Authors: Fred Rosen
“Hi,” he had said. “Hi, how are you doing?”
Vilma Barnes had made no reply. He watched her go into the laundry room. She left the door open and he walked in behind her. That’s when Vilma Barnes and Jeremiah Rodgers met briefly.
He spared her life and stole her car, the one he promised to give back. But he never did; he had lied, as usual.
The rest of the trip to Lake County was a bit blurred. He would later remember stopping for gas off one of the exits, paying with money from his pocket, money that soon ran out. When it did, he stole. Rodgers wasn’t sure if he just filled it up at some stations and then drove off before the attendant had a chance to stop him, or just stole some money someplace and paid in cash. Whatever. Didn’t matter.
It was a new day, but one that promised to be quite long. Jeremiah Rodgers was very, very tired.
May 9, 5:45
Back in Pace, Jon Lawrence had been taken into custody and was down at the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office being booked. At 5:45
., Todd Hand served a search warrant on Lawrence that allowed them to search his place. Quickly the cops drove back to Pace.
When they got to the house, Hand opened the trunk of his car and they each took out a pair of plastic gloves from a box and put them on. They were met at the scene by crime scene technicians (CSTs) of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and sheriff’s office personnel to begin their grim task. Inside, Hand stood for a moment, looking around, taking it in and getting the feel for the place. It was a mess, just like Jon Lawrence’s life. Even knowing that Jon lived on a limited disability income, Hand still couldn’t help but be repelled by the obvious sense of chaos and decay all around him.
Hand looked at some handwritten notes that he found in a pile of papers on a desk. He read them over, mulling the significance of a list. That unusual manifest was just the beginning of his discoveries. There were weapons of all kinds. Kung fu–style throwing stars were mixed in with a black powder derringer; there were pairs of Smith & Wesson handcuffs and nunchucks, plus a lot of live ammunition. There were KKK booklets, wigs, knives, bomb material, survivalist items, skin books and a bunch of other stuff. And then there was the blood spatter. It was still on the ceiling above the table.
The day before when Hand had spoken to Jon’s mother, she had told him how her other son had died from an accidental shotgun blast. The incident, which happened at a party, had affected Jon quite a bit. Ironically, one of the guests at the party was the same person who sold the .380 pistol to Jon. As the cops roamed methodically around the house, they found themselves looking at the blood spatter on the ceiling above the kitchen table that had never been cleaned up.
Farther into the house, things got cramped within rooms that seemed to be overflowing with detritus. Hand and McCurdy kept searching for evidence to tie Lawrence into the disappearances and possible murders. The old house was just packed with stuff. They found themselves in a room where the windows had heavy curtains and the floors were packed with boxes and trunks. Hand was back in one of the corners of the room on his hands and knees, crawling around with his flashlight, between all the junk and the spiderwebs.
“As my flashlight moved about one foot in front of my face,” Hand remembered, “I met a possum, who growled and showed his many teeth. I’ve played sports all my life, but I never moved so quickly and with minimal movement. I found myself on McCurdy’s back, trying to get out of the room ASAP. I scared the shit out of him also. After about thirty seconds, we laughed our asses off.”
Hand made a list of the things the Santa Rosa cops found and confiscated during their search:
1. Coping saw
2. Black throwing knife with nylon sash
3. Hunting knife with electrical tape on handle
4. Box for Lorcin .380 pistol
5. Winn Dixie receipt showing purchase of Polaroid film
6. 1 cut Polaroid photograph
7. 1 nylon tent
8. 1 tent cover
9. 1 pair used latex gloves
10. Four handwritten notes
12. 1 Pepsi twelve pack container containing cut up Polaroid photograph
The photographs were some of the shots Jeremiah had taken of Jennifer after she had died. In one Polaroid, someone seemed to have cut out part of her head.
The FDLE CSTs were looking for material they could use for DNA matching. They wanted to be able to tie Lawrence to Jennifer Robinson. Their list was longer and included empty beer bottles, the contents of the bathroom’s trash can, loose hair, a glass goblet, an empty Doral cigarettes package and three Pepsi cans. They also found a pair of bolt cutters.
Among the porn videotapes they found in Jonathan Lawrence’s possession were
Nasty Wild Bunch
. Jon had magazines and books that police classified as “devil worshiping literature, among which was an application to become a member of the Church of Satan.” At its Web site,
, the Church of Satan gives a history of its beliefs:
“… we are … openly dedicated to the acceptance of Man’s true nature—that of a carnal beast, living in a cosmos which is permeated and motivated by the Dark Force which we call Satan.”
It was a philosophy that appealed to Jon Lawrence. But he probably would have had trouble following through on it, just like every other thing in his life, especially if there were any black Satanists. Jon hated blacks.
While the Church of Satan did not solicit memberships, one could join for a onetime registration fee of $100, which included an embossed membership card.
No such card was found among Jon Lawrence’s possessions. Apparently, he hadn’t sent the hundred bucks. But there were all kinds of notebooks filled with Jon’s ramblings on everything from the weather to family matters. In one particularly chilling notebook section, Lawrence described his thoughts of what appeared to be the perfect date. Jon fantasized about having a relationship with a woman, and that he, Jon, had set the table for a quiet dinner for two.
“When she gets to the house,” Jon wrote in notes that police confiscated as evidence, “I take her in the room and fuck her. Then I would slice her stomach open, clear all of her guts out so there’s nothing but a shell then take the dead body and recline fucking in a half sitting position at the dinner table. I then fill her open stomach full with ice.”
Lawrence’s preferred method of death, slicing the victim’s stomach open and filling it with objects, was actually a preferred way of killing a person and making them disappear during the past century in the Panhandle. In the early 1800s, murderers prowling the canebrake would rob their victims, then kill them with gun, knife or by battering with a stone. To obliterate the evidence of the crime, they would gut the victim, fill his innards with rocks, then drop him in a nearby lake or river. The rocks would cause the body to fall to the bottom, where it would never be seen again.
As the nineteenth century wore on, into the twentieth century, this method of killing fell by the wayside in favor of more sophisticated means. Lawrence, though, had heard stories about it, and those stories must have stuck in his mind. In his fantasy, anyway, he preferred the nineteenth-century way of disposing of a body. But it was also a particularly painful and horrific way to die, which exemplified the violent side of his personality.
Why Lawrence would prefer ice in the body cavity instead of rocks was anyone’s guess. He may have thought in some way that the ice would preserve the body while, at the same time, allowing him to weigh it down. However, Hand knew from experience that to ascribe rational thoughts to a functioning schizophrenic with homicidal tendencies could be an exercise in futility. Usually, this kind of individual wasn’t aware himself of what made him tick. Even the most expert criminologists were stymied when it came to understanding fully a sociopath’s murder fantasies.
In another entry, Jon wrote of a real trip he took to the Smoky Mountains, during which a friend “cussed some niggers,” an activity Jon apparently found amusing. Railing against his fate, Jon wrote: “Hail, hail, when the lights out! We’re all dead now and courageous. Now I’ll say then you’re all crazy and I’ll say now. God’s a fake out. Yeah!!”
Outside, Lawrence’s truck was impounded as evidence. The CSTs took a swab of blood from the tailgate liner. If it matched the victim’s, it meant she was killed close by.
From the kitchen, the techies removed a blue-and-white Rubbermaid ice chest filled with melting ice and cold water. Nothing else was inside it. One cop noticed a device on the coffee table that he took at first to be a bong, a water-cooling device used to smoke marijuana. It was later identified as a penis pump. Penis pumps attempt, by creating a suction, to enlarge the penis. Some manufacturers claim the process works permanently with the frequent user seeing a size increase.
Further searching led the CSTs to the freezer. They took a plastic bag from it and studied its contents. Inside was some sort of meat and gristle. They weren’t sure what it was, so it was impounded as evidence. When checked in at the property office in the rear of the sprawling sheriff’s complex, it was refrigerated to maintain its integrity as evidence.
Back at headquarters, Hand showed Lawrence his handwritten list, the one they had found in the pile of papers on Lawrence’s desk. Jon looked at it.
“What happened, Jon?” Hand asked gently.
“Jeremiah took the girl out on a date and brought her to my house. Then we all three drove up to Blue Springs. We were gonna wait for my girlfriend up there. As we waited, we drank. Then Jeremiah had sex with her in the cab of my truck. After that, Jennifer was walking in front of Jeremiah. Jeremiah pulled the gun and shot her in the head with a .380 pistol.”
Jon had blurted it all out, apparently in a moment meant to ease his conscience. Or maybe he was just trying to find an edge, putting all the blame on his buddy.
“What happened then?”
“She fell, to the ground. I was surprised that Jeremiah had done it.”
“Where’s the body now?”
“We buried her where she was shot.”
“And the photos?”
“Jeremiah took some Polaroids of Jennifer after she died.”
The Lawrence house was sealed with crime scene tape. That way, if the CSTs needed to go back in, the home would be in “pristine” condition. This would also prevent anyone else from going in.
As for Jon Lawrence, it really made no difference what he said—without bodies. Without the body of Jennifer Robinson and without the body of Justin Livingston, it would be terribly difficult to make a case, let alone a conviction. Only in very rare cases can cops make a case against a suspect without a body. And only in very rare cases will a jury convict without one.
Bottom line, they needed to find Jennifer. They needed to find Justin. They also needed to find Rodgers. The last Hand had heard, Rodgers had stolen a car and was on his way to Lake County. But what he needed most was to understand why. If Justin and Jennifer were missing and presumed dead, what was the motive?
Hand knew that the answer had to be somewhere in Lawrence’s and Rodgers’s past. It always was. He remembered that Lawrence’s uncle had killed a man in 1994 and was on death row for the crime.
The biggest thing to happen to Florida in 1947 was that gender segregation officially ended at the University of Florida.
With World War II over, more women had become interested in attending the University of Florida (UF). The GI Bill, which also applied to women who served during the war, encouraged these female vets to seek higher education. Women married to veterans attending UF also wanted to attend school. So, in 1947, UF finally became a coeducational institution.
That same year, a girl named Iona Carter was born in the Florida Panhandle to a hardscrabble existence. Moving around, she wound up a teenager and an unwed mother in Texas, where she gave birth to a daughter, Laurie. In 1971, twenty-four-year-old Iona and her child, Laurie, moved back to Florida, where she met Elbert Lawrence. Elbert had charm enough to attract Iona. They fell in love and married. Unknowingly, Iona had married an abusive spouse.
According to court documents, Elbert “physically and verbally abused [his wife] Iona frequently. She couldn’t go to the grocery store without getting a black eye. He would lay in her bed with guns in her back loaded, with the trigger pulled back.”
The psychological damage must have been unimaginable. What had started out as the union of two people would become, in the next generation, society’s problem. Iona and Elbert’s progeny would be eventually condemned by society as a necrophiliac murderer. Adding to Iona’s worries were her husband’s extracurricular activities. Court documents linked him to the Ku Klux Klan.
Iona gave birth to a boy who died at seven weeks from a heart condition. Then, when Iona was in her eighth or ninth month of pregnancy with her second child, her parents were in a fatal car accident. Her mother died instantly while her father lingered. Every day that her father was in the hospital, Iona was there, on her feet, despite her condition. With no chance of recovery, he mercifully died.
Iona gave birth on April 12, 1975, to a boy they named Huey Alec Lawrence. (When Huey grew older, he would be renamed Jonathan.) During his first year of life, baby Huey suffered from frequent fevers and had to be dunked in a tub of ice to break them. Huey writhed in pain and screamed at the top of his lungs. Iona could not stand her baby’s screaming.
Despite the fevers of his infancy, Huey Lawrence was a good-looking child with sparkling eyes. He liked to laugh, to run, to play with his siblings, like any other kid. He still had his humanity. He wasn’t cruel and he didn’t hurt. So what changed him?