All this time later, we are still on the water with Jo and Michelle and Christe.
Looking back at the case, we are drawn, again and again, to that night. The boat rocks under our feet. The ropes cut into our hands and tighten about our necks. The bay stretches about us, looking so cold, so deep, so unforgivably black.
Perhaps the most horrific aspect to the crime is the way the killer twisted everything around. He took the love that Jo and the girls felt for one another and used it to hurt them, forcing them to watch one another’s suffering. He used the beauty of the water to get them onto his boat — used the waves and the sun and all the promises of Florida — and turned it into something unspeakably ugly.
They came here to visit the Magic Kingdom, and he exploited the power of that fantasy to usher them inside a realm all his own.
Any attempt to get at the heart of that night is made all the more difficult by the fact that the killer has not publicly admitted his crime. He has left it to us to wonder, to fill in the blanks, to conjure what details we can from the outermost boundaries of our imagination.
Still, we are compelled to try.
Judge Schaeffer talked about this a month after the trial, when Chandler was brought before her for sentencing. She spoke powerfully about the Rogers women and what they must have endured at the hands of Chandler.
“One victim was first; two watched. Imagine the fear,” the judge said. “One victim was second; one watched. Imagine the horror. Finally the last victim, who had seen the other two disappear over the side, was lifted up and thrown overboard. Imagine the terror.”
From the bench, she looked down on Chandler, standing quietly before her in a blue jailhouse uniform, holding his reading glasses.
“Oba Chandler,” Schaeffer said, “you have not only forfeited your right to live among us, but under the laws of the state of Florida, you have forfeited your right to live at all.”
With that, the judge ordered him to die in the electric chair. Following the unanimous recommendation of the jury, she condemned him three times, ordering a separate death sentence for each victim.
“May God have mercy upon your soul.”
In the long years after the murders, more than 200 citizens devoted themselves to seeing that Jo Rogers and her daughters were not forgotten.
To these people — the investigators, the neighbors, the prosecutors, the witnesses and the jurors — justice was not some abstract concept to be discussed in a high school civics class. It was something complicated and confusing and often frightening, something that required their attention and care if it was to prevail.
Once the trial was over, the jurors returned to their homes around Orlando. But the case followed them. Several had nightmares about Chandler; at least three of the women began to keep a gun close at hand in their homes.
Linda Jones, the jury forewoman, was tormented with the notion that evil could be all around her. She would go to the store and find herself studying other customers, wondering if they were capable of murder.
“I’m looking at people’s faces, thinking, ‘You could be one of them,’” she explained. “How could someone tell? How could you tell?”
The woman whose report of the rape in Madeira Beach — and whose willingness to testify in court — proved so crucial to the case still lives in Canada. To spare her the trauma of testifying again, the state attorney’s office dropped the rape charge against Chandler.
Jo Ann Steffey, whose suspicions of Chandler were triggered by the Canadian woman’s description, lives in Tampa. After a dispute over how the $25,000 reward should be split, the money was divided among Steffey and her neighbor Mozelle Smith and two others who aided the police in finding Chandler.
James Hensley, the Florida Marine Patrol mechanic whose testimony was so devastating to Chandler’s alibi, died of cancer several months after the trial at age 43.
Susan Schaeffer, the trial judge, was named last month as one of five finalists to fill a vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court. The lawyer who headed the nominating commission praised Schaeffer for the eloquence of her words at the Chandler sentencing.
The law enforcement officers who worked the Rogers case still think about Jo and her daughters, talk about them, remember them whenever they drive across the blue expanse of Tampa Bay. Though no one knows for sure, detectives believe today that Chandler murdered the Rogers women on his own, without an accomplice. No evidence has been found proving the existence of a second assailant. In addition, the facts of the Madeira Beach rape, where Chandler tried to take both the Canadian woman and her friend on his boat together, suggest that he was both willing and able to approach more than one potential target on his own.
John Halliday, the investigator who ultimately arrested Chandler, still works as an agent for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Jim Ramey, the FBI agent who escorted Chandler on his way to jail, now works in the bureau’s Orlando office.
J.J. Geoghegan, one of the many St. Petersburg police detectives who toiled on the investigation, eventually left the department after a protracted dispute with the city. Jim Kappel, the detective who established the connection between the murders and the Madeira Beach rape, works as a school resource officer at a middle school in St. Petersburg. Larry Heim and Cindy Cummings, who immersed themselves in the case during the two years leading to the arrest, both continue to serve as homicide detectives for the department. For her efforts on the Rogers case, Cummings was chosen for a Ned March award, one of the department’s highest honors.
Sgt. Glen Moore leads homicide investigations at the department. Moore still consults his wife on cases, carries his Bible to work every day, believes that angels and demons are waging battles all around us.
Fred Zinober, Chandler’s defense attorney, maintains that his client is innocent of the Rogers murders. Although he will not discuss the case in detail, Zinober points to the close relationship Chandler had with his young daughter, Whitney. Chandler’s devotion to his daughter, Zinober says, made it impossible for him to accept that his client could have done such terrible things to Jo and her daughters.
“He absolutely adores Whitney,” says Zinober.
Shortly after the trial, Debra Chandler filed for divorce. The marriage was formally dissolved last year, and today Zinober reports that Debra is eager to move on with her life and is trying to shield herself and her daughter from publicity.
Oba Chandler is on death row at Union Correctional Institution. His appeals continue, but just three weeks ago the Florida Supreme Court upheld his three convictions and death sentences.
He is no longer allowed to see Whitney. In accordance with his ex-wife’s wishes, he is not even allowed to see current photos of his daughter.
In Van Wert County, Ohio, another fall harvest is nearly over.
As always, cows graze in the fields; farmers stare at the skies, wondering if it will rain; 4-H kids hang their ribbons from the county fair. Yet something has changed. Eight years have passed since Jo and Michelle and Christe died, but their loss is still vividly etched inside many of the people who live there.
Jeff Feasby, Michelle’s former boyfriend, will not visit the three graves at Zion Lutheran cemetery. He has never been able to bring himself to go near either the cemetery or the church across the street where Michelle and the others were eulogized. Though he has had other girlfriends, Jeff says he has never met anyone like Michelle. He thinks about her all the time.
“I think things would have worked out pretty well between us,” he says.
Ginny Etzler, Jo’s mother, has kept the little blackboard marked with Michelle’s handwriting in her basement. On the wall of her living room, Ginny has hung a family portrait, completed after the murders, which shows Jo and the girls posing with the rest of the family.
The portrait was a long and complicated project. The surviving members of the family posed first, leaving three spaces; old photos of Jo and her daughters were then superimposed into the spaces.
The end result is slightly surreal, but extremely comforting to the family. Ginny often sits in her chair, gazing at the portrait and admiring how nice they all look together.
“The world keeps going,” she says, “so I guess we’re just gonna have to keep trudging along.”
Colleen Etzler, married to Jo’s brother Jim, sips coffee at her kitchen table and talks about how the effects of the murders keep washing through their lives. She knows they will never fully recover from such an immense loss.
“There’s no protocol here,” she says. “There’s no Murder 101 class. No Grief 101 that anybody thinks to give you.”
Like so many others, Colleen has tried to understand why Jo and the girls were taken so cruelly. She knows that a few residents of Van Wert County place some of the blame with Jo and cling to the notion that she and her daughters somehow invited their deaths.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, they just shouldn’t have went without a man.’”
Colleen doesn’t buy it. The three of them died, she says, because they had the bad luck to stumble across something so dark it defies comprehension.
After years of struggling with the murders, Colleen has finally achieved clarity of vision. She looks around her at the lives so many people are leading. She sees them staying on their farms, doing their chores, going to church, doing everything they can to follow the rules and keep the dangers of the outside world at bay. But there is no hiding, she has learned. No matter what you do or where you go, the world always finds you.
And she asks herself:
What then? Once the world has tracked you down and shown you its worst, once three members of your family have been snatched away, what do you do next?
At last, Colleen has her answer.
Jo and the girls will always live on inside her heart, she says. But she plans to keep going, fighting to enjoy every moment of every day, to relish every gift laid at her feet.
“I was not murdered,” Colleen says defiantly. “I’m still alive. And I will not give up until the hearse pulls up.”
Finally, there is Hal Rogers.
Today Hal lives and works on the same dairy farm where he watched his wife and daughters drive away forever. He has hired hands to help him now, but he still gets up before dawn every morning to milk the cows and then milks them again every afternoon.
After all this time, he continues to have trouble sleeping in the bed he shared with Jo. Some nights, he sleeps out in the Calais, listening to the radio; other nights, he prefers his burgundy recliner in the living room. Often he eats his dinner in the chair, and then drifts off in the same spot, in front of the TV.
“I’ve just kind of wandered through life,” he says. “I’ve just done enough to get by.”
While he admits to years of deep depression, Hal has never sought counseling. He once went to a meeting for an organization that caters to parents whose children have been killed or died unexpectedly. But even there, he felt like an outsider. When the other people at the meeting heard his story, they seemed overwhelmed by the size of his loss. Uncomfortable with the attention, Hal left the meeting and never went back.
Instead of therapy, he has relied on his friends. Again and again, he has turned to them when he felt alone.
“Friends,” he says, “were the only thing I had.”
With their help, Hal says he is doing better. But sometimes he can’t believe how far he has yet to go.
“You step back, and you say, Jesus Christ, it’s been eight years. It don’t feel like I’ve done anything or made any progress… I know I have, but it don’t feel like it.”
Now 45, Hal remains estranged from the members of his family who took sides against Michelle when she made her allegations about her uncle John. As angry as Hal is toward Oba Chandler, his real fury is reserved for his brother, who is still serving his sentence in an Ohio prison. If John had not raped Michelle, Hal says, his family would never have thought of going to Florida and would never have run across Chandler. Hal has not spoken to John in nine years.
“I figure he’s the cause of all this,” he says.
Still, Hal has done his best to move forward.
“I’m not gonna go down in a hole,” he says. “I been there enough.”
His days of heavy drinking and self-destructive behavior are behind him now. And he has put aside his earlier, half-hearted attempts at killing himself. Suicide, he says, would be too easy.
“That’s the way the devil wins,” he says. “I made up my mind — I’m gonna spit in his eye all my life.”
Hal’s friends have noticed the progress, especially over the past year or so. At their urging, he agreed to see a doctor about his depression and has begun taking Prozac. The improvement in his spirits has been dramatic. He’s keeping busy, going out, having fun. He throws for a dart ball team in a church league. He plays pool with friends at the Wren Tavern. Not long ago, he listened to an audiotaped version of the book Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars.
He has dated several women over the years, and once went so far as to get engaged. He and his fiancee took out a marriage license, but broke up before they ever got around to using it.
“The way I figure it,” he says, flashing a wry smile, “it’s like a hunting license. Just because you have one don’t mean you have to use it.”
Since earlier this year, Hal has been dating a divorced woman who lives outside Fort Wayne, Ind. Her name is Jolene Keefer, she has four children — three girls and a boy — and they all seem to get along well. Jolene and the kids have been out to the farm, helped Hal in the milking parlor, cooked him some meals.
“It just feels like my life is halfway back to normal,” he says. “I got someone who likes me.”
As happy as his new relationship has made him, Hal has made no attempt to put aside his thoughts of Jo and the girls. He is learning, he says, to make room inside himself for both the past and the future.
He likes to leave the light on in the family room, near the portraits of Jo and the girls that hang on the wall. He still talks about the three of them in the present tense, keeps an old Easter bunny of Michelle’s in his living room, carries photos of Michelle and Christe in his wallet. While he knows they are gone, he sometimes slips into moments of denial. Last November, when Jo’s birthday rolled around, he wondered if he would hear from her.
“I just thought maybe she was still coming back,” he told his sister-in-law, Colleen.
In spite of his reluctance to get rid of anything belonging to Jo and the girls, he did eventually allow Jo’s mother and Colleen to come into the house and clean out most of his family’s clothes and other belongings. While they worked, Hal stayed outside the house, unable to watch. Afterward, he went through the bags and picked out items he could not bear to part with. One of the items he kept was a red dress that Jo used to wear.
“I just liked her in it,” he says.
Hal is convinced that the ghosts of Jo and the girls are with him, there in the house. He is not frightened of the ghosts; he finds them comforting.
“I’ve felt them before,” he says. “I know they watch over my little sorry butt.”
Their spirits, he believes, do not merely inhabit the house. They live inside him. Since the murders, he says, he has taken on some of Jo’s more outgoing traits. As she so often urged him to do, he has learned to meet new people, to try new experiences, to get off the farm and see what awaits him down the road.
Something else in him has been transformed. His eyes, he says, are changing color. Before the murders, they were brown. Now they look more hazel on some days, slowly shifting toward the color of Jo’s eyes.
Hal no longer tries to understand why Jo and the girls were taken from him. He believes there must have been a reason, but accepts that the reason may never be revealed to him.
“We ain’t gonna know,” he says. “There’s some things there’s just no answers to.”
He has finally purchased headstones for the graves. He likes to go the cemetery at night and sit with his family. He talks to them, tells them his problems, whatever is on his mind. He especially likes to visit on summer evenings. He lies on the grass and leans against the dark stones, feeling the warmth of the day and of his memories radiating through him.
It is the closest thing to peace he has been granted.