Monday, March 31, 2008

The Only Woman on Florida's Death Row by Robert A. Waters

This is an unusual case because the murders took place in Georgia but the trials were in Florida courts. The reason given is that Florida tried the cases because the robbery and kidnapping of Carol and Reggie Sumner took place in that state. [Picture of Tiffany Ann Cole giving testimony.]

Women have to work particularly hard to make the cut. No, it’s not sports or the glass ceiling. It’s Florida’s execution chamber. Only two women have been put to death in Florida since 1924. Both, Judy Buenoano and Aileen Wuornos, were despicable serial killers.

Tiffany Ann Cole is the only female who currently has a date with Old Sharpie. Given the vagaries of the death penalty, whether she keeps that date is open to question. But whether she deserves it is not.

In 2005, Carol and James “Reggie” Sumner, both 61, moved from South Carolina to Florida for their health. They’d both worked hard all their lives before retiring. As a young man, James served in the Navy, then took a job with CSX Railroad. “He was just a very gentle, kind, and giving spirit,” said his step-daughter Rhonda Alford.

Carol had been shot by an abusive husband before she married Reggie. Former high school sweethearts, they were very much in love. She was employed for 25 years at The Citadel and Charleston Air Force Base before retiring.

By the time they reached their 60s, Reggie was a brittle diabetic and Carol was battling liver cancer. According to friends and family, she’d lost so much weight she’d become skeletal.

Tiffany Cole’s father was a long-time neighbor and friend of Reggie. Before the Sumners moved to Florida, they sold their Chevrolet Lumina to Tiffany, allowing her to make payments directly to them. She would sometimes drive to Florida to visit the Sumners, bringing along her friends.

Tiffany, 25 at the time of the murders, had a 24-year-old boyfriend named Michael James Jackson. Upon learning that Carol had sold a condominium for $ 90,000, Jackson and Cole began plotting to rob the couple. Drug addicts Bruce Nixon and Alan Lyndell Wade, both 19, were brought into the scheme. They were all losers of the worst kind.

On Independence Day, 2005, the quartet drove to southern Georgia, looking for a burial ground. Finding a remote site, Tiffany held a flashlight while the men dug a six-foot-deep trench.

On the evening of July 8, Nixon and Wade knocked on the door of the couple while Cole and Jackson waited outside in a rented Mazda RX-8. Nixon and Wade told Carol they needed to use her telephone and she invited them in. Immediately, they attacked her. They used a fake gun to subdue Carol and Reggie, then tied the couple with duct tape. After blindfolding them, they forced their terrified victims outside and stuffed them inside the trunk of their own Lincoln Town car.

Jackson and Cole followed the Town Car as they drove north toward the designated grave. Their job was to act as a decoy in case the police got suspicious of Nixon and Wade. (They were to speed away in the sporty Mazda so the police would pursue them.)

After arriving at the grave, Jackson and Wade dragged the Sumners out of the trunk. They walked the disabled couple a hundred feet to the pit and shoved them in. While Carol and Reggie were still alive, Jackson and Wade covered them with dirt. According to the autopsy, they died of “asphyxiation.” Dirt had been sucked into their lungs.

Using credit cards stolen from the couple, Jackson began to withdraw cash from their accounts. Jackson, Cole, and Wade stayed at hotels and partied, while Nixon went on a drug binge with the $ 250 he got for helping with the murders.

After Rhonda Alford contacted Jacksonville police about her missing mother, it didn’t take investigators long to identify the suspects. Thinking they could trick investigators, Cole called detectives and pretended to be Carol Sumner. She stated they were in Delaware. Jackson then called, impersonating Reggie. He attempted to persuade officers that their credit cards weren’t working properly.

At trial, Tiffany Cole’s attorneys alleged that she was under Jackson’s control and therefore was not responsible for the murders. The jury didn’t buy it. They convicted Cole of two counts of first degree murder and kidnapping along with lesser charges. They voted 9-3 to sentence her to death.

In sentencing her, Circuit Judge Michael Weatherby rejected the defense theory. He listed his reasons for believing that Cole was a willing participant: Cole introduced the three to the Sumners; she held a flashlight while the three men dug the grave in advance; she was present when the couple were abducted, bound and gagged, and driven to the pre-dug grave; she rented a car and used it to act as a “decoy” during the drive to Georgia; she bought the duct tape and gloves; and she pawned jewelry stolen from the couple. “She was thoroughly involved,” Weatherby stated.

Tiffany Ann Cole received two death sentences. Michael Jackson also received death sentences, as did Alan Lyndell Wade. Bruce Nixon was given 55 years with the possibility of parole after 25 years because of his cooperation and testimony against the other defendants.

NOTE: Since I first published this story, three more women have been sentenced to death in Florida. Ana Cardona of the infamous Baby Lollipops murder has been re-sentenced to death after having her first conviction overturned. Margaret Allen was convicted of torturing and murdering her housekeeper. And Emilia Carr kidnapped and killed her boyfriend's former wife.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Murder Ballads and Songs About True Crimes by Robert A. Waters

Back in the day, my wife and I used to take my old Gibson acoustic and meet with friends to pick and sing. The songs we played were a mix of old-time country, classic rock, bluegrass, folk songs, and anything else that struck us.

Among the staples of those jam sessions were murder ballads and songs about true crimes. “Tom Dooley” was easy to play, easy to sing, and always popular. Made into a mega-hit by The Kingston Trio, it’s actually an old folk song about a Confederate veteran who got caught in a love triangle and murdered one of his two girlfriends. In the song, as in real-life, he was hanged for his crime. “Knoxville Girl” was another one of our favorites. It derives from an English folk song and is about a suitor who murders his presumably pregnant girlfriend. “Banks of the Ohio” tells the story of a man who asks his lover to marry him—when she refuses, he murders her. Joan Baez did an outstanding version in the 1960s.

The Lloyd Price rendition of “Stagger Lee” was another favorite. It’s still played on classic rock stations. “Stagger Lee went home and got his .44,/said I’m going to that barroom to pay that debt I owe.” Great song! I still love this line: “Stagger Lee shot Billy, he shot that poor boy so bad/that the bullet went through Billy and broke the bar-tender’s glass.”

Hillbilly music in the 1950s and 1960s was gritty and hard and decidedly politically incorrect (unlike today's sanitized pseudo-country crap). Tanya Tucker’s classic, “That Georgia Sun Was Blood Red and Going Down,” describes the thoughts of a small child as she watches her father kill her cheating mother and boyfriend. It could apply to hundreds of cases of murder each year. Bill Anderson's "Miller's Cave" tells the story of a man who murders his cheating wife and boyfriend, then hides their bodies in Miller’s Cave. Porter Wagoner's song, "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," tells still another tale of a cheating wife and boyfriend getting their just rewards. In fact, it’s been called the ultimate cheating song. Here’s the last verse: “Man, you should have seen their frantic faces/She screamed and cried, ‘Please put away that knife.’/I guess I’ll go to hell or rot here in this cell/but who taught who the cold hard facts of life?”

One of my all-time favorite true crime songs is called “White House Blues.” It tells the story of the assassination of President William McKinley in a raucous, irreverent manner. The song was first recorded by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. Like many country artists, Poole lived fast and died young. But he left behind a legacy of old folk songs that are still played.

White House Blues

Say, Mr. McKinley, why didn’t you run?
You saw that man a-coming with an Iver Johnson gun
From Buffalo down to Washington.

Doctor comes a-running, takes off his specs,
Says, “Mr. McKinley, you done cashed in your checks,
You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die.”

McKinley he hollered, McKinley he squalled
The doctor said "McKinley, I can't find that ball,
You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die.”

Roosevelt’s in the White House, he's doin' his best,
McKinley’s in the graveyard, he's takin' his rest,
He's gone a long long time.

Mrs. McKinley's in Brooklyn dressed all in red,
Weeping and a-mourning cause her husband was dead.
He’s gone a long long time.

Hush up little children, now don't you fret,
You'll draw a pension at your papa's death
From Buffalo to Washington.

Jailer said to Czolgosz, “Whatcha doing here?”
“Done took and shot McKinley, gonna take the electric chair.”
From Buffalo to Washington.

Czolgosz told the jailer, “Treat me like a man,
You know that when I die I’m gonna go to Dixieland.”
From Buffalo to Washington.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Life and Death at Mr. Money USA by Robert A. Waters

The U. S. Supreme Court recently heard a case involving the Second Amendment. In a few months, the justices will decide whether the “right to bear arms” is an individual right. The following story illustrates one reason the framers of the Constitution included the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights. [Prison photo of Thomas Porter Wiley.]

On August 10, 2004, at 11:00 a.m., Mr. Money USA in Haines City, Florida was open for business. Judy Foster, co-owner with her husband, stood behind the counter of the check-cashing store. She was alone.

The front door opened and two men rushed in. They wore sweat-pants, hoodies, and had purple latex gloves on their hands. Both men brandished handguns.

“You’re gonna give it up!” Thomas Porter Wiley shouted as he ran toward the counter. A long-time thug, he’d never worked a day in his life--he robbed people for a living. When he ran short of cash and drugs, he sponged off his long-suffering girl-friend. His street name was “Booger-man” and he’d just been released after serving four years in prison.

Taurean Brown was his partner. Another career criminal, the two had stolen a white 1989 Chevrolet Caprice the night before to use as a getaway car. They hired another ex-con, Zachery Bernard Geddis, as their driver.

Judy Foster kept a loaded .38-caliber revolver beneath the counter. As the robbers raced toward her, she reached down and grabbed the gun. She later said, “When I saw the guns drawn and the two men coming at me, I defended my life. When they are rushing at you, I felt I had no other choice. If I [had] made another decision, I might not be here talking about it.”

Foster leveled her gun at the robbers and fired. Caught by surprise, Wiley and Brown stopped dead in their tracks. It looked to Foster like they’d run into an invisible wall. As she continued to fire, Wiley slumped to the floor. Brown turned and sprinted for the door.

Through the smoke, Foster watched Wiley get up and stumble away. She continued to fire, emptying the gun. Wiley made it to the door, and Foster last saw him lumbering toward a waiting car. Then she called 911.

It was over so quickly that the robbers never had a chance to fire a shot.

As Haines City police and Polk County deputies converged on the scene, a call came in to the dispatcher. The getaway car had been located and there was a body inside.

Officers responded to the Redwood Apartments in Lake Alfred. The apartment manager told investigators that two tenants had come to her and reported “a person they thought was dead [was] inside a car” outside. After a quick check of the Caprice, she called police.

Other witnesses at the apartment identified Geddis as the driver of the car. They said he drove up, parked the car, and sprinted away. He was arrested and quickly gave up his cohorts. He stated that Wiley had asked him the night before if he wanted to “make a quick $ 500.” Geddis agreed and the following morning the three drove around Mr. Money USA several times to make sure no police cars were in the area.

According to his statement, Geddis drove into the parking lot and waited while his cohorts ran inside the store. Almost immediately, he heard gunshots and saw Brown run back to the car. Wiley followed shortly, screaming that he’d been shot. He piled into the empty front passenger seat.

Geddis drove to Kentucky Street where Brown ordered him to stop the car. He jumped out and got into a waiting Buick. Geddis then drove to the Redwood Apartments in Lake Alfred, parked the car, and fled.

An autopsy report revealed that Wiley had bullet wounds to “the lower right side of his abdomen” and “two [flesh] wounds on the decedent’s left shoulder.” The wound to the abdomen was fatal--it perforated the liver, the duodenum, the aorta, and the kidney.

Geddis was later tried for second-degree murder (under Florida law, all perpetrators can be held responsible for murder if someone dies during the commission of a crime). He was acquitted of that charge but convicted of attempted robbery. Geddis is currently serving a five-year sentence for the crime.

Taurean Brown eluded officers for several months but was eventually arrested and accepted a plea for attempted robbery. In addition, he was convicted of multiple drug offenses and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

When the men entered the store, Foster later recalled, “All I could see were eyes and guns. I have a gun at knee level [underneath the counter] and I just reached under, brought it out and started shooting.” At first she thought she’d missed, then she saw Wiley go down.

Investigators quickly ruled that the shooting was justified. No charges were filed against Foster.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Getting Away with Murder by Robert A. Waters

I’ve recently described several cold cases, including those of Connie Smith, Jennifer Kesse, Dorothy Ann Distelhurst, and Dorothy Scofield. According to 2006 FBI statistics, there were 17,034 reported murders in America. Only sixty percent were solved. Rolling back through the years and decades of unsolved murders leaves hundreds of thousands of killers walking among us. Here is another unsolved case that cries for justice.

On the afternoon of February 19, 1993, 12-year-old Jennifer Renee Odom stepped off her school bus and headed down the dirt road to her home two hundred yards away. Students on the bus later said they saw an old-style blue pickup truck following her.

Jennifer lived with her parents and younger sister in St. Joseph, a rural orange-growing section of Pasco County, Florida. As she got off the bus that afternoon, she wore white jeans, black boots, and a red sweater. It was cold and she had on an aqua-colored Hooters jacket. She also carried a book bag and a clarinet in a case.

After the bus pulled away, Jennifer disappeared.

More than a week later, her nude body was found in an orange grove in neighboring Hernando County. Unfortunately, heavy rains had washed away any clues that may have existed. Two years later, Jennifer’s book and clarinet case were found, again in a rural area of Hernando County. The items were sent to the FBI lab where several fingerprints were found. All were matched to known persons except one—-is it the print of a killer?

Jennifer was pretty, athletic, and highly intelligent. She planned to become a lawyer. She came from a loving family, a family that still grieves for her.

Fifteen years after her disappearance, the case remains unsolved, but not for a lack of effort on the part of law enforcement. So far, police have checked out more than 3,000 leads. They arranged for both “Unsolved Mysteries” and “America’s Most Wanted” to bring the case to a national audience. Billboards were erected in the area to publicize the case and possibly prick someone’s conscience. At a news conference police even displayed a mannequin wearing clothes similar to what Jennifer wore when she was abducted in the hopes that someone would recognize her clothing. Recently, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement included her case on inmate playing cards. (In the last year, two Florida murders were solved by inmates who saw the photo of a victim on the cards and told cops the name of the killer.)

Four years after Jennifer’s murder, 9-year-old Sharra Ferger was abducted from her home in nearby Blanton. She was found raped and murdered. Police initially thought the case might be related to Jennifer’s kidnapping and murder but they later arrested two men who had nothing to do with Jennifer’s killing.

In 2002, a serial killer was briefly considered a suspect. Richard Evonitz abducted and murdered three teenage girls in Virginia. After a girl he abducted in South Carolina escaped, Evonitz fled to Florida. As cops closed in, the murderer shot and killed himself. Because he had family in Sarasota, Evonitz was investigated for Jennifer’s homicide, but was quickly ruled out.

The abduction of Jennifer is reminiscent of the Ben Ownby case. Both were just a few hundred feet from home after being let off by a school bus. Both were followed by a predator in a truck. And both vanished. The difference is that a sharp-eyed teenager named Mitch Hults was able to identify the type of truck that snatched Ben. Because of this, cops were able to arrest Michael Devlin for both Ben’s abduction and Shawn Hornsby’s kidnapping. While the modus operandi seems similar, it's obvious that Jennifer met with a different killer.

Was the kidnapper of Jennifer Odom a close neighbor? Or was he, like in the Ownby case, a predator trolling the streets looking for a victim? Maybe someday that lone fingerprint will identify him.

Unless he’s in prison or dead, a predator walks among us, like the Biblical wolf in sheep’s clothing.