Authors: Fred Rosen
Cannibalism and Further Depravity on the Redneck Riviera
It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.
“The Simple Art of Murder”
It was spring and large oak, pine and magnolia trees were beginning to bloom on the streets of Milton, Florida. Almost every yard was ablaze with the colorful blooms of the azalea and the camellia. It was always that way, even in the early 1800s when legendary highwayman Joseph Hare held sway in the area.
Census estimates put Milton’s present-day population at over seven thousand residents for the roughly five-square-mile city. The county seat for Santa Rosa County, Milton’s downtown is a collection of dilapidated early-twentieth-century buildings that are struggling to decide whether to collapse against the weight of a century of river air and hurricanes.
On one side of the town is the Blackwater River. A few miles south is the Gulf of Mexico. In between are neat one-family ranch homes, trailers, and up on the main drag of Route 90, Hungry Howie’s Pizza & Subs, Leather Works Plus, Papa John’s Pizza and Bill’s Tattoos and Piercings. There’s more of the usual suburban collection of fast-food joints and shopping malls. Wal-Mart is a major hangout.
Tropical storms and hurricanes regularly roll in from the Gulf during the early fall. The torrential rains combined with the soft ground make the whole area a swamp, but the late fall and winter months more than compensate with warm temperatures and tropical breezes. A whole culture has grown up around the area that the locals call “the Redneck Riviera” or “Lower Alabama.” Despite hurrican season that lasts from August through September, the Gulf’s warm water and beaches bring the area millions in tourist business from Alabama, which is directly north.
Down Norris Road is Pace, the town’s high school. Its corridors are festooned with multicolored crepe paper in the school’s patriotic colors of red, white and blue, celebrating the team’s athletic accomplishments. While the schools in the county boast a decent 16.7 to 1 student/teacher ratio, Pace’s average SAT scores, at 1056, are only slightly above the national average. The kids from Pace do not have an easy road ahead of them.
A few miles away, on Spencer Field Road, is Spencer Outlying Field. A federal installation where navy copters do touch-and-go landings, Spencer’s copters are served by the deployment of two-thousand-gallon JP5 fuel-servicing trucks. The airfield is a vast piece of scrub brush in the middle of Santa Rosa County, smack-dab in the middle of Milton. If a local were looking to dump a body, he would think this is a good spot. Considering the field’s vastness, he could suppose the corpse might not be discovered for days.
Pace, Florida, a few miles down the road from Milton, is another small town in the Florida Panhandle. The Panhandle is an area of scrub brush and canebrake that extends east from the Alabama border, under Georgia, to the Atlantic Ocean. Pace was no different from any of those other towns—the kids were just as desperate to escape as their parents had been.
Some—the few who really excelled in the high school—might be able to use a college education to escape from their modern-day whitewashed ghetto. Others used business ability to become successful enough to get out of town. Still, others used their charm and good looks to net husbands and wives of greater fortune.
In Pace, everybody knows everybody. This is the South, with families going back generations, since before the Civil War. These people have great-grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy. The present-day inhabitants are still bearing the brunt of the poverty and hopelessness that followed their ancestors’ defeat at Union hands. Buried deep within this proud community are a few families of which the others are wary—not very many, but a few never-the-less.
When a Pace resident says so-and-so came from a “bad line,” he knows the entire family history stretching back generations. Such was the case with the surname Lawrence. It was spoken in hushed tones. By the time the spring of 1998 was over, the Lawrence name would once again be spoken with dread, and for good reason.
Two people would be dead and horribly mutilated. One would be a victim of savagery and betrayal of the most heinous sort, the other necrophilia and attempted cannibalism. The killers would join Leopold and Loeb, who strangled poor Bobby Franks in 1924, and Hickock and Smith, who, in 1959, massacred the Clutter family of Kansas “in cold blood,” to make the list of American history’s infamous duos. Nearly forty years after Hickock and Smith’s exploits, they made the savagery of their predecessors seem mild in comparison.
Their names were Rodgers and Lawrence. To some, they were known as the “flesh collectors.”
April 9, 1998
It was the kind of balmy night that made it hard to sleep. There was excitement in the air that crackled like the campfires spread throughout the Florida Panhandle. In cities, kids hang out on street corners; in the Panhandle, at campfires.
At first glance, Jeremiah Rodgers and Jonathan Lawrence didn’t seem any different from the other twentysomething slackers in the Panhandle who stood around a campfire that night. Like most of their friends, they had gotten through high school with no particular destination in mind. Not having any special trade or skill, they were someplace in the middle, not knowing their way in life. Only these guys were different.
Both men had a variety of mental problems that had led to their being institutionalized in their early twenties. That, alone, distinguished the two of them from the general populace. But what made them even more unique was that they had been institutionalized at Chattahoochee, the once-infamous state mental hospital that specialized in treating the criminally insane.
Jeremiah Rodgers, nearly twenty-one years old, was a muscular, 5’7” slick-talking tattoo artist with a pencil-thin mustache that made him look like an oily version of Errol Flynn. He also resembled a sawed-off version of Eric Roberts, who played the sleazy husband in
. His close older friend, almost twenty-three-year-old Jonathan Lawrence, was a pensive, moody man with a bland, round face that concealed the depravity he carefully kept hidden. Physically unattractive, he was a stocky five feet seven inches and 166 pounds. Over the years, he had learned how to handle a knife with amazing dexterity.
Looking for the answer to life’s questions, they stood gazing into the fire that they had kindled awhile before. They listened to the wind in the canebrake as it made a mournful, rustling sound. They smoked a joint and thought back to just a few short hours ago.
That afternoon, Lawrence had called twenty-year-old Justin Livingston, his cousin. Justin visited frequently. Rodgers
Justin. The big kid looked normal but wasn’t. Rodgers didn’t care that Justin took a variety of antipsychotic medication without which he could not function. He didn’t care that Justin was one of life’s lost souls and always would be. Not only did Rodgers not care, he wanted
to take the guy out
! Justin had been a thorn in Rodgers’s side for too long.
Justin would come over to Lawrence’s house asking for smokes, Pepsi, beer, whatever he could hustle. And Lawrence would always give his cousin something. Then Justin would sit down and enjoy his treat. The big kid had no common sense, and Rodgers just wanted him to get lost. Permanently. Lawrence, the quieter of the two, agreed with his partner.
Jon Lawrence’s birthday was coming up in a few days. He and Rodgers reasoned it was as good an excuse as any to get Justin to come over. Not that they really needed to give him a special invite, but if they wanted to kill him, and if they were ready to do it, there was no time like the present. It was something they had been thinking about.
Jon Lawrence picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hello,” answered a pleasant voice.
“Hey, Justin, it’s Jon,” said Lawrence.
“Oh, hey, Jon.”
Justin was on federal disability and got a check every month from the government because his neurological problems prevented him from working. His mother, Elizabeth Livingston, was always trying to find a way to fill up his time. Frequently he accompanied her to work, but not that day, he told Lawrence. He had gotten just too damn bored following his mother around.
Jon Lawrence knew that it was good that Justin’s mother wasn’t around. It would give them time to get things done.
“Hey, Justin, why don’t you come over? Jeremiah’s giving me a party for my birthday.”
Justin’s emotional age had tested out to twelve years old, and like most twelve-year-olds, Justin loved parties. And he knew that his cousin’s birthday was coming up. Justin got all duded up for the party in the cowboy clothes he favored. He put on a green pinstriped cowboy shirt and snakeskin cowboy boots. He loved Panhandle Slim boots too. His mother got him a pair as a graduation present and he had only worn them once, favoring his snakeskins instead.
Justin set off by foot. It was only a few blocks to his cousin and his friend. But Justin never went anyplace directly. Justin liked to walk and made a circuit of the community. He was a friendly guy who liked saying hello to people. Justin waved at everyone he saw and made his little rounds, stopping, chatting, waving and glad-handing like some politician on the stump.
All the neighbors along the way were friendly too. They knew of Justin’s disability and emotional immaturity. Even when his mama had to work late at the school, where she was a custodian, and Justin was alone, there was always someone in the neighborhood who would look out for him and make sure everything was okay.
Justin finally got to his cousin’s that day and was surprised; there was no party. But with reassurances from both Lawrence and Rodgers that that would come later, he settled down to hang out. It was a warm day, so they lounged around in the backyard with beers. The three young men watched as Ricky, Lawrence’s brother, and his uncle Roy worked on Ricky’s truck. At that exact moment, the very idea to kill Justin Livingston had become a reality. In police parlance, it would be the moment the conspiracy to commit murder began.
When Justin looked away, Lawrence took his hand and drew it slowly across and around his throat. Rodgers later said he took the gesture to mean that “they were gonna take Justin out and do something to him.” Saying nothing, Rodgers shrugged his thickly muscled, heavily tattooed shoulders. As the afternoon wore on and the shadows lengthened, the three left Ricky and Roy Lee to their outdoor labors, preferring to watch a movie on the VCR. Rodgers asked Justin if he wanted to smoke a joint and Justin, who liked weed, said, “Fire it up.”
“Okay,” Rodgers answered, “but we gotta wait until later on.”
Rodgers went to the bathroom. When he came back, Lawrence told him, “We’ll do it at the helicopter field.” A few hours later, when Rick and Roy Lee had left and darkness had fallen across the Florida Panhandle, Rodgers pressed the stop button on the VCR; it was time to go.
The three got in the truck and rode straight to the helicopter field, parking by the side of the road. They got out and walked over the rough Florida grass. Unlike the grass used on lawns in northern climes, Florida residents use grass that can stand up to the harsh heat. It felt like a firm sponge as the men trampled it on the way to the fence. Lawrence took out a fence cutter and made a hole in the bottom of the fence. Staying low, they all crawled through.
“Where’s the joint?” Justin asked.
“Got it right here,” Rodgers answered, patting his coat pocket.
They ran out toward the tower in the middle of the field, deserted at this late hour.
“Where’s the joint?” Justin repeated.
“What did you do wrong?” ’Rodgers asked him grimly.
Justin noted the change in tone. He was going to get beaten up.
“I come out here?” Justin answered, perplexed. “Y’all ain’t gonna hurt me, are you?” Justin asked.
“No,” said Lawrence firmly to his cousin. “We’re just sitting out here ’cause I’m not sure what Jeremiah wants to do.”
“Can you see the stars, Justin?” Rodgers asked. “There’s three stars that create a triangle. And in the middle of that triangle, if you can tell me the lesser or the lighter stars that form a picture, I’ll give you twenty bucks.”
“The reason I said that was to get him to look up so it would be easier to stab him,” Rodgers later explained. “[But] I couldn’t do it at that time, so eventually he gave up [looking]. The chance was gone.”
They started walking back toward the truck.
“We’ll smoke the joint on the way back,” Rodgers reassured Justin.
For his part, Lawrence couldn’t figure what was happening, except maybe Rodgers was playing one of his weird mind games. Suddenly Rodgers pivoted. He pulled up his black T-shirt and pulled the bowie knife from the waistband of his jeans. He turned on his Caterpillar steel-toed boots. The bowie knife flashed once in the moonlight and came down into Justin’s back.