Sgt. Moore was praying.
He did it every morning, in his car on his way to work. He did it in the evenings, in his prayer group at his Baptist church. He prayed for himself and his team of investigators. He prayed for the man they were hunting.
Glen Moore did not know why God had allowed this person to walk free through the world, doing such horrific things. But he believed that the Lord had a reason for everything, even this. So now he was asking for illumination. He wanted to understand what purpose the killer served, what goal was being furthered in the eternal plan. Mostly, though, he wanted to know how to track this man down and lock him away forever.
“If you want us to find this guy,” he would say to God, “show us the way.”
A thousand miles to the north, Hal Rogers was carrying on his own conversation with God.
People kept telling Hal that God never gives us more of a burden than we can handle. But Hal, lost for so long in numbing sorrow, was not so sure. There were days, standing in the milking parlor before dawn, when he would have given anything for God to come down from heaven and answer a question or two.
For starters, Hal wondered why God had taken his family from him. Hal had heard the minister’s explanation for this at the funeral, but he had found that particular explanation to be empty, unmemorable, completely useless. What purpose had been served by allowing his wife and daughters to suffer and die in the prime of their lives? Why, for that matter, had God left Hal alive to continue on alone? Why had he been chosen for such a loss? Had he done something wrong?
The months were blurring together. Hal was drinking too much. He was driving his car too fast late at night. For a while he was frightened, because he could not bring himself to summon up a clear image of Jo’s and Michelle’s and Christe’s faces. Try as he might, he could not remember what they looked like.
One day, Hal decided to put an end to it all. He climbed on his motorcycle, found a long and empty stretch of State Road 49, accelerated till he was tearing down the pavement at 100 mph, then closed his eyes and took both hands off the handlebars. A mile or two later, when the motorcycle finally stopped, he opened his eyes and realized he was still on the pavement and still very much alive.
He figured it was Jo and the girls, watching over him. They weren’t ready to let him join them yet.
The detectives were in the dark, searching for the door that would lead them to the light.
It was the spring of 1992, and the investigation was well into its third year. Sgt. Moore and the rest of the team did not know how much longer they had left until the powers that be decided the whole thing wasn’t worth it anymore.
Moore and the others kept going, trying almost anything they could think of to buy more time, more room, a solid lead. They held more press conferences, brought new people onto the team, raised the reward from $5,000 to $25,000. They asked Unsolved Mysteries to feature the case. They remembered the writing from the Calais — the handwritten directions found on the Clearwater Beach brochure — and asked whoever wrote them to please call.
Moore turned to his wife, Carol, for help. After 20 years of marriage, he knew she was smart and independent and not afraid to speak her mind. She worked as an interior decorator, which meant she saw the world differently, thought in terms of colors and shades and balance, sensed when things were arranged properly and when they were not.
So Moore showed Carol photos of the brochure and the handwriting.
“What does this mean to you?” he asked.
When he was off duty, he would take her to the boat ramp. He took her to the Days Inn. He drove with her on I-4 and I-275, guiding her along the route that the Rogers women had taken into Tampa and to their deaths.
“What do you see?” he said. “What were the victims thinking?”
Carol did not disappoint him. When they drove the route, she wondered if perhaps Jo and the girls had been in the far right lane of I-275 South and accidentally gotten off at Dale Mabry Highway, where the exit-only lane suddenly curves right. Maybe they got lost, she said. Maybe they stopped someplace on Dale Mabry and asked for directions. Could that be where they met the person who wrote on their brochure?
Glen listened carefully, filing everything away. He was ready to consider any plausible theory.
After all this time, he and the other investigators were still working out of the gray office on the second floor of the St. Petersburg police station. The team members had their work cut out for them. Finding the killer was already a mammoth challenge. But as they piled up the overtime on the case, they also found themselves being second-guessed inside their own police department.
From almost the start of their time on the Rogers investigation, Moore and his detectives felt they were under attack from nearly every direction. Other officers resented how much time they were being given. They especially resented seeing so many resources devoted to a case that, in their opinion, was clearly unsolvable. The only way the case would ever be closed, they said, was if the killer strolled into the station and turned himself in. Moore’s team was accused of wasting time, acting selfishly, riding the case for all it was worth.
“How much longer are you gonna milk this one?” people would say.
The jabs were not occasional. They were a common refrain, heard in the halls, in the offices, in staff meetings.
“Why are people still working on this case?” other officers asked. “Why are we doing this?”
The critics were envious of the fact that the team was allowed to use a special computer system, the HOLMES system brought over from England. Due to the high-profile nature of the case — the Unsolved Mysteries segment had aired in the fall of 1991 — they also assumed that Moore and his people were signing book and movie contracts left and right, preparing to grow rich and famous. As it happened, producers and agents were calling, expressing interest in the case. Moore and the rest of the team had already agreed, though, that they would have no part in such projects. Their goal was to make an arrest, period.
The critics weren’t buying it.
“When’s your book coming out?” they would ask Moore.
Moore would look at them. “I’m not a writer,” he would say. “I’m not doing a book.”
Ill feelings toward the sergeant and his detectives skyrocketed early in their investigation, when the decision was made to segregate themselves inside a special office. Moore’s team had occupied one end of a large squad room, sharing the space with detectives working robberies and other homicides. Then one day a construction crew showed up and erected a wall across the center of the room, dividing the area where the Rogers investigators were working from the area where the other detectives worked.
It didn’t help that the half of the squad room claimed by Moore and his people had better windows, affording them more light than the detectives on the other side of the wall. It also didn’t help that Moore had a lock installed on the door to his half of the squad room, or that the only people with keys to that lock were the members of his team.
Even worse, the thermostat regulating the temperature for the entire room was located on the other side of that locked door. This meant that Moore’s team controlled the temperature for everyone in the room; sometimes, when no one was inside the locked office, the other detectives would be burning up or freezing and would have no way to get to the thermostat.
By their nature, detectives are nosy people. They don’t like to be shut out of anything, especially a piece of their own home turf. From the day the room was split in half, the other investigators complained about the locked door and the thermostat and the unfairness of the window situation.
Mostly, though, they griped about being locked out.
“What’s going on back there?” they would say to the team members emerging from the inner sanctum. “What’s so secret?”
As much as Moore and the rest of the team chafed at the accusations of elitism, discretion told them to keep their mouths shut. Given the appalling nature of the crime they were investigating, they knew that any leaks could have disastrous consequences. Among other things, they could not allow the names of potential suspects — and there were hundreds of them over the years — to accidentally be made public without risking the ruin of those people’s lives.
To be fair, the frustrations with the Rogers investigation were not all based on envy or petty concerns. Some of the other homicide detectives, struggling with unsolved cases of their own, wanted to know why the murders of Jo and her daughters merited so much more attention than other homicides. Yes, this case was terrible. But was it necessarily more terrible than other murders? What if some of the vast amounts of time and money expended on the Rogers case for more than two years now had been directed instead toward other investigations? How many more killers might have already been caught and put behind bars?
These were legitimate questions. Furthermore, they were exactly the kind of issues that had to be agonized over and weighed by the officials running the police department. After all, the department ran on a budget like every other government agency. Resources were limited; tough decisions had to be made on how to divide those resources.
Up to now, the department’s chain of command had decided that the Rogers investigation did merit extraordinary attention. Moore and his team were searching for someone who was almost certainly a serial killer with a taste for murdering more than one victim at a time. If this person were not caught, how many more lives might he claim? Still, the longer the case dragged on, the more difficult it became for the department to reconcile the tension between the desire to make an arrest in the Rogers murders and the need to attend to other cases.
Moore felt this tension every day as he walked down the halls of the station. To him, it seemed as though he and his investigators were working under a perpetual cloud. He felt he had the support of his immediate superiors, Lt. Gary Hitchcox and Maj. Lois Worlds; Hitchcox, in fact, was devoting himself full-time to the case and was working out of the team’s office. But elsewhere in the department’s hierarchy, there were those who clearly thought the time was approaching when Moore and his team would have to be ordered to let it go.
“We had a tremendous amount of pressure put on us by the administration,” Moore says. “Not to solve the case, but to get off the case.”
To keep the investigation alive, Moore would have to use every tool at his disposal. It wasn’t enough to be a good detective or a strong supervisor. He had to transform himself into a master salesman, too. That’s why he kept the chain of command well-supplied with updates and progress reports, keeping them happy and off his back. It’s also why he became so adept at manipulating the media.
In the past year, since the FBI had recommended using the media to generate leads, Moore had seen for himself just how useful a bit of coverage could be. He had held several press conferences, given interviews, cooperated with TV producers. With each new round of publicity, tips poured in.
By now, Moore had learned a great deal about how reporters and editors think, how to get their attention, how to make them do what he needed. He had discovered, for instance, that the media prefer to be fed their news in bite-sized chunks, easy to digest and easy to pass along to the public.
Thinking back to his first press conference, he realized he had overloaded the reporters with too much information. He had given them six or seven items — the FBI profile, the innocence of Hal Rogers, the likelihood that the killer lived in Tampa Bay, to name a few — when any one of those items, by itself, would have been strong enough to make a compelling news story. It would have been better if he had parceled out the items slowly, one or two at a time, over several months. Each piece of information would have gotten better play, and there would have been that many more rounds of stories, generating that many more new tips.
Now he knew better. He understood that reporters were constantly hungry for something fresh.
“Every time you talk to them,” he would say, “you’ve got to have a new hook, a new bait.”
So he gave it to them, calling press conferences and issuing press releases to detail important developments, different strategies, emerging theories.
Moore didn’t particularly enjoy talking to reporters. In fact, it made him uncomfortable. But the more coverage he drummed up, the better the chance that the right tip would finally come the team’s way.
The publicity served a second purpose. As long as the Rogers story was in the newspapers and on the evening news, Moore figured, the higher-ups in the police department would be reluctant to pull the plug on the investigation.
The highest of the higher-ups, it turned out, didn’t need to be pressured into supporting the investigation.
Since the Rogers women were killed, there had been a couple of police chiefs in St. Petersburg. Early in 1992, the chief was Ernest “Curt” Curtsinger, and some of the pointed questions about the investigation were reaching his office. So Moore and Lt. Hitchcox sat down with the chief one day and gave him an extensive review of the case, telling him everything they were doing and everything they were still struggling to get done.
Curtsinger listened closely. When they were finished, he turned to Moore.
“How many people do you need?” he asked.
“How about six?”
Moore was amazed. At that point, there were eight people on his team, including him and Cindy Cummings and J.J. Geoghegan. Now, here was the chief himself approving six more detectives — he also okayed an extra investigator, an agent from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — and promised them at least six more months to work on the case.
The euphoria was short-lived. Curtsinger had been under attack for some time, accused of insensitivity to minorities. A month after he approved the new detectives for Moore’s team, Curtsinger was fired.
Moore was left to wonder where the investigation stood. Who would be the next police chief, and how supportive would he be? How much time did the team truly have left before someone pulled the plug?
All Moore and his investigators could do was keep going until someone told them to stop. By now, more than 1,500 tips had been logged in the case, and the number jumped again late that March, when the investigation was featured a second time on Unsolved Mysteries.
Hundreds of people called, saying they knew someone with a blue and white boat or someone else suspicious that the police should check out. Many of the calls were frustrating. One St. Petersburg woman, for instance, phoned to say she had a sister in Tampa who had wondered for some time if a man who used to live down the street from her had something to do with the murders. The caller suggested that the police phone her sister. A detective did in fact call the sister’s house, but she was not home. The detective left a message, but the sister with the information did not call back.
That was how it went, over and over. At any one time, the investigators were checking out an endless parade of names and numbers and facts, hoping they would finally stumble across the one detail that would blow the case wide open. They had no doubt that the detail was out there.
“This can be solved like any other crime,” Geoghegan would say to Cummings. “All we have to do is work it.”
After many long months spent trying to understand exactly how Jo and the girls had died, the detectives were now leaning heavily toward the theory that the attack had been carried out by only one person. Cummings, an experienced rock climber who knew something about ropes and knots, had studied the ropes used on the three women. In each case, she observed, the hands had been tied in the same manner. Furthermore, it appeared to her that whoever tied the hands had done the job in a hurry; that was why, she believed, Michelle had managed to work one of her hands loose before she died.
To Cummings and the other investigators, this evidence pointed toward a single assailant, moving quickly to place Jo and the girls in his control. He had probably held a gun on them, threatened to kill one of them if they moved, promised that everything would be okay if they just did as he told them. Under this theory, the killer had then taped their mouths, removed the clothes from the lower part of their bodies, then tied their feet. After examining the ropes, Cummings had noted that the women’s feet had been bound much more carefully; if their hands were already tied and their mouths taped, he would have had the luxury of taking his time to tie their feet.
None of this, however, brought them any closer to identifying the killer. To do that, the investigators were focusing increasingly on the handwritten directions found on the Clearwater Beach brochure in the Rogers car. The directions, which told Jo and the girls how to find their motel, were written on the back of the brochure, on the same page as a map of Tampa Bay. Below the map, the writing said:
Courtney Cambell Causeway
RT 60 Days Inn
Originally the detectives had thought that the person who shared the directions had merely been someone helpful who gave the Rogers women assistance and then went on his way. Now the investigators saw it differently. After analyzing the timetable of the women’s last day alive, as well as the psychological profile provided by the FBI, they thought it appeared extremely likely that whoever had given the Rogers women the directions was the same person who had arranged to meet them later at the boat ramp. The man who wrote the directions, then, was almost certainly the killer.
The writing was distinctive, even to a layperson. The man they were looking for printed his letters, with understated R’s and an exaggerated curving hook extending to the left from the bottom of his Y’s.
That May, Moore held another press conference, where he announced the new theory about the killer. He encouraged the media to publish samples of the handwriting, and asked anyone who recognized the writing to please call.
Moore repeated the investigators’ belief that the killer probably would turn out to be someone charming and likable, someone with a job and a home, someone who appeared respectable and harmless.
“Don’t rule out anyone,” he said. “Think about your husband, your boyfriend, your fellow employee.”
It was 2 1/2 years since Jo Ann Steffey had clipped the composite drawing from the newspaper, but she had not forgotten about the man who used to live two houses away on Dalton Avenue in her Tampa neighborhood. She had already tried once to report her suspicions. But it bothered her that she’d never seen any proof that her tip was even investigated.
As it happened, someone else had tried to pass along her suspicions. After hearing Jo Ann talk about the neighbor with the blue and white boat, one of Steffey’s sisters had called the police. This was the tip that had been phoned in on that night in March, when the Rogers case was featured on Unsolved Mysteries. Steffey’s sister was the one who had talked to the detective, encouraging her to speak to Steffey. The detective had called Steffey’s house and left a message, but for some reason the message never reached Steffey. Nor had her sister, Steffey says, told her about calling the police.
Steffey felt a connection to Jo Rogers. They shared a similar first name, and just like Jo, Steffey had two daughters. Sometimes she had nightmares about the family. She would see them on the boat and would wake up, her heart pounding.
“It could have been me and my girls,” she would say.
So when she picked up the newspaper the morning after Sgt. Moore’s press conference — it was Thursday, May 14, 1992 — and read the quotes about the handwriting and how it was the key to finding the killer, Steffey found herself wondering if she should report her suspicions again.
The police were saying the killer probably had a job not far from wherever he had met Jo and her daughters. Steffey remembered that her former neighbor was an aluminum contractor who built porches and additions for homes. But she couldn’t remember where his office had been. So she went next door and asked her neighbor, Mozelle Smith, if she did.
Smith had once hired the man to add an aluminum porch to another house she owned in Tampa. She said she thought he worked out of his home. Then something else occurred to her:
The contract. When she hired the man to build her porch, he had filled out a contract for her.
A handwriting sample.
Later, looking back on their detective work, Mozelle Smith and Jo Ann Steffey would differ in their recollections of the exact sequence of these events. In fact, in the years that followed there would be a great deal of disagreement about how the two neighbors and those close to them pursued their suspicions concerning the man down the street.
Smith, for instance, would insist that on that day, when the handwriting appeared in the newspaper, she immediately found the aluminum contract filled out by the man. Steffey, meanwhile, would say that the two of them searched through Smith’s house for hours, sifting through the drawers where Mozelle kept her paperwork, but could not find the contract.
Either way, Steffey says she was not deterred. As far as she could tell, she had enough to justify calling the task force. She was still nervous, wondering if she were right, wondering if her former neighbor would learn that she had reported him and if perhaps he had an accomplice who lived nearby. But she picked up the phone anyway.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I’m gonna call ‘em.”
Steffey talked to Eileen Przybysz, a civilian investigator. Steffey says she told Przybysz about her neighbor and his blue and white boat and the dark-colored sports utility vehicle he had driven. She told how the man had lived in a house on Dalton Avenue along a canal that fed into Tampa Bay, and how her neighbor had hired him for her porch and was searching for the contract. She told how he had moved away suddenly with his wife and little girl two summers ago, and how he had always seemed off to her, made her feel as though he had something to hide.
And she shared the name of the man:
What happened next?
Jo Ann Steffey remembers it like this:
Later that afternoon, she says, Mozelle Smith called to tell her she had found the contract, along with a check signed by Oba Chandler.
Steffey hurried next door with a clipping from the newspaper, showing the handwriting that Sgt. Moore had displayed at the press conference. Smith was outside, waiting for her.
The two of them, Steffey says, made the comparison right there in the driveway. They took the newspaper clipping and the contract and the check and placed them on the tailgate of Smith’s husband’s truck, and then looked back and forth among the three samples, examining the handwriting.
Steffey felt her knees turning to water. She was suddenly so weak, she almost could not stand.
It was the same. She was sure of it.
Steffey called the task force again and spoke to Przybysz, the civilian investigator. She told her about the contract.
“I’ve got it,” she said.
Przybysz listened. It would be helpful to see that contract, she said.
“Can you fax it over?”
The contract was faxed, along with the check signed by Chandler. The fax was then attached to the investigator’s notes on Steffey — and put in a stack of other potentially promising tips.
Once again, the task force was overwhelmed with information. Sgt. Moore’s attempts to generate tips were working almost too well. All the investigators could do was check out the tips, one at a time. They would get to Steffey and her suspicions as soon as they could.
Moore, meanwhile, was preparing for a possible struggle with the new person running the police department. His name was Mack Vines. He had been the chief of the St. Petersburg Police Department in the 1970s, and had gone on to serve as chief of police in Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., before returning to Pinellas County as director of the police academy at St. Petersburg Junior College.
Now Vines was back in charge of the St. Petersburg police, trying to mend a department torn apart by Curtsinger’s controversial tenure and firing. Vines wasn’t the new chief; he had been hired as an assistant city manager to oversee the police department until another chief was found. It was unclear whether Vines would stay in his new job after a chief was hired, but for now he was sitting in the chief’s office on the third floor of the station.
Vines was brought in on May 15, one day after Jo Ann Steffey phoned in her tip. From that day onward, he had his hands full, trying to boost morale and hold the department together in the wake of Curtsinger’s firing. He had a host of things to worry about other than the Rogers case. Still, Moore says, Vines soon made it clear that he was debating whether it made sense to continue devoting so many officers to one investigation.
“We’re not going to continue this case forever,” Moore remembers Vines telling him.
Moore was realistic enough to know that time was limited. But he pointed out to Vines that back in February the task force had been promised at least six more months to work. Those months would be up in mid-August.
All right, said Vines. He agreed to honor the six-month commitment. But in August, he said, the case would be reviewed to see if the task force should be disbanded.
To Moore, the message was obvious enough. Come August, the investigation would be over.
“The guillotine,” as Moore later put it, “was coming down.”
Years later, Vines would say he doesn’t remember specifically telling Moore that the case would not be continued forever. But he might well have said it, he adds, because it was true. No investigation, Vines says, can be allowed to drag on indefinitely. Either way, he says he knew how hard Moore and the task force were working and was hoping they would develop some strong leads by the August deadline.
That summer, the Rogers investigators made the most of the time that remained before the deadline. Amid the hundreds of phone calls and tips, they were still trying to understand exactly how Jo and the girls had spent their last hours. Their latest theory, as it happened, relied heavily on the idea suggested by Moore’s wife, who had wondered if the family might have been driving in the far right lane of I-275 South in Tampa, and accidentally gotten off at the Dale Mabry exit and then stopped somewhere for directions.
Cummings and Geoghegan thought this idea had merit. For one thing, when the two detectives looked at the directions on the brochure and the map beside it, it appeared that the point of origin for the directions was in fact on Dale Mabry or nearby. Second, the detectives had driven that stretch of I-275 and seen how suddenly the far right lane turned into an exit and how easy it would be for a driver unfamiliar with the road to suddenly veer off the interstate.
As for where the three women might have gone for directions, the investigators thought the most likely answer was a McDonald’s just north of the exit. The fast food restaurant would have been directly in front of them, on the right side of Dale Mabry, making it easy to turn in; it was also a place that would have looked familiar and safe to someone who was lost.
Maybe Moore’s wife was right. Maybe they saw the golden arches and stopped there, hoping to find a map or a soft drink or just a place to use the bathroom. And while they were there, they met the person who wrote the directions on their brochure. Once he wrote the directions, he knew they were staying at the Days Inn, which would have made it easy to arrange a boat ride later in the day.
Maybe he knew they were tourists and therefore easy prey. He could have seen their Ohio tag and struck up a conversation with them, just as the man in Madeira Beach had done with the Canadian tourist when he saw her and her friend in the parking lot of the convenience store.
If this theory were true, Jo and Michelle and Christe had died simply because they had wound up in the wrong lane of the interstate.
Time was running out. The August deadline was fast approaching.
The detectives drove up and down Dale Mabry, talking to business owners, talking to waitresses, interviewing anyone who might have seen the Rogers women or might know someone with handwriting like the directions on the brochure. They questioned dancers at the strip joints near Tampa Stadium, showing them the composite from the Madeira Beach case, asking if they knew a man who looked like this.
The first week of June, as the third anniversary of the murders came and went, Cummings and Geoghegan sat in a car near the boat ramp on the causeway, watching for hours in case the killer returned out of some perverse desire to relive the moment when Jo and the girls stepped onto his boat. But they never saw him.
Early that summer, the investigators also were talking about billboards.
It was an unusual idea, suggested by a couple of the detectives, Jim Culberson and Mark Deasaro. What would happen, they said, if the task force placed the faces of the Rogers women on billboards, along with an appeal to the public for help?
Moore, open to anything that might work, thought it sounded good. Even better, it was free. Patrick Media Group Inc. agreed to donate the space, and Jim Culberson’s father donated the $ 1,000 required to produce the signs.
In May, the billboards went up around Tampa Bay. In huge red letters, they shouted the question WHO KILLED THE ROGERS FAMILY? Below the words were giant photos of Jo, Michelle and Christe, a reminder that the reward for an arrest and conviction was $25,000, and the phone number for the task force.
The detectives were not the only ones thinking about new directions for the investigation. Barbara Sheen Todd, a longtime Pinellas County commissioner, had been following the case closely; like so many, she had not been able to forget Jo and her daughters. When Todd heard that the investigators now believed the killer had left his handwriting on the brochure, she called Moore with an idea of her own.
Why not put the handwriting onto billboards?
Initially Moore was not sure where they would get the money for a second round of billboards. But after Todd told him she would make some calls and take care of it, the two of them worked together to get the new billboards up. Moore doubted the billboards would generate that many leads. However, if more billboards went up with the help of a county commissioner and Moore asked her to join him at another press conference, the media would have a good hook to bite on.
The truth was, the press was growing bored with the Rogers case. When the first billboards had appeared, there had been relatively little coverage. But now, with Todd’s help, Moore was confident that the second billboards would lead to renewed interest in the case. The billboards would be shown on TV and in the newspapers — they were a perfect visual, just the sort of thing editors loved — and the handwriting would be noticed not by a few motorists, but by hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers from all over Tampa Bay.
The strategy went off exactly as planned. With Todd’s encouragement, Patrick Media Group agreed to donate the space a second time, and the new billboards, emblazoned with the handwriting samples, went up on Thursday, July 30. That same day, Moore and Todd stood together at a press conference held in Tampa — this was another strong visual touch — near one of the billboards, erected on Himes Avenue and Columbus Drive, close to the section of Dale Mabry where the investigators believed the Rogers women had met their killer.
“Normally our policy is not to discuss evidence, or have the public view evidence, in unsolved homicide cases,” Moore said about the handwriting. “However, the Rogers case is so unique, and the necessity to capture the killer so compelling, the need to display this evidence overrides normal procedures.”
When it was her turn to speak, Todd was sincere and impassioned. She said exactly what was needed.
“The thing to emphasize,” she said, “is there is no doubt this person will kill again.”
Jo Ann Steffey couldn’t believe it.
She and Mozelle Smith and others had been calling the task force, asking if anyone had checked out Oba Chandler and his handwriting sample. Each time, they were told to please be patient, that the investigators were still catching up on the backlog of tips and would get back to them as soon as possible.
Now the task force members were putting up billboards, practically begging for someone to tell them what they already knew. Hadn’t they looked at the handwriting on the contract?
Steffey called and talked to Przybysz, the investigator who had taken her original tip.
“What are you people doing over there?” Steffey asked her.
Przybysz said she had the information that Steffey had called in earlier. They were getting to it, she said. Be patient.
Mozelle Smith’s daughter was calling as well, pressing to know what had happened to the fax of the contract and check signed by Oba Chandler. She also talked to Przybysz. Overwhelmed with phone calls, the investigator told her that she couldn’t put her hands on the fax right away and would have to get back to her.
So Smith’s daughter faxed the papers again. This time, though, she threw in a cover letter, bristling with frustration.
Here is another copy of Oba Chandler’s handwriting and on the back of his check is his driver’s license number. Although I’m sure you received numerous samples of handwriting, many of us are convinced that this handwriting is the same as the one published in the papers. We feel so strongly that they are one and the same that due to your lack of response we were tempted to pursue this with a handwriting expert of our own.
However, due to Commissioner Todd’s new personal interest we have recontacted you. We expect a response to this information as soon as possible.
Thank you for your assistance.
The letter was difficult to ignore. Przybysz looked at the writing on the contract and on the check. She didn’t know what to think. There wasn’t enough writing on the check to make any comparison, just a signature. As for the writing on the contract, it was blurry.
Przybysz went to Moore and told him that some people in Tampa kept calling, insisting they had the guy. Looking over the notes and the fax, Moore saw that this particular lead was one of many assigned to Geoghegan. It was in his stack of tips still to be checked out.
Moore called Geoghegan, who was out on the road that day, and asked him to find this woman and get the original.
No problem, said Geoghegan.
It was Friday, July 31. Two weeks before the deadline.
Geoghegan went to the address in Tampa where Mozelle Smith was waiting. Smith was not in the friendliest of moods. She didn’t want to be interviewed by Geoghegan or anybody else. If anything, she wanted him to answer a few questions. After weeks of trying to get the task force’s attention, she wasn’t sure she should give him the original of the contract. What if they lost it? Hadn’t they already misplaced the first fax that had been sent over?
Geoghegan did his best to reassure her. But Smith wanted something more. Before she gave him the contract, she demanded that he sign a piece of paper acknowledging that he was taking custody of the document. She had a notary public — a friend of her daughter’s — standing by, ready to notarize the piece of paper.
Being on the receiving end of all this was not exactly standard procedure. But what was Geoghegan supposed to do? He signed the paper, watched the notary stamp it and got out of there.
Contract in hand, he drove back to St. Petersburg, across the sparkling water where Jo and the girls had died.
Years later, Moore would think about Jo Ann Steffey and Mozelle Smith and shake his head.
He acknowledges that the tip from the women and their families should have been pursued more quickly. But at the time, he says, the task force was swamped with tips, many of them from people who were sure they had found the killer. Among all the other handwriting samples flowing into the office, the contract with Oba Chandler’s writing was overlooked.
“The handwriting thing did get misplaced. It was in a stack about this high,” says Moore, holding his hand about 6 inches above the table in front of him. “Nobody seems to understand how difficult it was to manage this massive amount of paperwork.”
But on that summer day in 1992, when Geoghegan returned to the office with the contract, things moved quickly.
Moore and Geoghegan looked back and forth between the contract and the directions on the brochure. They appeared to be written by the same person, but it was hard to be sure. The contract, it turned out, was not the original. It was the customer’s copy, the copy from underneath the original, and the writing was faint.
Still, the resemblance appeared strong – strong enough that the task force had a new suspect and a new focus.
Moore and the others scrambled to learn more about this Oba Chandler. They ran his name in every computer they could think of and quickly discovered that he was 45 years old and living with his wife and daughter across the state in Port Orange, near Daytona Beach.
They learned that Chandler’s old house was on Dalton Avenue, not far from the McDonald’s on North Dale Mabry, and only 2 miles from the boat ramp where Jo and the girls had disappeared. At the time, state records showed, he had owned a 21-foot Bayliner boat, with a blue exterior and white interior. At the time, he was also the registered owner of a dark blue Jeep Cherokee. Furthermore, he had a long criminal record and had been charged with everything from kidnapping to burglary to armed robbery to counterfeiting.
All of these facts were encouraging. But the investigators did not dare get their hopes up too high; they had been dashed so often before.
Then Marilyn Johnson spoke up.
Johnson was a soft-spoken, older woman, a grandmother who sometimes doted on the other members of the task force. She worked as an office assistant, typing information into the HOLMES computer. She was not a detective, but Moore had encouraged everyone to toss out ideas. So one day, at the end of a meeting on the new suspect, Johnson raised her hand.
“Yes, Marilyn,” said Moore.
“I don’t know if you noticed it or not,” she said. “But this guy looks just like the composite.”
Moore’s mouth dropped open.
In all the rush, and in all the checking, no one else had thought to make this simplest comparison.
They had a photo of Chandler, given to them by probation officials. And when Moore looked at it and then at the composite drawing, he saw it, plain as day.
“You’re right, Marilyn,” he said. “You’re right.”
They had found him.
After three years of back-breaking investigation, Moore was convinced they had the man they were looking for.
Now all they had to do was prove it.
One more thing.
As the investigation raced forward, energized by these discoveries, Marilyn Johnson pointed out something else. Typing files into the computer, she remembered a fact — one fact out of the tens of thousands of stray facts that had been logged over the years — that had escaped everyone else’s memory. The man who had raped the Canadian woman, Johnson pointed out, had told the victim he owned an aluminum company.
Just like Chandler.
That was how they came up with the code name. As they turned their attention to their prey, the members of the task force tried to keep his real name out of their conversations and even their reports. They didn’t want to be paranoid, but they had no desire for the word to get out and for Chandler to learn they were on his trail.
So they called him by a different name. A name that played off his line of work. A name that was perfect for someone who they suspected had no heart.
They called him the Tin Man.