The phone rang after Robert Eagan and his wife had put the presents under the Christmas tree. A homicide investigator was on the line, and he told Eagan that police in the town of Winter Garden had discovered bodies in a furniture store.
Eagan got dressed and headed to his car. It was Christmas Eve 1975. Eagan was the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, the man who would have to bring a case against the killer. He felt the chill as he drove west along two-lane State Road 50, amid patches of fog, the blue light on his dash flashing in the darkness.
Eagan, 49, pulled up to a crime scene lit by police lights and a store sign:
Guillermo V. Ruiz met him at the front door.
“I’ll show you exactly how it happened,” said Ruiz, the associate medical examiner.
Eagan followed Ruiz through the warehouse-style building, winding past couches, stuffed chairs and a medley of lamps into a small kitchen, where a young woman with green eyes lay on her back in a long, herringbone jacket.
Eagan noticed the peaceful expression on 32-year-old Eunice Zeigler’s face. The coroner pointed out the bullet hole in the back of her head and mentioned that she’d been holding a tissue in her coat pocket when she died.
She’d been shot first, Ruiz explained.
In the showroom, next to a floral couch, a middle-aged woman in a green pants suit and holly earrings lay on her side. One bullet had gone into her waist, another through her finger, which Ruiz surmised she’d held up for protection. A bullet to the side of the head had killed Eunice’s 52-year-old mother, Virginia Edwards.
Eunice’s father, Perry Edwards Sr., 72, had been shot four times. He had struggled throughout the store with his attacker and been hit in the head with a steel crank used to unwind rolls of linoleum.
The last to die, Ruiz said, was Charlie Mays, a 35-year-old father of four and crew chief at a nearby orange grove. He’d been shot once in the chest and once in the upper back — and struck in the forehead with the crank, which lay on his hand. The soles of his sneakers were matted with dried blood. Cash and receipts spilled out of his pockets. Five guns were scattered around his body and Perry Edwards’. They lay about 15 feet apart.
Eagan would examine the scene for the next 10 hours.
Again and again, officers talked about the store’s owner, 30-year-old Tommy Zeigler, who had called for help at 9:18 p.m. He’d been taken to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the stomach. He told police he thought it was a robbery.
Eagan heard Winter Garden Police Chief Don Ficke, one of Zeigler’s closest friends, refer to Zeigler as a hero. But just blocks away at the police department, a detective was interviewing a man who claimed that Zeigler had tried to shoot him at the store that night.
It would fall to Eagan to find out who was telling the truth.
In 1975, Winter Garden was surrounded by miles and miles of fragrant orange groves and packing houses upon which the scrappy population survived. Eight miles to the south, the Magic Kingdom had recently opened.
But west Orange County seethed in racial tension, the violence of the Jim Crow era still recent. Blacks and whites lived together yet apart. The county school district had ignored the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation order of 1954 for years, so integration had only been completed three years before.
The KKK had been particularly active in west Orange County through the 1950s and ’60s; the most powerful residents had belonged to the Klan — town managers, judges, county commissioners, even the six-term sheriff, who had retired in 1971.
The killings at the furniture store took place in the midst of that uneasy transition, when a black man’s word still often meant nothing against a white man’s.
Yet investigators in the Zeigler case quickly decided to believe the account of a black handyman who had one of the murder weapons over the white businessman who’d been shot. They concluded that Zeigler, a man with no criminal record, killed four people within an hour, shot himself as a ruse and tried to frame black men as would-be robbers.
Zeigler’s parents, Tom Sr. and Beulah, who had opened the W.T. Zeigler store in 1939, were the first in town to allow African-Americans to buy furniture on credit.
Tommy Zeigler had grown up riding his bike to collect those balances, developing relationships with black people that most whites didn’t have.
He was in the Army Reserve before returning to help run his parents’ business. He urged them to move the store to a new location at 1010 S. Dillard St., closer to Orlando, and supervised its construction. He suggested they buy several apartment buildings and managed those, too. He was reserved but demonstrated an intensity that many saw as arrogance.
Zeigler met Eunice at a Winter Garden elementary school, where she was a kindergarten teacher and he coached youth football.
Eunice sang and played the organ at the large brick First Baptist Church on Plant Street, where she and Tommy married in 1967. She and her husband fawned over five Persian cats, which they bred and showed, and told friends they were trying to have a child. They lived next door to his parents in a simple ranch house on Temple Grove Road.
Zeigler’s social circle included the local municipal judge, a banker and the police chief. They often got together with their wives.
In the summer of 1975, Zeigler’s father had a severe stroke, so Eunice replaced him as an officer in the company. That fall, Zeigler took out loans to buy a swimming pool and a new Oldsmobile Toronado for his wife.
Her parents were coming down from Georgia for the holidays.
Don Frye had been a detective for a year and a half when he made his way past the crowd gathered outside the furniture store.
He spoke to the police chief of the neighboring town of Oakland, Robert J. Thompson, who’d been the first to arrive.
Thompson, 43, told Frye about how Zeigler had come to see him at the Oakland Police Department the day before with a box of candy for his children. Zeigler had invited him to the annual Christmas Eve party for law enforcement officers at the home of a municipal judge in Winter Garden.
Thompson, who wore a blue uniform and matching Stetson, said he had just pulled up to the party when Ficke, the Winter Garden chief, emerged and told him there was trouble a mile away at the furniture store. The chiefs drove separately, and Zeigler emerged from the shadows beyond the front door, falling into Thompson’s arms. Thompson leaned him over his shoulder and carried him to his car, sticking Zeigler’s thick, tortoise-shell glasses on one of his epaulets. He drove him to West Orange Memorial Hospital.
Zeigler told Thompson that Charlie Mays, who lay dead inside the store, had shot him.
“Was he trying to rob you?” Thompson recalled asking, while taking notes on a yellow legal pad.
“I think so,” Zeigler said.
Thompson asked Zeigler if he had shot Mays. Zeigler had said yes.
“What did you shoot Charlie with?”
“With my gun.”
Back at the store, Frye, the 29-year-old detective, stooped to examine each of the bodies and the blood — sprays and streaks, droplets and smudges.
The previous summer, he’d attended a week-long school taught by a blood spatter expert. Frye had learned by watching what happened when a 22-caliber bullet shot into a coconut or a sponge soaked with human plasma.
And what Frye saw in the blood at the back of the store raised questions.
He found spots where Mays’ blood had dried atop Perry Edwards’ blood.
If the blood had mixed when wet, Frye had learned, it would have blended together. So the two men had died 15 to 30 minutes apart. He also found a shoulder holster on top of both Mays’ and Edwards’ splattered blood with minimal staining, indicating it had been dropped after the blood had dried.
That didn’t make sense. He saw faint footprints in blood, a rippled sole.
On the front counter’s swinging door, he noticed “high-velocity” blood spray. Blood also had pooled on the carpet. Someone had been shot there, but who?
About an hour after he arrived, Frye began to suspect something wasn’t right with Zeigler’s story. He was discussing the possibilities with other officers a few hours later when Thompson, the Oakland police chief, brought up a rumor that Zeigler was gay.
What if Eunice had found out?
Police grew more suspicious of Zeigler after two men came forward within hours, independently, to talk about the store owner’s strange behavior.
Edward Williams arrived at the Winter Garden Police Department after midnight, one of the murder weapons on the floorboard of his Camaro.
In an interview room, Williams, a 58-year-old carpenter originally from the Bahamas, told police he’d known the Zeigler family for 20 years, even helped build the store on Dillard Street. Tommy Zeigler had hired him for odd jobs and loaned him money to rent an apartment after Williams got laid off and was evicted in early December.
On Christmas Eve, Williams said, Zeigler asked to be picked up at his home at 7:30 p.m., so they could deliver last-minute presents. Zeigler was not there when he arrived but soon pulled up with two people Williams could not identify. He left and came back alone. When Zeigler got in Williams’ truck, the handyman said he noticed a patch of blood on Zeigler’s pants.
At the store, Zeigler went in the front and asked Williams to pull around back. Williams said he walked into the dark hallway, then saw Zeigler about 5 feet away with an arm outstretched, holding a gun.
“And I heard the sound, ‘pop, pop, pop.’ Snapped three times,” Williams told police, “and I hollered, ‘For God’s Sake, Mr. Tommy, don’t kill me, don’t kill me, Mr. Tommy.’”
The gun hadn’t fired. Williams said he ran back out, but Zeigler had locked the gate.
Zeigler followed him outside, Williams recalled, and said: “Edward, I didn’t know that was you.”
“I said, ‘Mr. Tommy, don’t tell me you don’t know that was me. Why you tried to kill me?”
Williams said he spotted specs of blood on Zeigler’s face and drew away.
Zeigler thrust the gun at him and worried aloud that Williams might “frame him.” Williams said he took the gun and shoved it in his pocket. He pretended to follow Zeigler but then ran toward a trailer near the fence. He said Zeigler got down on one knee and begged him to come inside. But Williams climbed the fence and ran across the street to the Kentucky Fried Chicken, where he asked to borrow the phone. When he couldn’t get through to police, he met a friend, who drove him to his other car, the Camaro.
Williams’ statements to police went unchallenged, according to reports. And detectives don’t appear to have tested his hands for gunshot residue.
Hours later, at about 6 a.m., detective Frye and another officer began recording an interview inside the Zeigler furniture store with a man named Felton Thomas.
Thomas, a 26-year-old fruit picker, said he’d gone to the Zeigler furniture store with one of the victims, Mays, on Christmas Eve, to pick up a TV.
They met up with a white man who Mays referred to as “Zeiglers.” Thomas had never seen him before.
The white man asked Mays and Thomas to get in his car, and they traveled to an orange grove. He produced several guns and asked Mays and Thomas to fire them out the car window.
After returning to the store, Thomas said, the white man jumped over the back fence, picked up a pipe and tried to smash a window to the store.
The detective wondered why Zeigler would break in to his own business.
“Did he tell you why he wanted to do it that way?” he asked.
Thomas said it was because Mays needed the TV for his wife before Christmas.
When the man couldn’t break in, they drove to his home, where he got a key to the store, and they returned.
It didn’t feel right, so Thomas said he didn’t follow Mays inside.
Thomas said he ultimately ended up in nearby Tildenville, where he started drinking. Around midnight, he heard four were dead at the furniture store, including Mays.
Frye began to theorize that Zeigler had slain his wife and in-laws first, then lured and killed Mays, sticking the store receipts in the man’s pockets to make it look like a robbery. Perhaps, the trip to the orange grove had been an attempt to get the fingerprints of Thomas and Mays — two black men — on the guns that he used in the murders. Maybe he had intended to also frame his handyman and counted on his friends at the Winter Garden Police Department to believe the story.
A deputy arrived with the bag of Zeigler’s bloodied clothes from the hospital and removed a suede loafer. It had a rippled sole. Frye placed it over the impression made of one of the more complete bloody shoe prints near Edwards’ body. It appeared to fit.
Terry Hadley’s phone rang Christmas morning. Zeigler’s family lawyer asked Hadley if he had read the paper. No, Hadley said, he was still opening Christmas presents with his wife and three children.
That day, Hadley headed over to the hospital to see Zeigler, who was awake but groggy from surgery. Just hours before, he’d been told about Eunice’s death. According to Hadley, Zeigler drifted in and out, grief-stricken.
Hadley had grown up in Winter Park, gone to law school at the University of Florida and served as a JAG and a military judge during the Vietnam War. He’d been a lawyer for seven years, first at the State Attorney’s Office working for Eagan and later in private practice.
He’d gotten to know Zeigler on a case six months before. Hadley had represented a black man who was about to lose his liquor license. But Zeigler testified to the man’s character and lined up other witnesses to help him keep his bar in Winter Garden.
Now Zeigler needed help, and Hadley agreed to represent him.
The next day, Dec. 26, Hadley met detective Frye in the hospital waiting room. As Hadley remembers it, Frye said he believed Zeigler was guilty, and he thought he could wrangle a confession if given the chance. Hadley refused to allow him to talk to his client.
Later that day, Hadley walked through the crime scene and saw things that caught his attention. He had heard that Mays was there to pick up a TV, but his van was not parked in front or in back of the store. It was outside the fence, at the far end of the parking lot of the neighboring Winter Garden Inn. Why had he parked there?
In the store, Hadley saw the scattered guns and evidence that more than two-dozen bullets had been fired. Blood was splattered on the furniture, floors and walls. That also didn’t add up.
One man could not have done all this, he thought.
On Dec. 29, five days after the crime, Frye outlined the case against Zeigler to a group of other officers. Frye said Zeigler had taken insurance policies out on his wife’s life and stood to make a lot of money. Eunice had caught him in a homosexual affair. He’d lured the three black men to the store to make it look like a robbery. He’d shot himself in the stomach.
Orange County Chief Deputy Leigh McEachern, known in the department as Chief Ice Blood because he was never ruffled, had had doubts about the case since Christmas morning.
He also had wondered about the location of Mays’ van. And why would Zeigler shoot himself with a .357 revolver in the stomach? Wouldn’t most people aim for a limb?
McEachern asked Frye for evidence of Zeigler’s supposed affair. Frye said he’d gotten it from a confidential source.
McEachern said he expressed his concerns to his boss at that Monday morning meeting, but he was told that Eagan, the state attorney, agreed with Frye, that Zeigler was guilty. Perhaps, his boss said, the grand jury would sort it out.
Everyone wanted the case solved. A group known as the Ski-Mask Bandits, sought for robbery and rape in west Orange County, hadn’t been caught. And weeks before, the South Trail Slasher had killed a used car salesman and a convenience store clerk along South Orange Blossom Trail. Officers had logged all sorts of overtime investigating that.
There’s enough fear in this county, McEachern recalls being told.
So McEachern and Frye drove to Winter Garden. McEachern put on the mask a nurse gave him, walked up to Zeigler’s hospital bed and identified himself, holding up his badge. He hadn’t met Zeigler and hasn’t seen him since.
“Can you tell me your name?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“In the hospital.”
McEachern introduced Frye. “He’s going to read an arrest warrant to you.”
“You’re getting ready to arrest me?” Zeigler asked.
Times photographer Cherie Diez and senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.Comment