Late one night, an investigator stared into the dark water where the bodies of the Rogers women had made their way back to the surface of the world. It was a few months before the trial was scheduled to begin. Scott Hopkins, an investigator with the state attorney’s office, had been cruising in his 17-foot Boston Whaler, clearing his mind, getting away from the case for a couple of hours. He was near the mouth of Tampa Bay, steering toward home, the Sunshine Skyway shining behind him, when it occurred to him how close he was to the place where the first body — Christe’s body — had been sighted.
It was a gorgeous evening, cool and clear, no moon to speak of, the dome of the sky lit with a thousand stars. The air was still. The water calm. Hopkins checked the coordinates on the glowing screen of his navigational computer, just to make sure he was in the right spot. He turned his engine off.
He stood on the bow, his eyes fixed on the water, and tried to envision the scene from that other boat on that other night. He thought of Jo and the girls, lying on the deck, the duct tape over their mouths, the ropes around their necks. How long had they been forced to wait for it to end? One hour? Four? He wondered who had been thrown over the side first. Was it the youngest or the oldest? And what about their clothes? They all had been found naked from the waist down. What had been done with their shorts, their underwear, their shoes?
Hopkins, a father of two daughters who had been close to Michelle’s and Christe’s ages at the time of the murders, knew he was trying to comprehend something incomprehensible.
Of one thing, though, Hopkins was certain. He looked at the lights of St. Petersburg, glimmering to the northwest like some scene invented by a child, and he looked at the bay stretched about him like a sheet of ruffled satin, and he felt himself wrapped in the solitude of the night air, and he realized that, for Jo and her daughters, all of these wondrous things would have been turned upside down. That night, the bay would have seemed so vast and cruel, and the lights of the shore would have looked so out of reach, and the silence would have been absolute, mocking them, suffocating them, amplifying the pounding of their hearts.
Now, gazing into the distance, Hopkins did what so many of the others working on the case had done over the years. He prayed.
Hopkins prayed every day about the case. But this prayer, here tonight on the water, was different. This was a prayer of desperation.
The trial, Hopkins knew, would not be easy to win. Yet he had no doubt that Oba Chandler was guilty and no doubt that if Chandler went free, he would kill again. So Hopkins asked God to guide him and the rest of the prosecution team on to the right path, to lead them toward a conviction.
When he was done, Hopkins turned the engine back on and headed for shore.
Oba Chandler’s wife was having problems with her memory.
“Did your husband ever call you from the boat?” asked the man seated across the table.
“I cannot recall,” said Debra Chandler.
“Do you recall ever accepting a collect call through the marine operator?”
“I cannot recall.”
Mrs. Chandler was seated in a little room in the state attorney’s office. She did not particularly want to be there. Her husband’s attorneys definitely did not want her there. But there she was, summoned by subpoena.
The man wouldn’t stop with his questions.
“Do you recall what your phone number was in 1989?”
He read her the seven digits of a phone number. Did she recall having that number in 1989?
It was a Monday evening in early May 1994, and the prosecutors were deep into their trial preparations. Tonight, their goal was to take a sworn statement from the 38-year-old Mrs. Chandler, and to discover what she might have to say when the case went before the jury.
The man across the table — Doug Crow, an executive assistant state attorney — wanted to know what Mrs. Chandler could tell him about the night of May 15, 1989, when the Canadian tourist was raped on a boat off Madeira Beach, and the night of June 1, 1989, when the three Rogers women were murdered. In his hands, Crow had the marine phone tolls showing that collect calls had been made on both those nights from Chandler’s boat to his house in Tampa. In one of those calls, the marine phone operator had noted that the caller was named Oba.
Crow pushed Mrs. Chandler for details. Had the marine phone calls been made to her? She said she could not recall.
Mrs. Chandler was not revealing anything that would prove her husband guilty. But she wasn’t revealing anything that would prove him innocent, either. Her memory loss cut both ways.
“Do you have any idea,” said Crow, “where your husband was on May 15th, 1989?”
“No, I do not.”
“Do you have any recollection of where your husband was on the morning, afternoon and evening of June 1st, 1989?”
“No, I do not.”
“Can you provide him an alibi of any sort as to where he was?”
“I do not recall where he was on that date.”
As the trial loomed, members of the state attorney’s team were not just building a case against Chandler; they were plugging every possible hole that could sink that case. They had to be ready to counter whatever the defense might put before the jury.
Prosecutors always have to anticipate the defense’s next move. But here, the task was especially daunting because of the size of the investigation. All those tips that had come pouring into the police department over the years, sending the detectives in a thousand directions? The defense attorneys could take their pick of any of these leads, and wave them like a flag at trial, constructing their whole case around them.
There was no way to be sure which tips the defense might target, so the prosecution had to be ready to neutralize them all, ready to produce the witnesses and the evidence to prove that these other tips were groundless, that the only trail that mattered was the one that led straight to the defendant.
The hundreds of boat owners and other potential suspects who had been checked out before the detectives zoomed in on Chandler? The defense attorneys could point at any of those people — John Rogers, Michelle’s uncle, was obviously a promising target, given his disturbing history — and they wouldn’t even have to prove that this other person was indeed the killer. All they had to do was raise the possibility.
As spring turned to summer, the prosecutors were shifting into overdrive. They were working nights and weekends, interviewing witnesses, organizing the mountain of files, debating strategy and counter-strategy. At the same time, investigators from the state attorney’s office and from the task force were checking out hundreds of details, nailing down unanswered questions.
Particular attempts were being made to learn as much as possible about the marine phone tolls. Even though Debra Chandler said she did not remember the calls, the prosecution assumed that Chandler had been phoning his wife. Why would he have called her on those nights, once just before allegedly committing the rape, then three times on the night of the murders, then two more times the next morning?
There was no reason to believe that Debra Chandler had known anything about the crimes; it was far more likely that Chandler had called to give some excuse for being out so late.
Had any of the Rogers women still been alive when he made the calls? Had they been lying there in the boat, tied and gagged, forced to listen as he called his wife?
The prosecution could only guess at the answers. There was something else, though. Chandler had returned to land sometime the next morning; at least two witnesses had seen him making stops at an aluminum contracting job around 7:30 a.m. But then, as the phone records proved, he had been back out on the water shortly after 8 and had stayed out for at least a couple of hours.
Why? Why had he taken his boat out again?
The answer seemed obvious to the prosecutors. He had gone back out to make sure that the evidence of his crime stayed submerged. He had met his business appointments, then returned to the scene where he had murdered Jo and Michelle and Christe, just so he could see for himself that their bodies had been properly weighted and were still hidden beneath the surface of Tampa Bay.
Clearly, the marine phone tolls were a critical part of the case against Chandler. Yet even with this evidence, the verdict was far from a foregone conclusion. This was still a case so complicated and constructed out of so many circumstantial pieces that it would be easy to lose.
Around the courthouse, the word had spread that this trial was not a slam dunk. People were talking about it in the crowded halls outside the courtrooms, wondering if the state would be able to prove Chandler’s guilt.
“What do you think?” they were saying. “Do you think he’ll get off?”
The state attorney’s office was doing everything possible to make sure that did not happen. To begin with, the state had assembled a formidable trial team. Most first-degree murder trials are handled by two assistant state attorneys. In recognition of its sprawl and complexity, the Chandler trial would be argued by four seasoned and respected prosecutors — Bruce Bartlett, Bob Lewis, Jim Hellickson and Doug Crow. Working behind the scenes was yet a fifth assistant state attorney, Glenn Martin. Martin’s role was not as glamorous as the others; he had known for some time that during the trial he would not even be sitting in the courtroom. But he had been immersed in the case for a year and a half, and knew the files and the reports and the witnesses better than any of the other lawyers.
The lead prosecutor — the designated point man in the courtroom — was Doug Crow. After more than 20 years as a prosecutor, Crow was known as perhaps the most brilliant and tenacious lawyer in the state attorney’s office. He would never have said so himself; relentlessly modest, he preferred to keep a low profile. But his colleagues were openly in awe of his mind.
Martin put it best: Some trial lawyers played checkers, and some played chess. “Doug plays three-dimensional chess.”
Crow did not cut a particularly imposing figure. He was relatively small, his skin was permanently pale, he looked like he could barely hold his own on a windy day. With his pallor, moustache and melancholy, dark eyes, he bore more than a passing resemblance to a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe.
He excelled at worrying, especially about things that hadn’t even occurred to anyone else.
“I always tell him the reason he’s so miserable is he knows too much,” says Scott Hopkins, the investigator. “Most of us stumble through life half-stupid and happy. He sees all the problems there are and agonizes over them.”
Inside the state attorney’s office, Crow had become a legend, not just for his skills but for his quirks. He did not appear to require sleep; he was always at his desk, sometimes as late as 2 a.m. He liked to watch old sci-fi shows with his kids. His diet was a nightmare; he seemed to live on beef jerky, potato chips and Gummy Bears, especially during trials. He frequently was observed talking to himself. He was so absent-minded, he was constantly losing his keys, misplacing papers, heading for his home in St. Petersburg but accidentally winding up across the bridge in Tampa. For years, no one had dared trust him with the original of a document.
“You never give Crow an original of anything,” Hopkins loved to say. “You give him a copy.”
When he stepped inside a courtroom, though, Crow was transformed. In front of a judge and jury, he forgot nothing. He could recall every fact from the file at the bottom of the stack, remember every nuance from an opinion issued years ago from the bowels of some court of appeal.
“You don’t know how good he is until you see it running,” says Martin. “He gets in the courtroom, and it’s unbelievable.”
After all these years, Crow could have crossed over to the other side. He could have become a defense attorney and easily doubled his salary. But he burned with the flame of a true believer. He remained a prosecutor because he still thought that human dignity should be respected, that an attack on anyone was an affront to everyone, that justice can only be attainable if someone is willing to fight for it.
Soon he and the rest of the prosecution team would be demanding justice for Jo Rogers and her daughters.
The trial began in late September 1994, on a brilliant, sunny day five years after the murders. Due to the local publicity surrounding the case, the jurors were chosen in Orlando and then taken to Pinellas County, where they were sequestered for the duration of the trial.
Opening statements were delivered inside a packed fourth-floor courtroom. Presiding over the trial was Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, a no-nonsense judge known for her command of the law and of the lawyers appearing before her. But that morning, as the trial began, people weren’t watching the judge. Instead, all eyes were focused on Chandler.
Clad in a dress shirt and khakis, black-rimmed reading glasses perched halfway down his nose, the defendant surveyed the proceedings without a trace of anxiety, projecting an almost breezy indifference. On trial for his life, he sat with a strangely affable smile playing at the corners of his mouth — a smile that suggested a mixture of mild curiosity and low-grade boredom.
It quickly became apparent that Chandler was giving a performance, making a show of his detachment, telling everyone in the room that he considered himself just another spectator. The fact that the performance was so transparent — that he so obviously wanted it to be noted — made it all the more disturbing. What was really happening inside him? Did he see this as some sort of elaborate game?
Doug Crow had no time to worry about such questions. He was too busy giving his opening, outlining the prosecution’s case.
“The evidence will show that these three women were murdered in this premeditated fashion by the man” — here Crow pointed behind him, toward the defendant — “who sits across from you in the courtroom today, Oba Chandler.”
His voice rising with emotion, Crow took the jurors through the evidence that would be presented.
“Using a boat, under apparent cover of darkness,” he said, “the killer committed a crime miles out in the open water, where there were no witnesses, save the dead victims, to see or hear or remember what happened. And by using the boat, which the killer then removed and obviously cleaned up, he left no scene for the police to investigate. But the police went backwards, and they began looking at the pattern of this case, and that pattern emerged to them, and what they saw helped them to make a connection…”
Step by step, Crow explained how the investigators had discovered the similarities between the murders and the rape of the Canadian tourist. He explained how her description of her attacker and the handwriting on the brochure had ultimately led the police to Chandler. He explained about the marine phone tolls and what they proved. He also revealed that one witness — a man who once worked for Chandler — would testify that, a few hours before the murders, Chandler had told him he had an appointment to “meet some women.”
The jurors, Crow promised, would learn all these things for themselves. They would even hear from the Canadian woman. She would take the witness stand and relive the most disturbing day of her life.
“That’s an experience she will willingly undergo to give the 12 of you the opportunity to render justice and to reach a verdict that speaks the truth,” said Crow.
When his turn came to speak, Fred Zinober, the lead defense attorney, boiled his case down to one basic point. His client, he said, had indeed met Jo, Michelle and Christe on the day of their deaths and had written directions for them on the brochure. But the state, he said, would not be able to prove that Oba Chandler had ever seen the three women again.
“The defense in this case is very straight, very simple. It is simply that they have the wrong man,” he said. “And the evidence is going to suggest that they simply have not uncovered anything conclusive or credible that links Oba Chandler to the Rogers homicide.”
Zinober did concede that Chandler had met the Canadian woman and had taken her out on his boat. But the defense, he said, would not even try to respond to the contention that Chandler raped her. Chandler, he pointed out, was on trial for the murders, not the rape.
Before the trial was over, Zinober said, the jurors would hear from Oba Chandler himself. He would explain why he was out on the water that night, and he would look each of them in the face and proclaim his innocence.
“Mr. Chandler is going to take the stand, and he is going to face his accusers,” said Zinober. “And he is going to let you know that he is not happy about being accused of these crimes and that he did not commit any of these homicides…
“It is that simple.”
The prosecutors wasted no time.
In the week that followed, they moved quickly through their case, calling as many as 20 witnesses a day. They brought in a handwriting expert to tell about the directions found on the brochure in Jo Rogers’ car, and a print analyst to tell about the palm print on the brochure, and the marine phone operators to tell about the calls Chandler made from his boat. They called Kristal Mays, one of Chandler’s adult daughters, so she could repeat the statements she heard when he showed up in her hometown of Cincinnati in November 1989, just after police released a composite drawing of the Madeira Beach rapist.
Kristal Mays had not been expecting her father. He arrived in town one day, checked into a motel and called her, asking her and her husband to meet him. They found Chandler anxious and nervous, his room littered with coffee cups and with ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.
“Did he tell you why it was urgent for you to come there and visit and why he came to Cincinnati suddenly and unexpectedly?” asked Crow.
“Not on the phone,” she said. “But when we got there, he did.”
“What did he tell you?”
Mays shifted in the witness stand, not looking at her father across the room.
“He told us he couldn’t go back to Florida because they were looking for him for a rape of a woman.”
When Mays heard this, she said, she was so disturbed she went into the bathroom. Later, her father apologized for the way he was acting. He needed help. It was already getting cold in Ohio, and he’d had no time to finish packing, and so the next day she bought him a coat.
That evening, when he came to her house for dinner, he made another shocking statement. He told her he also could not return to Florida because he had killed some women.
“He indicated he had killed women?”
Rick Mays, Kristal’s husband, was summoned to the courtroom to describe what he remembered from Chandler’s visit. Mays recalled going with his wife to the motel and hearing Chandler talk about raping someone in Florida. Later in the visit, during a car ride together, he said, Chandler admitted to being involved with some murders in Florida.
“What was the substance related to you,” said Crow, “about his involvement in the murders?”
“That he could not go home because of the murders — murders of the women in Florida.”
“While he was up there, did the defendant say anything to you about what to do if anyone called looking for him?”
“That we haven’t saw him.”
That same afternoon, the prosecution called three witnesses who had spent time in jail with Chandler while he was awaiting trial; all three testified that they heard him make incriminating statements. One witness said Chandler told him about raping a woman from another country. Chandler, he said, talked of taking the woman far out into the gulf and telling her to “f--- or swim.”
“What else did he say?” asked Bob Lewis.
“That the only reason the lady is still around is because somebody was waiting at the boat dock for her – one of her friends.”
Another man testified that he overheard Chandler talking about the Rogers case. Chandler, he said, had been watching a segment of A Current Affair that featured the case and said out loud that if one of the women — he didn’t say which one — had not resisted, he wouldn’t be in jail. A third witness said that during their time together in jail Chandler talked about meeting the Rogers women near Tampa Stadium, giving them directions, then arranging a rendezvous with them later that day at a boat ramp. Once, the witness said, a report on the murders had aired on a TV in their cell pod, and Chandler was watching as the report showed film of the bodies being recovered from the bay.
“Did he make any statement when that picture was shown on TV?” asked Jim Hellickson.
“He said, ‘Well, that is something they can’t get me for.’ He said, ‘Dead people can’t tell on you,’ or ‘can’t talk.’ Something like that.”
The next morning, the prosecution called in Rollins Cooper, a laborer who often did aluminum contracting jobs for Chandler around the time of the murders. This was the man Crow had talked about in his opening statement. On the day the Rogers women disappeared, Cooper was installing an aluminum addition at a house in Tampa. Around midday, Chandler stopped by with a screen that was needed to finish the work.
“Did he give you the screen?” asked Bruce Bartlett.
“Yes,” said Cooper. “He never came in the yard; he handed the screen over the fence.”
“Did he seem in a hurry?”
“Yes. I asked him why he was in such a big hurry, and he told me he had a date with three women.”
The next morning, around 7:30, Cooper met Chandler at the site of another aluminum job.
“Did you notice anything unusual about Mr. Chandler that morning?”
“He was kind of grubby.”
“And did you ask him about that or inquire as to why he looked as he did?”
“Yes, I did. He said he was out on the boat all night.”
During cross-examination, Zinober did his best to undermine Cooper’s testimony. He prompted Cooper to acknowledge that he and Chandler had stopped working together after a disagreement over whether Chandler owed him money. Zinober pointed out that in the years since the murders, investigators had repeatedly questioned Cooper and that he had not mentioned Chandler talking about having a date with three women. He hadn’t brought up this detail until the summer of 1994, five years after the murders and almost two years after Chandler was arrested. Cooper said that was correct. Under prodding from Zinober, Cooper explained that he woke one night in a sweat and clearly remembered Chandler talking about the date with the women.
“Well, you just woke up,” said Zinober. “Were you dreaming it?”
“You had just been asleep, and you wake up in a sweat, and you remembered it. Right?”
“Five years later?”
“Five years later.”
Zinober asked Cooper if he’d had a drinking problem back in 1989. Cooper said no. In fact, he said, he hadn’t been drinking at all during that period of his life.
Standing at the lectern, Zinober flipped through a deposition Cooper had given before the trial. He turned to page 56, reading aloud from a section where Cooper had been asked about his drinking in the summer of 1989 and had acknowledged drinking about two six-packs of beer a week.
“Was that your answer back then?”
Yes, Cooper said, that had been his answer at the deposition. But then he had thought about it some more, checked the dates and realized he was wrong, realized he had not been drinking back then, he said.
“Did you remember that in a sweat?” said Zinober.
Cooper had no chance to answer. Judge Schaeffer was glaring at the defense attorney.
“Mr. Zinober, I will not have that.”
She summoned the lawyers to the bench. There, speaking quietly so the jury could not hear, the judge gave Zinober a tongue-lashing.
“You know better than that… You were trying to get a cheap shot in,” said Schaeffer. “And I’m not going to have it. I wouldn’t put up with it from them,” a nod toward the prosecutors, “and I’m not going to put up with it from you.”
Oba Chandler wore his apathy proudly.
Day after day, he maintained the same bizarrely cheerful detachment, smiling his odd little smile from time to time, as though something one of the witnesses had just said reminded him of a secret to which only he was privy. Sometimes he would jot a note on a pad; occasionally he leaned over to his lawyers and whispered into their ears. Otherwise he showed almost no reaction to the evidence piling up against him.
It was almost impossible for an observer in the courtroom to get a fixed impression of Chandler. At times, he came across as harmless, anonymous, utterly forgettable; your eyes would sweep over him and barely register his presence. A minute later, he would shift in his chair or turn his head a certain way, and all at once he seemed intimidating, even menacing. It was there in his size and obvious physical strength, in the enormous forearms that rested on the table before him, in the way he stepped so jauntily in and out of the courtroom under the bailiffs’ escort. For someone so big, he was surprisingly light on his feet.
Perhaps most unsettling was the way Chandler seemed to be keeping so much of himself back. Watching him, you had the sense of something carefully held in check.
Whatever this quality was, it soon made an impression on the jurors. Seated across the room from him, some of the eight women on the jury could hardly bear to look at him.
They wanted to get away from the man.
The most devastating witness during that first week of testimony was the Canadian tourist.
The state had fought hard for permission to call her. When a defendant is on trial, the jury is rarely allowed to hear testimony regarding any crime other than the one at hand. The principle is simple: If a defendant is to have a fair trial, he should be tried on the evidence in the case in which he is charged, not evidence from some other charge. But in this case, the prosecutors pushed for an exception to that rule. Before the trial, they had argued that details of the rape and of the murders were so similar, they formed a consistent and identifiable pattern that proved the same person had committed both crimes. And to establish that pattern, they said, evidence from the rape should be allowed into the trial. Over the defense’s fervent objections, Judge Schaeffer agreed.
So now the prosecutors brought the Canadian woman into the courtroom.
“State your name, please,” said Doug Crow.
Seated in the witness chair, the woman answered.
“Where do you reside?”
She named a place in Ontario.
“What’s the nature of your current profession or occupation?”
“I’m a social worker.”
“Calling your attention to May of 1989…”
From the moment the woman stepped into the room, the defense was in a great deal of trouble. Even as she answered the preliminary questions, she was already an intensely sympathetic witness. Now 29, she was married, college-educated, graceful and articulate. For her testimony, she wore a conservative skirt and jacket. Her hair was shoulder-length and straight and so light blond that it seemed white. Visibly nervous, she still managed to sit with her chin up and shoulders back.
The most important thing about her, though, was that she was still alive. Jo and Michelle and Christe Rogers could not sit before this jury and describe what had happened to them after meeting Oba Chandler. This woman could.
Speaking in a steady voice, she explained how she and a girlfriend had come to Madeira Beach for a vacation that May and how one night they stopped at a convenience store not far from their condo. As they left the store, a man struck up a conversation with them in the parking lot. He said his name was Dave. He offered them a ride to John’s Pass Village, they accepted, and their conversation continued. They told him they were tourists; he warned them that they were staying in an unsafe area and should be careful.
“It’s a high-crime area,” she remembered his saying. “Lots of things happen.”
“What was his demeanor?”
“Very friendly, very warm. He sort of drew you into him in terms of invoking your trust. He seemed very concerned about us.”
The man offered to take the woman and her friend for a ride the next day in his boat. She thought it sounded like fun and arranged to meet him the next morning at a dock. When her girlfriend decided not to go, the woman went anyway. She didn’t know how to reach Dave and didn’t want to leave him hanging. Besides, she thought he seemed okay.
The man seemed disappointed that her girlfriend didn’t join them, but they made the best of it anyway. As they headed out into the gulf, he talked about his aluminum business and said he lived with his mother.
“Did he make any advances or anything like that during the day at all?”
Late that afternoon, he dropped her off back at the dock. He said he needed to fix something with his boat, and he encouraged her to get some dinner and meet him at the dock later to go back out and watch the sunset. He wanted her to bring a camera, so she could get pictures of the sunset; he also was eager for her to persuade her girlfriend to join them.
When she returned to the dock, he was waiting. She had her camera with her. But her girlfriend, she told him, still did not want to come.
“What was his reaction to that?”
“He seemed ticked off. He was quiet, but as if he was trying to hide that he was perturbed in some way.”
The two of them went out into the gulf. They talked, dodged crab traps, got out the fishing poles, took pictures of the sunset and of each other.
“It was starting to get dark,” she said, “and I expressed concern that I needed to be back, and people were waiting for me back on land.”
That’s when everything spun out of control, she said. He asked her for a hug, and when she said she didn’t want to hug him, he pulled her toward him and began to touch her. They were going to have sex, he said.
“I started to get very panicky and sort of moving away from him around the back of the boat. I believe I said to him, ‘If you lay one hand on me, I’ll charge you with rape.’ He sort of felt that was ridiculous. I was screaming, I believe, at that point, and he made some reference to the fact, ‘You think somebody is going to hear you?’”
“How far out were you offshore at that point? Could you see light still on the shore?”
The man started the boat up again. At first she thought he was taking her back, but instead he went farther away from shore. Again, he told her she was going to have sex with him. He had a roll of duct tape, she said, and if she did not comply with his demands, he threatened to put the tape over her mouth. There was no way around it, he said.
The man pulled down her shorts and bathing suit and raped her. Afterward, he tore the film out of the camera and threw the film overboard, then wiped his prints off the camera. Then, finally, he returned her to shore.
As the woman testified, her eyes filled with tears. Once, she stopped for a moment and bowed her head to collect herself. But then she lifted her head and kept going. She did not break down.
“I want you to look around the courtroom today,” said Crow, “and see if you can identify that person.”
The woman looked and nodded. In the years since the assault, the man had gained weight and lost his tan. Still, she recognized him well enough.
“Would you point him out, please?”
She was pointing at Chandler.
The witness had not permitted herself to sob. But the jurors did.
When the woman left the stand and the judge called a break, several jurors retreated into the jury room and cried. They did not talk about what they had heard – they had been ordered not to discuss the case until all the evidence was heard – but they did not need to. The woman’s pain and the strength she had shown in the face of that pain were more eloquent than anything they could have said.
There was no doubting her testimony. The witness had been completely, inescapably believable. Furthermore, her obvious intelligence led the jurors to ask themselves a crucial question. If this woman had been willing to join Chandler on the water, all by herself, not once but twice, how much easier would it have been for him to persuade a mother and her two daughters to take a sunset cruise?
One morning, Doug Crow stood up at the state’s table and called for Hal Rogers.
The courtroom went silent as Hal walked in. He was wearing cowboy boots, a striped tie and a dark suit that seemed to hang off his thin frame. As usual, his eyes were hidden behind tinted glasses.
“Step over here, sir, please,” said one of the bailiffs, leading him to the witness stand. “Watch your step there.”
Hal settled into the chair and looked out across the courtroom. He hardly glanced at the man accused of taking his family from him. Hal seemed wrapped in stillness.
Slowly, carefully, he answered Crow’s questions, telling the jury about himself and his family, about their farm, about Jo and the girls leaving for their trip to Florida. He described the last time he heard from Jo.
“It was Monday evening, Memorial Day, I believe.”
“Was that a phone call?”
“It was a phone call.”
“Okay. Did she indicate to you what her plans were for the next two to three days?”
“She indicated she was going to the Epcot Center and maybe MGM or Disney World itself. And I says, ‘Don’t bother with Disney World because it’s just rides and stuff.’”
“Did she indicate beyond the Orlando area what her plans were to you at that time?”
“Did you ever hear from them after they arrived in Tampa?”
Hal was trying to remain calm. He did not like the feeling of everyone watching him, so he fixed his eyes on a loose bit of tape wrapped around the microphone before him. He had never seen Oba Chandler in person until this moment. He allowed himself one solid look in the man’s direction, but did not permit himself an emotional reaction. He was determined not to lose his temper or do anything that might help the defense. He told himself that if he lost it here, in this place, the devil would win.
Crow handed him a photo.
“Can you identify that photograph?”
“Yes, that’s my wife, Jo,” he said, still referring to her all this time later in the present tense.
Crow handed him another photo.
“Yes, that’s Michelle in her prom dress.”
“That’s Christe right there.”
At the defense table, Chandler sat quietly, blowing on his hands.
Hal did not stay in Pinellas County for long. He had to get back to the farm. But on the day he testified, while he was sitting in a prosecutor’s office, he looked out to the next room and saw the Canadian woman standing there.
He wanted to talk to her. He wanted to tell her how much it meant to him that she was here, how much he appreciated her courage. But she had already been through so much. So he stayed where he was and gave her some peace and quiet.
Besides, he thought she had some idea of how he felt.
Fred Zinober was giving the case everything he had.
Zinober was an experienced defense lawyer. But when he looked across the courtroom at the lineup of lawyers on the state attorney’s team — lawyers, he knew, whose case was built upon the efforts of dozens of investigators — he could not help feeling overwhelmed.
“I felt,” he would later say, “like I was fighting the Russian army with a peashooter.”
Still, Zinober and his co-counsel, Robert Santa Lucia, fought back as best they could. Eager to point the finger away from their client, they tried to present evidence describing the sexual assaults that Michelle Rogers had allegedly suffered at the hands of her uncle, John Rogers. Specifically, they wanted to show the jury Michelle’s statement to the police, in which she described how her uncle had blindfolded her and tied her hands and how he had threatened to kill her if she told anyone. These allegations, they said, showed that John Rogers could have hired someone to murder Michelle and her sister and mother during their trip to Florida — a theory, the defense argued, that the jury should hear.
But the prosecution disagreed. So did the judge.
“You are not getting into John Rogers. John Rogers is a red herring,” said Judge Schaeffer. “John Rogers was in prison at the time this occurred, and he did not commit this crime, and you have absolutely nothing to suggest or put before this jury that John Rogers hired a hit man to have them killed. So that is a moot issue.”
The defense turned toward other possibilities.
They called a man to the stand, a former busboy at the Gateway Inn, the motel outside Orlando where the Rogers women had stayed before heading to Tampa. He testified that he had seen Jo and the girls in the motel’s restaurant and that the last time he saw any of them, Jo had been sitting alone at a table with a man.
They called two women, both former clerks at Maas Brothers at Tampa’s West Shore Plaza, who said they had seen the Rogers women at the department store with an unidentified man and a young child — a boy, they thought it was — around noon on June 1, the day Jo and the girls disappeared.
They called another woman who insisted that she had glimpsed Christe Rogers later that same afternoon at the boat ramp where their car was found, sitting inside a shiny, black car, laughing and talking with someone the witness did not see.
“And I remember the sunshine dancing up on the car like little diamonds,” said the witness. “Like, on the fender.”
The defense’s point was straightforward enough. Any one of these other people who had allegedly met up with the Roger women — the man in the restaurant, the man at Maas Brothers, whoever may have sat with Christe in the shiny, black car — could have been the real killer.
But there was no evidence to suggest that any of these people had taken Jo and the girls out onto the water. Furthermore, on cross-examination, the prosecutors showed that these sightings may have never occurred at all.
Well-intentioned as these witnesses were, their testimony was vague and inconclusive; in some cases, it was contradicted by other evidence.
Everything the defense attorneys tried — every witness they called, every strategy they attempted — the state was ready to counter.
In the end, there was only person who could possibly salvage their case.
“Call your next witness.”
Zinober turned to the judge.
“Your honor, the defense calls Oba Chandler.”
He walked to the center of the courtroom. He raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth and nothing but. He took his seat in the witness box.
“Good morning, sir,” said Zinober.
“Good morning, sir.”
The courtroom was overflowing with spectators, crammed shoulder to shoulder along the rows of wooden benches. More people stood squeezed in behind the benches at the back of the courtroom. In addition, the courtroom was equipped with two video cameras, and around the criminal courts complex there were closed circuit monitors, wired to show the feed from either camera.
In the state attorney’s office and the public defender’s office and in the anterooms of various judges, people were gathered around the screens, waiting to see a man try to talk his way out of the electric chair.
The man in question did not appear particularly worried. If anything, he seemed pleased to finally have a chance to speak. Wearing khakis, a blue blazer and a tie, he sat forward in his chair, calmly looking out at the courtroom.
Under his attorney’s questions, Chandler began with the basics, telling about himself, his wife and daughter, the aluminum business he owned in 1989.
“Speak up a little bit, sir,” said Zinober.
Chandler pulled the microphone closer. He spoke quickly, in a clipped voice that seemed too small for the rest of him. It was a tinny voice, with a hint of a twang, non-threatening, eager to please. The voice of a salesman, making his pitch.
He confirmed that he had met the Rogers family on the afternoon of June 1. He was returning from giving a job estimate, he said, when he stopped at a gas station off Interstate 4, near the 50th Street exit in east Tampa. He bought some cigarettes inside the station and was coming back out when he saw a young woman — Michelle, it turned out to be — in the parking lot. She wanted to know where the Days Inn was, he said.
For a moment, he said, he thought she meant another Days Inn, not far away on State Road 60. But then another girl – Christe this time – leaned her head out of the family’s car window and yelled, “Rocky Point, Rocky Point.” So he gave them directions, he said, telling them how to get back on I-4 and then to take I-275 south toward the causeway.
“And that was it. I mean, nothing spectacular about it. I mean, total conversation, two minutes.”
“And did you write directions?”
“Yes, I did.”
Zinober looked at him.
“Now, did you see these people again at any time that day?”
“I’ve never seen them again.”
“Never saw them again in your life?”
“Did you kill these people?”
“No, I did not.”
“Did you take them out on your boat?”
“No, they’ve never been on my boat.”
Moving quickly, Zinober took Chandler through the rest of his account. What about Rollins Cooper? Did he tell Cooper that he’d had a date with three women? Of course not, Chandler said. What about the marine phone tolls? Did he recall what he had been doing on the night of June 1? Chandler said he had been out in his Bayliner, fishing near the Gandy Bridge.
“Went out about 9:30, 10, when the tide was running. I like to catch the tide changing. That’s the best time to fish. You don’t want to fish in still water.”
Later that night, when he was done fishing, he said, something had gone wrong with his boat.
He tried to start the engine, but it only sputtered for a second and stopped. He got out a spotlight and tried to see what the problem was. That’s when he smelled gas, he said. He looked closer at his engine and discovered that a fuel hose had burst, pouring the contents of his 40-gallon tank into the space between his deck and the bottom of the boat.
“Did you call home?”
“Yes, I did. … I called home about three times trying to get my dilemma solved.”
He tried to arrange a tow, he said, but had no luck. So he spent the night on the water, waiting for daylight so he could flag someone down. Sometime after dawn, he said, a Coast Guard boat came by, but the crew told him they couldn’t assist him. He eventually managed to put some tape over the leak, but he was still out of fuel and was forced to sit there until finally two men in a boat towed him to a nearby marina. He bought some gas at the marina, he said, and headed home.
“Did you call home again before you left?”
“Yes, I did.”
That was the sum of his story and of the areas where Zinober was willing to tread. The attorney did not ask his client about the Madeira Beach rape, did not ask about the confessions he had allegedly made to his daughter and son-in-law, did not ask about the statements he had allegedly made in front of other inmates during his stay in jail.
“Mr. Chandler, final question. … Did you kill these ladies?”
The witness shook his head.
“I have never killed no one in my whole life,” he said. “It’s ludicrous. It’s ridiculous.”
A few minutes later, Judge Schaeffer called a lunch break. As the courtroom emptied, a man made his way forward, moving through the stream of spectators on their way out.
It was Scott Hopkins, the state’s investigator. He had been watching Chandler’s testimony on one of the monitors in the state attorney’s office and had followed especially closely Chandler’s story about the leak in his boat’s gas tank.
Hopkins owned a boat and knew what it was like to be out on the water, struggling with a fuel leak. More important, he knew the boat in question. Chandler had sold the Bayliner after the murders, but the state had tracked down its new owner and had bought the vessel as evidence for the trial. Hopkins had been to the garage where the boat was stored and had studied it thoroughly, from bow to stern.
Now, listening to Chandler’s account of that night, Hopkins had heard something that didn’t make sense. Something they could use. Something that might finally put a ripple in Chandler’s unshakable calm.
Knowing cross-examination would soon get under way, Hopkins raced up three flights of stairs to the courtroom. He pushed his way to the front, where Doug Crow was pacing, going into a zone of intense concentration as he prepared himself for cross.
Hopkins went up to him and said he had something important. Chandler’s testimony was no good, he said. It was impossible, and they could prove it.
“He’s lying, Doug.”
Crow stopped pacing. He looked at Hopkins, ready to listen.
In the state attorney’s office, Glenn Martin had been watching Chandler as well and noted the same discrepancies in his stories. So Martin got busy, too. Eager to not waste a moment, he picked up the phone and called a boat mechanic he had worked with on an earlier case. Someone good, someone who would know what he was talking about.
Martin told the mechanic they needed an expert to look at the Bayliner itself. It was in a garage at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s office in Tampa, and they wanted him to drive there and examine it closely, paying special attention to the fuel system.
Could he do that for them? Could he drop whatever he was doing and go right now?
Sure, said the mechanic.