Feature Writing

Angels and Demons

Haunted - Chapter 2
By: 
Thomas French

Usually, when someone from Zion Lutheran Church died, the church would call a man who lived nearby and ask him to help with the graves. This man was a member of the congregation; more importantly, he had a backhoe, and opening the graves took him only a few minutes.

But in June of 1989, when they asked him to bring his backhoe for the burial of Jo and Michelle and Christe Rogers, he told them they would have to find someone else this time.

Like so many others in Van Wert County, Ohio, he had known the Rogers family for years. He was one of Hal's best friends -- they had hung out together since elementary school -- and Jo had been like a sister to him. Michelle and Christe had grown up in front of him, playing on his back porch; Christe used to help him load cows.

How could he dig three holes in the ground for them?

"No, I can't," he told the church. "I can't. I can't do that."

NIGHT AND WATER: At the funeral, the minister asked aloud the question on so many people's minds. On that night when Jo and Michelle and Christe were out on Tampa Bay, praying for their lives, where was God?

The size of it, the depth and scale and unthinkable nature of it, was almost impossible to comprehend.

At first, when the bodies were being flown back to Ohio and preparations were being made for the funeral, family members struggled to come to terms with what had happened. They worried about what clothes Jo and the girls should be wearing in their caskets; then they remembered how long the three of them had been in the water and knew the caskets would be closed.

Somewhere in that first numbing week, Colleen Etzler -- married to Jo Rogers' brother, Jim -- was sitting with Bill Etzler, her father-in-law and Jo's father, when Bill got this strange look on his face.

"Do you realize how many pallbearers we need?" he said.

No one was in greater shock than Hal Rogers. Even in those first days, when the news was all over the newspapers and the TV and the entire county was reeling, Hal managed somehow to keep the farm going. He got a couple of hands to help him and continued with the milkings and the feedings and whatever else had to be done. But inside he was lost.

Hal kept waiting for someone to tell him that there had been a mistake, that the bodies sent up from Florida weren't his family after all, but someone else. The phone would ring, and he would pick it up, expecting to hear Jo's voice on the other end of the line, apologizing for making him worry. In the mornings, he would come out of the milking parlor and look toward the house, hoping to see the Calais pulling into the driveway and Jo and the girls piling out, grinning and waving.

But no one called, and every time Hal checked the driveway there was no sign of the Calais, and the hole inside him kept growing.

One day he turned to Colleen Etzler.

"I should have went with them," he said. "This wouldn't have happened."

Colleen looked at Hal, enveloped in a loss that defied the imagination, and tried to think of what to say. What could anyone say? How was this possible? How could Jo and the girls be alive one day and then sealed inside their caskets the next?

No. It made no sense.

"Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference if you had gone," she said.

* * * * *

The pallbearers took up four rows of pews.

SAYING GOODBYE: Liz Brown, a close friend of Christe's, was one of the many who broke down during the funeral. -(photo: Herral Long/ToledoBlade)

Though it was mid-June, the day of the funeral was windy and cool, the sky overcast. Inside Zion Lutheran, an imposing Gothic structure with red-brick walls and green spires that stretched high above the surrounding farmland, the sanctuary was overflowing. So many people came to pay their respects, they were crowded into the church's basement and fellowship hall. Outside, the road was lined with vans and trucks of TV news crews. Not allowed within the church, reporters stood beside the road with their microphones, looking into the cameras. Driving by, Hal Rogers counted 12 news crews.

Hal was wearing his only suit, a gray pin-stripe Jo had given him, and a raspberry-colored shirt that Jo had always liked on him. ("I ain't afraid to wear pink or orange," he says.) When Hal arrived at the church, the caskets were up front, each covered with flowers and adorned with a framed picture. There was Jo in her high school senior photo, looking like she had all the time in the world, and Michelle in her junior class photo, smiling a camera smile and wearing her glasses with the pink frames, and Christe in another school portrait, beaming as her hair defied gravity and achieved its usual mousse-induced liftoff. At Hal's request, a teddy bear had been placed inside each of the girls' caskets.

Before the service began, Hal nearly lost it. They sat him up front, and then they made room beside him for his mother. This was the woman who had chosen to believe that Michelle and Jo had made up the rape charges against her son John, and she and Hal had barely spoken in the year since then. When Hal saw her there in the church, he could barely contain himself.

"I was about ready to cold-cock her," he would remember.

The service got under way. The congregation sang How Great Thou Art, and when it was time for the sermon, the pastor asked aloud the question that was on so many people's minds: How could God have let this happen? That night out on Tampa Bay, when Jo and Michelle and Christe were praying for their lives, where was the God?

"Why? Oh, dear God, why?" said the Rev. Gary Luderman. "Where were you, God, when this was going on? What was God doing when this was going on? What in the world was going through God's mind when He decided to allow this to go on?"

The pastor told the congregation that God in fact had been with them on the water that night, watching over them as they moved not toward death but toward eternal life. If heaven could open up at this moment, he said, the congregation would see Jo and Michelle and Christe, bathed in joy and glory.

"Don't you see?" he said, his voice rising. "Don't you see how Jesus loved Joan and Michelle and Christe? Don't you see how Jesus loves you? How God must feel right now as he looks into our hearts and sees our pain and our sorrow and our grief?"

The church was silent, but from outside came the sound of a sparrow chirping.

Luderman went on. God, he said, had not intended for something so horrible to happen. "He never meant for you to suffer this pain. He never meant them to have this death. He loves us." Here the pastor's voice dropped. "What a terrible thing it must be to be God. How in paradise at this moment He must be weeping with you."

In the pews, the congregation was indeed weeping. It seemed that tears were falling down every face. People were holding those sitting next to them, even if they did not know each other.

The most noticeable exception to these displays of grief came from Hal Rogers. Wearing his tinted glasses as usual, Hal did not show anyone his tears. He sat silently up front, his movements almost robotic, his face a blank and unreadable text.

The pallbearers stood up and carried Jo and Michelle and Christe down the red carpet of the center aisle and out the arched front doors. To the tolling of church bells, three hearses took the caskets to the tiny cemetery across the road where three freshly dug graves were waiting. As the final prayers were spoken and the bodies were ready to be committed to the earth, some of Michelle's and Christe's friends began to sob and cry out.

Hal walked over to the caskets, took some flowers from the arrangements, and handed them, one by one, to his daughters' grieving friends. When the service was over, he went back across the road.

"I just want to be by myself," he said.

He went inside the sanctuary, walked across its old creaking floor to one of the pews and sat alone, leaning over, wrapped inside himself. A neighbor's son stood guard at the front doors to make sure no reporters or photographers disturbed his solitude.

Later that afternoon, Hal returned to the farm. He took off his pin-striped suit, put on his overalls, and went out to the barn to grind some feed for the cows. It was all he could think to do.

LEFT BEHIND: Hal Rogers herds cows to the milking parlor. Says Hal: "I never thought I'd be working alone at 45."

* * * * *

The police investigation was already hurtling in a dozen different directions. And already running into a dozen different complications.

Nothing in the case was to be easy. To begin with, it had not been clear which city's police department should have jurisdiction over the murders. The bodies had been recovered in St. Petersburg waters, but Jo and her daughters had disappeared from a motel room in Tampa. So a special task force was formed, made up of more than two dozen investigators from both cities' departments and from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Marine Patrol.

Of course, since the bodies had been found in the water, the task force was being asked to solve a crime without the wealth of information and evidence that a murder scene typically provides.

"We absolutely have nothing to go on," one Tampa homicide detective told a reporter. "And we're just hoping someone saw something."

No suspicious fingerprints had been identified so far in Room 251 of the Days Inn at Rocky Point. Most of the prints in the room that had been checked belonged to the Rogers women or one of the maids. No unusual prints had yet been identified on the exterior or the interior surfaces of the family's car, either. In fact, the Calais was remarkably clean; the technician who processed the vehicle for prints said the car looked like it had gone through a car wash. There was the Clearwater Beach brochure, however. Found inside the car along with other personal items, the back of the brochure showed a map of Tampa Bay. The map was marked with directions, written in a hand different from Jo Rogers', that described how to get to the Days Inn.

Obviously the Rogers women had met someone on the day they were killed, probably when they first reached Tampa, and this person had helped them find their way to the motel. But who this person was, or how the person met up with them, was unknown.

Even the question of how the three women were killed could not be answered with precision. The autopsies showed that they had died of asphyxiation, but the medical examiner could not determine whether they had drowned or been strangled by the ropes around their necks. Because the bodies had been in the water for several days, it was no longer possible to tell if there had been any sexual assault. Still, the most likely scenario appeared to be that the women had been tied and gagged, raped and then dropped into the water, one by one.

As for how many assailants had been involved, that was anybody's guess. Some theorized that it would have likely taken at least two attackers to subdue three victims. Others pointed out that one person, pointing a gun at a mother and her daughters, would have had no trouble compelling one of the victims to gag and tie up the other two before she was restrained herself. However many assailants there were, the nature and scope of this crime made it seem unlikely that the killer or killers were novices. It also seemed probable that the killer had derived some sadistic pleasure from forcing each of the women to witness what was happening to the others.

Using credit card records and receipts found in the motel room, the investigators reconstructed the itinerary of the Rogers women in Florida. They developed the rolls of film discovered in the motel room and examined the snapshots for clues. The Nikon One-Touch used to shoot the film, however, had not been found in either the motel room or the car. This suggested that the killer may have used the camera to take photos of the attack and then kept the film and the camera as souvenirs of the murders.

Fanning out across Florida and northward into Georgia, investigators compiled lists of all the guests and employees at the motels where Jo, Michelle and Christe had stayed. Then they began the long process of talking to as many of these people as possible.

They interviewed the employee at the Days Inn who had helped Jo Rogers register for the room.

They interviewed the businessman who had seen Jo and the girls at dinner the night they were killed.

They interviewed boaters at the boat ramp where the family car had been found.

They searched construction sites near the boat ramp, looking for concrete blocks that matched those found tied to the bodies.

They consulted with agents at the FBI's behavioral science unit, hoping to develop at least a preliminary profile of the kind of person who could kill three people in this fashion.

They spoke with tidal experts at the University of South Florida, who confirmed that, based on the flow of Tampa Bay waters and the locations where the bodies had been found, it would have been impossible for the bodies to have been dropped from land or from a bridge. In other words, there was growing evidence to support the theory that the three women had been invited to the boat ramp by someone who took them out in a boat and killed them.

This led investigators back to the directions Jo Rogers had scribbled down and left in the car, the ones that suggested she and her daughters had been meeting someone with a blue and white boat. The detectives combed the boat ramp, asking if anyone had seen a blue and white boat on the day the women disappeared. They took the lists of the guests who had stayed at the same motels as the Rogers women, then cross-checked them against the names of more than 700,000 boaters registered in Florida as well as the names of thousands of others from Ohio.

Day after day, they described the boat in news releases and in fliers, appealing to the public for help. They offered a $5,000 reward to anyone providing information leading to an arrest and conviction.

In the following weeks, the task force received more than 800 tips. Keeping track of so much information was a struggle. Unable to follow up on every phone call, the investigators logged the tips and graded them, assessing which ones appeared the most substantive. One by one, these leads were checked out. One by one, they were eliminated.

"We've worked it hard," said Sgt. Bill Sanders, the St. Petersburg officer overseeing the case. "But we just haven't gotten anywhere."

Early on, one promising lead involved a Hillsborough County man who owned a blue and white boat and who had been seen offering a ride on the boat to a couple at the same ramp from where Jo and her daughters had disappeared. The man had given the couple his name and phone number, and the police soon discovered he had been charged in years past with burglary, grand theft and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Detectives went to the man's home. The boat was parked in the driveway. On the ground behind the boat were two concrete blocks, one with a dark stain on top of it; inside the boat was some yellow rope and white rope, similar to what had been used to tie up the Rogers women. When the detectives knocked on the man's door and questioned him and his wife, he told them that on the day of the murders he had been out in his boat with some friends. A few moments later, though, the man pulled one of the detectives aside, out of earshot of his wife.

He hadn't told the investigators the whole story yet, he whispered.

On the night of the murders, the man said, he had been out with a girlfriend. His wife did not know about her, he said.

Inquiries followed. The man's alibi checked out. He agreed to take a polygraph examination and was judged to have had no knowledge of the murders.

Another dead end.

* * * * *

Of all the early leads, none attracted as much attention as the one that led northward along I-75, away from Florida and back into Ohio, straight to the Rogers family farm.

In those first weeks of the investigation, a pair of detectives -- Ralph Pflieger, from the St. Petersburg police, and Henry Duran, from the Tampa police -- traveled to Van Wert County twice. They were there to learn more about Jo and Michelle and Christe and to gather whatever insights they could into the women's personalities, habits, state of mind. The most pressing question before them, however, was whether there was any link between the murders and the sexual assaults that Michelle had allegedly suffered at the hands of her uncle, John Rogers.

Certainly the uncle had no shortage of possible motives to have sought revenge against Michelle and the rest of the family. Did he have the means to carry it out?

"I wouldn't be surprised if John could have something to do with it," Hal Rogers told the detectives. "But to put it bluntly, I think it would be a very remote possibility."

THE BROTHER: John Rogers was sent to prison after pleading no contest to raping a woman who shared his trailer with him.

John Rogers was in prison when the murders occurred. Just before he was sentenced, though, he had visited the Tampa Bay area. His parents sometimes wintered in Manatee County, staying at a trailer park in Ellenton, just a few miles south of the Sunshine Skyway. Over the years, John had often joined them there. His last visit had been in early 1989, a few months before the murders, and he had stayed for several weeks.

Obviously, Pflieger and Duran needed to consider the possibility that John had somehow arranged the deaths of Jo and the girls during that visit. But after interviewing John at the Ohio prison where he was serving his sentence, the detectives agreed with Hal's assessment and decided that it would have been extremely difficult for John to have had anything to do with the Rogers murders.

To begin with, there was no evidence that he was even aware of the three women's vacation plans, making it unlikely that he could have hired someone else to carry out the attack.

The only visitor he had received in recent months had been his mother, who had come to see him in April, long before Jo and the girls had made all their preparations for the trip. He had received no packages at the prison in recent weeks, and phone records showed that the only long-distance call he had made had been after the murders, when he called his parents' home on Father's Day.

Inmates housed with Rogers confirmed that John was a loner with few friends inside the prison and that he did not have the connections to arrange a triple homicide. After meeting with John themselves, Pflieger and Duran agreed that he seemed too isolated to have put together such a conspiracy.

As they conducted their investigation, however, the detectives discovered that John Rogers was not the only member of the family whose behavior had raised questions. They learned something strange about Hal Rogers, something that had long troubled many people in Van Wert County.

In the spring of the previous year, after John Rogers was arrested, Hal had arranged for his brother's bail. Hal knew that John was accused of raping Michelle, and yet he had personally posted the $10,000 surety bond.

There was something else unusual. In early June, after Jo and the girls were killed but before their bodies had been identified, Hal had withdrawn $7,000 in cash from an account at Van Wert National Bank. Where had that money gone?

Pflieger and Duran easily established Hal's whereabouts on the day and night of the murders. As always, he had been on the farm, milking the cows until late that afternoon, and had been back at it before dawn the next morning. This was on a farm about an hour away from the nearest airport of any size, which was across the Indiana border in Fort Wayne. There had been no time for him to get down to Florida and commit the murders. And there was nothing to suggest a motive for an act as heinous as killing his entire family.

Still, the cash withdrawal begged the question. Was it possible that, for reasons unknown, Hal had hired someone to commit the murders?

The detectives spent much of their time in Ohio on the farm, interviewing Hal at length. He was clearly numb with grief and appeared to be moving through the days on automatic pilot. His eyes, as Pflieger would later describe it, had a "blank, hundred-mile stare."

Even so, Pflieger and Duran needed some answers. One of the first things they asked was why he had posted his brother's bond.

Others had asked the same question, and the reply that Hal repeatedly had given was odd and unsettling and completely consistent with his proud and stubborn personality. He had agreed to post the bail, he said, after John was accused of raping the woman who had shared his trailer. By the time Hal learned about the allegations involving Michelle, he said, he had already given his word. And once he gave his word, he was required to keep it, no matter how hard it was or how unusual it appeared to others.

Speaking privately to Pflieger and Duran, Hal said more. He said he had wanted to be supportive of Michelle but had also wanted to keep the peace with his brother and his parents. He said that he believed Michelle but was aware that someone was lying -- either his brother or his daughter -- and that he wanted to wait to see if the truth became any clearer. Furthermore, he said he had agreed to fulfill his pledge to his brother and post the bond only after John agreed in return to sell his half of the farm and never come near the property or Michelle again.

As for the $7,000 he had taken out of the bank, Hal explained that he had withdrawn it during the agonizing days when Jo and the girls were missing. He had needed the money, he said, to travel between Ohio and Florida, searching for his family. He had to withdraw it in cash because he had no credit cards; didn't believe in credit cards, he said. Before he got the chance to carry out his plan, he had learned his family was dead.

Hal did his best to answer the detectives' questions. He understood why they had to ask these things and wanted to resolve any suspicions about him so they could move on and pursue other leads.

At the end of one interview, as the two investigators were preparing to back out of the driveway, Duran turned to Hal and asked, almost off-hand, one last question.

"I got one more thing to ask you. I almost forgot," Duran said, looking up at Hal through the car window. "About that money you withdrew from the bank? That $7,000? What happened to it?"

Motioning to the detectives to follow him, Hal walked over to his pickup truck, parked a few feet away. He opened the truck's unlocked door, opened the glove compartment and showed them a bank bag. Inside the bag was $6,000 in cash.

The other $1,000 was in Hal's pocket.

* * * * *

So much for the road to Ohio.

When the detectives returned from their rounds of interviews up north, neither Hal nor John Rogers was considered a viable suspect. In fact, the investigators had found nothing to suggest that the crime had any connection to Ohio whatsoever.

"We got nothing there," Sgt. Sanders said. "We're coming back with zilch from Ohio.... It's something that happened here."

If the murders were something that had begun and ended in Florida, that suggested a random meeting between the women and their killer. Apparently they had stopped at some point, run into someone, struck up a conversation and then felt safe enough with this person to accompany him -- given the probable sexual nature of the attack, it was almost certainly a man -- on a boat ride on Tampa Bay.

Such randomness made the task of solving the case that much more difficult. As the weeks went by, the chances of finding the killer began to seem increasingly remote. The early flood of tips dwindled to a trickle; the most encouraging leads were all proving to be nothing. The multiagency task force was disbanded and the case was left in the hands of the St. Petersburg police.

In the beginning, there had been more than 20 investigators working on the case. Soon that number was cut to four.

Then two.

Even the commanding officers in charge of the investigation admitted they were stymied and simply hoping that someone would step forward with new information.

"That's what we're down to now," said Maj. Cliff Fouts, the officer who headed the department's criminal investigation section. "We really have no place to go."

* * * * *

The lack of progress in Florida only added to the sense of hopelessness felt by those who cared about Jo and Michelle and Christe.

Jeff Feasby, Michelle's boyfriend, was gripped with a searing, unshakable rage. Jeff had not attended the funeral -- he
couldn't bear it, he said -- and since then had refused to go anywhere near Zion Lutheran Church or the little cemetery across the road. He did not like to let his friends out of his sight and would get upset if he saw one of them talking to a stranger.

Jim Etzler, Jo's brother, would wake up at night from horrible dreams, flailing his arms. His wife, Colleen, found him out in the barn one evening, hurling a soda can at the wall over and over. Colleen would go to Van Wert, shop for groceries, come home and realize she had been in a trance throughout the errand and could not remember a single detail of what had just transpired.

THE AFTERMATH: Colleen Etzler, married to Jo's brother, could not stand to be alone at night after the murders.

Colleen felt a terrible connection with the murders. Not long before Jo and the girls were killed, during a vacation in South Carolina, Colleen had been raped while taking a morning walk along the beach. She had screamed for help, but the waves of the ocean had drowned out her cries. Now her memories of that day combined with her grief and terror from the murders. Knowing that Jo and the girls had died at night, Colleen could not stand to be alone after dark. She hated to drive anywhere at night, even short distances. She began to view the world as a randomly cruel and unpredictable place, a place steeped in blood and violence.

One night Colleen had a dream and found herself standing at the edge of a body of water -- a lake, a river, it wasn't clear -- and on the other side was Jo.

"I haven't seen you for a long, long time," Jo said.

They were all haunted. Colleen's 12-year-old daughter, Mandi, stayed upstairs in her bedroom for hours with the door locked, because it was the only place she felt safe. A counselor, trying to help, asked Mandi what would happen if an attacker came into the house while she was in the bedroom. What if this attacker were downstairs, doing something to another member of the family?

Mandi shook her head. "I just don't want to know," she said.

Ginny Etzler, Mandi's grandmother and Jo's mother, went into her basement one day, where Michelle and Christe used to play, and found a little blackboard, still marked with their scribblings from years ago. A heart had been drawn on the blackboard, and beneath the heart were the words -- written in Michelle's cursive -- "I love..."

Hal Rogers was disappearing further inside himself. He didn't want to talk, didn't know how to explain what he was feeling, had no interest in the reporters and camera crews who kept showing up at the farm.

No matter what the detectives had concluded, many people in Van Wert County were wondering if Hal and his brother John were involved in the murders. People said the Rogers family was strange. They talked especially about Hal, how quiet he was, how he never broke down after the murders, how he always wore the tinted glasses, even at the funeral. He was hiding something, they said. Why hadn't anyone seen him cry?

No one accused Hal of anything to his face, but his friends heard the talk and did their best to stop it.

"Goddamn it, that ain't nothin' but rumors," said Darrell Dietrich, one of Hal's neighbors and closest friends. "Hal didn't do nothin'. You just don't know Hal."

Darrell and others pointed out that there was no way for Hal to have committed the murders, that he had been seen on the farm in the hours shortly before and after Jo and the girls were killed. They talked about how much he had relied on Jo and how he had doted on Michelle and Christe.

"Those girls were his life," Rosemary Krick told one accuser. "He worshiped the ground they walked on."

But the rumors didn't stop. Sometimes when Hal walked into a restaurant or a bar, he could feel people staring at him, wondering if he had arranged for the slaughter of his family.

"People just couldn't believe that they were picked out at random," says Colleen Etzler.

Hal did not want to show his grief to the reporters or the cameras or the rest of the world, but the grief was there. He didn't like to go inside the girls' rooms and see all their clothes and books and knickknacks. He could not bear to sleep inside the house, in the bed he had shared with Jo, so for months he spent his nights on the couches of friends. Often, he showed up at Vance and Rosemary Krick's house. He would stretch out on one of their recliners, watch TV with them for awhile, then close his eyes and fall asleep, never having said a word to them all evening, just appreciating the fact that he could find quiet refuge in their home. Vance and Rosemary would put a blanket on him before going to bed; in the morning, when they woke, Hal would already be gone, off for the first milking of the day.

Like others, the Kricks pushed Hal to seek counseling.

"You've got to get help," Rosemary told him. "You have got to talk to somebody."

"No," he would say. "I have to do it myself."

A month or so after the murders, Hal went out to the mailbox and found Jo's credit card bill listing a charge from the Days Inn at Rocky Point for his family's stay in Room 251. Jo and the girls had spent all of a few hours in the room before they disappeared, but a week had gone by before they were identified, and for days the room had technically still been theirs. Now the charge for the room -- to be exact, $321.46 -- was included in the credit card bill.

Hal wrote the check, sealed the envelope, sent it off.

* * * * *

The first break came that October.

Jim Kappel, the lead detective on the case since the day the bodies were pulled from the water, was looking at a bulletin issued every month by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Someone else had seen the bulletin and passed it on to Kappel, pointing to an item about a rape in the waters off Madeira Beach. The victim was a 24-year-old Canadian woman. She had been vacationing in Pinellas County and had met a man who took her out on his boat in the gulf off John's Pass and assaulted her.

Kappel checked the date of the rape:

May 15. Two weeks before the Rogers women were killed.

He checked the description of the boat:

light blue and white interior.

* * * * *

A flurry of things happened very quickly.

DETECTIVE WORK: In the fall of 1989, St. Petersburg police detective Jim Kappel established a possible link between the Rogers murders and the rape of a Canadian tourist, two weeks before, on a boat off Madeira Beach. Now a school resource officer, Kappel is shown here at the dock where the Canadian woman left for the boat ride with her attacker.

Kappel spoke to the Madeira Beach police investigator who had handled the rape back in May and learned the details of the assault. Then Kappel and another detective flew to Canada to interview the victim. They returned convinced that the man who had committed the rape probably was involved in the Rogers murders.

The woman had been on vacation in Madeira Beach with a girlfriend, also from Canada. The two of them had stopped one night at a 7-Eleven, when a man in the parking lot struck up a conversation with them. He was in a dark-colored four-wheel-drive vehicle with tinted windows and a Florida license plate; later the women would describe it as similar to a Ford Bronco or a Jeep Cherokee. He was older than the two of them, perhaps in his mid-30s. He was white, about 5 foot 10 and 180 pounds, with blond, slightly reddish hair and a ruddy complexion. He said his name was Dave Posner -- or Dave Posno, the woman wasn't sure -- and that he owned an aluminum company and lived in Bradenton.

He seemed nice enough, polite and easy to talk to, and he offered to take the two women out on his boat the next afternoon. The 24-year-old woman had wanted to go, but her girlfriend had not, and so she went alone. That afternoon, they went out into the gulf briefly and then cruised the Intracoastal Waterway. The man was friendly, talkative, appropriate with his words and actions. When he returned the woman to shore, he offered to take her and her friend out that evening for a sunset cruise. It would be pretty on the water, he said, and they should bring a camera.

Again, the 24-year-old woman wanted to go, but her friend did not. And when she showed up at the dock that evening, the man seemed happy to see her but irritated that her friend had not come along. He took the woman out onto the water anyway. She had brought her camera, and as they rode across the water, talking, she took the man's photo. By now it was getting dark, and they were a ways off shore. Suddenly the man's demeanor changed. Now he was touching and hugging her, talking about how pretty she was, saying he wanted to have sex with her. When she refused, he insisted.

The woman screamed. The man told her she was wasting her time.

"What are you doing? Nobody's going to hear you," he said. "What are you going to do? Jump out of the boat?"

He told her to be quiet. If she didn't stop screaming, he said, he would cover her mouth with duct tape.

"Is sex something worth losing your life over?" he said.

He ripped off her top, pulled down her shorts and the bottom of her bathing suit, and raped her. When it was over, he told her to get dressed. He gave her a thermos of water and told her to rinse herself, ripped the film from her camera and threw the film overboard.

As the woman huddled in the boat, shocked and terrified, the man apologized for what he had done.

"I've taken something from you that you can never get back," he said.

When they headed back to shore, he seemed to want to talk. He said he knew she would report what had happened, but he would appreciate it if she waited a little because his mother was old and he wanted the chance to tell her first, so she would not have a heart attack when the police showed up at the door.

Several times, he threw up over the side of the boat. At first she had thought he was vomiting out of remorse. Later, though, she and others would wonder if it was because he remembered the friend on shore and knew that someone else could identify him if he killed her there on the gulf.

The man pulled the boat into the shallow water off John's Pass and stopped, letting her get out and walk back to shore.

"Watch your step," he said.

* * * * *

The detectives listened to the woman's account and made a mental list of all the details that were similar to the Rogers case. The attacker had made his approach in a public place on two tourists, offering them a scenic ride in his boat. He had not been deterred by the thought of having two women on board; in fact, he had clearly preferred for both of them to be on the boat. On top of that, he had threatened to use duct tape, he had removed the clothing from the lower half of the victim's body, and he had taken advantage of the victim's unfamiliarity with her surroundings, both on land and on water.

They asked the Canadian woman to help them put together a composite drawing of her attacker. She had helped with a composite for the Madeira Beach police, but in that drawing he had been wearing a hat and they wanted one that showed his whole face.

The detectives flew back to Florida. They already knew there was no Dave Posner or Dave Posno who owned an aluminum company or lived in Bradenton or anywhere else around Tampa Bay. They decided to make public the composite drawing, along with a description of the man and his boat and his four-wheel-drive vehicle. For days, the composite was everywhere. It was printed on fliers and copied to other law enforcement agencies and shown on the TV news and printed in the newspapers.

The floodgates opened once more. The investigators received more than 400 tips. Once again, extra detectives were assigned to the case. Once again, they scrambled to investigate as many of the tips as possible.

And once again, the tips they checked out all proved worthless.

It was maddening. Kappel and the other investigators were confident that they had the right suspect and that they had a good description of him. But they still had no idea who he was. As the weeks passed, the number of detectives was cut again.

* * * * *

By now it was December of 1989. Jo and Michelle and Christe had been dead for six months.

Hal Rogers decided to head to Florida himself. He drove down a few days before Christmas. He was in the Calais, the same car Jo and the girls had been driving when they disappeared. The police had returned the car to him months before.

For a long time Hal had not been able to even look at the Calais; anxious to keep it out of sight, he'd left it at a friend's house. But eventually he got over that and returned the car to his own driveway. Some nights, when he couldn't bear to sleep inside his house, he slept out in the car, the key in the ignition, drifting off to a country station on the radio.

Now here he was, making his own pilgrimage to Florida, sitting behind the same steering wheel as Jo, heading down the same stretch of highway that she and the girls had taken.

He arrived in Tampa on Dec. 23. It was cold and raining. He didn't have the heart to visit the Days Inn, but he did drive over to the boat ramp on the Courtney Campbell Parkway. He walked to the edge of the bay and stared out over the water. He wanted to see what his wife and daughters had seen, to feel what they had felt. Maybe then everything would make more sense.

But it didn't help. How could it?

Hal got back in the Calais and drove away.

* * * * *

The one-year anniversary of the murders was approaching, and the case was literally stuck on the shelf, summed up inside a few black notebooks filled with reports that almost no one had time to read anymore.

There was a new sergeant overseeing the investigation. He was a novice to homicide, had almost no experience with solving murders, but he did not think that mattered. In fact, he thought it might help.

His name was Glen Moore. He had some ideas on how to tackle the investigation from a fresh angle, and some notions on how to get those ideas translated into reality.

Sgt. Moore had never met Jo or Michelle or Christe. Still, he hated to think of them dying alone on the bottom of Tampa Bay and then being abandoned to die again inside a handful of notebooks on a shelf. He did not intend to leave them there.

* * * * *

Across the bay, a woman stood inside the kitchen of her Tampa home, looking at the newspaper clipping hanging on her white Kenmore refrigerator.

The clipping showed the composite drawing of the man from the Madeira Beach rape case. To Jo Ann Steffey, the drawing resembled one of her neighbors.

Steffey thought the man was maybe 40 or even older, about 5-10, with reddish- blond hair and a ruddy face. He was an aluminum contractor, married, with a little girl. He drove a dark blue Jeep Cherokee and lived two lots down the street from Steffey, in a house on Dalton Avenue, on the far west side of Tampa, only a few miles from the boat ramp where the three Rogers women had disappeared. His house was on a canal that led straight to the bay, and until a few months ago, he'd owned a blue and white Bayliner that he liked to take out at night.

For some time, even before she read the story in the newspaper about the Madeira Beach rape, Steffey had felt that there was something off about this neighbor. He was so talkative, he tried so hard to seem friendly and helpful. When he looked at her, she got an uneasy feeling.

Then the composite came out in the paper. That morning, after Steffey read the story, she was driving down her street past the neighbor's house when suddenly it hit her.

"Damn," she said to herself. "It's him."

Now she stared at the clipping on the refrigerator. She gazed at the face in the drawing. It was him, she told herself.

Definitely.

* * * * *

A profile of the killer emerges -- he could be the man next door.

Chapter 3 >>

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