On the day he was to cross-examine Oba Chandler, Doug Crow was up before dawn, pacing his bedroom floor. His wife woke to find him moving in the darkness, back and forth, back and forth. Barbara Crow was not surprised. She knew he had been waiting for this moment, almost counting the hours until he got to grill Chandler face to face. Doug was always tightly wound when he was deep into a case. But this trial was different. Barbara had seldom seen him so consumed, so driven to not make a mistake, to do everything possible to secure a conviction.
Doug had been at the dock on that Sunday five years ago when the bodies were recovered from the water. He had seen for himself what remained of Jo Rogers and her daughters, had seen the ropes tied around their hands and feet, the concrete blocks hanging from the lines around their necks.
For Doug, as for the others working the case, there was no luxury of distance. This was not some drama on TV. If they failed to put Chandler away, a hole would open inside them and stay there for the rest of their lives.
So on this morning, Doug woke before the sun and walked his bedroom, talking aloud to himself. He had to be ready for Chandler, had to know what to ask and how to ask it, had to make sure there was nothing he had forgotten.
Barbara sat up in bed and watched him. She would have said something to him, would have tried to reassure him. But she knew he couldn’t hear her anymore.
He was already in the courtroom.
The judge nodded toward the prosecution table.
“State may inquire.”
“Thank you,” said Crow, springing from his chair and walking briskly to the lectern.
He did not bother to say hello to the man on the witness stand. Instead, he looked at him with naked contempt and launched his first question.
“How many times have you been convicted of a felony?”
Chandler looked back at him.
“Six times, I believe, sir.”
“You believe six times?”
“I believe so.”
Crow turned to the testimony of Chandler’s daughter, Kristal Mays. Hadn’t she told the jury that she had heard Chandler admitting to murder? And yet, Crow pointed out, Chandler had not said a word about those accusations during direct examination. He hadn’t contradicted his daughter, had he?
“I have not had a chance to, sir.”
“Didn’t you testify on direct?”
Chandler looked confused. “Pardon me?”
“You didn’t have a chance to say that under direct?”
Chandler didn’t know what to say. Already, the composure he had shown during questioning from his own attorney was giving way. He looked toward the judge. He looked toward his attorneys. In his eyes, panic flashed.
Crow turned to the testimony of Kristal’s husband, Rick Mays, who had also described hearing confessions from Chandler. What about those accusations? Had Chandler contradicted them?
What about the Canadian woman? Had he contradicted her testimony as to the rape?
Chandler shook his head.
“Not here to discuss the rape trial,” he said, his face growing red. “Won’t answer questions regarding the rape trial.”
Crow stopped. He asked Chandler if he was invoking the Fifth Amendment.
“Yes, I am.”
“You are afraid your answers may incriminate you? Is that why you refuse to answer?”
“You are not afraid they will incriminate you?”
“Then you can’t take the Fifth Amendment.”
At the defense table, Fred Zinober was standing. His client, he said, did not wish to talk about the rape case.
Judge Susan Schaeffer said that was too bad. Chandler, she said, did not get to control how this cross-examination unfolded. Either he answered the questions, or he invoked the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
“I invoke the Fifth Amendment,” said Chandler.
Crow moved on.
“Let’s talk about June 1, 1989. If I understood your testimony, you met the Rogers women in Tampa, correct?”
“Approximately what time did you meet them?”
Chandler shrugged. “I don’t remember.”
“Give me your best estimate.”
“Was it morning?”
“What were you doing?”
“I don’t remember, Mr. Crow.”
Chandler was staring at the prosecutor now. His face was growing more and more red.
“You met the Rogers women,” Crow was saying. “You wrote directions on a pamphlet, correct?”
“They went on their way?”
“As far as I know, they did.”
“You saw Christe. You saw Michelle. Correct?”
What about their mother? Did he see Jo Rogers? No, Chandler said. He saw only the girls. What about a week or so later, when the bodies were identified and Michelle’s and Christe’s pictures were published in the paper? Did he recognize them as the girls he had met? No, Chandler said. Not at first. Not until that November, when the police made the connection between the murders and the Madeira Beach case and the composite drawing of his face appeared in the paper. It was then, he said, he realized that the two girls he had given directions to had been murdered.
“That’s when for the first time you realized those were the women you gave directions to the Days Inn?”
“Five months after the crime.”
Crow’s questions were elliptical, gliding from one area to the next and then the next and then back to the earlier areas. He was circling, looking for the holes.
He kept in mind his conversation with Scott Hopkins just before cross had begun, when Hopkins — an investigator for the prosecution — had explained the problems in Chandler’s account of his boat and its broken fuel hose. Crow had already factored those contradictions into his questions. At the same time, a boat mechanic had been dispatched to examine the Bayliner at the Tampa office of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
But Crow was not ready to tell any of this to the defense. Eager to keep the witness on edge, Crow did not want to reveal how he and the rest of the prosecution team knew Chandler’s story was impossible, or how they were going to prove it.
But he did need to pin Chandler down. So he pressed for details. About those engine difficulties that night, he said. What had been the problem again? Just as he told his own attorney, Chandler explained that he’d had a fuel leak and had run out of gas. His 40-gallon tank had been full when he left, he said, and all of it had leaked out into the bottom of the boat and into the bay. He tried to find the leak that night, he said, but had no luck.
“You were out in the middle of the bay, leaking, at 1, 2 a.m.,” said Crow. “Did you just sit there for six hours, or did you use your lantern to see where the leak was coming from?”
“I used my lantern to try to find out what my problem was, to start my boat. I couldn’t get it started. I called home.”
“Well, after you called home, there’s another six or seven hours before –”
“Let me finish the question.”
“Did you use the light to try to figure out what was wrong with the engine?”
“Yes, I did.”
“And did it provide sufficient illumination for you to see there was a line busted?”
“Yes, it would have. But I didn’t find it at that time.”
“Did you call a towing service?”
“No, I did not.”
“Did you try to call any of your friends who have boats?”
And once it was daylight, he had discovered the location of the leak in the fuel line? Yes. And he put tape over the leak? Yes. And by that point the gas tank was empty? Yes. And what did he do next? Chandler said he tried to flag down another boat.
That’s when he saw the Coast Guard crew, he said, in one of those inflatable boats. He waved the crew members over with his shirt and asked for a tow, but they couldn’t stop. They told him they were looking for a body on the rocks or something like that, he said.
Ten minutes or so later, he said, two men in a boat stopped and gave him a tow to a marina. Then he went home. Then he went to the house in Tampa where his subcontractor, Rollins Cooper, was doing some aluminum work for him.
Crow zeroed in on the time sequence of these events. Cooper, after all, had testified that he saw Chandler at the job site that morning around 7:30. Ileana Capo, the woman who owned the house where the work was taking place, had testified that she also saw Chandler around the same time.
“Do you recall her testimony?”
What about the marine phone tolls? Didn’t the phone records show that Chandler made two calls that morning from the water, one at 8:11 and another at 9:52? Yes, Chandler said. Well, had Chandler made those calls before or after he got the tow to the marina and went home? Before, Chandler said. He made them while he was still out on the boat.
“If you made those calls before you came back in, Mr. Chandler, how could you have been at Ms. Capo’s residence between 7:15 and 7:30?”
Flustered, Chandler shook his head.
“I was — I didn’t say I was there at 7, 7:15 or 7:30 in the morning… I said I do not remember what time I got there. I don’t know.”
His composure was almost gone. He was sighing and wiping his mouth. He seemed transformed from the congenial salesman who had testified on direct; now he came across as someone combative, controlling, angry. He argued with Crow, glared at him, complained to the judge about him.
Judge Schaeffer told Chandler to calm down.
“You won’t do yourself any favors by trying to spar with this man,” she said, nodding toward Crow. “He’s experienced. Your best bet is to answer his questions… Okay?”
Chandler nodded. “He just gets under my skin, judge.”
That was exactly Crow’s purpose. He wanted to break Chandler down, not just to expose the falsehoods in his testimony, but to expose the lie in the facade of detachment he had affected throughout the trial.
So the prosecutor kept pushing. He returned to Chandler’s visit to Cincinnati in November 1989, after the composite drawing of the Madeira Beach rapist was published. Crow wanted to know why Chandler had made the trip.
“Did you flee the state?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Because you were afraid?”
“Because I was afraid of the Madeira Beach case, yes, I was.”
“The connections to the homicide had nothing to do with it?”
“Didn’t worry me that much.”
“The connection with the Rogers case didn’t concern you?”
Chandler said it had concerned him, but not too much.
“I figured you people would find out who did it.”
Crow paused, staring at the witness.
“Well, perhaps we have, Mr. Chandler.”
The cross-examination was still going when the mechanic called from the FDLE office. He had studied the Bayliner and its engine, and it was just as Scott Hopkins had remembered. In fact, it was all exactly as the prosecutors had hoped.
The fuel line.
Everything they needed.
They got the word to Crow during a break in the testimony. And when cross resumed, Crow ran with it.
“May I approach the witness, your honor?”
“You may,” said Judge Schaeffer.
Crow handed a photo of the Bayliner to Chandler and asked him to show exactly where the broken fuel line had been.
“It’s in the front of the engine, up in the front.”
“Okay, where?” said Crow, looking with him at the photo. “Up in here?”
“Well, no… Your gas line is coming from the gas tank, which is under the floor here.”
“And the gas lines come from the top of the gas tank, don’t they?”
“I don’t know. You can’t see the gas tank.”
Chandler, apparently sensing the trap he had set for himself, was growing more vague with his answers. But Crow had him cornered. Hadn’t Chandler already testified that he did a great deal of work on the boat, replacing all the hoses and other lines in the engine? Wasn’t he familiar with those lines? Most of them, Chandler said. But not necessarily all of them. Well, Crow said, what about the leaking fuel line? Didn’t it feed into the top of the gas tank? Chandler said he wasn’t sure.
“You fixed the line, right?”
“Was it above the gas tank or below?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see the gas tank.”
Chandler was squirming now.
“Have you ever heard of an anti-siphon valve?”
On this point, Crow pressed hard. Chandler was unaware of any such device? Didn’t he know that an anti-siphon valve would close off a leak in a fuel line? Yes, Chandler said. He had heard about a valve like that. But it only worked on another part of the fuel system, near the pump, where the line goes over the tank.
So was Chandler saying he did in fact know where the fuel line entered the gas tank? A few moments before, he had told the jury exactly the opposite.
“I don’t know whether it’s the top or bottom or where it is,” said Chandler, going round and round. “I can’t see the whole gas tank. I…”
In the state attorney’s office, Glen Moore was watching the whole thing on TV.
Moore, the St. Petersburg police sergeant who had led the long investigation into the murders, was impressed with what he saw unfolding before him on the monitor with the live feed from the courtroom. Crow was putting the case away. He was boxing Chandler in, forcing him to produce detail after detail that could be checked, leaving him with less and less room to wriggle away.
The sergeant noticed something else. There were two feeds available on the monitor. One was from the back of the courtroom, showing Chandler straight on; the other was from a camera positioned above and behind the witness. Switching to the second feed, Moore saw a detail that was hidden from the people in the courtroom. In his lap, Chandler was holding a tissue, nervously wiping his hands. As the questioning went on, Chandler kept rubbing the tissue, gradually tearing it into pieces. By the time the cross-examination was over, there was nothing left of the tissue but a few shreds.
As Moore would later put it:
“Doug filleted him.”
The jurors could not stomach Oba Chandler.
Some of them, sick of the smile he had worn through so much of the trial, wanted to slap him. Others were terrified of him.
Especially the women.
Linda Jones, an office administrator seated in the back row of the jury box, could hardly make eye contact with Chandler. If he looked her way, she averted her gaze. Evelyn Calloway, a school bus driver who sat in the front row, next to the witness stand, had looked into Chandler’s eyes as he testified and had seen such coldness in him, she did not think he was human. Calloway began to worry that he might actually lunge for her from the witness box.
Rose Welton, a grandmother at the other end of the front row, was also struck with the chill in Chandler’s stare. When he looked into her eyes, Welton thought she could feel his spirit, crawling inside her body.
A single word went through her, over and over:
Devil, devil, devil.
After the defense had rested its case, the prosecutors went for the knockout punch.
The day after Chandler testified, they called in another jailhouse inmate who had shared a cell with Chandler and had overheard him talking about a note and a car. The witness said he had not heard Chandler say exactly what note or what car he meant, but the meaning was clear enough.
“What statement did you hear the defendant make?” asked Assistant State Attorney Jim Hellickson.
“That his biggest mistake was leaving the note in the car.”
They called Robert Shidner, who had been with the Coast Guard’s Bayboro station back in June 1989. Shidner had kept track of the station’s only inflatable boat. Shidner was asked to think back to Friday, June 2, the day Chandler claimed to have talked to a Coast Guard crew in an inflatable out on Tampa Bay.
“Did you have occasion to be in Tampa Bay, looking for a body on a rock?” asked Bob Lewis, another prosecutor.
“No, sir, we did not.”
“Did your boat go out that day at all?”
“No, sir, we did not.”
Then the state called James Hensley.
Hensley was the mechanic who had looked over the Bayliner the day before. His credentials were outstanding. Employed by the Florida Marine Patrol and in private industry before that, he had worked on boats for two decades and had designed fuel systems for all sorts of vessels, from fishing boats to race boats.
He was perhaps the perfect witness. It helped that he had a straightforward, unpolished, unpretentious manner, with an open face and a calm voice. It also helped that he so obviously knew what he was talking about.
Seated in the same witness chair where Chandler had sat, Hensley obliterated the defendant’s account of how he had spent the night of June 1, 1989, on Tampa Bay, of how he lost all his gasoline, of how he had used tape to repair the leak.
“Have you ever had experience with duct tape around gasoline?” asked Lewis.
“Never had much luck with any kind of tape around gasoline,” Hensley said.
“The fuel itself dissolves the tape.”
Chandler had testified that the burst fuel line spewed close to 40 gallons of gasoline into the bottom of the Bayliner and out into the bay. But Hensley pointed out that the boat’s fuel system was equipped with an anti-siphon valve that would have prevented such a leak. Hensley had tested the valve to make sure it worked.
“How long have anti-siphoning valves been required to be in boats?”
“I believe it was in the early ’70s it was implemented as a safety feature.”
Even without the valve, Hensley said the leak still could not have occurred as Chandler had described. The fuel line was located above the fuel tank, which meant that for the gas to escape, it would have had to travel upward, defying gravity.
On cross-examination, Fred Zinober tried to counter the damage. But every question he asked only seemed to make things worse for his client. What if there was a leak in a different part of the fuel system, he asked? What if the leak was in the part of the fuel line between the pump and the carburetor? Hensley said gasoline would have spilled out onto the engine.
“It would be a fire hazard,” he said.
When it was the state’s turn to ask more questions, Lewis wanted to know more about the nature of this hazard. Hensley explained that the starter on the Bayliner’s engine had a solenoid switch that sparked when the ignition key was turned. Okay, Lewis said. So what would happen if, by some miracle, 40 gallons of gasoline had reversed gravity and got past the anti-siphon valve and sprayed over the engine, as the defense was suggesting. What would happen if you had done as Chandler had testified and cranked the boat at that point, setting off those sparks?
“You would have a serious problem.”
“We might not be here?”
A few minutes later, after the jury had been taken from the courtroom, Zinober complained to the judge that he had been caught off guard by Hensley’s testimony. Schaeffer asked Zinober why he hadn’t been more prepared. Why didn’t his list of possible witnesses include a mechanic of his own to back up Chandler’s story?
“I don’t have an answer for the court,” said Zinober.
Doug Crow stepped forward. The reason Zinober had not listed a mechanic as a witness, Crow suggested, was because he had not wanted to tip off the prosecution that Chandler would be claiming to have spent the night on the water with engine problems.
“Judge, it seems to me that what happened is Mr. Zinober made the mistake of perhaps taking the accuracy of his client’s statements without checking it out. And if there is a trap that he’s caught in, it’s of his client’s own making.”
Across the courtroom, Chandler shifted in his chair. His face was bright red.
Late the next afternoon, after the lawyers delivered their closing arguments and the judge gave instructions on the law, the 12 jurors were sent into the jury room to begin their deliberations. They sat down at the table and picked a forewoman — Linda Jones, the office administrator — and then took a quick vote.
“I think the best way would be to see where we all stand,” Jones said, “and then go from there.”
They each wrote a verdict on a piece of paper. Jones gathered the papers and opened them and read them aloud, one at a time.
“Guilty as charged.”
“Guilty on all three.”
When Jones had finished, her hands were shaking. Each of the 12 had voted the same. It had taken them all of five minutes to reach a verdict.
For a moment, no one said anything. They couldn’t believe they were already done. They had no doubt about their decision, none of the nagging questions that sometimes haunt jurors after a trial. They had liked Zinober well enough, but as far as they were concerned, there had been an abundance of evidence against Chandler. Most damning of all had been his own testimony, which they found completely unbelievable.
Still, as they sat around the table, they weren’t ready yet to summon a bailiff and announce that they had reached a verdict. After almost two weeks of trial, they wanted to take a little while to talk, to look over the evidence, to hold hands and pray. A couple of people wanted to calm their nerves with a cigarette.
Rose Welton, the grandmother, went to the stacks of exhibits and found photos of Jo and Michelle and Christe while they were still alive. She stared into the three faces. They were so beautiful, she thought; they did not deserve what happened to them. Holding the pictures, Welton broke down and cried.
At 6:18 p.m., almost an hour and a half after they had retired, the jurors knocked on the door of the jury room.
When the 12 of them had left the courtroom to begin deliberations, Chandler had watched with a hint of his old smile on his face. Now the smile was gone. As the jurors filed back into the room and took their seats, Chandler studied their faces.
Linda Jones remained standing, the verdict forms in her hand. Judge Schaeffer asked Jones if she had been elected forewoman.
“Yes. That’s correct.”
“Please hand the verdict forms to the bailiff. You may be seated.”
The bailiff took the forms and handed them to the judge, who read them silently and then handed them to the court clerk, who stood up and read the forms out loud for everyone to hear.
“We, the jury, find as follows as to count one of this case: The defendant is guilty of murder in the first-degree, as charged. So say we all.”
The clerk read from three verdict forms, one for Jo, one for Michelle, one for Christe. Each time, the verdict was the same.
There was no shouting, no clapping. Crow and the other prosecutors barely smiled. Zinober looked downcast but not surprised.
Even Chandler showed scarcely a trace of emotion. As he listened to the verdicts, he did not blink, did not frown, allowed only a hint of what appeared to be interest to flicker across his face.
That evening, as people left the courthouse, the horizon over the gulf was ablaze with a riot of red and orange and purple. It was exactly the kind of sky that had brought Jo and the girls to Florida, that had lured them to their deaths, that would haunt those who loved them, that would always burn with the memory of their names.
The kind of sky that Chandler would probably never see again as a free man.
Sunset. Glorious sunset.