One year had gone by since the murders, and then another, and now the investigators were deep into a third. They were working day and night, working weekends, putting off vacations, losing weight, gaining weight, growing pale and pasty and haggard, waking at 3 a.m. with a jolt and scratching notes on pads kept beside their beds.
Their sergeant did not know if they would ever find the answer. As far as he was concerned, the case was not even in their hands.
Ultimately, he believed, it was up to God whether they made an arrest.
A born-again Christian, the sergeant carried a Bible in his briefcase. He had no doubt that both heaven and hell were real. He saw good and evil not as theoretical or philosophical concepts, but as absolute realities walking upright through the world. He believed in the forces of light and darkness. He believed in demonic possession. He took it as a matter of fact that Satan and his cohorts currently reigned over the Earth.
“I believe there are demons all around us,” he would say, “just as I believe there are angels all around us.”
And when he looked at the evidence from the case before them now, studied the photos of the bodies and the ropes and the concrete blocks, the sergeant had no doubt that he and the other investigators were pursuing someone driven by Satanic forces.
Of course demons were real. They were hunting one now.
They were on their way to the Magic Kingdom.
The highways were filled with them. Couples in subcompacts, debating the wisdom of stopping at Stuckey’s for a pecan log. Tour groups in tour buses, fleecing their companions at gin rummy and keeping an eye on their driver in case he nodded off. Myriad configurations of moms and dads and stepmoms and stepdads and napping toddlers and whining third-graders and sprawling teenagers in full sulk and mothers-in-law with pursed lips and embittered outlooks, all struggling for peaceful coexistence inside the air-conditioned confines of their minivans.
They were pilgrims, embarked on the same passage so many millions had made before. From every corner of the country they came, descending through the lengths of Alabama and Georgia until at last they reached the threshold of their destination.
Even then, they were not merely crossing state lines. They were slipping over to the other side, entering the isle of eternal youth, dominion of the sun, temple of the mouse who devoured the world, paradise of glistening beaches and murmuring waves and hallucinatory sunsets and oranges dripping with ambrosia and alligators smiling jagged smiles and snowy-haired seniors who play shuffleboard as they wait cheerfully for their collect call from God and intrepid astronauts who climb aboard gleaming spaceships, launched with a roar into a heavenly blue sky.
The ’86 Oldsmobile Calais, pointed south on Interstate 75, was the color of that sky.
Inside the car, Jo Rogers and her daughters were making their escape. They were leaving the farm, leaving the sheriff’s deputies and the counselors and the lawyers, searching for someplace warm and safe where they could hide and forget and find a way back to themselves.
They had one week.
“We’ll be back,” Jo had told her husband.
It’s easy to picture her and the girls that first day. To see their two-door sedan climbing into the hills of southern Ohio, to hear the drone of the tires on the pavement, to sink into the quilted dark blue fabric of their bucket seats and gaze down the highway to the edge of the Earth, dropping off over the horizon.
Jo, tired as usual but glad to finally be off, was at the wheel, at least in the beginning; this much has been confirmed. Michelle, 17, the quiet one with the constellation of rings on her left hand, was probably up front as well, in the passenger seat. Christe, 14, the baby of the family, her father’s favorite, the cheerleader, the one with the mane of mall hair and the trio of friendship bracelets on her wrist, most likely would have been in the back.
They had a road atlas, and as they drove, they must have studied it closely, plotting their path straight through the heart of the country. They had a long way to go.
It was the afternoon of Friday, May 26, 1989. A few hours earlier, Jo and the girls had started out from their 300-acre dairy farm in Van Wert County, in the northwestern corner of Ohio. The night before, Jo had worked her usual midnight shift — she drove a forklift and worked the assembly line at Peyton’s Northern, a distribution center for health and beauty products on the other side of the Indiana state line — and had come home around dawn to their double-wide mobile home and grabbed a few hours of sleep while Michelle and Christe finished packing. Finally, around 1 p.m., the three of them got into the Calais, and Jo backed it up to the milk house to say goodbye to her husband.
Hal Rogers was outside, unloading corn gluten feed, when Jo backed around. He stopped for a moment, and Jo leaned through the window and gave him a kiss.
“Have a good time,” he said.
Hal had wanted to go with his wife and daughters. But the spring rains had been late that year, and there was still corn and wheat and soybeans that needed planting and 80 Holsteins waiting to be milked every day at 5:30 a.m. and again at 3 p.m., no exceptions. Somebody had to stay and keep it all going.
Jo and Michelle and Christe were determined to make the best of it, even without Hal. They had been buzzing about this trip for weeks, debating which theme parks to hit and which to avoid, logging sessions at a local tanning salon so they would have a good base of bronze to build on under the southern sun. They had good reason to be excited. This was the first family trip of their lives, the first time they had managed to free themselves from the daily rigors of the farm and get away together. Most years, the best they could hope for was a few days at the Van Wert County Fair.
“When you run a dairy farm,” explains Colleen Etzler, Jo’s sister-in-law, “you don’t get a vacation.”
Early on, when they were planning the trip, Jo and the girls had talked about visiting Gatlinburg or Gettysburg. But in the end they had decided to be more adventurous and make the thousand-mile journey to Florida. The three of them wanted what every other tourist wants from the Sunshine State. They wanted to lie on the beach and shake Mickey’s hand and throw away a few dollars on overpriced souvenirs. They wanted to let go, to be renewed, to lose themselves inside the myth.
So off they went. That afternoon, after saying goodbye to Hal, they turned left out of the driveway and drove into the village of Willshire, a mile or so away from the farm, where they stopped at the bank for some money. Then they were truly on their way.
Headed for the interstate, they turned down two-lane county roads that stretched as straight as a ruler for miles and miles. They drove past fields crowded with rows of young stalks – the corn was only up to their ankles at that point – past windmills and silos jutting into the Midwestern sky, past farms that had been owned by the same families for more than a century. They went past the Riverside Cemetery and its big, black wrought-iron gate and past the Tastee Twirl and past the grain elevator in the little town of Rockford, with its one and only stoplight, and through the even smaller towns of Mercer and Neptune until finally, almost 50 miles after they left the farm, they reached the broad ribbon of I-75.
From there, it was a straight shot all the way to Florida.
Despite the late start, they made good time that first day. Jo almost certainly did most of the driving – Michelle, who had got her license just a few months before, was intimidated by highways – and Jo was not known for her strict adherence to speed limits. “I want to get there,” Jo would tell her friends. Either way, by the time they stopped for the night, they’d made it clear through Kentucky and Tennessee and were just across the Georgia border.
The next day they rode I-75 all the way through Georgia and into Florida, then cut east on I-10 over to Jacksonville. They stayed there for the evening, then checked out of their motel the next morning and headed for the Jacksonville Zoo, apparently their first bona fide tourist destination.
There at the zoo, they gazed up into the face of a giraffe, saw monkeys hanging by their tails, watched lions napping in the sun. These facts and others would eventually be learned from rolls of film recovered with the family’s belongings. They had a camera, a Nikon One-Touch, and as they moved through these days – days that, in retrospect, would become imbued with the intensity of a dream – they took frame after frame, leaving behind a series of snapshots that investigators would eventually pore over, study, burn into memory.
After finishing at the zoo, they left Jacksonville and turned south again until they reached the attraction at Silver Springs, where they took one of the famed glass-bottom boat tours. A great deal of investigation would eventually be devoted to the question of how little experience the Rogers women had with boats and water. For the girls, at least, the ride at Silver Springs was one of the few times – in Christe’s case, perhaps the very first time – they had ever set foot on a boat. Neither girl was a confident swimmer, especially in water over their heads, and their mother could not swim at all. In fact, Jo was terrified of her face being covered by water or anything else.
“Just pull the covers over her head,” says Hal, “and you got a hell of a fight.”
So what went through their minds that afternoon as they climbed into the glass-bottom boat? Were they nervous? Did one of them ask the guide if there were life jackets on board?
Or maybe they were calm. Maybe they surrendered to the hushed beauty of Silver Springs and to the realization that at long last they were truly on vacation. They were far away from everything and everyone who had hurt them. There was nothing in this place to be afraid of. Nothing for them to do at all, but sit in the boat and cast their eyes to the window at their feet and stare down through the clear, pale blue water to the thick carpet of grass, swaying hypnotically on the bottom.
First, and always first, was that farm.
Before you can understand anything about the Rogers family, start there. Start, if you can, by imagining what it would be like to get up on a black winter morning, hours before sunrise, when the wind is blowing and the thermometer is stuck somewhere south of zero and the Holsteins are waiting in the barn to be milked and fed and cleaned up after.
Picture crawling out from under the covers on a morning like that. Picture throwing something on, heading outside into the dark and the cold and trudging down the driveway, hands jammed in pockets, to put in another shift at the milking parlor.
Located next to the barn, the milking parlor is not a parlor at all, but a concrete box of a room with one tiny window and a fluorescent light and a claustrophobic little rectangular pit cut into the center of the floor. For the next two or three hours, this pit will be your home. You will stand inside it so you can work the milking machines at eye-level with the udders. The cows will be above you, of course, clopping over from the barn to their stations on both sides of the pit, and while you work, hurrying from one end of the pit to the other, checking the flow of their milk into the milkers and dipping their teats in iodine and rubbing peppermint oil onto their skin, they will moo and complain and unceremoniously deposit manure onto the floor around you.
When you’re finally done milking and cleaning the equipment and hosing out the pit and the floor above the pit, you walk outside into the first glow of dawn. By this point your arms and legs are aching, and cow smell has settled in your hair and on your skin, and the manure has splattered all over your boots and clothes. You want to hurry back up to the house and take a shower. But before you do, have a good long look at the landscape around you. Gaze out over the fields, acres of brown, brown and more brown, stretching in every direction like a giant, mud-soaked quilt, and at the scattered stands of black and naked trees, and up into the low-hanging bowl of gray that is the sky.
As you soak all this in, remind yourself that you’ll have to go back into the pit, back with the cows and the smell and the manure, not just tomorrow morning but every morning and also every afternoon of every day of every year for as long as you can take it.
Now imagine what a week in Florida would look like from inside that kind of life.
Understand that, and you’ll understand a little about Jo and Michelle and Christe.
“They were hard-working people, I’ll tell you,” says Ginny Etzler, Jo’s mother. “They’d do what they had to do, and that was it.”
It would be wrong to suggest that there were no rewards on the Rogers farm. Hal and Jo made a decent living and were proud of their self-sufficiency and of the care they showed the animals.
“You don’t take no milk from ‘em,” Hal would say. “They give it to you, plain and simple.”
Michelle and Christe did their best to make things as fun as possible, or as fun as things could be when nearly every surface in sight tended to be draped in manure. The girls loved the cows – they loved animals, period – and knew their personalities and quirks. They had names for them all. There was Sage, Michelle’s favorite, and Rosie and Betty and Grandpa and April and May and June; Hal, who usually stuck with calling them by number, was inspired one day to give one the moniker of Crazy.
Christe thought of the cows as her pets. Sometimes, when she was working on her cheerleading routines, she would practice beside the barn, using the Holsteins as her audience. Hal would see her out there, jumping up and down and waving her arms for a bunch of cows, and he would smile. As long as the cows didn’t run away, he’d say, she must be doing something right.
Still, the grind of the farm was overwhelming. On top of the milkings and feedings, Hal and the rest of the family had to contend with a mountain of other tasks. There was the breeding — they’d owned a bull for a while, but switched to artificial insemination when he started chasing Jo and the girls — and delivering the calves and cleaning the barn every day and cleaning the milking parlor every day and keeping the machinery and equipment in good repair. They had to plow the fields and plant the crops and harvest the crops; sometimes, during harvest, Hal would go for three days straight without sleeping. And like the rest of us, they had to cook and do laundry and keep track of the bills and keep up with the usual chores of life.
They all pushed themselves. But none pushed harder than Jo.
“She could work me under the table,” says Hal.
Today, those close to Jo tend to describe her in generalities. They say she was fun. They say she was happy. But they struggle with details. Looking back, sorting through all the years, it’s difficult to know which bits and pieces are worth sharing, which are the ones that would sum her up and set her apart. What are the moments that define any of us? The odds and ends that make us real?
Her given name was Joan, but almost no one called her that. She was thin, with brown hair that she curled sometimes and sometimes wore straight. Like her husband, she wore shaded glasses that partially hid her eyes. Unlike her husband, she had an outgoing nature and could talk to anyone. Hal liked to say that she was his personality.
“She never knew a stranger,” remembers Jane Dietrich, a close friend who lived on a neighboring farm.
When she was little, growing up on a farm in the same county, Jo used to dress the family cat in baby clothes and walk it in a stroller. She led a sheltered childhood. She’d dated Hal in high school and married him a few months after graduation, when she was pregnant with Michelle. Though their wedding was held inside a church, her parents were so embarrassed by the pregnancy that they did not allow Jo to wear a wedding gown or to invite her friends to the reception. For their honeymoon, she and Hal were granted a weekend in nearby Fort Wayne, where they stayed at a Hospitality Inn.
Somehow Jo made the best of things. She had a ringing laugh. She loved country music, loved to dance, made a fantastic potato soup. She and Hal owned a motorcycle, a Honda Goldwing, and she liked to ride behind him, the wind in her face. She was independent and strong-willed and not afraid to stand up to Hal; she listened to him and respected his opinion, but if he said something stupid, she could silence him with a look. She used to make him take her out to dinner, just so they could get away from the farm and talk about something other than the corn and the cows. She liked to tease Hal and would make fun of his woeful attempts at singing. She wrote him cards, telling him she loved him. She was a tough woman — tougher than her slender frame would have led a stranger to believe — but underneath the toughness, friends saw an enduring glow, a persistently optimistic outlook that had survived all her struggles. In the months before she left for Florida, she talked about wanting to have another baby.
“You would have liked Jo,” says Vance Krick, a family friend who lived down the road. “You really would have.”
For all her spirit, though, the years had knocked something out of Jo. She had once been beautiful — you can see it in her high school senior photo — but by May of 1989 she carried with her an unmistakable air of depletion, a sense that her life had been far too hard for far too long. You could see it in the circles beneath her eyes, her gaunt cheeks, the tight line of her mouth. She was 36, but looked 10 years older.
And no wonder. It wasn’t just the demands of the farm or the job at Peyton’s Northern. It wasn’t just her migraines, either, or the stress of raising two teenagers, ferrying the girls to church and softball practice and cheerleading camp.
It was everything. She seemed to exist in a state of permanent exhaustion. She worked the midnight shift at Peyton’s — the night trick, some people called it — to supplement the income from the farm and to qualify her and the rest of the family for health insurance benefits. Early in the morning, she’d drive home from the job, and help finish with the first milking and the chores. She’d get the girls off to school, and then ride with Hal into Willshire for breakfast, and then go back home and catch whatever sleep she could before the girls came home from school and it was time for the mid-afternoon milking and for her to make dinner. In the evenings, she would try to nap again before leaving for the next midnight shift. But it was never enough. She would fall asleep while driving. Sometimes, when she was on her lunch break at Peyton’s, she would sit in the din of the break room and nod off in front of her co-workers.
“You’re killing yourself,” Rosemary Krick, Vance’s wife, would tell her. “You’re killing me, just watching you.”
Another strain, a strain that would have broken almost anyone, was the problem with Hal’s younger brother. John Rogers was Hal’s partner. They owned the farm together, and John lived in a trailer beside the house and worked the farm along with the rest of the family.
People around Van Wert had always thought John was a little off — he liked to wear Army fatigues and often talked about taking on missions for the Secret Service and the CIA — but no one knew how deep the problems went until one day in March 1988, when sheriff’s deputies showed up at the farm and arrested him, charging him in the sexual assault of a woman who lived in his trailer.
The woman had once dated John, but now they were just sharing space. She told police that one evening she had come back to the trailer and been attacked by a man in a mask who handcuffed and blindfolded her and threatened her with a knife. When she reported the assault, the woman told detectives that she thought her attacker was John – she’d heard his voice — and that the rape had been videotaped. The detectives got a warrant and searched the trailer and found, inside a briefcase, a video of the rape.
Disturbing as this was, the worst was yet to come. Shortly after John was taken to jail, the detectives summoned Hal and Jo to the sheriff’s department and sat them down. They had something to tell them.
“We think Michelle’s been assaulted,” one of the detectives said.
The briefcase in the trailer had not just contained the video of the woman’s assault. It also contained pictures of Michelle, some of which showed her undressed and blindfolded. Searching the rest of the trailer and John’s car, the detectives had also found audiotapes on which a girl who proved to be Michelle could be heard screaming and pleading with John to leave her alone.
When the detectives asked her about the photos and the tapes, Michelle confirmed the worst. Her uncle, she said, had raped her repeatedly over the previous two years, starting when she was 14. Michelle said John had taken advantage of the times when Hal and Jo were away from the farm, off on weekend trips or other business. She said he had tied her hands and forced himself on her, threatening to kill her if she told anyone.
All of this had occurred under Hal’s and Jo’s noses. Both of them had noticed that Michelle seemed irritable and even nervous around John, that she didn’t like to be alone with him in the milking parlor. Jo had tried to get Michelle to tell her what was wrong, but Michelle wouldn’t say. Hal had written it off as a personality clash.
“If I’d known what it was,” says Hal, “I’d have killed the son of a bitch to start with.”
John Rogers denied everything. He said he was being framed.
The accusations and denials ripped the family apart. Irene Rogers, Hal’s and John’s mother, choose to believe her son and not her granddaughter. Michelle was lying, she told people. Stunned that his mother would chose to disregard the evidence, Hal cut off contact with his parents.
Caught in the middle of it all was Michelle. Now that John was off the farm, she wished the whole thing would just go away. She didn’t want to talk about it with her parents, wasn’t particularly interested in counseling, and had no interest in testifying against her uncle. At one point, she even suggested she would leave town if the case came to trial.
For his part, Hal sank into a depression in the months after the allegations came to light. He would retreat to the trailer John had lived in and lock himself inside, sometimes hiding there for days. Jo would come to the door of the trailer, trying to get her husband to open up.
“Let me in,” she’d say. “Talk to me.”
But Hal didn’t know how to talk about what had happened.
In the end, the whole thing went away and Michelle was not asked to appear in court. John Rogers eventually pleaded no contest to the rape of the first woman and was sentenced to a prison term of 7 to 25 years. Given Michelle’s reluctance to proceed further, the charges involving her were dropped.
All these years later, these terrible events still cast a shadow over any attempt to understand Michelle. It’s hard to separate the darkness from everything else, hard to remember that she had a life completely apart from whatever happened with her uncle. But she did. It was not an easy life, but it was hers, and by the time she left for Florida, she was well on her way to reclaiming it.
Most people, seeing Michelle for the first time, would have said she was pretty. Many would have described her as beautiful. She had wavy brown hair that fell just past her shoulders, a cautious smile, dark eyes that were somehow both playful and haunting. Like so many teenage girls, she was a shape-shifter. Sometimes, when she hadn’t put on all her makeup, she could pass for a middle school student; at other moments, when she was dressed up or when she tilted her head a certain way, she looked like a woman in her early 20s. Yet in both incarnations, there was something removed about her, a sense that an essential piece was kept in another room somewhere, under glass. The events of the past two years were in that wariness; they were there, too, in the lines already forming around her eyes.
At Crestview High, where she had just finished her junior year, Michelle was an average student known for being both a little shy and a little wild. She could be withdrawn around people she did not know, but could also drop into a boy’s lap and flirt outrageously. She smoked occasionally. At parties, when others were drinking beer, she preferred wine coolers. On the way to school, she sat at the back of the bus with the guys from the agricultural club and listened to their off-color jokes and laughed when they grabbed for her rear.
The brazen exterior left Michelle with a bit of a reputation. In keeping with the age-old traditions of high school, other students spread whispered stories about her. Michelle knew she was a fixture of school gossip — she talked about it with her girlfriends — but she did not particularly care. Or at least she pretended not to care. The truth was, beneath the surface, there was a bruised sweetness to Michelle, a painful vulnerability more complex than either her reputation or the facade she presented to others.
Publicly she may have shrugged off the gossip. But privately she scribbled notes to friends, saying she was lonely. Sometimes, she talked about going to college and becoming a veterinarian, swearing she would never allow herself to wind up on a farm, staring at cows for the rest of her life. Other days, she said she wanted to get married and raise a family on a farm. She had a schoolgirl’s fascination with rings, wearing four of them — two gold and two silver — on her left hand, one on each finger. Her bedroom was decorated with pictures of unicorns. She belonged to the 4-H Club and to the Future Farmers of America. She chewed Bazooka bubble gum. She listened to Guns N’Roses, U2, Madonna. On weekend nights, she liked to cruise up and down Main Street in Van Wert. If she was going to a school dance, she made a point of stopping by her maternal grandparents’ house first so they could see her dress. She sometimes wore wide, pink-rimmed glasses, not to correct her eyesight but because she thought them stylish. During the summer, when she showed cows and sheep at the Van Wert County Fair, she would sleep in the barn with the animals.
“She was a tomboy,” remembers Jeff Feasby, the boy she was seeing when she left for Florida. “A typical farm girl.”
Michelle and Jeff had gotten together a month before the end of school, at a party after the prom. Neither had a date that night, and so they’d been free to pursue each other; they’d talked until the sun came up, by which point they were a couple. Although they’d dated only a few weeks, Michelle was already growing close to Jeff and had accepted his class ring as proof that they were going steady. The ring was adorned with a stone of cubic zirconium and a carving of a knight atop a horse — in honor of the Crestview High Knights — and Michelle was terrified of losing it while working in the barn. Instead of wearing it on one of her available fingers, she kept the ring in her purse.
The two of them were a good couple. They’d known each other since seventh grade and thought of each other first as friends. Between them there was true affection and respect. Jeff had heard the talk over the past year or so about something bad happening with Michelle and her uncle. But Jeff sensed that she did not want to talk about it and left the subject alone.
“Didn’t think it was any of my business,” he says.
The night before Michelle and her sister and mother began their trip, Jeff came out to the house. The two of them stood in the laundry room and kissed goodbye. Michelle got emotional, saying how much she’d miss him. To others, a week’s vacation to Florida would have been nothing extraordinary. To Michelle, it must have seemed like she was headed for the far side of the moon. She was excited about the trip and could not wait to get started. But that night, in her boyfriend’s arms, Michelle’s eyes filled with tears.
Christe Rogers did not have a boyfriend.
Only 14, she was officially not allowed to date for two more years. It was the story of her life: Christe had always been and would forever remain the little sister.
She was so much younger than Michelle, younger in ways that could not be chalked up solely to the three-year difference in their ages. There was an openness to her that had been squeezed out of Michelle. Christe was more outgoing, more carefree. Though the family’s ordeals had clearly affected her, she seemed to have emerged relatively intact. On the outside at least, she continued to present herself as the beaming cheerleader.
At the time of the Florida trip, Christe had just finished eighth grade at Crestview Junior High. Her school was on the same campus as the high school, which meant that she and her sister rode the same bus. While Michelle sat with the guys, Christe stayed toward the front with the other cheerleaders. She did not tolerate rude comments directed her way, did not allow boys to touch her suggestively. Morning after morning, she made it clear that she was not her older sister, that she had a different set of expectations for how her life was to unfold. Somewhere along the way she had been designated, or had designated herself, as the good girl of the Rogers family.
Christe fulfilled every requirement of the part. She rode a motorscooter, liked to roller skate, played catcher for her softball team, owned an unbelievable number of teddy bears. The word used most often to describe her was “bubbly.” She wore three friendship bracelets, braided and woven and marked with pink, green and white stripes, on her left wrist. She was sensitive about her height — she was 5-foot-1, at best — and deployed untold quantities of gel and spray in the task of making her bangs rise straight up in an astonishing 4-inch plume, just so she would appear taller. On the softball diamond, playing catch behind home plate, she was so fearless that the umpire had to continually tell her to back away from the batter.
“A little ball of fire,” remembers Jeff Feasby.
She had a round birthmark, about the size of a silver dollar, at the top of her right leg. She played the saxophone. She chewed her fingernails. Early every morning, when it was time for the first shift with the cows, she was the last one to wake up.
“Chris, you couldn’t have got her out of bed with a damn stick of dynamite,” says Hal.
She had always been especially close to her father. Before she was old enough to go to school, she used to follow Hal everywhere. When he was out plowing, she’d plop down under a nearby tree with a coloring book and some crayons. When he was working the combine, she’d ride with him in the cab, sitting on the heater, singing her little songs for him. Even after she grew older, the two of them remained best friends. Hal called both daughters his “princesses,” but Michelle was shy, like he was, and Christe was warm and friendly and had such an easy charm that their dad was drawn to her. He loved and respected Michelle, but he felt a special bond with Christe and made little effort to hide it.
“There ain’t nothing about it,” says Hal. “That’s just my little girl.”
As with so many siblings, Christe waged an ongoing rivalry with Michelle, the two of them arguing over the chores and what to watch on TV and who had borrowed whose outfit last and not returned it. For her part, Michelle could not help feeling jealous of all the attention showered on Christe. It was hard enough that she was more popular at school; even more painful was the way she so clearly won out in the affections of their father. Michelle was not blind. She saw the signs, felt the sting.
Through it all, though, she remained protective of Christe.
This is the single most telling fact about Michelle Lee Rogers of Van Wert County, Ohio, the quiet girl who had just completed the 11th grade and would never make it to the 12th, who had chosen a seat at the back of the bus and would never find her way up front, who longed for an acceptance that would never be hers. This is the proof that, despite all she had endured and was yet to endure, the light within her had not yet been snuffed out:
During the worst of those years on the farm, before the allegations about her uncle surfaced and before anyone understood what she was going through, Michelle somehow had the strength and the presence of mind to guard Christe. She checked on her, paid attention to her whereabouts, tried not to leave her alone with John. Repeatedly she fought to make sure that Christe stayed safe.
Think of Michelle, then, and remember. When she was trapped and frightened and most alone, she kept watch over her little sister.
They did not have much time.
Due back in Ohio at the end of the week, they were determined to see everything, do everything, set foot inside the gates of as many theme parks as humanly possible.
That Sunday night, after they left Silver Springs, Jo and the girls drove to Titusville, near Cape Canaveral, and stayed at a Quality Inn. The next day, Jo wrote a postcard to Hal, telling him how the girls were dragging her everywhere. Michelle, meanwhile, wrote a postcard to Jeff Feasby. Jeff’s birthday was coming up in a couple of days, and Michelle wanted to send him something. She chose a card adorned with one of the Sunshine State’s most popular icons: the immortal, tacky image of a young woman in a bikini, on all fours in the sand, laughing provocatively despite the fact that a big bull gator is standing right behind her, its jaws open wide. FUN TIMES IN FLORIDA, it said beneath the photo.
On the back of the card, Michelle wrote:
Hi! How is everything with you? I’m doing great. Yesterday we went to the Zoo in Jacksonville. I was visiting my relatives and we found Geoffrey (you). Later we went to Silver Springs and rode on a glass bottom boat. Today we are going to a beach and then to Sea World. You have fun at work and behave yourself. Have a great birthday. I’ll be thinking of you! I miss you!
It was Monday, May 29. The pace of the trip, already relentless, was about to kick into overdrive. The Rogers women were in the heart of vacationland now, poised to begin their run through the massive tourist attractions sprawled across the middle of the state. They began that day, as Michelle had said they would, with a trip to Sea World. Then the next day they went to Epcot, and then the day after that they went to Disney’s MGM Studios. Then they returned to their hotel, a Gateway Inn, and presumably collapsed.
The next day was Thursday, June 1. They left the Gateway Inn that morning shortly after 10 a.m. and turned the Calais back onto I-4 and headed for Tampa, where they were thinking of seeing Busch Gardens and perhaps lying on the gulf beaches.
They reached their hotel, the Days Inn at Rocky Point, just before 12:30 p.m. They checked in, picked up a brochure on Busch Gardens and went to their room, which was on the second floor, facing the shoreline of Tampa Bay. Room 251 was generic, cheerfully anonymous, drenched in teal: dark teal carpet, chairs with teal cushions, curtains made from a floral pattern set in teal, two double beds covered with teal quilts of a similar pattern.
Shortly after they went up to the room — phone records put the time at 12:37 p.m. — Michelle placed a long-distance call to Jeff Feasby at the Union 76 station where he worked in Van Wert. It was Jeff’s birthday, and Michelle had arranged to have flowers and balloons sent to the gas station that morning.
“Did you get the flowers?” she asked, laughing because she knew it would embarrass him to receive such a romantic gift at work, in front of the other guys.
“Yeah,” said Jeff, who was indeed embarrassed. The flowers were on display atop the station’s cigarette machine, but he was already planning to move them into the back room to get them out of sight.
Michelle and her boyfriend talked for close to 10 minutes that day. Questioned later about the conversation, Jeff would say he did not remember many of the exact words that passed between them — he was busy working the register when the phone rang — but he believes Michelle told him that the vacation was going well and they were having fun. He could hear Michelle’s mother, saying hi to him in the background, and Jeff said hi back, and Michelle talked about how she and Christe wanted to go to the beach but their mom wouldn’t let them near deep water. Then she said goodbye.
A few minutes later, at 12:57, another call was placed from the room phone, this time to the information line at Busch Gardens. It appears unlikely that the Rogers women actually made it to the theme park that day; the rolls of film recovered with their belongings contained no snapshots from Busch Gardens, and no receipts or souvenirs from Busch Gardens were found either. How the Rogers women spent that afternoon after checking into the motel remains a mystery.
There is a picture of Michelle from that last day, though, sitting on the floor of the motel room. She is wearing a blue bikini top, white shorts and sandals; draped over her right arm is a peach-colored blouse that she is either putting on or taking off. On her left hand, her collection of rings shines in the light. Her hair appears to be slightly wet, as though she has just taken a shower or been swimming. Her throat and neck are red with sunburn. Her face is tilted upward, staring directly into the camera.
She is not smiling. She is not frowning. If anything, her expression is matter of fact, with a touch of impatience. Photographed while changing her clothes, she is obviously in transition. She has somewhere to go, something to do, and she is ready to get on with it.
They were seen that night at dinner.
A businessman from Houston, staying at the Days Inn for a conference, noticed them in the motel’s restaurant. The man arrived at the restaurant around 7. Eating his meal, he found himself watching the woman and two teenage girls at the booth beside his table. He did not mean to stare, he later explained, but they were directly in his line of sight; whenever he lifted his eyes from his food, he could not help but look their way.
The man was close enough to hear the sound of their voices, but not their exact words. They were obviously in a good mood, though, laughing and joking. When they finished eating and got up from the booth, Michelle looked at him.
“Hi,” she said, and then she and her sister and mother walked out.
That Thursday evening, they shot one more photo. It was the last snapshot on the last roll discovered in their room. Taken from the balcony outside 251, with the camera pointed toward the bay, it shows a cluster of palm trees silhouetted against a glowing evening sky.
Sometime after they snapped the picture, the three of them left the Days Inn and got into the Calais and drove toward the horizon they had just glimpsed from the balcony. They had an appointment to keep. Jo had written the directions on a piece of paper, and now she and the girls were on their way.
They would not see the sun again.
That weekend, Hal Rogers kept watching the driveway. He would walk out of the milking parlor, finished with another shift with the cows, and glance up toward the house, hoping to see the Calais.
Hal didn’t understand it. He hadn’t heard from Jo or the girls for several days, but he was sure that Jo had told him they would be back on Saturday or Sunday at the latest. Jo was due back at work on Monday; Michelle’s summer school classes were starting.
He tried not to worry. He told himself everything was fine.
“They’re probably just dinking around someplace,” he said to a friend.
Still, it wasn’t like Jo to be late. Wasn’t like her not to call if the plans had changed or if something had gone wrong.
Where were they?
The first sighting was early that Sunday morning.
This was June 4, another hot and beautiful day. The Amber Waves, a sailboat on its way home to Tampa after a trip to Key West, had just crossed under the Skyway when several people on board saw an object in the water. It looks like a body, one of them said.
It was a female, floating face down, with her hands tied behind her back and her feet bound and a thin yellow rope around her neck. She was naked from the waist down.
A man from the Amber Waves radioed the Coast Guard, and a rescue boat was dispatched from the station at Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg. The Coast Guard crew quickly found the body, but recovering it from the water was difficult. The rope around the neck was attached to something heavy below the surface that could not be lifted. Noting the coordinates where the body had been found, the Coast Guard crew cut the line, placed the female in a body bag, pulled the bag onto the boat and headed back toward the station. The crew members had not yet reached the shore when they received another radio message: A second female body had just been sighted by two people on a sailboat.
This one was floating to the north of where the first body had been sighted. It was 2 miles off The Pier in St. Petersburg. Like the first, this body was face down, bound, with a rope around the neck and naked below the waist. The same Coast Guard crew was sent to recover it, and while the crew was doing so, a call came in of yet a third female, seen floating only a couple of hundred yards to the east.
The three bodies were taken to the dock at the Coast Guard station to be examined and photographed by the police investigators already arriving at the scene. The bodies were bloated and had begun to decompose, but it was still possible to determine that they were white women who appeared to be fairly young.
The hands and feet of all three were tied and bound in the same manner, though the left hand of the second woman was loose. Before dying, she had apparently wrested the hand free. All had duct tape over their mouths. The second and third bodies had concrete blocks attached to the ropes around their necks. Though the rope around the neck of the first body had been cut by the Coast Guard, it was assumed that a concrete block had been tied to that line as well.
The discovery of a triple homicide on a quiet Sunday morning — a morning so perfect, it was difficult to conceive of anyone having even a violent thought — galvanized law enforcement agencies from all around Tampa Bay. Divers were soon plumbing the waters near the Skyway, looking for the object that had been cut from the line attached to the first body. Police boats crisscrossed the bay, making sure there were no more bodies to be found. A plane circled overhead, searching for the same.
Back at the dock where the bodies had been brought, detectives were already trying to understand what had happened to the women. Given that all three were partially nude, sexual assault seemed likely. As for the cause of death, a quick examination of the bodies revealed no obvious bruises, knife wounds, or bullet holes. It was possible that the women had been bound and gagged, weighed down with the concrete blocks and then tossed alive into the water to drown at the bottom of the bay.
Disturbing as that scenario was, there was no time to focus on it just yet or to determine its plausibility. To know even the most basic facts of how the women died, the detectives would have to wait for the results of the autopsies. And before they could search for the killer, they needed to first learn who the victims were. No identification had been found on the bodies, and there had been no local reports of three women missing.
What were their names? Where did they live? Were they locals or tourists?
All the detectives had to go on was the bodies themselves and the clothing and jewelry they had been wearing. One of the women, probably the oldest of the three, had long brown hair and had been found in a black T-shirt and with a gold wedding band on the ring finger of her left hand. Another had medium-length brown hair and was wearing a peach-colored shirt and three cloth bracelets, braided and decorated with pink, green and white stripes, on her left wrist.
Finally there was the young woman who had apparently struggled hard enough to remove one of her hands from the rope. She had wavy brown hair and wore a black tank shirt over a blue bikini top. On her left hand, the hand that had broken free, she wore four rings. Two gold, two silver. One on each finger.
“Have they called?”
Jeff Feasby was getting impatient. Michelle was supposed to be back by now, and he missed her. So he kept phoning the farm, asking Hal Rogers if he’d heard from them.
Hal did not know what to say. As the days went by without a word, he was growing increasingly panicked. He called Jo’s friends and relatives to see if she’d contacted them, called Jo’s boss at the distribution center to make sure he’d understood correctly when she was due back on the job, checked with the Van Wert Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio Highway Patrol and reported them missing. No one had heard a thing.
Then, one night early that week, Jeff Feasby phoned again. He’d gotten a postcard from Michelle. The one with the girl in the bikini and the bull gator and the words on the front that said FUN TIMES IN FLORIDA. Hal asked him to bring it to the house. Jeff drove right over, and Hal held the postcard, reading it over and over, searching in vain for some hint of what might have happened.
Hal was pacing back and forth through the house, smoking one cigarette after the other. He was sure something had gone terribly wrong. Maybe they’d been robbed and left somewhere, he told himself. Or maybe their car had gone off the highway into a marsh or in some woods where no one would find them for weeks. Maybe they were still alive, trapped somewhere, hurt, waiting to be rescued.
The images played through his mind until finally he could not stand it anymore. Desperate to take some kind of action, he went to the bank that Wednesday and withdrew some money. He had a plan. He was going to get into the air and conduct a search himself. He would find a private plane and a pilot and together they would fly over the roads Jo and the girls had traveled between Ohio and Florida.
One way or the other, he was going to find his family.
It was the next morning — Thursday, June 8 — when the maid at the Days Inn in Tampa spoke up about Room 251.
For days, the room had been untouched. The guests, obviously one or more women, had checked in a week before and had made it up to the room, leaving their suitcases on the floor and a purse on the table and other items strewn about. From that day on, though, there had been no sign of their returning. The beds had not been slept in. The shower and bath had not been used. The personal items had not been disturbed.
Now, on this Thursday, the maid studied the scene before her and decided something was wrong. Where had the guests gone?
That was how the chain began to unfold. The maid’s suspicions were passed along to the Days Inn’s general manager, who called the Tampa police and informed them that one or more of the motel’s guests appeared to be missing.
By this point the newspapers and TV news shows had been filled for several days with reports about the three bodies found in the bay. When officers from the Tampa police arrived at the Days Inn, it quickly became clear that the answer to the women’s identities might well be there.
The Tampa officers sealed off Room 251 and radioed for their superiors. Soon detectives were arriving from both Tampa and St. Petersburg, and the room was being searched and photographed and dusted for prints, and all the personal belongings were being inspected and bagged and numbered. A technician quickly matched prints from the room — including prints taken from a tube of Oral-B Sesame Street toothpaste on the vanity outside the bathroom — with the prints taken from the bodies in the bay.
“It’s them,” the technician announced. “This is their room.”
Meanwhile, preliminary identifications were being made from the information in the purse and on the registration form at the front desk.
Someone was going to have to call Ohio.
That day, Jeff Feasby phoned the Rogers house again, hoping Michelle would be back.
Hal picked up. His voice was strange. He sounded furious.
“Who is this?” he demanded.
Jeff told him who it was and asked if he’d heard anything. With that, Hal broke down.
“They’re not coming home,” he said, his voice trembling.
Jeff paused for a second. He didn’t understand.
“What do you mean?”
So Hal told him. They were gone, he said. All of them.
The sheriff of Van Wert County, a friend of Hal’s since high school, had come out to the farm that afternoon. A little while later, a reporter — the first of many — had walked onto the property and tried to interview Hal as he came out of the barn.
It was like an explosion had gone off. The news was all over the radio and the TV. Television crews were starting to pull up on the road beside the farm. Michelle’s and Christe’s friends were calling one another, sobbing. So were different members of the family.
“They found Jo and the girls,” Jim Etzler, Jo’s brother, told his wife that day over the phone. “They’re dead.”
“Surely not all of them, Jim,” said Colleen.
Jeff Feasby was overcome with anger. Moments after hanging up with Hal, he went downstairs to his family’s basement and punched a hole in the door. Then he got into his pickup truck and went tearing down the road, tires screeching.
An hour or so later, Jeff went over to the farm. Hal was there with a friend who’d been helping him hold things together while Jo and the girls were on vacation. Hal and the other man were outside, taking another load of hay into the barn.
Hal was beside himself with rage and grief.
“Not all of them,” he told a friend. “Why everybody?”
But he did not have the luxury of collapsing. The cows had to be milked and fed, just like any other day. The farm had to go on.
Tears in his eyes, Hal kept working.
That same day, two things happened in Tampa Bay.
First, the police found the Calais.
They got the make and model and tag number off the motel registration form, and when it didn’t turn up in the lot at the Days Inn, they searched the surrounding area until someone discovered it parked just a couple of miles away, at a boat ramp along the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
The car appeared to have been undisturbed since Jo and the girls had left it there a week before. The doors were locked; the passenger seat was pushed forward, as though someone had just climbed out of the back.
Scattered within the interior was a Clearwater Beach brochure, a deck of Uno cards, a puzzle book someone had been working on in the back seat. On the front passenger seat was a sheet of Days Inn stationery, marked with directions – written in Jo’s hand – that had guided them from the motel to the boat ramp.
The directions said:
turn rt (w on 60) – 2 1/2 mi – on rt side alt before
Beside these words was one more instruction:
The police were a long way from discovering who had lured the Rogers women out onto the water. Whoever they were, though, it was a fair bet that they owned a blue and white boat.
The second big lead — and undoubtedly the most startling — came that same day, while one of the investigators was talking over the phone with the chief of detectives from the Van Wert County Sheriff’s Office. The detective wanted to make sure that the investigators working the homicides were aware of all the facts about the Rogers family. So he told them about Michelle and her uncle John.
Even though John Rogers had been in prison at the time of the murders, the investigators could not ignore the similarities between what had happened to Michelle on that farm and here in Tampa Bay. Both times, she had apparently been subjected to bondage, with her hands tied. Both times, it appeared, she had been raped.
The investigators needed to consider the possibility that John Rogers might have somehow orchestrated the murders from behind bars, possibly arranging for someone with a boat to get them out on the water. They needed to know more about the Rogers family, period. The better they understood Jo and Michelle and Christe, the better their chances of discovering exactly how the three of them wound up out on the bay at night, alone with someone who wanted to hurt them.
The day after the bodies were identified, two detectives were on a plane, headed for Ohio.