown and beige Gucci purse, its contents apparently dumped on the table. There was no wallet to be found.
In the main hallway leading to the front door, they found blood spatter on two walls, the front door and the floor. The master bedroom closet, filled with clothes, had a corner of its carpet pulled up, revealing a Hayman floor safe built into the concrete floor. The safe was closed.
Besides the blood and shattered dentures on the bed in the master bedroom, there was also a box of papers and a closed photo album. On the floor were two leather belts, a bloody beige rope, a bloody brown sock laying on top of two manila file folders, a black jewelry purse, and two black straps apparently used to restrain the victims. There was also a pink-sheeted pillow with holes in it.
There were also bloodstains on the red carpet as well as in a blue jewelry box in an open drawer of the console bed. Elsewhere on the floor was a white analog alarm clock—showing the time of 6:31—and a Clairol makeup mirror, both with electrical cords that had been cut. The cradle of a white Cobra cordless phone was on the nightstand, but the handset itself was missing. Two of the three nightstand drawers, filled with rummaged clothes, were open.
Once observations were completed, Kammerer began collecting evidence. From the driveway he took the shotgun. On the chance that some of the blood might be from a wound to a suspect, he cut out bloody carpet squares from the master bedroom and the main hallway, and took a blood-soaked piece of an envelope and the bloody Panasonic telephone receiver from the hall closet. From the living room he collected some yellow rope and a check stub in the amount of $2,344.33. From the bedroom he picked up the denture fragments, the bloody sock, one of the belts, and the two black straps. He also took the clock, makeup mirror, and a cut plastic flexcuff—a thin plastic strip often used by police as disposable handcuffs. Later he also took into evidence the pair of metal handcuffs that Bob Decker had been wearing, after they were cut off at the hospital.
When Kammerer was done, he joined Alderton in dusting for fingerprints with black powder and a brush. That method won them five latents—two from the inside of closet doors in the master bedroom and three from a tall smoked drinking glass sitting on a pink file cabinet in the closet where Donna Decker was found. The prints were unidentified at the scene.
Outside the house, beyond the crime scene tape, the newspaper and TV press gathered in the postmidnight hours. For the press, the timing of the murder was bad; it had happened too late for TV to cover it live on the Friday night 11 o’clock news, and the deadlines had passed as well for the Saturday editions of the big morning papers—The Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Instead, the story would break first in the area’s least significant paper, a six-day morning daily called the Hollywood Sun-Tattler, which had the latest deadline because of their smaller press run and delivery area.
At 1:07 A.M., Assistant Broward County Medical Examiner Dr. James Ongley arrived to examine the body. No one had touched her in the three hours since Sgt. Allen and paramedic Ron Vargo had both felt for her nonexistent pulse. When Ongley lifted her, detectives watching, the scene was even more shocking. Blood had drenched the right side of the back of her dress encircling what looked like a knife cut. There was a similar cut on her lower left side, and almost as much blood. What seemed like a safe guess was that the cuts were made with the bloody wood-handled knife found on the carpet underneath her. On closer examination, the rusty knife had a brand name: “Old Homestead.” Later it would be identified as belonging to the Deckers’ kitchen.
At 2:40 A.M., Donna Decker’s body was transported to the medical examiner’s office.
Spence and Coyne drove Panoyan to the Davie police station, but didn’t turn on their tape recorder until almost two hours later. They took only a few basic notes of the pre-interview, just Panoyan’s full name—Charles Zarah Panoyan; his date and place of birth—October 31, 1940 in Beirut, Lebanon; and current address, phone number, and wife’s name.
Spence also asked if he had ever been arrested. Panoyan said he had been, four times; for grand theft auto, grand theft, carrying a concealed firearm, and shoplifting. (However, when police checked Panoyan’s name on the FBI’s National Crime Information Computer—a teletype—they found nothing. A possible explanation is that the NCIC system is notoriously incomplete, nor would they have shown if Panoyan was a juvenile at the time of those arrests.)
They quickly learned that Panoyan—this short and stubby man—was not someone who would answer a question in a sentence when the equivalent of a short story would do. Given his nervous, sweaty, and upset condition, the detectives must have wondered whether he would ever stop talking.
They turned on the tape at 1:22 A.M. Spence instructed him: “What I need you to do now is go back and explain to us what happened from the very beginning. Start from the time you got up today.”
That was Panoyan’s cue. He rattled off a monologue neither officer could stop.
“I got up today at 6:30 I guess, I went to work, I was there at 7:30, I saw Bob and Grandpa Decker and I started painting, and while I was painting, Bob took my hat and put it in the paint and I took some ice cold water, threw it on him and he says, ‘That’s it, go home, you’re fired!” Panoyan laughed.
“I said, ‘You can’t fire me,’ I says, ‘I’m the owner of the company!’ or something to that effect and he says, ‘You’re going home!’ and I says, ‘Okay, if I go home, I won’t come back!’ I says, ‘Let me have my paycheck and I’ll leave now.’ And he says, ‘Well, I don’t have any money now.’ He says, ‘I’ll pay you at 12:00,’ I says, ‘Okay, I’ll work til 12.’
“So between that time we were name calling each other—just, you know, what we always do.” He laughed again.
“And Bob took off, he said he was going to the bank. Grandpa Decker and I were talking about deer huntin’ and I was still painting and I told him I’d be over tonight and bring him some deer meat, you know tonight, he said, ‘Okay.’
“And then I said, ‘Bob, are you coming into work tomorrow [Saturday]?’ He said ‘No, I’m taking a vacation.’ I says, ‘A vacation? What are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘Well, I just sold this place and I’m taking a vacation.’
“I said, ‘Well, that’s great. Well, what did you get for it?’ He said ‘$110,000’ and I said, ‘Man, that’s fine’ and he said he bought another lot and would be at work Monday morning.
“I says ‘Well, okay,’ I says, ‘How about 100, I want to put it in the bank.’ He says, ‘Okay.’ He gave me a hundred and, ah, he hadn’t gotten paid yet, he wouldn’t get paid ’til Monday. And so, ah, ah—I grabbed the hair on his chest and I reached back and I pulled it and I took off running and when I took off running I dropped a $100 bill and I went home, you know, I just started to drive off, I realized the $100 bill was gone and I said, ‘Bob, where’s my $100?’
“He had a big grin on his face and he said, ‘What $100?’ And I said, ‘Well you know what $100, the $100 that I lost!’ Then he said, ‘You didn’t lose $100,’ I says, ‘I did too!’ I said ‘Well, look, I gotta get to the bank, give me 100 bucks.’ He gave me 100 bucks and said he’d pay me the rest Monday, and I said Fine.
“So I took off, went home, got cleaned up, got all the paint off of me, took the deer meat out of the freezer, went down to see Bob, he came in about—I came in about two minutes or a minute—he just practically pulled in, the engine was just turned off when he came in and we talked for about two or three minutes outside.
“Then I went into the house, and he went in the house first. He turned the alarm off, I went into the house, we sat down, we talked, he told me to keep away from him and I says, ‘What do you mean, keep away from ya?’ And he says ‘Just don’t touch me’ and I says, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Don’t touch me!’ We started talking and we were laughing and joking and he said, ‘Does your wife know you’re here?’” Panoyan laughed again.
“I says ‘No,’ and he says, ‘Well, I’m going to call her!’ and I says ‘Well, call her!’
“She wasn’t home and I talked to the baby, to Jamie Lynn, and she says, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna—I’ll be working.’ Bob went into the other room and answered his answering machine.
“He was in there and fooling around and then I started talking to Bob and he was ignoring me and I says, ‘Bob, what are you doing ignoring me?’ And he just had a blank look on his face and I heard some low talking in the back and I says, ‘Speak up, Grandpa, I can’t hear ya.’
“And there was still low talking and I could tell something was wrong, because the look on Bob’s face.
“And I turned around and I saw this guy pointing a gun at Grandpa Decker and I said—well, I didn’t say anything, I looked at Bob and Bob looked at me and we cracked up laughing. And the guy said something, I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he cocked the gun and when he cocked the gun we stopped laughing.
“He told us to get on the floor, we got on the floor, he handcuffed me, he handcuffed the rest of us and took us into the bedroom, tied us up, took me out, tied me—tied my feet, and Donna came home when Dallas was on and she said, ‘Hi,’ and I said, ‘Hi,’ and she said, ‘Where’s Bob?’
“And I said, ‘He’s in the other room,’ and she says, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And this other guy came in and he told her to freeze or do something and he took her into another room—it wasn’t the bedroom—and came back in with me, hog-tied me, tied my hands, my feet, put it around my neck and went back in the other room.
“I tried to get loose, couldn’t get loose—he came back to me, took, well, everything out of my pockets and he said, ah, what did he say? He said, ‘We know where you live’ and he started untying me and then he took the handcuffs off and he says, ‘You go straight home, you’re being followed, you’re being watched.’
“I said, ‘Okay.’ I got in my truck, took off—while I was driving away I was looking around to see who was following me, I didn’t see a soul following me, didn’t see any lights, nothing!
“I pulled into that store and I notified a policeman or a guard and I told him there was a robbery in progress and I don’t know if I’m being followed or not, but I’ve gotta call my wife, and he says, Yeah, go ahead. I said, ‘I don’t have any money. Do you got a quarter I can borrow?’
“And he gave me a quarter, I called my wife, told her to get out of the house and call the police immediately, and she said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Do what I told ya.’
“Then the police came, they said ‘What was happening?’ and I told them there was a robbery going on at my friends’ house and she said, What’s his address? I told them I didn’t know, but I could tell ya how to get there and we told her how to get there and I seen an ambulance coming one way, passing us up, and she says, ‘I think I know where we’re going.’
“And I said, ‘What are they doing?’ And she said she didn’t know and then when I got there, the place was swarming with people. I started to go up to the house and they told me I couldn’t go in there and I said, ‘Why?’ And they didn’t tell me, just then they took out somebody in the ambulance and I says, ‘Who’s he?’
“And I went to look and they told me ‘No’ and I went to look anyway and I couldn’t tell who the person was. And then I waited in the police car until you guys came and then I came with you.”
If ever a story raised more questions than it answered, it was this one. Coyne started him again at the beginning, just before they all walked into the house.
“Where was Grandpa?” asked Coyne.
“Him and I were outside with the baby looking at a toad and laughing at the toad, because the toad couldn’t jump,” answered Panoyan.
“Were they all in the car together when they got there?”
“Yeah. In fact, we were all standing outside for about five minutes, talking, looking at the toad.”
“Did they say where Donna was at that time?”
“She was at work. She’s a hairdresser and she works at, ah—Penney’s on Hollywood Boulevard.”
“You said when Donna came home, you were in the living room and you were already tied up,” said Spence.
“Right,” said Panoyan.
“And she just said hello?”
“Yeah, she didn’t know I was tied up.”
“Oh, okay. Were you sitting or were you standing?”
“I was sitting, my hands were behind me and my feet were tied and she said, ‘Hi, Chuck’ and I said, ‘Hi,’ and she said, ‘Where’s Bob?’ And I said, ‘In the other room.’”
“You didn’t try and warn her that you were being robbed?” asked Coyne.
“I—this guy had a gun there. I started to say something and I looked up and I seen a shadow and I says, ‘Man.’”
“Where was he at when Donna came home?” asked Spence.
“He was in the hallway.”
“And she came into the living room?”
“And is that when he approached her?”
“Did she scream or anything?”
“No, didn’t say a word.”
“Did she try to run off?”
“No, she didn’t do a thing, she did everything that guy told her to do. He took her into another room and I know it wasn’t the bedroom. It was either the bathroom or utility room, I don’t know.”
“Okay, what did he tell Donna to do, do you remember?”
“No. I didn’t hear nothing after.”
“You didn’t hear anything after he got her and took her to the other room?” asked Coyne.
“Right. The only thing I heard was doors opening and closing. I did hear a kidnapping, I did hear that.”
“What do you mean by a kidnapping?”
“Well, I heard something kidnapping, I mean it’s just a blur.”
“You mean somebody saying something about kidnapping?
“Was the television on also, this whole time?”
“Yeah. Dallas was on.”
“Was it on the TV you heard the kidnapping or was it somebody else?”
“I have no idea.”
“You were sitting in the living room. Where were the other two guys?”
“In the bedroom.”
“And why do you think you were taken out of the bedroom from them?”
“I have no idea.”
“He didn’t say anything?”
“He didn’t tell me a word.”
“Well, how did he tell you to go back out?”
“He grabbed ahold of me!”
“And what did he say?”
“I think he said, ‘Come here.’ I don’t know.”
“All right, so when all of you were originally in the living room when he first came in and he pointed the gun at you, did he say anything?”
“He wasn’t talking, he was mumbling, he was whispering. I don’t know excatly what he said. I followed whatever everybody else did.”
Spence returned the interview to the moment after the gunman took Donna.
“Okay. And then what happened after that, after you saw him take her in there?”
“Oh, he came back in here, he tied my hands, my feet, my neck.”
“He tied your hands and feet up after he took her?”
“I was in the chair tied first, with my hands behind me. After he took her in the other room he came back, laid me down, tied my feet behind my back and put a rope around my neck and that’s where I stayed.”
“Did you hear any gunshots at all?”
“I didn’t hear a sound.”
“How long before he came back out of the room and back to you? Five minutes?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was a long time, short time?”
“It seemed like a long time.”
“Then he came back out to you?”
“Yeah, he came back out to me, took everything out of my pockets, went through my wallet, didn’t say a word to me and then he says, ‘We got your house under surveillance.’ I remember that word. He says, ‘You do everything I tell you to do.’ He says nothing was going to happen. He told me to get in my truck and drive straight home.’”
“How did he know you had a truck,” asked Coyne.
“How did he know you had a truck?”
“My truck was there.”
“So were the car and the van.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Okay, it’s fine,” spoke up Spence.
“He told me to get in, well, he said, ‘Get in my truck.’”
“Somehow he knew, right?”
“Yeah, he said ‘Get in my truck.’”
“Okay. Then you left.”
“Then I left.”
“And you didn’t see anybody following you.”
“That’s what got me to wondering.”
“You expected somebody to be following you?”
“Car and lights. I expected lights. I went down the street, I turned and I kept looking, kept looking, didn’t see a soul. I turned down the other street, kept looking, didn’t see a thing and I says, ‘Man, nobody’s following me.’ And then I see another, I did see lights but it wasn’t coming from anywhere, where I had been turning. It was farther on down the road.”
“You’re a hunter, right? asked Coyne.
“Handle guns all your life?”
“Pretty familiar with them?”
“Was the gun an automatic or a revolver?
“The gun he had.”
“It was a revolver.”
“Do you know about what caliber?”
“How long was the barrel?”
“Four to six inches.”
“Do you know if he had it in his right hand or left hand?”
“I didn’t notice.”
Panoyan recalled the phone call to his wife, Darla.
“All I told her was to get out of the house and she said, ‘Why?’ And I said ‘Somebody’s probably watching the house,’ but I wasn’t sure. I said ‘Get the kids and get out.’”
“Okay, you called your wife again from here, right?” asked Spence.
“I told her to get out of the house and she says, ‘Are you in trouble?’ And I says, ‘No, I’m not in trouble.’ I says, ‘I think you are.’ And she said ‘Why?’
“I said, ‘Is the police there?’ And she said ‘Yes, they have gone.’ I says, ‘What do you mean gone?’ I says, ‘I want you out of the house.’ And she says, ‘What’s going on?’ And I says, ‘I don’t know.’
“And she said, ‘Somebody’s been killed and ah, four or five people shot.’ And I says, ‘Who’s been killed and who’s been shot?’ And she said she didn’t know but the police officer said not to tell her anything.’
“As far as I know right now one person’s dead and four to five people are shot. I wish you’d ask her. She knows more about this than me.”
Panoyan described the “masked man” as having a big build, about 6’1” to 6’3”, two hundred pounds, wearing a stocking mask Panoyan believed was like women’s nylon hose, dark clothing, dark long-sleeve shirt, dark brown gloves, and a white cowboy hat. But he couldn’t tell whether he wore glasses or not, if he had facial hair, nor could he describe the man’s accent. And he still didn’t know if the man was white or black.
Panoyan tried to shift the interview to a man named “Warren,” against whom Bob Decker had recently filed a police report. Warren had worked with Decker and Panoyan on a job site and had stolen a refrigerator, Decker had said in the complaint.
“About a year ago, Grandpa was talking about the riffraff [Bob] had working for him and said, ‘It’s a wonder Bob was still alive.’ And I says, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he says, ‘He works with a scurvy bunch.’ And I said, ‘You’re calling me scurvy?’” Panoyan laughed. “And he says, ‘No,’ but he was just saying that Bob works with a rough bunch.”
The cops wanted to come back to the events in the house. “You never saw but one person?” asked Coyne.
“Right,” said Panoyan.
Panoyan described how the masked man restrained them all. He used handcuffs on Panoyan and the adult Deckers, as well as a “rough barby rope” on him. “It was about as big around as my baby finger and it had rough barbs on it,” Panoyan said. “It was very, very rough. I kept feeling prickles, you know, sticking. It was rough like your mustache,” referring to Spence.
He said the assailant tied up Grandpa Decker first.
“He tied him up first, a seventy-six-year-old man?” asked Coyne, somewhat incredulously.
“And there was you and a thirty-five to thirty-six-year-old man in the room?”
“But he tied the oldest one up first?”
“He was closest to him.”
“Did he ever tie up the baby?”
“No. The baby was just as good as could be. He just did what we did.”
Panoyan said the assailant tied up Bob and Clyde’s feet in the bedroom, then Coyne asked how he did it. “You talk about one guy holding a gun with one hand on three people.”
“You got it.”
Then came a slip that indicated where Coyne’s head was going. Perhaps it was intentional.
“What did you do with the gun?” he asked Panoyan, who seemed to have missed the question completely.
“Okay, well, what did he tell you? Did he tell you to sit or you just sat?”
“He pushed me down. He grabbed me by my hands and yanked me down and he grabbed—he pushed Bob down, he pushed Grandpa down.”
“And all of you were handcuffed or tied up?”
“We were handcuffed and he started tying us.”
“Three pairs of handcuffs?”
“Right. Bob and I were looking at each other. I couldn’t see Grandpa, he was up on the bed. Bob and I—I think were on the floor.”
Coyne pressed him on where the rope came from to tie the Deckers. Panoyan remembered that the assailant didn’t use rope exclusively. In the closet he had found a suitcase strap and a blue or black cloth bathrobe belt. He used the cloth to tie up Grandpa.
The the assailant yanked Panoyan up, hurting his wrist, and led him back into the living room, alone. That’s when Donna came home.
“Where are you at?” asked Coyne.
“I’m sitting in the chair that I was originally sitting in.”
“Okay, and what did he say to you?”
“He… he didn’t say nothing to me. I saw the shadow of him with, ah, the gun pointing in my direction.”
After the assailant took Donna and returned to Panoyan, he put him on his stomach, then tied his feet and hands with a single piece of rope, so that if he moved his legs he would choke himself. That was what he had meant by “hog-tied.” Then the assailant left again.
“Well, what was he doing at that time?”
“Doors were opening and closing, that’s about all.”
“Did you hear any voices?”
“I didn’t hear a sound.”
“Then after that, what happened?”
“After that he came out and took everything out of my pockets, told me that my house is being watched, and I was being watched, to do exactly like I said and I wouldn’t get hurt and he told me to go straight home, that I was being followed or watched. I drove out, backed up, drove out…”
“Did you see any cars?”
“I… I wasn’t looking for cars. I was looking for lights.”
“Well, when you got out to get in your car, you had to walk by cars, right, to get to yours?”
“I didn’t see anything. You know, come to think about it, I was looking around too. I mean I was looking around to see who was following me.”
“So you’re out there looking to see if anybody’s watching you…”
“I was out there, I mean, what I was doing was seeing if… if ah—I don’t think, that’s it, I don’t remember if I—when I got in my truck that’s when I felt safe.”
“What happened to the meat? You said you brought some meat over tonight. What did you do with it?”
“He put it in the freezer.”
“Who did that? Grandpa?”
By 2:25 A.M., when the detectives finished taking the rambling statement, the investigation had found its focus: Charles Panoyan.
Could the real-life Kojak help save a man from the electric chair?
JEFFREY DAHMER’S DIRTY SECRET: THE UNSOLVED MURDER OF ADAM WALSH is a journalistic account of the abduction and reported murder of Adam Walsh in Hollywood, Florida in 1981. The events recounted in this book are true. Names that have been changed are noted in the text as such. Research has been done using author interviews, law enforcement and other public records, published and broadcast news stories, and books. Quoted sworn testimony has been taken verbatim from transcripts.
Copyright 2009, 2016 by Arthur Jay Harris
DAHMER, JEFFREY—SERIAL KILLER WHO LIVED IN THE MIAMI AREA at the time Adam Walsh was abducted.
In 1994, a Hollywood, Florida cold case detective reviewing the never-solved Adam Walsh murder case of 1981 wrote that in a seven-page master summary of 70-plus people who over the years had been briefly suspected of the crime or who had given information regarding it. His purpose was to organize the huge, rambling case file and see if in the passage of time some neglected lead might leap off the page, requiring a fresh look.
The case was the largest in the history of the low-rise seaside city of Hollywood, and a festering sore besides because police, despite monumental work, had never made an arrest. It was all the more notorious because a child’s severed head had horrifically been found and identified as Adam, and the boy’s father, John Walsh, afterwards had crusaded to change American laws and awareness regarding missing children and then had become the long-running host of a hyper-aggressive crime-fighting television show, America’s Most Wanted.
Unfortunately, the Dahmer line the detective wrote got no rise out of him.
As Hollywood Police had quickly learned after Dahmer’s capture in Milwaukee in 1991, he’d lived and worked about 15 minutes by car from where six-year-old Adam was last seen alive, the toy department of Sears in the Hollywood Mall, where his mother had left him alone on a summer Monday around noon for no more than 5-10 minutes, she said. Although Hollywood Police never found anyone who remembered Dahmer in South Florida, Dahmer himself had admitted being here then. He even said later he remembered seeing the story on the news. But he denied killing Adam—so convincingly that the cold case detective hardly bothered to retrace the previous investigation. To the original lead detective, Dahmer said that summer he didn’t have a vehicle—essential for a kidnapping. He wasn’t attracted to children that young. He didn’t know where the Hollywood Mall was. He was busy working 12-hour days every weekday and most weekends. Besides, he’d already admitted to more murders than Milwaukee police had evidence of, so why would he lie about this one? Dahmer looked him straight in the eye when he denied it, the detective said—and he believed him.
Yet two separate witnesses had come forward to Hollywood Police within days of when Dahmer was arrested and his photo was all over the news. They both reported encountering Dahmer at Hollywood Mall that day 10 years earlier when Adam disappeared.
That’s not all. Within days of the original event, both witnesses initially had told Hollywood police what they’d seen—without knowing Dahmer’s name. Through the media, the police had asked for anyone with information to come forward. A flood of tips ensued. But in that flood their statements—and as it much later turned out, potentially crucial statements of others too—had been lost, ignored, or filtered out before they reached detectives.
One witness said that Dahmer, drunk, disheveled, menacing and hovering, tried to pick him up. When the witness refused, Dahmer shot him an evil stare, then stormed away. Scared but expecting Dahmer would approach someone else, who’d need help, he followed Dahmer at a safe distance through the mall, into Sears, then into its toy department.
The other witness saw Dahmer in the parking lot outside Sears grab a struggling, protesting child he thought was Adam and hurriedly throw him “like a sack of potatoes” into a blue van that then screeched away. That witness stood shocked, he’d never seen anything like that before. How could anyone do that to a small child?
Another witness, who was initially believed, had also described Adam’s kidnapper stealing him into a blue van that sped away. For a month, the blue van was Hollywood’s best lead.
But Hollywood Police were never bowled over by the Dahmer witnesses. Although Dahmer had volunteered the names of the places where he’d worked and lived in nearby North Miami Beach, both establishments were gone by 1991. He left no police records—that is, that the Hollywood detectives found. Without supporting witnesses or records, and a suspect’s denial, how could a murder case be made?
On the other hand, Jeffrey Dahmer was a noted convincing liar, especially to law enforcement. He severed his victims’ heads—and there was a severed head in this case. He’d already killed his first victim (by his count) and severed his head in 1978, three years before Adam disappeared. Plus, all the murders he admitted to were in states that didn’t have the death penalty. Florida famously did and still does. He also had a conviction for masturbating in a public place in front of two 12-year-olds and another for indecent exposure, and he admitted to such behavior often.
Hollywood Police didn’t interview Dahmer until a year after his Milwaukee arrest and then only after John Walsh insisted. In a Wisconsin prison, the lead detective spent just an hour with Dahmer. When he returned to Florida, he convinced Walsh that Dahmer was innocent.
Dahmer was murdered in prison two years later. Had Hollywood done as much as I did, considering my handicap of arriving 11 years after them, they would have had a chance to try Dahmer for Adam’s murder. Now it is too late. We can only speculate whether a jury would have sent Dahmer to Florida’s electric chair, his richly deserved fate. Then we would have had a legal conclusion instead of a vigilante lynching by a prison inmate.
One item Hollywood police never found was Dahmer’s name on a Miami police report 20 days before Adam disappeared. He reported a dead homeless man, who’d already turned blue, lying next to a dumpster—a dumpster Dahmer was seen eating out of about a week before. A few feet away was an electric meter room where the dead man apparently had slept—and afterward maybe also Dahmer, then homeless himself. He said he’d stepped over the dead man for days—although it was more likely he’d just dragged him out of the meter room, because the dumpster was in a well-trafficked alley, behind a pizza shop.
In the next 20 days, with the help of his new employer—whom police also never bothered to find—Dahmer apparently rented his motel-apartment room. The last time he’d lived alone in his own place, three years earlier at home in Ohio after both his parents had briefly abandoned him, he’d picked up a hitchhiker, then killed and dismembered him.
They also never found a number of supporting witnesses who had seen Dahmer’s evil eye stare exactly as the mall witness reported describing it.
One was the man who probably knew Dahmer best, his roommate on a U.S. Army base in Germany, who immediately recognized his banal pickup line to the witness. He also thought Dahmer possibly had killed a few times in Germany—German polizei had later suspected him of serial murders of women, although Dahmer admitted killing only men. The roommate had found blood- and mucus-covered buck knives in his room, and once Dahmer returned wearing blood-encrusted clothes after a night out.
He also knew that Army M.P.s had arrested Dahmer a few times for masturbating in front of German children in a local park, although they never entered charges and had merely brought him back to his room, with a brief explanation.
An Army nurse who had taught him anatomy also had seen Dahmer’s evil eyes. She thought he might have been a serial rapist. When both she and Dahmer were on the base in Germany, on three occasions badly sodomized men were rushed to her hospital, one close to death.
For his alcoholism, the Army kicked out Dahmer early—dumped him back home on an unsuspecting America, really—but without a dishonorable discharge to blot his record. From Germany he came to Miami. His Miami employer, who also saw his evil eye, said Dahmer would occasionally come to work, weekdays in the mid-morning, drunk and disheveled and he’d send him home. He also disputed Dahmer’s statement about his hours; they were only part-time, weekdays only. As well he contradicted Dahmer regarding his hair length. One of the mall witnesses insisted to the detective it was long, Dahmer said it wasn’t, and the detective believed Dahmer, reasoning that he’d recently left the military, therefore it couldn’t have been long. But the employer said it was long. So did the bunkmate, who saw Dahmer on his last day in the Army.
The police didn’t know that at Dahmer’s place of work, or its nearby sister store, was an unmarked blue pizza delivery van, easily accessible to employees, that often disappeared for hours and even days without documentation or consequences.
Even when I told the cold case detective most of this information in 2002, he still wasn’t much interested. After I broke the story in a newspaper and on television in 2007 and then the national media picked it up, Hollywood police claimed they’d since re-interviewed the two mall witnesses—but it wasn’t true; they hadn’t done even that. John Walsh’s reaction was inconsistent. Initially he said on camera that the local state attorney needed to examine the new evidence. But days later his show issued a statement that he trusted the police’s word that they had done a full investigation of my work and correctly dismissed it.
This although Walsh had once said the Hollywood Police in this case was guilty of “incredible incompetence,” and his lawyer suggested they were “the biggest bunch of bungling idiots since the Keystone Kops.”
This was the same Hollywood police force that at a dramatic late Friday-night press conference, two years after the murder, had announced they’d solved the crime: a Jacksonville drifter named Ottis Toole had confessed. The police chief claimed that he knew things that only the slayer could have known. Everything he’d told them had checked out, said an interviewing detective from Jacksonville.
Actually, Toole was a serial false-confessor who Hollywood and Jacksonville detectives needed to guide with the facts during repeated grillings over a period of days. On his own he got the simplest of facts ridiculously wrong—beginning with the statement that the child was wearing mittens—in South Florida—explained only by his thinking that the kidnapping took place in January, not July. After luring the child into his car on the premise of candy and toys inside, he hit the power door lock button to ensure that the child couldn’t easily escape—except that his car was discovered not to have power door locks. He also initially blamed the murder on his drifter-partner—until the partner was proven to be in jail in another state that day.
As shown in the transcripts, released 13 years later, when it became clear Toole needed help, the detectives dropped him obvious hints, showed him photos of the case, and gave him heavily weighted multiple-choices—which he still didn’t always answer correctly. Step by step they unfolded the entire case. But as the process went on, he repeatedly tried to recant. That’s when the detectives double-teamed him into continuing, hoping he’d eventually produce at least a single relevant true fact on his own. He never did.
To Hollywood’s further embarrassment, before the press conference they hadn’t conferred with the state attorney, who the next Monday refused to accept the case without corroboration. Detectives wasted months trying to establish that on the day Adam disappeared, Toole had been at least in the same county. In fact, they couldn’t prove where he was that day, and never established he’d ever been in the county. Meanwhile, largely depending on whether the Jacksonville detective was in the room, Toole recanted—and re-confessed—and re-recanted over and over.
All of this could have been avoided because it was obvious at the start. Toole and his partner Henry Lee Lucas were already in a crazy competition to admit to the most killings—hundreds, between them, suggesting, had their statements been true, they were the most sociopathic killing machines in the history of police work. Meanwhile, less-than-skeptical detectives from all around the country embraced them to clear out their unsolved cases. They similarly told the pair their facts and accepted their confessions. The game finally ended when a Texas prosecutor timelined their claimed murders and realized they couldn’t have been in distant states at nearly the same times.
Even before Toole’s confession, Hollywood police already had wasted more months’ effort trying to bully the Walsh family live-in nanny into confessing. Although his circumstances were irregular he didn’t come close to the criminal profile of someone who would have murdered a child and severed his head. In truth he was anything but a criminal.
Years later, John Walsh blamed Hollywood police for trying too hard to solve the crime by forcing the facts. He called the investigation into the live-in nanny an “easy out” for the cops, a “dead-end lead” and “their first big mistake.” Reve added, “It’s almost like they’re trying to frame him. The detectives are getting pressure from the top to solve this case.”
John also said for publication that Toole’s confession was beyond contempt. But four years later in 1996, just before Adam’s police case file up to that point was made public, Walsh decided, after all, that Toole most likely was Adam’s killer. By then even the Hollywood Police had long given up thinking he had committed the murder.
Since then, Walsh has continued to say that Toole killed his son, even after, in summer 2007, the ABC News show Primetime revealed that inside the electric meter room behind the sub shop where Dahmer worked a crime scene investigator had discovered a pattern of blood spatter she thought indicated a homicide, and a rusty axe and sledgehammer next to it. Dahmer had admitted using a sledgehammer on a victim before 1981, and the axe was no less grotesquely suggestive. Before broadcast, ABC had offered to present Walsh its facts, but Walsh declined and as well refused their invitation of an interview. Instead he sent an ex-cop who insisted, still, that Toole killed Adam, and promised a presentation of new evidence he’d found which America’s Most Wanted would air within a month. It didn’t.
As the chief of Hollywood police in October 1983 had announced at a surprise press conference that the case was solved, Toole killed Adam Walsh, a new chief in December 2008 did the same. Live on cable news, the Walshes were present, teary, and grateful for this day of closure, and national media followed in agreement.
But in 2008 Chief Chadwick E. Wagner offered no new evidence and certainly no smoking gun. “If you’re looking for that magic wand or that hidden document that just appeared,” Wagner answered a reporter’s question, “it’s not there.”
Case now officially closed, the police offered to media CD-ROM copies of the complete case file. (After the 1996 court-ordered opening of the file, the police had denied all public record requests to see material they’d generated since then, and no one had again challenged them in court.)
As it turned out, Wagner was wrong. In the newly released part of the case file, police did have the smoking gun evidence that solved the case.
Only he didn’t realize it.
The police had had it since 1996. Worse, it had been offered to them in the first week or weeks of the case, in 1981. They hadn’t taken it. Had they, the case would have been solved in 1991, correctly, not in 2008, wrongly.
That evidence proved the case against Jeffrey Dahmer.
MONDAY, JULY 27, 1981
INCIDENT NUMBER: HW-81-056073
POLICE DEPARTMENT—HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA
INCIDENT TYPE: MISSING PERSON JUVENILE
LOCATION: 300 HOLLYWOOD MALL
TYPE PREMISE: RETAIL STORE CHAIN STORE: Y
TIME AND DATE OF INCIDENT: 1355 7/27/81
DAY: MON SUBJECTS: 2 VEHICLES: 0
STATUS SUBJECT: REPORTEE
NAME: REVE WALSH
RACE/SEX/DOB: W-F, 7/24/51
ADDRESS: 2801 MCKINLEY STREET
STATUS SUBJECT: MISSING PERSON—JUVENILE
NAME: ADAM WALSH
RACE/SEX/DOB: W-M, 11/14/74
ADDRESS: 2801 MCKINLEY STREET
HEIGHT: 3-06 WEIGHT: 045 HAIR: SANDY, BL
EYES: HAZEL BUILD: THIN COMPLEX: MEDIUM
FURTHER DESCRIPTION: SEE NARRATIVE
JUVENILE WAS LAST SEEN WEARING A RED AND WHITE STRIPED SHIRT WITH GREEN ADIDAS GYM SHORTS, CREAM COLORED CANVAS CAPTAIN’S HAT WITH A BLUE RIM AND YELLOW RUBBER SANDALS.
REPORTEE ADVISES THAT THE ABOVE MISSING PERSON WAS LAST SEEN IN THE TOY DEPARTMENT OF SEARS DEPARTMENT STORE. MISSING PERSON WAS TO MEET REPORTEE WHEN SHE WAS DONE WITH HER BUSINESS IN ANOTHER PART OF THE STORE, NAMELY THE LAMP DEPARTMENT. REPORTEE RETURNED TO TOY DEPT APPROXIMATELY TEN (10) TO FIFTEEN (15) MINUTES AFTER SHE LEFT THE MISSING PERSON AND THE MISSING PERSON WAS NOT TO BE FOUND. REPORTEE LOOKED FOR MISSING PERSON FOR APPROXIMATELY FORTY (40) TO FORTY FIVE (45) MINUTES BEFORE CALLING POLICE.
UPON ARRIVAL, THE UNDERSIGNED OFFICER TOOK INFO FROM THE REPORTEE AND THEN NOTIFIED NCIC/FCIC AND REPORT WAS TAKEN BY BADGE #617. THE UNDERSIGNED, REPORTEE, AND THE GRANDMOTHER THEN CONDUCTED A STORE TO STORE SEARCH OF THE MALL WHICH PROVED FRUITLESS. THE UNDERSIGNED OFFICER CONTINUED SEARCH AND AT APPROXIMATELY 1700 HOURS HANDED THIS INVESTIGATION OVER TO LT. WALSH. NO FURTHER INFORMATION AVAILABLE AT THIS TIME.
REPORTING OFFICER: CSO M DONAHAY, SQD 5
BADGE: 1334 ENTRY: 0310 07/29/81
Sears, in the Hollywood Mall, was a mile and a half from the Walshes’ home. Adam’s mother Reve Walsh said she parked her gray Checker—a passenger car version of the famous oversized cab—just outside the door of the catalog desk and entered hand-in-hand with Adam. Although the initial police report narrative does not mention the time, she later told the first police officer who arrived that it was about 12:30 in the afternoon.
Right in front of them was the toy department. To sell what was the first generation of home video games, Sears had a display where kids could play for free. Passing it, there was a small crowd of kids, three deep, already playing. It was July, summer vacation, and Adam wanted to play too. “That was our ritual,” Reve wrote in John’s book (published in 1997), entering by that door of Sears “[a]nd Adam begging me to let him play the video game.”
She relented. “Okay. I’m going to the lamp department for a minute. Right over there. You stay here and I’ll be right over there.”
“Okay, Mommy. I know where that is,” he answered.
Sears had bronze lamps on sale, 20-40% off, as advertised in Good Housekeeping. Yet the one Reve wanted she couldn’t find, and a young clerk told her it wasn’t in the store. The department manager was at lunch, she said, and Reve told her she’d come back.
When she returned to the videogames, at most ten minutes later, she thought, Adam wasn’t there.
Nor were any of the kids she’d just seen.
She looked through some aisles, including in the lamp department, then found another clerk. “Have you seen my son? He was just here a minute ago.” The woman hadn’t. Nor had anyone else she asked.
“I kept saying, ‘you don’t understand. My son is a little boy who does not wander off.’ And all the while, a horrible, cold fear was building. I knew something was wrong. Really wrong. I was absolutely convinced of it.”
Outside the garden shop entrance she spotted Jean Walsh, her husband John’s mother, who also lived in Hollywood. Seeing her was a relief. “Do you have Adam?” “No, what’s the matter? Why are you crying? Oh, my God, let’s find him.”
Both of them started searching the rest of the store and the mall. Reve showed around a wallet photo of Adam. It was his first-grade school picture in which he wore the same shirt he was wearing that day—an Izod Lacoste with thick red and white stripes, thin green stripes and a sewn alligator emblem.
Still, nobody recognized him.
Reve asked a woman at the catalog desk what she should do, thinking she should call the police. The catalog clerk told her not to get excited, children commonly got lost in the store. She gave Reve the house phone, which connected to the switchboard operator. Reve asked that Adam be paged to the toy department, but store policy, the operator apologized, was to only allow pages to the customer service desk.
“Adam Walsh, please come to customer service.”
“Customer service?” she wrote. “How was he supposed to know where that was, or how to get there? That was how much they were prepared for what was happening.” A little later, at Reve’s insistence, a second announcement: “Adam Walsh, please meet your mother in the toy department.”
No boy appeared.
The catalog clerk suggested maybe the child had gone into the mall. Reve answered that Adam wouldn’t do that, but she checked anyway, running up and down the mall.
“I was crying. I couldn’t help it. I was so scared. We had looked everywhere, in the store and the mall. I had run out to the parking lot and checked the car, twice. I had asked everyone in sight if they had seen my little boy.”
The Hollywood police arrived. Besides issuing a Be On the Lookout radio call to their officers, they didn’t know what to do. They suggested maybe he’d left the store, become disoriented, and started walking home. Impossible, Reve insisted. It wasn’t a pedestrian-friendly walk, and he was only six years old.
Nevertheless, she called the home of Adam’s best friend, Clifford Hofman, certain he wasn’t there. Clifford’s parents immediately came to Sears to help look. She walked back outside, looked in dumpsters, looked inside every car in the parking lot. “I spotted a man who was loading things into a camper, bags of groceries, camping supplies. I started screaming that he must have taken my son. But it turned out that he was just some guy going on a camping trip.
“By that point I was grasping at straws. I would try any suggestion at all. Anything. Because by now everything was already so far from reality that nothing made sense. It was like a bad dream, one where you can’t get there from here… I was trying to reach my child, but he couldn’t hear me… It was like the life was being sucked right out of me.”
At some point, she wrote, a teenage female plainclothes store security guard approached her. She was upset because, she said, she had kicked some children out of the store. She wasn’t sure whether Adam was one of them.
A policeman suggested that Jean Walsh drive to her grandson’s McKinley Street home and see if he was there. She did that. First she knocked on neighbors’ doors to check with them. None had seen him. Nor had anyone at the playground nearby. Then she entered the house and went through it room by room. The phone rang, and her son John was calling. In his book, she wrote, “I told him we had been up at the mall and had lost track of Adam.” John followed that with his recollection that he first learned about it when Reve called him from a pay phone. He quoted Reve: “John, something is wrong here. Really wrong. Adam is missing and I need you to get here.”
John immediately left his office, in Bal Harbour, 20 minutes south of Hollywood. In his car he took his younger brother Joe, who worked with him, and they stopped on the way in Sunny Isles to tell their friend Jimmy Campbell. In his own car came his business associate and mentor, John Monahan.
Arriving at Sears, John wrote: “I walked in and saw the back of Reve and called her name. She turned around. Her face was white, absolutely ashen, and it was obvious that she had been crying. A terrible, desperate look was in her eyes… But the only words she spoke were, ‘It’s Adam, John… I can’t find Adam.’”
Initially, officers spread out from the store to cover a radius they thought a little boy in rubber sandals was able to wander. But as afternoon became early evening, they realized they needed help. Every available Hollywood police officer was asked to search for Adam Walsh. The entire detective bureau turned out, plus 22 patrol officers requested overtime after their shifts ended so they could keep looking. Police boats combed canals. With searchlights aimed at the ground, the Broward County Sheriff’s helicopter search team hovered over fields and golf courses.
At 7:30, police asked for help from Jack Simons, head of the Hollywood Citizens’ Crime Watch. Prepared for such occasions, Simons spread the word through phone chains. They’d already carved a city map into 97 neighborhoods, and everyone in advance had assigned sections in which to look. Volunteers walked streets and alleys near their homes, calling out Adam’s name. They searched dark places, dumpsters and under garbage can lids, and asked others on the street if they’d seen him.
No one found any clues at all.
When the Walshes and their own search party finally left the mall, they decamped at the Hollywood Police station, directly across the street from Sears. They left Reve’s Checker where she’d parked it, in the second spot from the store’s corner, unlocked the door, and Reve made Adam an impromptu bed, with his blue blanket and toys and books. They wrote a note and propped it inside the windshield: “Adam, stay in the car. Mommy and Daddy are looking for you.”
By 10 o’clock, police asked Simons to set in motion his group operation’s second phase: again, he started his phone chains, and by 11, about 60 volunteers arrived at the Hollywood Police station, ready to comb everywhere Adam might have reached on foot. Meanwhile, other members called radio and television stations, asking them to publicize the search.
At three in the morning, without any success, they quit for the night, pledging to return to the police station the next morning.
Tuesday July 28
By nine o’clock Tuesday morning, more than a hundred Crime Watchers had gathered at the police station. Simons asked them to cover the same areas, then return every three hours. By now people were searching all over the city, the airport, bus station, on the beach, and in other shopping areas. Riders on horseback surveyed fields. Three people monitored citizens’ band radio frequencies. Meanwhile, police cadets and off-duty officers searched wooded areas and swamps.
At 10, Reve Walsh and her husband John appeared before television news cameras at the police station, teary-eyed and exhausted from lack of sleep. Their appeal would be broadcast on the noon news. They hoped either Adam would be watching or someone who had seen him.
“Adam, we’re looking for you, and we miss you. We love you,” said his father. “Look for landmarks, Adam. Look for landmarks and you’ll be able to find your way home.”
Police printed a missing flyer with a photo of Adam in a white V-neck T-ball team shirt and red cap, a Louisville Slugger gripped in his baby fingers with chewed-down nails. Smiling for the camera, he showed off his mother’s big hazel eyes. His two front teeth were missing, and his brown hair was sweaty and tousled. His nickname was Cooter. Police distributed the flyer to Florida Power and Light workers, Southern Bell telephone crews, letter carriers, and taxi drivers.
MASSIVE SEARCH LAUNCHED FOR BOY, 6
ADAM WALSH DISAPPEARED FROM SEARS MONDAY AFTERNOON
That was the headline in the Hollywood Sun-Tattler in its home-delivered afternoon edition. By the time its reporter, 26-year-old Charlie Brennan, arrived, the Walshes had already consulted a psychic named Dr. Fisher—Brennan didn’t get her first name or credentials. She thought Adam might have left the mall heading south. Brennan didn’t mention that if he had, he would have walked smack into the police station.
The evening Miami News mentioned the search in a brief on their local news page, quoting a police spokesman. While raising the possibility of a kidnapping, he said it wasn’t suspected. “The kid is probably trying to get home and is probably lost somewhere, and we’re searching the city for him.”
With the publicity came a shower of phone tips. Since the department was already stretched thin—on the case were 54 officers and detectives, many of whom had volunteered their off-duty time—the police allowed John, Reve, and their family members and friends to sit in the third-floor detective bureau and answer and log those incoming tips. The arrangement was highly irregular, and it reflected the trust the police had in the Walshes’ innocence.
An employee of a convenience store near Hollywood Mall told John’s brother Joe Walsh he’d seen Adam get into a white car that went west on Hollywood Boulevard. A mall bakery worker said she’d seen him wandering the mall. Someone else said he’d seen him at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in nearby Hallandale. Other reports had him spotted as far away as Miami Beach and West Palm Beach.
Finally at 8:30, Jack Simons called off the Crime Watch search. Everyone was exhausted, and since all areas of the city had been searched at least twice, further efforts would be futile, they felt. Simons went home but couldn’t fall asleep.
Wednesday July 29
SIX-YEAR-OLD WAS KIDNAPED, POLICE BELIEVE
—The Miami Herald
Haggard and bleary-eyed from the all-night search for his six-year-old son, John Walsh burst into tears.
“He was an immensely loved little boy and we will go to any lengths to get him back,” said Walsh, announcing a “substantial” reward for the freckle-faced Hollywood boy with a missing tooth.
Later in the day, in the Sun-Tattler’s home edition, Walsh expanded on that theme: “He’s either dead, or someone has him. He’s probably in a dead panic to reach me. Somebody’s hopefully got him. If he’s outside the county, there’s not much we can do about it.”
Police spokesman Fred Barbetta suggested they begin searching the area’s many waterways, a system of canals that drained the Everglades. “If he’s in the water, this is when he’d come up.” Jack Simons shared a similar pessimism. “We’re not looking for someone walking around right now. We’re looking for whatever is left.”
Also irregular was the fact that John Walsh had emerged as the story’s primary spokesman, speaking from the police department. The press found him far more compelling than the usual police public information officer or press release.
“The worst thing that could happen is that he’s in a canal somewhere,” the Sun-Tattler quoted Walsh, his voice reported as shaking. “Nobody at the police department believes that’s what happened. Nobody wants to believe it.”
Later in the day, Walsh offered to pay a reward of $5,000, which he put on a new “missing” flyer. Apparently as a guide to how much they could afford, he described himself as vice president for marketing for the $26 million Paradise Grand Hotel resort in Nassau, Bahamas, then under construction.
Referring to the fight between the four kids, the Herald reported it happened about the same time Reve left Adam at the video game. But a store security guard broke it up and ordered the combatants out of the store. Later interviewed by police, the boys “remembered seeing Adam heading towards the lamp department where his mother was.”
Thursday, July 30
BOY, 6, STILL MISSING
The Sun-Tattler reported that Adam was Broward County’s biggest missing-child mystery since the 1976 disappearance of eight-year-old Lisa Lynn Berry. She’d last been seen at a Hollywood bowling alley, and the community had gathered to search for her. Within a day volunteers found her pink pants and green sweater. Days later her body was found. It turned out Lisa Berry’s kidnapping and murder hadn’t been random. Her mother’s friend was convicted for the crimes.
Police were asking people who’d seen anything unusual at Sears on Monday to come forward. They also wanted to question the four boys—two white, two black, all between 10 and 12—who’d fought over the Atari games and had been thrown out of the store by security guard Kathy Shaffer, “on the chance it happened at the same time Adam disappeared,” said Sgt. Dennis Naylon.
“He respects authority. Maybe he thought he was responsible for something. Maybe he followed them out of the store for some reason.”
At nine in the morning at the Hollywood police station, Willis Morgan arrived to report what he’d seen. By then police had already listened to hundreds of tips. Trying to help, citizens called in names of people down the block who they thought were child molesters, wives suggested their ex-husbands, and others had just thought they’d seen Adam. The lobby receptionist pointed Morgan to an officer at a special desk the department had set up to receive walk-in tips.
Morgan said he’d been in the Hollywood Mall around noon on Monday. He was browsing at Radio Shack when a man approached him, wanting to talk. The man was large, drunk and disheveled, and had shaggy hair and a crappy grin.
“Hi there, nice day, isn’t it?”
Morgan, 34, looked like a powerful man but because a motorcycle accident had left him with a prosthetic leg, he couldn’t walk away quickly. He was scared. He tried to look away, but then the man’s eyes turned angry, demonic, and piercing.
He stared for a number of seconds, then finally he got the message and left. At first Morgan was relieved. Then he thought, maybe the guy would approach someone else who’d need help. From a safe distance, Morgan followed him. The man walked through the mall and entered Sears. Staying behind him, Morgan saw him go into the toy department. But that led nowhere else, and since Morgan didn’t want the man to double back and see him, he abruptly left. He did, not feeling safe until he got into his car, locked the door, and drove away.
That night he saw on the late local news that a child was missing from Hollywood Mall. When he arrived at work, Wednesday evening as a pressman at the Miami Herald, he told his buddies, who insisted he go to the police. His workday ended at 5:30 A.M., and he’d stayed up so he could get to the police station by nine.
The officer asked if he had a receipt from a purchase at the mall that Monday to prove he’d been there. He hadn’t. Had he seen a tag number of a getaway car? He said he’d only seen the man inside the mall. The officer took his name and phone number and said they’d call him if they needed him. Morgan felt like a jerk for coming.
While some were criticizing Hollywood police for not doing enough, police responded that they’d never had a week like this one. Besides Adam, in the past five days they’d also had a rape of a five-year-old girl and the discovery of a dead woman in a canal.
Meanwhile, the Sun-Tattler reported, a secretary at an asphalt company had organized at least three hundred truck drivers to search fields, walking together ten feet apart, in undeveloped southwest Broward.
John Walsh said he’d been having trouble eating the past two days. “I tried to have some soup, but I can’t hold anything down. I just gag it back up.” Nor had he or Reve been able to sleep, he said.
“Everybody—psychics, police, friends, family—they all say they’re sure he’s still alive,” he said. But at other moments Walsh conceded anything was possible. “I don’t need to tell you how many people are walking around out there who just don’t think straight.”
Just peeking into Adam’s room and seeing his toys and clothes was crushing to Reve, he said. However, he was comforted by the support of those around him, especially his younger brother Joe and a friend, James Campbell, who since Monday had devoted all their time to following every lead from the psychics, or just staying close to him.
The article wrote glowingly of John and Reve’s strength and endurance, how they were always ready to give another newspaper interview, go on TV, or answer tipsters’ calls:
Wiping tears from his eyes for what seems like the hundredth time this week, running his hands through jet-black hair flecked with silver, Walsh sums up what Hollywood Police have discovered—“It’s like he disappeared from the face of the earth.”
“I can’t tell you how much I love that boy,” he adds. “He’s such a joy.”
Meanwhile, state Marine Patrol officers were searching canals, which, since drug smuggling had become such big business locally in the past five years, were now common places to dump bodies. Sometimes fishermen would find them. 1981 would be the historical peak year for homicides in South Florida. If Adam had been murdered and dumped in water Monday, the day he disappeared, then Wednesday was the day to look because bodies underwater start decomposing after 36 to 48 hours. Then they surface.
PSYCHIC AIDS SEARCH FOR LOST BOY
—Fort Lauderdale News
Her hands touching the controls of Sears’s Atari game to sense its “vibrations,” Micki Dahne, a psychic with a local radio show, told Reve that Adam was scared, but okay.
Dahne also met Kathy Shaffer, the Sears security guard, in tears. The Fort Lauderdale News reported Shaffer had since told the police she ordered Adam as well as the four other boys to stop fighting over the video game and leave the store.
Friday, July 31
YOUTH MIGHT HAVE SEEN BOY BEFORE HE DISAPPEARED
—The Miami Herald
POLICE BELIEVE BOY ALIVE; REWARD NOW $25,000
Had Adam been fighting, and was he one of five boys ejected from the store? Or was he a passive spectator of a fight, confused as to whether he as well had been ordered to leave the store?
The police and the Walshes were expounding the spectator theory. “It’s possible Adam was standing there watching and was shooed from the store with the other kids,” Lt. Richard Hynds told the Miami Herald. Lost in all this was Shaffer’s change of story, to where she now she thought she had thrown Adam out of the store. A new detail apparently from Shaffer was added: she sent the white boys out the store’s north door, and the black boys out the south.
But how many white boys had she expelled, two or three? Police were still saying two.
The 12-year-old Hollywood boy who said he’d played video games with the boy he thought was Adam told police he’d last seen Adam between 1:30-2:00. Because that changed the timeframe, the Sun-Tattler reported, police were now speculating that Adam was still alive. However, to believe that Adam had been seen in the toy department even at 1:30 contradicted Reve’s timeline of events. She said she’d left Adam at 12:30, returned for him no more than fifteen minutes later, then searched 45 minutes before calling police.
The Miami Herald interviewed the child, but at his parents’ request didn’t publish his name. They quoted Lt. Hynds saying the child had offered the best information so far in the case. “This boy is a really credible source and the son of a prominent citizen. His family is very religious. I know he’s telling the truth.”
The boy told the Herald that a little boy matching Adam’s description watched him playing the video spaceship game with a girl. Then he asked the smaller boy to play. They played two rounds, the older boy winning both. Then two 12- to 13-year-old boys demanded a turn, grabbing the game’s controls from the smaller boy, who held on and told them, “It doesn’t belong to you.”
To the boy speaking to the Herald, one of the bullying kids looked as if he was going to punch the smaller kid in the face, so he told the smaller boy to leave so he wouldn’t get hurt. Relinquishing the joystick, the smaller boy watched nearby for a few moments, then left.
The boy thought Adam’s missing photo looked like the child he saw, but it wasn’t an exact match. “This kid was a different size. He wasn’t exactly skinny but he wasn’t a blob either.”
During their game, the boy also remembered, while the on-screen rockets and missiles were flying, the little boy had said, “Oh, wow,” and “Oops! You missed one.” Reve had told police that Adam said things like that. But the Hollywood boy didn’t say anything to the Herald about a security guard breaking up a fight, or kids kicked out of the store. Adam had simply walked away, he said, the fight averted.
In the Herald, Lt. Hynds nonetheless connected the fight and Shaffer’s ejections, which might incidentally or unintentionally have included Adam. But in the Sun-Tattler, the detectives held to Shaffer’s original story that she’d removed only four children. Adam wasn’t in the fight, he was merely watching, they said.
Left unsaid in the already conflicting stories was that if the Hollywood boy was accurate, there may have been no connection between Adam and the fight—and if his recollection of the time was right, he might have seen Adam at least a full hour after Reve first left him.
The Herald also reported the Walshes were now convinced Adam had been kidnapped, and that they’d raised their reward to $10,000. By that evening the Sun-Tattler reported it was $25,000.
Saturday, August 1
MISSING BOY WAS SEEN BY 3
—The Miami Herald
Police also thought 10-year-olds Timothy Pottenburgh and his cousin, and their grandmother, were credible when they reported seeing Adam apparently enter a blue van outside Sears on the day he disappeared.
Without naming them, police told the Miami Herald they’d seen Adam walking near the toy department Monday about 1:30—after they’d heard the store intercom page him. The grandmother said the boy they saw fit Adam’s description: slight build, striped shirt, green sandals.
They next saw Adam outside the store’s north exit—the same one Reve said they’d entered. He turned left toward the parking lot. From the same exit they saw a man run, enter a blue van, and drive toward the boy, nearly hitting the Pottenburgh clan. Adam fled around the side of the building, chased by the van. Curious, Timothy looked around the corner. From 25 yards away, he spotted the van, parked, its door open, then watched it speed away. He didn’t see Adam.
The family described the man as white, about six feet tall, muscular, with dark bushy hair, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The van, they said, was shiny dark blue, late model, with mag wheels, dark-tinted windows, and a chrome ladder in the back.
On Friday, through the local news media and radio, police had started asking the public to be on the lookout for blue vans. They also called Hollywood Crime Watch, and its members began driving their assigned areas, calling police with their sightings.
“We’re more sure now that he’s probably been kidnapped,” Lt. Hynds said.
In its news pages, the Sun-Tattler reprinted Adam Walsh’s Missing handbill, offering the $25,000 reward. As well, a local direct advertiser stuffed copies in its regular mailing to 50,000 homes. The handbill had Adam’s T-ball photo, Hollywood police phone numbers, a “non-police” number in Miami (likely Walsh’s office), the Walsh family home address, and toll-free numbers so anyone in Florida or the rest of the U.S. could call. It also read:
We are willing to negotiate ransom on ANY terms. Strict confidentiality. DO NOT FEAR REVENGE! We will not prosecute. We only want our son. If desired, contact any radio or T.V. station, newspaper or any other media as a neutral party for negotiations or information. Do not fear revenge. We want Adam home.
At Sears’s parking lot, a few hundred people met to distribute another hundred thousand copies.
A Hollywood city commissioner suggested the city contribute $5,000 to the reward. John Walsh said people across the country had been sending money—five to several hundred dollars. He also wanted to spread the word via TV.
He promised Ralph Renick, Miami’s Walter Cronkite, “If you put me on, I won’t break down. I won’t.” The Herald wrote that WTVJ’s Renick didn’t think Walsh could handle live TV, so he’d instead suggested a taped interview. But Walsh convinced him, so he and Reve went on the Friday 4:30 newscast for three minutes. With Adam’s stuffed animal in Reve’s lap, holding hands, the Walshes did fine. The Herald reporter followed them to the Hollywood police detective bureau, where a Tarot card reader insisted she do their reading. John Walsh told the reporter they’d already met with 15 clairvoyants, 13 of whom said Adam was alive.
Now that searches of canals, swamps, and undeveloped areas hadn’t produced his body, the Walshes thought Adam was probably in the hands of an abductor. And since that person hadn’t responded to offers to pay ransom, he or she likely was someone who wanted a child.
John also talked about finding Reve in Adam’s bed, crying. Since then he’d locked the door to the child’s room.
Sunday, August 2
BOY’S REWARD FUND RISES, BUT LEAD VANISHES
—Fort Lauderdale News
The Walshes increased their reward to $50,000, but the Pottenburghs, who hadn’t wanted to get involved in the first place, were refusing to let police hypnotize Timothy to help him recall what he saw.
By herself, police said, the grandmother wasn’t a good witness because she was partially blind. All she could say for certain about the incident was that a van had almost run them over.
Days later, Walsh was quoted in the Fort Lauderdale News: “If it wasn’t going to hurt the child, well, maybe the woman can put herself in my position. What if it were her little boy who was missing?”
Monday, August 3
POLICE CHECKING VANS FOR MISSING 6-YEAR-OLD
—The Miami Herald
As a result of their request to the public for help spotting late-model shiny blue vans, police had received “tons” of calls. They’d checked 50 of them but without success.
“One lady called in this morning who said she had a dream that Adam was in a wheelchair being pushed down a long white corridor by a black male,” said a police spokesman. “Now, you tell me how we’re going to start looking for black males going down long white corridors.”
Tuesday, August 4
THE ORDEAL OF ADAM’S PARENTS
The entire week, Sun-Tattler reporter Charlie Brennan had stuck to the Walshes. He wrote that John and Reve had become almost as familiar to South Floridians as their missing son. In a media blitz, they’d appeared on local TV “morning, noon, and night,” as well as on the front pages of all the area’s newspapers. They’d refused no media request. Often they were crying, and always they pleaded for someone to bring them back their boy.
“Most couples are fortunate enough never to have to open up their hearts—their lives, even—before millions of people at a time when the core of their family is ripped out without warning. And most couples would not be doing it so well.”
The late edition reported that after stopping “hundreds” of blue vans, police were now downplaying the lead. “Some of them have been stopped twice. It’s hardly safe to drive a blue van in South Florida these days,” said Lt. Hynds.
Introduction to Book Two
RARELY DOES A BOOK SEQUEL CONTRADICT ITS ORIGINAL TITLE, but it does in the instance of Jeffrey Dahmer’s Dirty Secret: The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh (Book One: Finding the Killer, and now Book Two: Finding the Victim—Is Adam Still Alive?)
These books represent work I’ve done over much of the last eighteen years, beginning in 1996 when police in Hollywood, Florida, were forced to open their Adam Walsh murder file to the public although they had not solved the case. In court, counsel for news media argued that the police investigation of the then-fifteen-year-old case was dormant, and therefore under Florida public records statutes was eligible for public exposure. A judge agreed, and for the first time in Florida (if not elsewhere), reporters and everyone else had nearly full access to copies of an unsolved murder file.
The question became: if the cops couldn’t solve the case in fifteen years, could fresh, non-police eyes reviewing the same material do anything with it?
These books are my answer to that question.
Don’t expect the police to be grateful for the help. They aren’t.
In an era when my adopted home of South Florida was renown (infamous, really) for its murders, the Walsh case was arguably the biggest one here of its time—and the most awful. For a young child left alone just a few minutes in a public place like a shopping mall department store to disappear and two weeks later emerge monstrously dead seemed to speak to the illness of the community, if not all of modern America.
As I wrote in Book One, regarding a suspect, the police never got far beyond Ottis Toole, the Jacksonville drifter who in 1983 had volunteered a jailhouse confession. On his initial statements alone, Hollywood Police quickly after held a press conference announcing that the case was solved. But without confirmation the state attorney had declined to prosecute, and when detectives did the legwork, intense months of it, they could not corroborate anything Toole said. Released as public records in 1996, transcripts of the detectives’ interviews with Toole showed they had prompted him with information about the entire case, including photographs of the crime scene and Adam. As bad as that sounds, the problem seemed to be not that the detectives acted unethically but rather that Toole tricked them. You might not think that Toole, who had a low-intelligence manner, could play the police so well, but that’s what he later explained he did in this case as well as in confessions he’d made to other murders elsewhere.
Although Toole was a willing confessor, at the outset it was apparent that his information ranged on a scale from worthlessly vague to inaccurate to completely wrong. Reading the interviews, I kept wanting to shout at the detectives, Leave! Go home! This guy obviously knows nothing! But the detectives had just traveled on short notice on a police plane across the state to Jacksonville, and, it looked like, they decided to stick it out. By prompting Toole little by little to see if maybe he could recall details that were real, they may have figured they had nothing to lose. In fact, that’s what one of the interviewing detectives later told me.
In the end, Toole added nothing of value. I can understand that Toole was easily and probably often underestimated, but it was a mistake to think he was dumb. I also understand that Toole and his partner Henry Lee Lucas, then in the midst of their confessional reign of terror, sort of wrote the book on false confessions. Up to then, police tended to consider confessions as the gold standard of crime-solving. Still, what I’ve never understood is why anyone, after reading Toole’s initial interview, took seriously what he said. I don’t think the two Hollywood detectives who interviewed him ever understood that, either.
By the end of 1984, after Hollywood couldn’t prove anything Toole had said that they hadn’t shown or told him or he haphazardly later added, sometimes reversing himself, police publicly dropped him as an active suspect—only to revive him once again in 2008, although by then he was twelve years dead and there was, to Hollywood’s admission, no further new information against him.
Jeffrey Dahmer did not become a suspect until his arrest in Milwaukee in 1991, ten years after Adam’s disappearance. And to Hollywood Police, he never became much of a suspect at all. But as I showed in Book One, Dahmer was in South Florida when Adam disappeared. That was by his own admission, the witnessing of others I found who knew him, and if that wasn’t enough, a Dade County police report I uncovered which documented him finding a dead body.
Days after his 1991 arrest, two separate witnesses had contacted Hollywood Police to say that they had been at the Hollywood Mall at the time Adam disappeared and they’d seen a man there they now thought they recognized as Dahmer. Police weren’t enthusiastic. However, an FBI agent who later interviewed Dahmer thought he’d implied to him that he’d taken Adam; the agent got word to John Walsh, who had to lean on the state attorney to get the lead Hollywood detective to fly to Wisconsin to interview Dahmer. If Dahmer would confess, Walsh even got the state attorney to agree in writing to waive the death penalty, which Dahmer hadn’t faced for his admitted killings in Wisconsin and Ohio. However, at the interview, there was no indication that the detective mentioned the concession on the death penalty, and Dahmer just simply denied having anything to do with Adam. For the police, that was pretty much that.
The argument against Dahmer has always been that Adam, at six years old, didn’t fit his pattern of victims. His closest acknowledged murder victim in age to Adam was thirteen years old. But that argument relies on a bit of popular forensic science, that serial killers necessarily have known or knowable M.O.’s that don’t change. Another fallacy is that Dahmer, who for his murderous career had kept his own counsel, should have been believed when he said soon after his capture that he’d admitted all his killings.
I found much reason to think that Jeffrey Dahmer, after arrest, left out a great deal of his story.
For one thing, I found Billy Capshaw, Dahmer’s roommate for a year during 1980-81 in the U.S. Army at a base in Germany. Although after his capture Dahmer never mentioned him, Billy had a story of mental and physical control and torture by Dahmer, which included repeated druggings, rape, hits from metal objects that broke bones, cuts and stabbings, and even surgery. Although Billy often didn’t think he’d survive, as a result he had the most intimate knowledge of Dahmer of anyone, arguably better even than his family.
He was also a secondary witness to what was likely violence Dahmer had done in Germany. Dahmer often took weekend leave to travel around the country, and Billy saw him return with dried blood soaked through his clothes to his skin. He also repeatedly found blood and mucus on hunting knives that Dahmer hid. In 1991, after his arrest, German police investigated him for about a dozen mutilation murders, seemingly a pattern, mostly of women and within fifty kilometers of his base while Dahmer was there, which ended after he was kicked out of the Army in March 1981. At the time, the entire country of Germany had only about two hundred or so murders a year. When asked, however, Dahmer denied the killings—he said he was only interested in men and boys. And again, that was pretty much that.
In fact, Dahmer denied killing anyone between what he said was his first murder, in 1978, and a spree that began in 1987 and ended with his 1991 arrest.
After Germany, to avoid going home where he’d have to confront his failure to stay in the Army, Dahmer chose to go to Miami, where he spent the spring and summer of 1981. In July 1981, Adam Walsh’s mother said she last saw her son when she left him alone for an intended few minutes at the videogame display in their neighborhood Sears that was, as it turned out, about twenty minutes by vehicle from where Dahmer at the time had a cleanup job at a sub and pizza shop.
Dahmer told the police he had no vehicle then but I learned that the sub shop had a blue van that employees could, and often did, take for their personal use without asking permission. Hollywood Police’s first hot clue in 1981 was a blue van; at about the time that Adam disappeared, a man was reported throwing a small child into a blue van in the parking lot just next to Sears. Based on that, Hollywood stopped all the blue vans they saw, requested other police agencies to do the same, and as well asked the public through the media to report to them all their sightings of blue vans. After about a month of attempting to track a deluge of blue van sightings, Hollywood declared the lead invalid.
One of the 1991 Dahmer witnesses also had him throwing a child into a blue van. Then in 2008, after Hollywood Police declared the case solved at last, they released most of the remainder of their case information, which showed five previously-undisclosed witnesses who apparently also had seen Dahmer at the mall that day in 1981; three of them as well had seen a blue van there. Four of the five reports had the van parked or standing in the same spot, just outside the entrance to the Sears store, and the fifth had it close to there.
Still, Hollywood wouldn’t budge from their position that Toole took Adam.
With the publication in 2009 of what I now refer to as Book One, I thought that after years of work I could finally put the story down.
I was completely wrong, the story was just starting again, I hadn’t gotten the half of it.
By a Facebook message that arrived in my email, a man wrote me that he was Adam Walsh. Yes, that one. And that Jeffrey Dahmer, in fact, had taken him from the mall, in a blue van.
Wasn’t Adam Walsh, um, dead, wasn’t that what this story was all about? A severed head had been found in a canal more than a hundred miles north of Hollywood two weeks after Adam was reported last seen at the mall, and an upstate medical examiner had announced a positive identification: it was Adam. No other part of his body was ever found. Adam’s parents gave him a public funeral service, they as well as the very scared and traumatized community cried their eyes out, and the Walshes had rededicated their lives to helping other parents of children who were missing. And at Hollywood Police’s 2008 press conference, they’d accepted with gratitude the police chief’s decision to finally close the case with the declaration (again) that Toole had killed Adam.
So much else in the story had turned out contrary to what the police and the Walshes had insisted upon. The message to me didn’t read like a malicious drive-by prank; it was too detailed, well-written, and sincere-sounding. The date he sent it was a few days before what would be, or would have been, Adam’s thirty-fifth birthday, though I only realized that much later. At its conclusion he asked to talk. Which was riskier, replying or not? I decided to ask for his phone number, and that day’s call to him turned into a week of stomach-churning conversations, for me and though at the time I was not thinking it, him as well.
Right off the bat I asked him for his legal name, the one on his driver’s license. Of course it could not be Adam Walsh. He gave it to me, and answered all the other questions I asked him. He said Dahmer had kept him for possibly a month. He let him hear the news about the discovery of Adam, dead. After that, Dahmer tortured him horribly and left him near-dead himself. Unconscious, he had been rescued but didn’t know the details. After life-saving hospitalization and a good deal of reconstructive surgery, another family took him in and raised him, giving him the name and birth certificate of a child of theirs who had died, who had been born in a third-world country. They spoke a language other than English, and he had to learn it.
Could I speak to anyone in who he called his “foster family?” No, they were “in denial.” Anybody else who could confirm it? No. Documents? No. I already knew there weren’t any news stories. He was a super-smart guy and very personable and I didn’t doubt that he believed his story, but self-delusion was becoming the likeliest explanation.
Yet I couldn’t be sure.
I brainstormed an answer. Although it seemed impossible to prove that he was Adam Walsh, I might be able to prove that he wasn’t. The answer would be in the medical examiner’s file: the evidence supporting the positive identification of the found child as Adam Walsh.
A little background on public records exemptions in Florida: under a state statute, local police case files are public record unless the case is under “active investigation,” that is, police must expect to make an arrest in the “foreseeable future.” After fifteen years without an arrest, Hollywood Police had continued to insist that the Walsh case fit the definition for an exemption from public release. But in 1996, despite emotional pleas by the Walsh family, a judge ruled otherwise and ordered police to make the file available to the public.
Since then, I’d repeatedly asked the police to release the rest of its file, generated after 1996, arguing that the case hadn’t risen back to the statutory definition of active investigation. But Hollywood brushed me off like a fly, or better put, a gadfly, and I’d never taken them to court. So despite how it looked on the surface—a very public rebuke of my Dahmer theory—police’s closure of the case in 2008 turned out to be a great, unexpected favor to me. With the police case closed, that is, no longer under active investigation, all of the official investigative files in the case at last became public record.
The morning after police closed the case I’d called the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, asking to see its file.
Up to then, only bits of the Broward M.E.’s file had been in the public record, those exposed in Hollywood Police’s 1996 release. A preliminary autopsy report, written by the upstate M.E., showed that he’d made the identification of the found child as Adam by relying on Adam’s pediatric dental records. (Because the remains were only a head there were no fingerprints, and forensic DNA technology was still off in the future.)
As well, he wrote, a Walsh family friend had made a visual identification at the morgue. (When police told the Walshes that remains had been found, they were in New York, hours before a scheduled appearance on network morning television to promote the search for Adam. Either disbelieving or in denial that the remains could be Adam, they turned down the show’s offer to immediately fly them home.) However, as Walsh wrote in his book Tears of Rage, the family friend did not on first sight recognize the child as Adam, he’d made the ID only after seeing that the child had a “small, emerging tooth.” Days before Adam had disappeared two weeks earlier, when the friend had last seen him, he’d seen the same thing, he said.
The autopsy had been done in Broward, according to a single page generated by the Broward M.E. For comparison, I had a report of another autopsy the Broward office had done less than two weeks before the date of Adam’s; its equivalent page was in effect the cover sheet, which was followed by a narrative of the details of the external examination then the internal examination after a dissection. Both cover pages attributed the cause and manner of death. On the Walsh remains, the upstate M.E. had done only an external, that is, visual examination. He had not dissected the body.
Since the ID was made strictly by teeth, I mainly wanted to confirm that Adam’s dental records matched the teeth in the found child. Then without regret I could walk away from this guy who said he was Adam Walsh.
There had been so many interesting leads to pursue in the newly-released police file in 2008 that I’d kind of forgotten about the Broward M.E.’s file and hadn’t followed up. One thing I’ve learned about asking for public records, at least on the local level, if you ask only once you may not get them.
So a year later when I again asked the Broward M.E. to see its Adam Walsh file, this time they told me that the file was lost. Lost? The most famous homicide case in the county’s history? But the next week they called to tell me they’d found it and I could see it.
Here’s what wasn’t in it:
It didn’t have any more of any autopsy report than I’d already seen, that is, its cover page. As such, it didn’t have a charting of the found child’s teeth; the upstate M.E. in his report had done an inventory of its teeth but he mainly counted them, he made little attempt to identify which teeth were in its mouth. The comparison autopsy report from less than two weeks earlier had included a signature by the medical examiner who performed the autopsy. Missing those additional pages, the Walsh report had no signature. Further, there were no photos of the autopsy.
It didn’t have Adam’s pediatric dental records, nor a chain of custody report or narrative proving receipt of them. Better than Adam’s dental charts to make an identification would have been his dental X-rays, if they existed, but they weren’t in the file either, nor was there any mention of an attempt to get them.
Considering that the ID was made strictly by teeth, it was hard to reconcile that there was no forensic dental report or any mention of one.
The upstate preliminary autopsy report had just a single line stating that the Walsh family friend had made a visual ID but no narrative of what he had said. Besides a duplicate of that upstate report in the Broward file, there was no other mention of the family friend’s visual ID. Nor, when I later checked, was there any further mention in the upstate M.E.’s complete file, or in Hollywood Police’s file.
A Florida state statute in the Medical Examiner’s chapter requires that “the detailed findings of autopsy and laboratory investigations shall be maintained by the district medical examiner.”
I’d expected to prove to myself that the guy who told me he was Adam Walsh couldn’t possibly be Adam Walsh, but instead I’d discovered something maybe more inexplicable: there was no clear, slam-dunk ID at the M.E.’s office that the child who all along they’d said was Adam Walsh was in fact him.
Two successive chief M.E.’s of the Broward office confirmed for me the absence of all those documents and materials and more. None of the other official investigative files had duplicates. Did the pathologist who performed the autopsy, an earlier chief Broward M.E., keep a personal copy? He would not speak to me. To get some kind of answer, I made a public records request to the Broward M.E.’s office asking them to ask him. If he had it, upon my request the M.E. was obliged by statute to get at least a copy and place it in its file, then give me a copy. He responded, in writing, that neither he nor anyone else in his office ever wrote a report, it was the upstate M.E.’s case. It was, originally, but in writing they’d authorized Broward to do the autopsy, and now there was no narrative report of it available anywhere.
Did Adam’s dentist still have a copy of Adam’s records? He wouldn’t speak to me, either, so I asked the upstate medical examiner’s office to ask him. He told them no.
The Broward State Attorney had signed off on the Hollywood Police chief’s 2008 decision that Toole killed Adam although the chief admitted they’d found no new evidence against Toole since Hollywood’s original investigation of him had ended, which was in 1984. Toole died in 1996, so there had been twelve years the state attorney was sitting with the same evidence that was later deemed sufficient. Why hadn’t they prosecuted the case while they could, while Toole was still alive?
On the other hand, given these absences in the files, how could the state attorney have proved at trial that the identification was correct, that the dead child was Adam Walsh?
I asked the Chief Assistant Broward State Attorney, then in charge of the case for his office, whether he was bothered by those absences in the file—the ones by then I’d realized, which was most of them. He said he was not.
Yet this was not the largest problem.
The last known photo of Adam is his since-famous “Missing” picture in which he was dressed in his baseball league uniform and held a bat. His smile revealed, endearingly, that he was missing some top baby teeth, as was age-appropriate at six and a half. I wanted to know just which ones. There was confusion about this in the local newspaper stories published while he was still missing, as well as in the description on his “Missing” poster which the family had written and distributed as widely as possible. Was he missing one or both of his top front teeth?
On the Internet there were a number of copies of the picture but when I attempted to enlarge them I realized that their pixel counts were too low.
I solved this by finding an original. It was a studio shot, same as a school picture, all the kids in the league sat for individual shots and parents bought multiple prints. On the day their son disappeared, the Walshes gave them out to the local newspapers, including the Hollywood paper I had worked for as a reporter two years before the incident. It’s long since defunct but its photo archives remain, and from there I got a high-resolution scanned copy.
That copy of the photo clearly answered my question: Adam had neither of his top front teeth. But when had the picture been taken? In his book, John Walsh wrote it was a week before he disappeared. From the studio photographer who took the shot and others, I found it was closer to a month before.
I also found Adam’s last best friend, and among other things asked when he’d last seen him. He said it was a week or two before Adam disappeared. Did he notice whether either of his top front teeth were in? They weren’t, he said, and he’d specifically noted that to himself, thinking that Adam was awfully smiley for a kid missing his two front teeth.
More specific than the family’s last-seen-alive description of Adam’s teeth in the “Missing” poster was a Hollywood Police teletype to another police department that read that Adam was missing his right top front tooth but his left top front tooth was partially in.
Adam had been missing two weeks when the child’s remains were found, and the Chief Broward M.E. told the news media and Hollywood detectives that the child (Adam, he said) had been dead for possibly all fourteen days. Forensic dentists and medical examiners told me that teeth do not continue growing after death.
For the found child to be Adam, its top left front tooth should have showed about two weeks growth beyond eruption, maybe less.
How much is that? To compare, the pediatric dentists and parents I asked said that a child’s permanent top front tooth, once erupted, on average takes about six months to fully come in. Two weeks is a thirteenth of twenty-six weeks. Let’s round that up to a tenth—ten percent. That gives you a probably fair idea of how far Adam’s top left front tooth should have been in.
Through public records requests, I got or saw all of the photos of the found child that were in the files of the Hollywood Police and the Broward M.E. There weren’t many, and they weren’t particularly good, especially to show the teeth. The best police photo of the child’s top front teeth shows its left tooth stuck out like a buck tooth. Although the M.E. had no photos of the actual autopsy, it did have pictures taken later of the cleaned skull. No visible gum line remained, but viewed next to the other teeth in the top jaw, the left front tooth looked like it was in about two-thirds of the way. The police, years later, had consulted a forensic anthropologist who had taken his own set of pictures of the cleaned skull. Although a few were available in public records I could not get the rest through a records request. However, the anthropologist agreed to look at them and describe how far in the top left front tooth was. “Almost all the way,” he told me.
I showed and told all this evidence to a number of forensic and pediatric dentists. Given all this, I asked, could the found child be Adam Walsh?
None thought so. The bluntest reply I got was, “No way in hell.”
If this is right and it isn’t Adam Walsh…
… then who is it?
From here on in, my answers aren’t very good.
I can’t say who it is. Records of missing children as far back as 1981, at least those available online, aren’t comprehensive.
But if the child isn’t Adam Walsh, then the parents of some other child were never told that he (or, who knows, she) was found. That child, then, never got a homicide investigation under its real identity or even as a merely unidentified child. Might the child have been abandoned and unloved? There is one good clue that it had been cared for: it had a filling in a baby tooth that was eventually going to fall out.
Did police and the medical examiner realize the misidentification and do nothing? Could all that explain why all those documents are missing? Again, I can’t say. Anybody who might know, or could even deny it, hasn’t talked to me.
What do Adam’s parents, the Walshes, think? On the realization so many years later of at least the serious possibility that their son Adam might not be dead, you might think they’d have shivers up their spines.
But I don’t have a good answer to that, either. It may come to your surprise but the Walshes and I have never spoken.
Hearing that, you can also understand that the Walshes, as traumatized and now high-profile people, might have built a sort of self-protection wall against crackpot-sounding theories and information.
I first asked to speak to John Walsh in advance of the first story I wrote about Adam, published in 1997. He was then promoting Tears of Rage, his book about what was in the Hollywood Police public record case file, first opened the year before, and included his and his wife’s first-person narratives. Walsh felt the newly-exposed evidence clearly led to Ottis Toole. My story’s main interview subject was a Broward State Attorney’s Office investigator who’d been working the case who also thought it was Toole. Although I was then years away from discovering Dahmer as a better suspect, I was dubious of Toole and had said so during friendly exchanges with the investigator.
Walsh didn’t return my phone call asking for an interview but I expected I’d meet him at a scheduled bookstore appearance nearby in a few days. Then he canceled his appearance.
In Walsh’s book was a section describing when an out-of-state reporter had approached John’s office in 1995 for an interview with him about the status of the case, fourteen years later, and how he had since coped with Adam’s death. As Walsh wrote, he told his assistant, “Something about it just didn’t feel right to me.” He asked his assistant, “What do you think this guy really wants?”
Walsh didn’t reply, the reporter continued to pursue him, and “I kept ignoring him,” Walsh wrote. In what was a second letter to Walsh, the reporter wrote, “My newspaper is committing much in time and resources to this project… Won’t you please help us in our effort to help you find Adam’s killer?” In his first letter he’d written that he wanted to meet Walsh in person and was willing to come to the studio in Washington where he shot his show America’s Most Wanted. And then he did that “unannounced,” as Walsh wrote. There, Walsh wrote that his executive producer told the reporter “in no uncertain terms” that Walsh “was not going to be talking to him.”
After 1997, in advance of each of the next six stories about the case that I worked on, I’d always asked my editor, co-reporter or the television news producer I was working with to reach out to Walsh for comment. He never spoke directly to any of them, either, not even from ABC News or The Miami Herald.
How about the man who contacted me saying he’s Adam Walsh? Has he spoken to the Walshes?
No, him neither. Before he contacted me he’d tried to reach John Walsh through his show’s tip line. He got nowhere. Maybe you’d expect that, you might think, but on the other hand, the show set up the line to take tips on solving crimes to pass onto police for investigation. Even if the operators might have rolled their eyes listening to him, shouldn’t they have at least written something down?
He also tried Facebook to reach relatives of the Walshes. That also got him nowhere, and after a while he gave up on it. But when he contacted Hollywood Police they asked him to come to the detective bureau to talk. He did, a detective still on the case politely listened to him without showing disbelief, and then didn’t follow up.
Did the police tell John Walsh that they had conducted an interview with this man who was claiming to be their son? I don’t know. When I later made another public records request to police, asking for the detective’s summary of the interview, I was told none had been written.
After the detective did his interview, I followed up and offered him the names of two people I’d had speak to the man who said he was Adam: Adam’s last best friend, and Billy Capshaw, Dahmer’s Army roommate. The detective didn’t follow up with me, either.
Yet those two interviews had been interesting smell tests; could the man tell Adam’s best friend anything convincing about their friendship? On the Internet or elsewhere there was nothing about this man’s friendship with Adam. Could he describe the up-close-and-personal habits and horrors and tics of Dahmer that Billy knew so well that it was a battle not to constantly think of them, which also wasn’t on the Internet or in books?
My instructions to the two men were, don’t let him do like Ottis Toole. Don’t tell him what you know, let him tell you what he knows.
Both spoke to the man at length over a number of conversations, and Adam’s best friend met him in person twice. Billy was astounded that he’d encountered anyone else who’d shared nearly the same experience he’d had. He couldn’t say whether or not he was Adam, but his story of torture by Dahmer was absolutely real, he said.
Adam’s best friend had much more pleasant conversations, listening to him recall how they’d practiced baseball together and played on the same T-ball team that won only one game. “Adam” knew that his friend had volunteered to break in his baseball glove, was the team leader in the field and played third base, was three years old than him (and sort of a “ringer” on a T-ball team with children much younger), and in general, mentored him in sports and was like his big brother.
None of that confirmed he was Adam, but we agreed that now it was hard to think that he wasn’t.
Wouldn’t DNA quickly resolve whether he was? Hollywood Police could have taken a swab sample but didn’t. He gave me a sample, but no comparison is possible without samples from the Walshes. Actually, through public records I learned that in 2003 police took a DNA sample from Mrs. Walsh and had it processed, and I got the lab report. But the lab result had contamination issues and therefore wasn’t reliable. As it turns out, the process of forensic DNA matching is more problematic than most people realize.
So as of this writing, here’s what I can say:
For sure: the official documents that were used or should have been used to identify the found child as Adam Walsh are missing.
Highly if not overwhelmingly likely: the found child isn’t Adam Walsh.
More likely than not: the man who says he’s Adam Walsh is indeed him.
I concede, all of this sounds pretty hard to believe.
The proof is in the details. Read them and see what you think.
“No matter how many spin doctors were provided by no matter how many sides of how many arguments, from Watergate on, I started looking for the truth after hearing the official version of a truth.”
-- Ben Bradlee, Executive Editor, The Washington Post
JEFFREY DAHMER’S DIRTY SECRET:
THE UNSOLVED MURDER OF ADAM WALSH
(A TWO BOOK SERIES)
BOOK ONE: FINDING THE KILLER
Was the man in the mall the most notorious murderer in history?
BOOK TWO: FINDING THE VICTIM
The body identified as Adam Walsh is not him.
Is Adam still alive?
FOR BRIEFER READING, THE TWO BOOKS
HAVE BEEN CONDENSED INTO A
SPECIAL SINGLE EDITION
First the police found the body. Then the killer. Neither was right.
Other true crime books by
Who ordered the deadly delivery for the millionaire’s wife?
Could the real-life Kojak help save a man from the electric chair?
This Investigative True Crime Sampler by Arthur Jay Harris includes cliffhanger samples from his books Flowers for Mrs. Luskin, Speed Kills, Until Proven Innocent, and The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh. FLOWERS FOR MRS. LUSKIN: The divorce was vicious, but at least it hadn't turned deadly. Then came the flowers. At the best house in the best neighborhood in Hollywood, Florida, Marie Luskin answered her front door and saw a deliveryman holding a floral arrangement. From behind the leaves and petals he pulled out a pistol and pointed it at her. At the time, she was embroiled in the biggest divorce in the county's history. But why didn't the gunman shoot and kill her? According to Marie, he demanded all her money and then hit her with the gun. According to the prosecutor, he shot her. But the jury agreed on one thing: that Marie's wealthy, estranged husband, Paul, was clearly behind a murder-for-hire. Then the truth came out. SPEED KILLS: He built the fastest boats -- for royalty, the rich, spies, smugglers, Feds and a former U.S. President. Then came six shots. It was the era of cool shades and Miami Vice, and Don Aronow's Cigarette boats were the symbol of the city's sun-drenched decadence. But faster than his speed boats was Aronow himself -- in races behind the throttle, in business deals and on the town with his collection of stunning women. And then, in broad daylight, someone in a dark Lincoln gunned him down. Who had Don double-dealt? A dope smuggler? The Mafia? The husband or boyfriend of one of his many paramours? And after ten years of dogged work, did Miami police get it right -- or were they dead wrong? UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT: The prosecutor was no longer sure both murder defendants were guilty. So he asked his dad -- the real-life Kojak. A mother's dying, gasping call to 911: "My husband! My baby!" In her secluded ranch house, she'd been stabbed with a kitchen knife. Her husband, infant and elderly father-in-law had all been shot in the head, point-blank. For three years, police had two suspects under surveillance, then arrest. Both faced the death penalty. But prosecutor Brian Cavanagh began to doubt that the defendants were partners. So he consulted with his father, a retired NYPD cop whose reputation for savvy sleuthing had inspired the creation of one of the most beloved characters in television history. Now the question was: Could Dad help solve the case? THE UNSOLVED MURDER OF ADAM WALSH: The medical examiner misidentified the body. The cops blamed the wrong suspect. What really happened to Adam Walsh? In 1981, America was captivated -- and horrified -- by the kidnapping and reported murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh. Florida police ultimately identified the decapitated head of a found child as Adam, and implicated an out-of-town drifter as the murderer. But something about the investigation was incomplete. And wrong. In this special Single Edition of his controversial two-book chronicle, journalist Arthur Jay Harris reveals that Walsh's kidnapper was actually the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, that the body found by police was misidentified, and that Adam Walsh is quite possibly -- even probably -- still alive.