Authors: Fred Rosen
“Why’d you do that?” Justin asked. He was not angry, just confused—why would his friend stab him?
The knife had stopped someplace on the inside. To Rodgers, it felt like he had hit a bone and the knife glanced off it. The blow had knocked Justin all the way to the ground.
“Stay down on the ground and face down,” Rodgers ordered. He threw the bowie knife away and turned to Lawrence. “Give me your knife.”
Shocked at what had just happened, Lawrence waited a minute before handing over his knife.
“What are you gonna do? Are you gonna hurt me?”
“No,” Rodgers answered, his voice honey sweet. “I’m not gonna hurt you. Lie down, just face down for a minute.” Justin turned facedown to the ground. Rodgers didn’t want to look at his face.
“Is this real?” Justin asked.
“No, it’s not real,” Rodgers answered, working up his nerve. “You’re just on a bad [LSD] ‘trip.’”
Rodgers later related, “I crouched down beside him, and when I got my nerve up, I stabbed him between the shoulder blades with all the [knife] blade going through. I left the knife there for a second.”
Justin struggled to get up. He got to his hands and his knees. He was in intense pain, the knife sticking out of his shoulder, the blood streaming down. Rodgers backed up a little bit with his hand still on the knife.
“Just lay down,” Rodgers ordered.
Some part of Justin knew that was not a good idea and he struggled to stand, but Rodgers kept his hand on the knife, controlling him, maybe twisting it a little, until Justin finally sagged back down to the ground. Rodgers bent down and slowly pulled the knife out. It must have been intensely painful. He walked away, throwing the knife down as he went.
Lawrence grabbed the knife. He picked it up and tried to stab Justin, but he couldn’t do it. He just stood there for a few moments, something holding him back.
“It’s hard,” Lawrence said. “I can’t do it right now.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s hard, ain’t it?” Rodgers answered.
During all that time, Justin was fully conscious, listening to every word.
“I gotta shit,” Justin said suddenly.
Rodgers walked up to him.
“Can you breathe, Justin?”
Justin nodded his head.
“Can you see me?”
Justin turned and looked up with open eyes, then nodded weakly.
“Can you hear me?”
“Does it hurt?”
“Worm,” Rodgers called him.
“Worm” was the nickname Rodgers had given him. Justin hated it but couldn’t stand up to him. Rodgers intimidated him. Between his tattoos, muscular build and sly smile, he didn’t look like the kind of guy you wanted to cross. For Rodgers, it was a way to dehumanize Justin.
Justin had been kind and polite to him. Through his humanity, he had invaded the perimeter of Rodgers’s psyche. Justin had made the mistake of getting too close to Rodgers without even realizing it. Rodgers wished that he would hurry up and die. He knelt down beside Justin to stab him again but couldn’t get up the nerve. Lawrence just sat there. He couldn’t really think of what to do, but he knew his cousin had been stabbed. Lawrence also knew that Justin was still alive.
He could hear him breathing, not talking, just breathing, a heap on the ground. He was breathing kind of slow. Rodgers never said anything. He and Lawrence just sat and looked pensively at the man who was dying. They listened to the bugs and then to Justin Livingston’s dying breath. To Lawrence, it was kind of like a bad dream. He could never really tell when Justin died. He just kind of disappeared a little bit at a time.
Rodgers decided to hasten the process along.
“You got a towel or something?” Rodgers asked.
A few years before, Lawrence’s mom had bought two red flannel shirts at a flea market, one of Florida’s favorite cultural venues. He was wearing one, Rodgers the other. Without waiting for an answer to his question, Rodgers took his off and wrapped it around Justin’s neck. Using it as a garrote, he pulled it tight and strangled Justin to make sure he was dead.
Jeremiah is strangling him to put him out of his misery
, Lawrence thought. By his own estimate, Rodgers kept strangling Justin for three minutes, more than enough time to kill anyone, let alone someone who had already been fatally stabbed.
When it was over, Lawrence reached down to touch his cousin’s neck. He felt really cold, so he just backed away from him and sat down for a little while. Lawrence then came back over and knelt down beside the lifeless body. He took the knife and stabbed Justin ten more times in the back, really quickly, enjoying mutilating his cousin.
“He did it real quick and then he quit. Wiped his knife on the grass, put it back in the sheath, got everything together and we ran back to Jon’s truck,” Rodgers would recount later.
Lawrence watched as Rodgers took out the bolt cutters and cut the fence down near the bottom and then moved the cutter upward, snipping metal as he went. Finished, he pulled the fence up and hooked it at the top so it would stay up. He had a hole big enough to drive a truck through. He ran a little way back into the field and he got the truck facing the hole. He clicked his lights on to see for a minute, and when he got through the fence, he turned them off. They drove out to where Justin was lying lifeless on the ground near the still-deserted control tower.
Lawrence pulled a blanket out of his truck and laid it on the ground. They rolled Justin inside it and then rolled him over so the blanket wrapped around him. Together, they picked him up and put him in the back of Lawrence’s truck. They shut the tailgate, then went back to look on the ground for any evidence they might have left behind.
They picked up a few things, including Justin’s cigarette lighter, a Coke can, the knives and Lawrence’s eyeglasses that he had dropped while stabbing Justin. They left, driving through the same hole that they had cut. Then they went straight out into the more rural Chumuckla section of the county.
On the way, they stopped at a Tom Thumb convenience store. Lawrence had always wanted to try the Doritos 3D’s chips, so he bought a bag, then drove out past the cotton gin to Sandy Landing. They sat out there for a little while, near the power lines, munching on the chips. After a few minutes, Lawrence put the truck in motion and they rode around a little bit.
They stopped in the middle of nowhere, near a little lake. They got out and stood leaning up against the pickup, just talking and looking up at the stars. It seemed to Lawrence that they stayed there like that for a good long while.
Like so many times in the past, they kindled a fire and looked into it, as if expecting a portent. Sometimes their gaze turned toward the heavens and then they came back to reality, listening to the wind in the canebrake, which made such a sad, stirring sound. When the wind died down, they could hear the bugs.
While Lawrence sat listening to the crickets, Rodgers got a shovel out of the truck. Lawrence kept it there because his father always told him to keep things in the truck that would help him in case of emergency, and he always tried to listen.
Rodgers dug, working up a sweat in the cool night air. He took off his shirt and continued digging. Rodgers never did get tired of digging the grave. Despite his height, which gave him a feeling of inferiority, he worked out and was immensely strong.
Finally they pulled out the blanket-clad body. Rodgers grabbed it by the collar, Lawrence by the boots. Rodgers pulled and Lawrence pushed and, pretty soon, Justin Lawrence’s body was dragged into a cold hole in the ground. The legs were hard; the hole wasn’t long enough, so they pushed his knees under his chin.
“The blanket came open and his face was like right there as I was putting him in the hole. And that’s what keeps sticking in my head. His face was just real wet. It wasn’t tears; it was like sweat just beaded all over his face, but it wasn’t sweat,” Rodgers said later.
It was the early hours of the morning and the heat of the oncoming day, when combined with cool surfaces, had caused dew to form. Because his body was cooling as it decomposed, dew had formed on Justin’s skin. Even as they started covering him up with dirt, all Rodgers could see in his mind’s eye was the dead man’s face.
Sweating afterward, Lawrence leaned up against the truck and was trying to think, trying to realize what was happening. They drove away to a dark spot, made a fire and looked into it for a while until they got really thirsty. They got in the pickup and drove back out, back down to Tom Thumb. Lawrence had a little bit of change left and bought some Cokes and relaxed. As for Rodgers, he remembered that Justin’s eyes had been open before they were covered by mounds of dirt. The image just wouldn’t go out of his mind. In some small way, his conscience was eating at him.
They got back to Lawrence’s house just as the sun was coming up. Rodgers remembered that he had left his beeper, wallet and all his change on Lawrence’s couch. He had left it there so he wouldn’t drop anything at what he knew was going to be the crime scene. He picked his stuff up and put it back in his pockets.
Lawrence kept his wallet on a chain attached to his belt. He patted his pocket to make sure it was still there; it was.
“I’m gonna wash the knives up,” said Lawrence. He took the murder weapons as well as the flannel shirt Rodgers had used to strangle Justin and all the other evidence. Rodgers just assumed he was going to dispose of it. The two men didn’t talk much.
“We didn’t plan on any questions,” Rodgers revealed. “We didn’t plan on Justin being found.”
It was funny about those eyeglasses, the ones Lawrence had almost left at the scene.
Seventy-four years before, at another crime scene in another state, investigators looked at the crumpled-up body of a young teenage boy who had been bludgeoned. The only clue left at the scene by the killers was a pair of eyeglasses. The glasses were later traced back to a nineteen-year-old genius named Nathan Leopold, whose best friend was Richard Loeb.
Having killed their fourteen-year-old neighbor, Bobby Franks, Leopold and Loeb became the country’s most reviled murderers. Their attorney, the great Clarence Darrow, pleaded them guilty. Arguing for mercy before the judge during the penalty phase, Darrow succeeded. Leopold and Loeb beat death and were instead sentenced to life in prison. And the trial was all because of the glasses.
But the Santa Rosa police wouldn’t have the benefit of Lawrence’s eyeglasses at the crime scene, if they ever found it, as remote as it was. Lawrence had actually been smarter than the genius Loeb and removed all clues from the scene. Like Leopold and Loeb, who between them had committed only petty crimes until they killed Franks, Rodgers and Lawrence had just done together what they could never do alone.
The blending of their personalities was subtle. When they were together, no one noticed the change. Separately, they were nothing more than disturbed young men. Together, they were capable of anything, including murder.
Elizabeth Livingston and her boyfriend, Cory Liddell, heard two gunshots.
“Oh, Cory, I’m afraid that’s Justin. Someone shot him!” she screamed. They ran outside to see what was going on. Walking up the street, they saw tire marks in the gutter.
“Cory, someone shot Justin and stuffed him in their trunk and rode away,” said a fearful Livingston.
Returning to the small ranch house in the middle of Pace that she shared with her son, Elizabeth felt that fear in her heart that every parent dreads: her child might be dead. In most cases, it is an irrational fear that comes about because of some mistake, like a child running out of a movie theater without the parent or the child playing too close to traffic. But in Justin’s case, it was real.
“Justin always comes home by seven o’clock to take his medication, but that day he didn’t. I was worried. It wasn’t like him to just disappear,” she would later tell a reporter.
No, it wasn’t. Justin knew he had problems that were controlled with medication. He didn’t want to have the hallucinations again or be confined to a mental hospital against his will, as he had been. Elizabeth Livingston remembered Justin “coming down with schizophrenia” in high school.
“Felicia, his sister, has schizophrenia. She’s twenty-six now,” Elizabeth revealed.
According to the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
, known in the trade as the
, schizophrenia is characterized by “bizarre delusions” and “hallucinations” and other factors that are present “at least one month.” While schizophrenia may be due to a variety of factors, including the patient’s home and environmental background, in Justin’s case, there might also have been a genetic component.
By his senior year in high school, Justin had begun having the “bizarre delusions” the
cites. He was also having major problems in school. He couldn’t seem to sit for very long and he had trouble paying attention in class. His family did not realize the road he was traveling down until one night, when Elizabeth came home from work.
That night when she got home, it was pitch black and cool, a full moon high in the sky. And there was Justin digging a hole on the front lawn. His red, white and blue skin shone under the moonlight. He had painted himself in Pace High School’s patriotic colors using some sort of shiny paint from head to toe.
“Justin, why you diggin’ that hole?” his mother asked him, perplexed.
Justin looked up with a bright smile.
“Mama, I’m digging a hole for a fallout shelter because the Germans are going to attack.”
Justin was having a hallucination that he was back in the United States during World War II when blackouts were staged to get people ready in case there ever was a German invasion. Inside the house, Elizabeth found Justin’s paint bottles empty. He had chosen to paint himself with the toxic paint that he usually used on his models of planes and ships.
Between the body painting and the delusion, Elizabeth wasn’t sure what to do. It was Cory who realized the problem was beyond their capabilities and suggested she call an ambulance, which Elizabeth did. The responding EMTs took Justin to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, the same hospital where he had been born.