The writing of a book devoted to a specific true crime requires authenticity and accuracy in the reportage of the occurrence. Only then is the re-creation a valid presentation.
This work has been so guided. Acknowledgments are recorded here of persons who gave me their cooperation and firsthand knowledge of what transpired with their experience in this case, without which this work could not have been effectively completed.
Jim Larson, husband of victim Carla Ann Larson, and his mother, Ada, graciously provided detailed accounts of the ordeal of horror that they lived. I am also grateful to Ada Larson for her permission to reprint her column printed in the
on Thanksgiving Day, 1997.
Detectives Cameron Weir and John Linnert of the Orange County Sheriff ’s Department contributed their time, recollections and behind-the-scenes knowledge, John’s coming via e-mail from Boston, where he now resides.
Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton served brilliantly in this double-featured courtroom battle. Jeff took time for many interviews and telephone calls to give me the aspects of the state’s case. He was especially helpful and considerate.
Public defender Bob Wesley cooperated with an interview on the defense of the accused.
Former prosecutor Ted Culhan accounted some of the background preparation of the case against the accused.
Seminole County Sheriff Donald F. Eslinger cooperated importantly, providing official accounts of Huggins’s criminal record and relative information to crimes he had committed.
Seminole County Sheriff ’s Department Lieutenant John Thorpe and Public Information Officer Steve Olson, complementing Sheriff Eslinger’s cooperation, provided critical matter relative to the subject.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Officers Tom Woodard and Tom McCann and Public Service Officer Jim Solomons contributed substantially with information.
Gainesville, Florida, former Chief of Police Wayland Clifton Jr. arranged for information about the University of Florida campus crimes related to the Orlando story.
Several others considerately helped in various capacities that assisted in the preparation of the book.
I am entirely appreciative of the efforts of editor-in-chief Michaela Hamilton for her priceless contribution and improvements to this book.
Kathleen Waltz, publisher of the
cordially authorized information, photography and great cooperation of the paper’s reportage and personnel.
Jim Leusner, longtime reporter with the
provided detailed information regarding the Huggins case and the Gainesville killings.
Tom Burton of the
furnished special photos contiguous to the story.
Attorney Hal Roen reviewed the story approach with a legal, editorial eye.
Sara Roen Brady opened doors in Seminole County to interviews with officials relative to the procedures used in this book.
Attorney Leah Roen Wiederspahn supplied significant computer research on Huggins’s Web site.
Mike Moore, computer specialist, kindly provided important technical help and information.
Philip Russell and Angie Folks of Office Depot were helpful in making photo reproductions and copies for the book.
A special acknowledgment of Gary S. Roen, who served his father as literary agent, critic and reader throughout this project.
A very special acknowledgment of Marcia Roen, my wife, who worked as editor, collaborator and prime consultant.
James Larson sat at his desk at home and stared at the phone. For the past several hours, he had steadily grown more concerned.
He scanned the charming, comfortable room that he and his wife, Carla, had so lovingly furnished and decorated, noting all the little touches, yet not really seeing anything. His mind jumped from one memory to another.
He thought back to breakfast, remembering how Carla had smiled as she offered, “More coffee, honey?” How she kissed him and waved happily as they both left for work in their separate cars.
Dear God, was that only this morning?
Jim rolled a pencil between his thumb and forefinger and remembered back to the time when he met the beautiful girl with whom he fell in love. He drew circles on a scratch pad as he reflected on how pretty and vivacious she was, with such an engaging smile—that smile could always light up his heart.
He remembered how he and his coworker Dan Thomas had traveled all over the eastern United States with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company ground crew, offering rides to the general public on the Goodyear blimp. They became close, enduring friends.
One day Dan looked at him and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking.”
“What have you been thinking—or maybe I shouldn’t ask,” Jim replied with a smile.
“I’ve been thinking that you should meet Carla.”
“You mean your sister?”
“Uh-huh. I think you would be good together. Perfect for each other,” he declared.
When Jim met Carla Ann Thomas, he immediately knew she was the girl who would change everything about his life.
He reminisced how they began going together, and it was quite a while before he discovered that Carla was only sixteen years old.
He smiled at the memory of that and his subsequent conversation with Dan.
“Hey, Dan, what is this? You told me your sister was eighteen and she admitted to me that she’s only sixteen.”
And how Dan had burst into a howling laugh and declared, “What does a number mean? She’s a super girl and I was sure you would like her. And she’ll be eighteen in two years—just think of that.”
By this time the die was cast, and he was in love with Carla Ann Thomas. Nothing would change that, and he would not give her up just because she was sixteen.
Jim recalled with warm pleasure that after Carla graduated from high school in Pompano Beach, Florida, she enrolled in the University of Florida to earn her degree in architecture as well as a master’s degree in building construction. How proud he was of her achievements.
Jim stared at his desk, remembering when he and Carla were married on December 1, 1990. After Carla graduated, she was hired by the Centex Rooney Construction Company in Atlanta, Georgia, the same corporation where Carla’s father, also an engineer, worked for many years until his retirement.
Jim was still with Goodyear, but he came to the conclusion that the traveling was great for a single guy but it sure didn’t fit with married life. After fourteen years with the company, he resigned his position and moved to Atlanta with Carla. He enrolled in the Port Folio Center College to study graphic design, illustration and art direction. He also took a part-time job.
He smiled, recalling how happy they were there. It was a magical time. They were young and in love and living in a big city. They had fun exploring and enjoying all the excitement of a major metropolis. It was like a perpetual honeymoon.
Then came the opportunity for Carla to transfer to the construction project at Disney World in Orlando, to work on building the new, posh Coronado Springs Resort hotel. They were both ecstatic with that chance and happy to be moving back to Florida, where they could be closer to their families.
Then to make their lives complete, Carla became pregnant and they had Jessica, the light of their lives.
Mostly he remembered the laughter, Carla’s bubbly sense of humor and their silly private jokes.
He thought forlornly,
Where are you, Carla?
There’s no choice.
He sighed finally and dialed the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD).
In a strained voice Larson hesitantly told the answering officer, “I . . . I need to report my wife missing.”
The officer asked Larson to stay on the line while a transfer could be made.
In the following moments James Larson reported a brief account of the disappearance of his wife, Carla. He gave his address, phone number and a few specifics of identity. He was in turn advised that an investigator would be dispatched to his residence.
The communications officer who received Larson’s call contacted the on-duty deputy in Jim’s area. He passed the information on to Deputy Tom Woodard, in whose district Larson’s address fell.
Immediately the heavily built 6’1” patrol deputy headed off to the Larson residence.
Driving into the College Park section of Orlando, Woodard looked over the area as patrol officers do automatically. The streets were named after prominent colleges throughout the United States: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Vassar, Amherst, Smith. College Park, more than fifty years old, had in recent years become popular with young professionals, who purchased the older homes, then remodeled and upgraded them. Woodard noted the well-kept homes with their beautiful, tidy lawns and shrubbery as he passed and thought,
College Park is certainly not a high-crime area.
He hoped that the missing woman was not a victim of some criminal act.
The patrol officer arrived at the Larson home and made a quick study of it and its surrounds. All seemed quiet. He approached the front entrance and pressed the doorbell.
The deputy studied the man who opened the door. He observed a man of neat but average appearance at 6’ or possibly 6’1” and a trim 180 pounds. He had a lean face with a sparse mustache. His blue eyes looked concerned, and his dark brown hair dangled where he had brushed it back anxiously. In the normal sequence of his daily life, Jim Larson was a nice-looking guy with a pleasant personality who went about without disturbing anyone or drawing special attention. Now he appeared obviously shaken, like someone who had lost everything.
“Hello, I’m Jim Larson. Please come in.” Larson led the deputy into the dining room.
Deputy Woodard said, “Just take your time and tell me what you know about this situation as best you can.”
Larson looked at the deputy with a bewildered expression, unsure how to begin. After a moment, he offered, “I should start at the beginning. I was at work—uh—I work at Home Depot—when I heard my name paged over the loudspeaker. When I got on the line, the caller identified herself as one of the Centex Rooney workers at Walt Disney World. You know, someone who works with Carla. She surprised me when she asked if I knew where Carla was.” He stopped abruptly, clearly returning in his mind to the call.
Tom Woodard, who had seen every imaginable situation in his years with the sheriff’s department, studied the man and said, “Just take it easy.... Take your time.”
Jim Larson took a deep breath and continued. “Well, the woman told me that Carla had taken off shortly after noon, headed for the Publix supermarket that’s in the proximity of the Disney work site.” He brushed his hair back with his hand and added, “She said Carla was going there to pick up some stuff for lunch and some fruit for a meeting in the afternoon.”
Jim swallowed before continuing. “She told me that my wife was expected at an engineers’ meeting this afternoon”—his voice dropped almost to a whisper—“but she never made it.” Shaking his head in confusion, he repeated, “She never made it to the meeting.”
Woodard asked, “Did anyone, any of her other fellow workers, hear from Mrs. Larson? Did anyone see her, anyone that you know of?”
Jim Larson slowly shook his head.
“What did you do after you talked to the woman from your wife’s job?” the deputy asked.
“I don’t know. I was confused, upset.... I didn’t know what to think. I was worried that something happened to her. I didn’t want to think about that. I just waited, thinking, and then I asked for permission to leave work. I wanted to get home; maybe my wife might be there, maybe she came home sick, or maybe I could find some answer to this whole thing.” He paused, shaking his head again.
The patrol officer studied the disturbed husband intently. “Are you hesitant about telling me something, Mr. Larson?” Woodard prodded.
“No, I’m just trying to reconstruct what I did then. After I left work, I drove over to the day-care center to pick up our little girl, Jessica.”
His face changed as a thought struck him. “My God, what do I tell my little girl, why her mommy isn’t home for her? She’s only a year old.”
“Don’t do this to yourself, Mr. Larson. We’re going to find answers for you.”
Jim Larson continued, searching for the right words to tell the deputy. “Anyway, I took Jessica home, fixed her dinner and tucked her into bed. I didn’t know what to do. I made call after call to everyone I could think of, my mother—actually, she’s my stepmother—in Pompano Beach, all our friends, anyone who might know where she is. I even called the hospitals to find out if maybe she was in an accident and been admitted.”
He slumped back in his chair and said that he had reluctantly called Carla’s parents, also living in Pompano Beach. “They were stunned. They hadn’t heard from her today. I promised to keep them informed.”
Woodard asked Larson if he would like to take a break, but Jim said that he would go on. He continued, saying, “I thought that I should call the Centex Rooney site and see if they found out anything more. That was about six o’clock. The woman I spoke to told me that they heard nothing. She said they thought that Carla might have left for a doctor’s appointment or something. I just don’t know. There’s just no explanation. Carla is a most reliable person, and it is certainly not like her to have missed an important engineers’ meeting.”
“There’s just one more thing, Mr. Larson, and I’m sorry to have to ask you, but did your wife have an illness, either physical or mental? Was she depressed?”
“Oh, no, absolutely not. She is fine, in perfect health.”
“How about your marriage? Were you two having problems?”
“No, oh, no. Nothing like that. We are very happy.”
“Could she have gone off with another man?”
“What?” Larson was shocked. “No!”
“Are all of her clothes and belongings still in your home?”
“Yes, as far as I can tell.”
Everything appeared normal to Woodard on the surface. So it wasn’t logical for a young, healthy, happy mother to leave her family voluntarily and just take off.
“Mr. Larson, would you object to my looking over the house, going through it room by room?”
“Go right ahead. But please don’t disturb Jessica. She’s asleep in her room.”
Woodard nodded. The officer inspected and found nothing amiss.
He returned to Larson, who was sitting quietly at the table and staring blankly at the wall.
“Mr. Larson, I think it would be a good idea if I could talk with Mrs. Larson’s parents.”
Startled by the suggestion, Larson said that he could not see the necessity of involving the Thomases. “They are going through the worst thing that ever happened to them, worrying about where their daughter is, and I don’t know if they are up to talking with someone in your position with the department.”
“Suppose you just call them on the phone, introduce me, and let me have a few words with them.”
Larson reluctantly agreed to make the call, but he cautioned Woodard to be brief and not too intensive about the facts of their daughter’s disappearance.
In his conversation with Phyllis Thomas in Pompano Beach, Woodard asked her if Carla had any problems with her husband, Jim, or if she had any plans to leave him.
Mrs. Thomas told the deputy that she did not know of any problems. She was very upset, but she promised to call him if she thought or learned of anything that might be relevant. Woodard assured her, “I will do the same.”
The deputy also spoke to Ada Larson, Jim’s mother, on the phone. She expressed great concern and told him that she was going to come to Orlando to be with her son and granddaughter.
When he concluded, Woodard turned to Jim Larson. “Do you have a recent picture of your wife that we can have?”
“Sure,” he answered, “let me get one for you.”
In a few moments he returned and handed a photo to Woodard. The deputy studied the picture of the lovely young woman. Carla’s expression, blue eyes, cheerfully smiling face and long blond hair all added up to an appearance of bursting vitality.
“Can you give us a description of your wife?”
“She’s five-eight and weighs one hundred thirty pounds.”
Taking notes, Woodard asked, “About the car. What year, what model is this car of hers?”
“It’s a four-door 1995 Ford Explorer,” Jim answered. “The license number is TGX-99V.”
“All right, sir, I’ll call this in and we’ll get the department started on it right away.”
Woodard briefed the department’s watch commander, Eric Viehman, requesting assistance in the area where Carla Larson was last seen.
After hanging up the phone, Deputy Woodard looked at the despondent Jim Larson and wondered,
Is this guy as nice a fellow as he appears to be? Or is he a very good actor?
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department entered Carla Ann Larson’s description into NCIC/FCIC as a missing person. The report listed her as 5’8”, 130 pounds, braided long blond hair, blue eyes, wearing a red sleeveless shirt, Gap blue jeans and brown work boots when last seen. The information on her automobile was also entered into the teletype system.
At 8:30 that night Corporal Ken Glantz drove to the Publix on International Drive, Kissimmee, and met with the store manager. The personable man told the corporal that Centex Rooney coworkers had already contacted him. They described her disappearance to him and asked him to search the store’s daily receipts for any transactions that might be traced to Carla. The manager had complied readily.