Detective Don Frye sat in front of a grand jury, explaining his theory of the Winter Garden furniture store killings. Nearby, an easel displayed bloody pictures of the four victims, and jurors could see a scaled reproduction of the store, complete with miniature furniture.
It was March 1976.
Tommy Zeigler had planned the crime for months, Frye said that afternoon, first taking out $500,000 in life insurance on his wife.
Frye said confidential informants had told him that Zeigler was capable of murder. And rumors had circulated that Zeigler was a homosexual, though Frye acknowledged that he hadn’t been able to prove that.
“You will note that each of these men are beaten, but none of the women are. Why is this so?” Frye continued. “Schools that I have been to say that this act can be interpreted as that of a homosexual, a man trying to be bisexual. During the time he committed the beatings, he’s saying, ‘I’m a man. You see, I’m a man. I’ve got power.’”
There, before a grand jury assembled to determine if Zeigler should be indicted, Frye went on and on.
He said that Zeigler cut off his dog’s leg to “play a joke,” that he’d tried to drown his father in a lake, that he’d purposefully set fire to a barn and a house to collect insurance money. None of it was true, according to Zeigler’s friends and family.
The detective did not tell the grand jury that he had written to State Attorney Robert Eagan three weeks before, expressing disappointment that they had not been able to connect Zeigler to some of the physical evidence. Or that Eagan had written the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, saying he was “very concerned” with the crime scene processing, “particularly with the handling of the blood evidence.” Many samples had been too small to sub-type, Eagan had written, meaning they would not be able to distinguish whose blood it was.
After two days of testimony though, the grand jury indicted Zeigler on four counts of murder, setting in motion what would become one of the most high-profile trials in state history.
Days later, Florida’s attorney general headed to Washington D.C. to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty.
On June 1, five months after the murders, defense attorney Terry Hadley begged Circuit Court Judge Maurice Paul — for the third time — to delay Zeigler’s trial. Prospective jurors were waiting in another room.
Hadley, a 33-year-old former prosecutor, told Paul he was not ready. There were more than 200 pieces of evidence and an equal number of witnesses, some of whom he’d learned about the day before. He was still waiting for results from a crime lab, and he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to pick a jury in Orlando, where the case had been in newspapers and on TV almost daily. Only 42 days had passed since the indictment. (Today, the trial would not begin for at least a year.)
“My client’s life is at stake,” Hadley implored.
Hadley had unsuccessfully argued, in an earlier motion, for the judge to recuse himself.
He felt Paul was sometimes openly hostile toward Zeigler and wondered often if the judge’s rulings and behavior were related to an earlier case.
Hadley had defended the owner of Brown’s Bar in Winter Garden on charges he sold a $5 envelope of marijuana to an undercover officer. A Florida Division of Beverage Control agent had used the arrest as reason to revoke the man’s liquor license.
Zeigler testified as a character witness for the bar owner. Paul, then an attorney for the Division of Beverage Control, spoke for the character of the agent. Ultimately, the bar owner kept his license.
Now Paul, who had become a circuit judge just two years before, got to decide whether to delay the trial.
His face impassive, he ordered jury selection to begin.
It took two weeks to seat the jury. Paul did move the trial to Jacksonville, where few people had heard about Zeigler.
The trial dragged early on as Eagan, the prosecutor, questioned more than a dozen law enforcement officers who identified mounds of bullets, cartridges, guns, bloody clothes and gory photographs.
The surgeon who treated Zeigler testified that a bullet passed “four finger-breadths” from his navel. It had skimmed his abdominal cavity, missed his liver by an inch and exited his back. It was not a life-threatening injury, but the surgeon — under cross-examination — said that the location of the gunshot could have caused severe internal damage.
The FBI’s footprint expert testified that Zeigler’s rippled-sole loafer did not produce the bloody print found on the terrazzo floor near Perry Edwards’ body. He said it was the wrong size. The expert was a defense witness, but he testified out of order so he could return to Washington D.C.
Soon after, prosecutors called Herbert Leon MacDonell, a criminalist who taught classes at Elmira College in Corning, N.Y.
MacDonell had taught hundreds of officers, and his crime-scene manual had been published by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1971.
He would go on to help write a book about his cases, titled The Evidence Never Lies: The Casebook of a Modern Sherlock Holmes.
On the back of that book, he was described as “the Isaac Newton of ballistics, the Magellan of fingerprints, the Galileo of blood.”
Don Frye, the lead detective on Zeigler’s case, had been one of MacDonell’s students.
Frye had held the crime scene for two weeks until MacDonell could arrive. For eight hours and five minutes on Jan. 7, 1976, he followed bloody trails, swipes, smears and streaks.
Now MacDonell testified that he’d made copies of Zeigler’s shoe print on onion skin paper and compared it with the bloody footprint. He thought it likely that Zeigler’s shoe left the print.
Zeigler’s lawyers protested the introduction of MacDonell’s analysis, which had not been provided to them until that moment. The judge allowed the testimony.
MacDonell’s assessments matched that of detective Frye.
He had no explanation for some oddities found at the crime scene. Victim Charlie Mays’ pants, for instance, had been lowered and blood was on his underwear.
In years to come, that would be used by prosecutors to make insinuations about Zeigler’s sexuality.
Tommy Zeigler was the last of 111 witnesses to take the stand.
Pale and thin, he made his way across the courtroom.
He wore thick glasses and showed little emotion as he calmly described his life before the murders to a hushed courtroom packed with 120 spectators.
Zeigler explained that he purchased insurance on his wife’s life on the advice of his personal lawyer, who had testified to that earlier. The recommendation had come because Zeigler’s father had a stroke the previous July, making Zeigler the company president. The furniture store and the apartment buildings he managed were successful, and the businesses were worth about $1 million.
He bought separate policies from different agents, he said, because they were both customers.
“Tommy, Christmas Eve, how did you feel about your wife, Eunice?” Hadley asked.
“My wife and I were closer and more compatible than we were when we got married,” Zeigler responded.
“Did you love her?”
“Did you shoot her?”
“No sir, I did not.”
He said the last time he’d seen Eunice, he’d come home from the furniture store on Christmas Eve with an employee whose car was acting up. Zeigler had loaned him the new Toronado.
Around 7 p.m., Eunice and her parents, Virginia and Perry, left for the store to choose a Lazy Boy for her father, his Christmas present. They were supposed to meet Tommy’s mother, Beulah, at a candlelight Christmas service at the First Baptist Church.
Zeigler said he and his handyman, Edward Williams, had driven to the store, and Zeigler entered the back hallway first. Someone struck him in the head. They fought. He lost his glasses. He saw the vague outlines of two “dark blurs,” one larger than the other. He pulled a pistol from his waist holster and fired. The gun jammed, so he tossed it.
“What happened after you threw that .22?” Hadley asked.
“I started flying through the air and bouncing off the walls and refrigerators and the shelves,” Zeigler said. He was knocked into a hallway, where he grabbed the Colt .357 revolver he kept in a desk drawer. He recalled swinging the gun “with everything I had” and “connecting” with someone. He felt a hot poker in his stomach. He’d been shot. He heard one of them say: “Mays has been hit; kill him,” then receding footsteps as someone ran out the back.
He testified he woke sometime later and crawled over Christmas bows and a body as he searched for his glasses. He found another pair in his office before calling for help.
On cross-examination, Eagan, the prosecutor, pointed out that a lot of people had to be lying for Zeigler to be telling the truth.
Zeigler insisted he had no plans to meet Mays at the store that night to sell him a TV, as Mays’ wife testified.
He said he’d never seen Felton Thomas, who had testified that he last saw Mays go into the store with Zeigler. Zeigler said he did not take Mays and Thomas to an orange grove that night to shoot guns.
And he denied threatening Williams.
“I did not pull a pistol on him,” Zeigler said, “and I did not try to shoot him.”
At the end of the month-long trial, Eagan walked into court carrying a small, wooden tree he’d built with hooks. In his closing argument, as he connected each gun to Zeigler, the prosecutor hung the ones police had found at the store on the hooks.
Zeigler had carried one in a holster and kept three others at various locations for protection.
Williams, Zeigler’s handyman, had testified that six months before the killings, he had gotten Zeigler another two guns. Zeigler had asked him for “hot guns,” meaning he didn’t want them to be traceable.
Williams had showed up at the Winter Garden Police Department the night of the murders with a .38 special that Zeigler usually kept in his pickup truck. It had been used to shoot Virginia and Perry Edwards Sr.
In his cross-examination, Hadley pointed out that only Williams ended up with a murder weapon. Hadley had sent Williams’ pants for a gunshot residue test, to see if he could confirm Williams’ story that he stuck the gun in his pocket. But the results had not come back yet.
Hadley also highlighted a contradiction. If Zeigler had intended to frame the other men by getting their fingerprints on the guns, why had they been wiped clean?
At 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 30, jurors filed out of the courtroom, into the long, windowless jury room. There were nine women and three men. Six blacks and six whites. Among them were four homemakers, a school librarian, a retired nurse and a press operator.
The group elected a foreman, a black man who said he didn’t need to deliberate. He’d made his mind up two weeks before. Another juror professed Zeigler guilty.
They took a vote. Who thought he was guilty?
Holly Cason, 27, a bank secretary, was undecided. She felt Zeigler was too detached when presented with the brutality of his family’s slayings, though, and the blood spatter expert’s testimony and all the witnesses had influenced her.
James S. Roberts, 20, raised his hand. He wasn’t convinced that Williams, Zeigler’s primary accuser, was telling the truth, but he didn’t believe the defense argument that multiple witnesses were lying.
The initial vote split right down the middle. Six voted guilty. The rest weren’t sure.
On the second day of deliberations, a juror named Irma Brickel didn’t feel well, and the trial was delayed. She was treated by a nurse, received medication and took a walk with a bailiff.
Deliberations resumed and continued for eight hours. But for Brickel, a 38-year-old white housewife, the jury room was hostile and intimidating. She discussed the case with another white juror, Peggy Dollinger, while they were sequestered at the hotel. Both agreed other jurors “shouted” at Brickel and called her names. Black jurors, in particular, were frustrated with her attempts to discuss the evidence.
One of the other jurors told Dollinger she was not worried about personal responsibility for the verdict, because she’d discussed the case with her minister, who had “absolved her” through a “laying on of hands” ritual.
At one point, Brickel suggested they put Eunice Zeigler’s clothes on a mannequin to look at the blood stains. Another juror told her to try them on since she was the same size and she could “get a feel for the situation.”
On the third day of deliberations, Brickel asked a bailiff if she could talk to Judge Paul. The judge and attorneys pondered what to do, afraid of a mistrial.
They asked Brickel to write down her concerns.
She said there were numerous things, including the foreman’s initial statement.
But a juror had the right to render an opinion during deliberations.
“After consideration it appears that there is no present need to have a conference,” Paul wrote back. “Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.”
Brickel looked pale as the group left for lunch. Soon, the judge again called the lawyers to the courtroom.
“Mrs. Brickel passed out dead, well not dead, dead, but passed out,” Paul said. “So they got her and said she was alright and then in a minute she did it again … she is tight as a tick.”
Paul sent a nurse in to ask Brickel if she was “emotionally, physically and mentally” able to continue.
Brickel relayed that she didn’t need a doctor, but she wanted to discuss the pressure she was under in the jury room. One of the other jurors had said to her: “If you could hurry up and make up your damn mind, we could get out of here.”
Paul decided that it was “no more than goes on in any jury room when there are differences of opinion.” In a stairway on the way back to the courtroom, Zeigler’s lawyer, Hadley, asked for a mistrial, citing juror misconduct.
Upstairs in his private chambers, Paul denied the request.
At some point though, unbeknownst to Hadley, Paul called Brickel’s doctor, who sent over Valium for the distraught juror.
Roberts, the youngest juror, remembers Brickel being assisted into the room and that she “floated” to her seat, clearly under the influence of something. Roberts thought: “Holy s---, this is a mistrial.”
Brickel asked yet again to discuss the mechanics of how Zeigler could have killed his wife. A picture of Eunice sat in front of her.
“I can’t figure out how he did it,” Roberts recalled her saying.
Roberts said he pulled an empty gun out of the cart of evidence and pointed it at the back of Brickel’s head. He pulled the trigger, and the gun clicked. “That’s how he did it,” Roberts said.
Brickel put her head down on the table in front of her and covered her ears. It was almost 5 p.m. on the Friday before the nation’s July Fourth bicentennial celebration.
The jury took another vote. After deliberating 17 hours and 20 minutes, the group returned to the courtroom. As the guilty verdict was read, Zeigler’s face displayed nothing.
That same day, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Florida’s death penalty law. Death by electrocution was legal again.
Two weeks later, jurors and lawyers gathered again at the old courthouse in Jacksonville to sentence Zeigler.
Paul limited Zeigler’s witnesses, so Hadley only called two people who testified to Zeigler’s character. His pastor, the Rev. Fay DeSha of the First Baptist Church in Winter Garden, said Zeigler was kind, dependable, someone who often helped others. He was on the town beautification committee and served on the church’s audio visual aid committee, operating the church mixer for the Sunday morning broadcast, his wife always at his side.
Next to testify was a psychiatrist who had evaluated Zeigler. He said Zeigler had been raised in an environment “where he had been able to develop within himself tremendous self-control over his behavior in such a way that he did not express outward emotion.”
And Zeigler had been under the assumption that all he needed was his “honesty and integrity” to resolve the accusations.
The psychiatrist said his evaluation failed to reveal the personality defects necessary to commit the crime. Zeigler would, “in no way,” represent a threat to society if he was allowed to live.
It took the jury 25 minutes to recommend life in prison.
But Zeigler’s fate was still in the hands of the judge.
In his chambers, Paul questioned Irma Brickel. He wanted to know what had happened inside the jury room. The attorneys were present, as was a court reporter.
Brickel expressed regret over the verdict and said she’d nearly changed her mind.
“I still feel he’s innocent. My reasons don’t seem to be important or they weren’t.”
“But you stated in open court that that was your verdict,” said Paul.
“I know I did, but I just couldn’t take any more. … At the end, I was pressured into it,” she replied.
Hadley inquired if he could ask Brickel a question. Paul refused, ruling that jurors were never to be questioned by lawyers. He gathered all the jurors together and instructed them not to talk to the media.
That afternoon, Brickel and eight other jurors returned to the courtroom for the judge’s decision.
“The laws of this state permit a sentence of death for premeditation,” Paul said. “The facts of this case require it.”
The jury’s decision was overruled.
Brickel ran out of the courtroom sobbing.
Times photographer Cherie Diez and senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.Comment