Authors: Les Standiford
Laun instructed Scheff to take one of his men up to the Florida State Prison to meet with Schaffer and Toole and try to assess whether there was any validity to the claims. Because Laun was aware of Toole’s history of recanting his confessions, he wanted Scheff to try to extract some detail or form of evidence that would lend credence to Toole’s assertions.
Two days later, on October 19, Scheff and Detective Sergeant Fantigrassi made the five-and-a-half-hour drive north to Florida State Prison, the state’s maximum security facility. “Starke,” as it is sometimes referred to, for its proximity to that aptly named town, houses the inmates considered to be the most dangerous in the system. It is also the location of the death-row cell blocks, and while lethal injection would become the standard method of execution in 2000, at the time of Scheff and Fantigrassi’s visit, it was still “Old Sparky,” the electric chair, that held the preeminent place of prominence at Starke.
Scheff and Fantigrassi first met with Gerald Schaffer, who told the detectives that he had become acquainted with Toole while both were incarcerated there, and that at present he was functioning as Ottis Toole’s legal representative. Furthermore, Schaffer told them, he was interested in claiming the various reward monies still outstanding for the clearing of the Adam Walsh case.
Toole had admitted to abducting and killing Adam Walsh, Schaffer said, and to dismembering the body, partially devouring it, and discarding what was left in a canal. Toole was willing to formally confess to the killing and appear before a grand jury in the matter. Toole also had told Schaffer about numerous other slayings he had committed in Broward County, in the vicinity of U.S. 27 and south of State Road 84, but at present Schaffer was unable to provide specific detail about those cases.
That was all well and good, Scheff told Schaffer, but neither he nor Toole would be taken out of Starke on any pretext until such time as they provided verifiable, independent evidence that could be used to support Toole’s claims. Schaffer seemed to have anticipated this demand. Without hesitation he pointed to a matter that no investigator had seized on in the seven years that had passed since the murder. Toole had told him that he’d used
weapons to cut Adam up, Schaffer said: a machete
In his first confession to Hoffman, Toole had made passing reference to using a bayonet, but Hoffman began referring to the weapon as a “machete,” and Toole apparently began to follow the detective’s lead in subsequent references. In any case, the possibility of Toole’s use of two weapons had never been pursued. Even the claim of erstwhile companion Charles Lee Hardaman that he had given Toole a bayonet prior to the time of Adam’s murder apparently elicited little interest. But Schaffer’s claim would seem to have changed all that. Whatever had led to the confusion, Toole would be able to provide a more detailed description of both items, Schaffer assured the Broward County detectives.
Accordingly, on the following day, October 20, 1988, Detectives Scheff and Fantigrassi met with Schaffer and Ottis Toole. Scheff recited the Miranda warning to Toole, who assured the detectives that he was well aware of his rights and was happy to waive them. Then Toole got quickly to the point, repeating his confession to the killing of Adam Walsh and stating that he was willing to testify to the matter in court. He had used a “straight knife” with a black plastic handle as well as a bayonet to kill and dismember the boy, he said, adding that the knife (presumably the machete) had been in the possession of Jacksonville authorities since shortly after his arrest, when it was taken from his car. The bayonet, Toole said, belonged to his sister Vinetta Syphurs, and was part of a display mounted on the living room wall of her home in Bostwick, Florida, about forty miles southeast of the interview room where they were sitting.
The detectives then pressed Toole to tell them where he had disposed of the body, and Toole told them that he had tossed various parts into the same canal where he had disposed of the head. The canal paralleled the turnpike for a ten-mile stretch or so, Toole said, and every so often he would pull to the side of the road and rid himself of another piece of the corpse. He couldn’t recall anything memorable about any of the places he had stopped, save that little wooden bridge where he had thrown the head into the water.
At times, Toole seemed to need help from Schaffer in formulating certain of his answers, the detectives noted, leaving them uncertain as to whether or not Schaffer had been coaching Toole in this undertaking from the outset. In the end, the only new information that Toole had provided was that pertaining to the bayonet. But on the other hand, all they needed was one piece of physical evidence to tie Toole to the crime, so off the two went to find Vinetta Syphurs.
It took about an hour to drive to Bostwick, a remote, unincorporated community just west of the broad St. John’s River several miles south of Jacksonville. It is the sort of place one works hard to get to, a sparsely populated expanse of piney forest and scrub that has changed little since that part of the continent was formed, perhaps the perfect place to be if you wanted to keep your distance from a relative like Ottis Toole.
When they got to Bostwick, the detectives made their way to the local post office, where a clerk checked the records. Vinetta Syphurs had indeed once resided at 2942 Cedar Creek Road, he told them, but she had moved a while back and had left no forwarding address. Scheff and Fantigrassi drove to the address the clerk had given them and knocked on the door of the modest house they found. A woman named Violet Fleck answered. She had never heard of anyone named Syphurs, she told them.
Scheff and Fantigrassi weren’t particularly daunted by the response. Most cop work consists of exactly what they were doing. You knock on doors, you ask questions. One day someone behind the screen will have the right answer, or so you hope.
Across the street, at 2941 Cedar Creek Road, Charles B. Council answered their knock and told them that there had in fact been a Rodney and Vinetta Syphurs living opposite him, but they’d moved out about a year earlier. He had no idea where they might have gone. Scheff and Fantigrassi thanked Council for his help and moved along.
It wasn’t all that unusual—in the dimension of American life through which they were moving, and often moved as cops—to trail after individuals whose existences seemed as transitory as those of tribal huntsmen or migrating birds. Yes, there was the America where people left forwarding addresses, and kept in touch with old friends and neighbors, and were as easy to find as a schoolhouse or a bank branch. But when you were looking for criminals, or the associates of criminals, or the families from which they’d sprung, you often found yourself traveling through such a netherworld as this in Bostwick, where identity and even existence often seemed as tangible as smoke.
From the Council residence, Scheff and Fantigrassi traveled southward ten miles or so to Palatka, population 10,000 and the seat of Putnam County. At the offices of the tax assessor, they learned that the property at 2942 Cedar Creek Road in Bostwick had been purchased by Violet Fleck, with whom they’d talked earlier in the day. She and her husband David had bought it from a Ralph Nelson Green of Jacksonville.
Armed with this information, the two detectives then visited the Putnam County clerk’s office, where they discovered a record of Green’s eviction of Rodney and Vinetta Syphurs from his property on Cedar Creek Road in 1987. And as it turned out, Mr. Green had employed the services of a Jacksonville attorney in the matter, one Wesley Wallace, Esq.
Detective Scheff got Wallace on the phone and explained who they were looking for. Finally, it appeared, he had knocked on the right door. Wallace happened to know that the Syphurs were now living with Vinetta’s daughter, who was married to a man named Greg Bishop. And if Wallace was not mistaken, the Bishops had a place in Orange Park, in Clay County, just south of sprawling Jacksonville.
Scheff accordingly called the Clay County sheriff, who in turn located Greg Bishop, who dutifully called Detective Scheff as requested. He listened to Scheff and promised to have his mother-in-law call right back. Thus, following such a trail of crumbs, did Scheff and Fentigrassi finally find the woman with whom they wished to speak.
Perhaps it is not the glamorous stuff of series television, but this is the way detectives work, the real ones, the dedicated ones. There are those who weary of such deadening chores, of course. They let things slide. They get tired of traipsing through the rat warrens and the pine barrens after the smoke people. They never find the right door.
At approximately nine on the evening of October 20, Scheff and Fantigrassi, accompanied by Lieutenant Redmond of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, finally sat down with Vinetta and Rodney Syphurs. Mrs. Syphurs told the detectives that she had purchased an antique bayonet in 1979 and had mounted it as a decoration on the wall above her mantel. If her brother Ottis, or anyone else, had removed it for any period of time, she would have certainly noticed its absence. When the detectives asked if they could take a look at the bayonet, Mrs. Syphurs paused.
All this fuss over Ottis had resulted in an unbelievable amount of hounding of her and Rodney by the press, she told the detectives. That is why the two of them had moved in with her daughter, to get away from it all. It had all happened rather suddenly, she explained—omitting any mention of eviction proceedings—and quite a bit of their personal property was still stored in boxes. But she would find the bayonet, Mrs. Syphurs assured them, and as soon as she did, she would bring it to Lieutenant Redmond’s office.
The following day, Scheff and Fantigrassi went to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to check on the machete. There they discovered that Detective Terry had in fact turned over such a weapon to the FDLE for testing, but that the department’s labs had not been able to tie it definitively to Toole or the crime. Also that day, and somewhat to Detective Scheff’s surprise, Vinetta Syphurs actually showed up at the Clay County Sheriff’s Office with the bayonet in hand. Scheff arranged to have it sent to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office crime lab, where it would be tested for blood and the blade compared to markings on the base of Adam Walsh’s severed head.
Though the recovery of the bayonet from Mrs. Syphurs constituted the sum of the efforts of Broward County detectives in their pursuit of physical evidence and their interview with Toole, Sergeant Scheff concluded his report on the matter with the observation, “No review of this matter would be complete without a thorough understanding of the background of Ottis Toole’s original confession in the Adam Walsh case.” Scheff went on to reiterate that many of the confessions to other killings made by Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole had not been substantiated (there was no mention of the eighty-plus murders that
been attributed to the pair).
And while Scheff went on to point out that Toole was presently imprisoned “in reference to a Duval County murder,” he did not mention that Detective Terry had carried out the investigation upon which that conviction was obtained. However, Scheff did take the time to reiterate the details of the complaint that Jack Hoffman had lodged against Terry.
“Apparently believing that he could enrich himself,” said Scheff, “Terry entered into an arrangement with Ottis Toole in regards to book and movie rights to Ottis Toole’s life story. Detective Terry then provided Ottis Toole with confidential information he had obtained from the Hollywood Police Department.”
According to Scheff’s report, Terry then contacted Hollywood PD to let them know that Toole had confessed to the killing of Adam Walsh. “Detectives from the Hollywood Police Department . . . invested one year in the investigation before uncovering Detective Terry’s actions,” Scheff continued, and finished by noting, “Ottis Toole’s statements were dismissed, and Detective Terry was removed from the Homicide Unit.”
It was proof, said Scheff, “of the ease with which Toole, a brain-damaged and troubled man, can be manipulated by others. Ottis Toole now appears to be under the influence of Gerald Schaffer who may be using Toole for his own purposes.” As to the exact nature of the purposes of Schaffer—a convict with an IQ of 130, suspected in the deaths of thirty-four women in three states—Scheff was not clear.
Scheff’s conclusions might carry weight, save for the fact that at the time he compiled his report, only three days had passed since his interview with Toole. The analysis of possible new evidence in the case—i.e., the bayonet he had obtained from Vinetta Syphurs—had not even begun, and the complaint against Detective Terry, the man whose work had put Toole on death row in the first place, remained an unsubstantiated claim made by one of Scheff’s fellow investigators working just down the road from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. There is no evidence that Hoffman himself pressured Scheff to include his uncalled-for coda, but at the very least, its presence in the report carries something of the scent of home cooking.
About a month passed before D. P. Hughes, chief investigator for the Broward County medical examiner’s office, passed along to the Metro Dade crime lab the weapon that Scheff had taken from Vinetta Syphurs. The knife was described as a Japanese army bayonet, with wood grips and a fifteen-and-a-half-inch blade, held in a sheath, and Hughes asked that since the Dade crime lab had already performed a comparative analysis against the machete that Hoffman and Terry had provided, they be the ones to compare the bayonet against the markings made at the base of Adam’s skull.