Authors: Fred Rosen
Lawrence got all the stuff ready, including the Everclear, and put it in his truck. He began chugging back some Bacardi rum, waiting for his partner to show up. “Jeremiah wanted to go pick up his girlfriend first and show her off. He wanted to bring her by the house and let me and Ricky meet her,” remembered Jon Lawrence. “Jeremiah didn’t really brag about her, but he said she was ‘all right.’”
Rodgers finally arrived with his “all right” date. Lawrence looked at her, the diagram from
The Incredible Machine
fresh in the synapses of his brain. The three of them hopped into Lawrence’s Ford Ranger for a night out in the dark recesses of the county. It would turn out to be the most successful night in the lives of the “flesh collectors.”
May 8, 1998, morning
Jon Lawrence got home about dawn. He tried to relax by watching a video. He had quite a collection.
The Silence of the Lambs
, about two serial killers who were exceptionally bright, Hannibal Lecter and “Buffalo Bill”;
The Donner Party;
Hooter Mania, Volume 1
The film Lawrence decided to watch was
The Donner Party
, a documentary by Ric Burns that had aired on PBS in 1992 and was later transferred to video. The film chronicled the awful winter of 1846 to 1847, when a group of pioneers stranded in the snows of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains cannibalized each other to survive.
As Lawrence watched the video, Dennis Randall, Diane Robinson’s boyfriend, was just getting up at the Robinson home. He had gotten home late from work Thursday night, after Jenny had gone. When he got up on Friday morning, he happened to look in Jenny’s room. At that early hour, she was usually getting ready for school. But not that morning; she wasn’t there. Diane was just getting up when he came back into the bedroom.
“Where’s Jenny?” Randall asked.
“Well, ain’t she in her room?” Diane replied.
“No, she’s not.”
Diane quickly got out of bed and looked in Jenny’s room. The bedclothes were intact. It was clear that Jenny had not come home last night. Diane Robinson felt that emptiness in the pit of her stomach that every parent dreads. She tried to make herself believe that Jenny had just slept with Jeremiah. She was over at his place and too ashamed to call. Still …
“This ain’t like Jenny,” said Diane portentously, “not to come home or call or anything.”
For now, there was nothing to be done. Randall would be there all day before going to work. Diane had to attend the cookout. Figuring activity would get her mind off her worries, Diane left with her baked beans and drove into Pensacola, passing the Corner Store on the way.
Elijah Waldrop had stopped in there to buy a pack of cigarettes. Behind the counter was the woman who had told Jenny that if she were younger, she would go out with Jeremiah.
“You seen Jennifer?” the clerk asked anxiously. “She never come home last night and her family’s worried sick.”
Elijah said he hadn’t.
“You seen your brother?”
“No, he comes and goes everywhere. What did he do now?”
“Oh, nothing, we just don’t know where Jennifer’s at. And she had a date with Jeremiah last night”
Elijah didn’t let on, but he was worried. While he knew nothing, his intuition was eating at him. “You never know about Jeremiah, he’ll do anything,” Elijah said later in a statement to police.
He tooled over to Jeremiah’s house. No one was home, so he hung out. After a while, he remembered he had to get some gas and other stuff. “So I started to leave. I pulled out of my brother’s yard, to go up one street from mine. I turned and there was Jeremiah, hauling ass up the street. He went up Fowler and he whipped over toward Jenny’s yard. I thought I saw him stopping, so I kept going,” Elijah continued in his statement. Elijah kept driving to his house and “as soon as I pulled up in my front yard, he come, you know, skidding in my front yard.”
Jeremiah Rodgers jumped out, brandishing a twelve-pack of Busch beer.
“Man, drink a beer with me,” said Rodgers, agitated. “I’m so nervous. I’m gonna go to prison! I’m gonna die for this!”
“Slow down, tell me what in the hell you did.”
“Well, man, you gotta, you gotta swear to me, swear to me, that you won’t never tell nobody.”
“If it’s something bad, man, I can’t swear on it, ’cause you just can’t do that. I mean, if it’s something bad, man?” his brother asked desperately. “I can’t swear on it. You just can’t do that.”
It was a beautiful day in early spring, when the Panhandle starts to bloom. There was a cedar tree that overhangs the truck for shade. The brothers were standing under it. Elijah sipped his beer. It might have been just another spring day, were it not for the stack of pictures that Rodgers suddenly threw down on the hood of the truck. The stack was almost an inch thick.
“Go on, look,” Rodgers urged.
Elijah picked up the pictures, he told police. By his own rough count, Elijah figured there were eight to ten Polaroids in the stack. There were different ones of a girl, positioned in different ways. Elijah didn’t see her until he got about halfway through the stack. Then he saw the picture with her face clearly evident. Right then and there, he knew that it was Jennifer.
“What in the hell happened?” Elijah asked his brother.
“That fucking Jon, he shot her! He killed her! Blew her brains out!”
Elijah looked down at the pictures in his hand. There was Jennifer, lying on the ground, with blood all over her face, eyes half lidded and lifeless; Jennifer, with her skin peeled back from her forehead; Jennifer, a knife stuck in her crotch; Jennifer, her knees pulled back to her shoulders, with “everything she had on the bottom” showing; Jennifer, with her right leg from below the knee to the ankle horribly mutilated.
Rodgers claimed that Lawrence seduced, raped, shot and cut her. He pulled the pictures out of Waldrop’s hands and brushed them up against his Levi’s shirt to clean them. Then he stuck them for safekeeping in his back right pants pocket.
“What about Justin?” Elijah wondered out loud, beginning to put two and two together. “That sick-ass pervert [Jon], he probably went and killed Justin too, ain’t he?”
“Justin was stabbed.” Rodgers paused. “I stabbed him first,” he admitted to his brother. “Then Jon took the knife from me and stabbed him a lot of times.
“Come on into the woods with me,” Rodgers insisted to Elijah. “Come on, and I’ll show you the bodies.”
He kept coaxing, offering to show him his murderous handiwork. Elijah had the feeling that if he went into the woods with his brother, he wasn’t coming back out alive.
“Let’s go talk to my brother Lamar,” Elijah suggested. “Me and Lamar been through a lot together.”
Lamar was Elijah’s older brother with the family that had adopted him. Just then, the phone rang. Rodgers picked up the receiver.
“Where’s Jenny?” Diane Robinson shouted.
“I don’t know who or what you’re talkin’ about,” Rodgers answered casually.
Rodgers liked to watch a lot of movies. In the film
, Charles Boyer tries to make Ingrid Bergman think she is insane when she is not. Jeremiah Rodgers was trying that same tactic—he was going to try and make Diane Robinson believe that they had never met.
“You know very well we have met, Jeremiah! Don’t give me that,” Diane continued, showing that she had a helluva lot more sense than Ingrid Bergman.
“‘Lady, I’m not fucking responsible for your daughter.”
That was the moment. There was something in his voice that made Diane Robinson’s fears rise sharply and her intuition clicked in.
“Oh, my God! You are responsible.”
Rodgers knew he couldn’t stonewall her now. She was serious. She’d call in the cops at any second unless he gave her a plausible story he could stick to. Thinking fast, Rodgers stated that during their date, “Jenny got drunk ugly. I had to make her get out, over on Ridge Street.”
“Where was your friend Jon?” Diane asked.
“Jon was with us. They [two] just took off after that.”
Diane Robinson did not fear that her daughter was dead. To do so would be to give up hope. What mother wants to contemplate her child’s death? Besides, there was no evidence yet of anything so drastic. Her mind seized on a better alternative—this pair of scum had raped her daughter. They had then abandoned her in a remote part of the county, where she was lying helpless. She dialed Jon Lawrence’s phone number.
“Jon, this is Diane Robinson. Is my daughter there?”
“No one’s here,” Jon replied in his calm, slow voice. “I haven’t seen Red anywhere.”
Hopping in her car, Diane drove over to Jeremiah’s and saw his Chevette parked in his driveway. “Then a friend of mine rode by Jon’s house and saw him wiping out his truck with a white sheet.”
It was worse than she had thought. Diane figured Jenny had been beaten, raped and dumped. Jon was wiping up her blood and covering up the crime. Crying hysterically, she called Jeremiah again.
“I don’t care what you have done. I will protect you. Help me find my daughter, please!”
Again Jeremiah told her he knew nothing of Jenny’s whereabouts and hung up the phone.
“We’re going over to Lamar’s,” Elijah said firmly, and with his brother in tow, they drove over in his truck. Lamar lived in Pace too. For her part, Diane Robinson called the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office to report her daughter missing.
And after that phone call, alone, she said a silent prayer to God, imploring him to bring her daughter, Jennifer, safely home.
According to police documents, Diane Robinson’s boyfriend, Dennis Randall, and his friend Leonard Wicks started driving around the neighborhood, trying to find Jeremiah Rodgers. They tried his home, but he wasn’t there. Then Wicks’s friend tipped him that they might be at Lamar Waldrop’s. Randall and Wicks drove over. Just as they pulled into the driveway, Elijah pulled up in his truck. Rodgers was next to him.
Car doors slammed. Lamar heard them and came out. Rodgers and Elijah went over to talk with him while Randall and Wicks stood in the driveway and tried to figure out what to do next. Randall and Wicks couldn’t hear what was said.
“Lamar,” Elijah told his brother, according to his statement, “Jeremiah is wanting me to go ride down the road with him and I want you to go with me.”
Lamar didn’t understand. They walked into the living room to talk.
“Jeremiah knows all about that girl that’s missing. Let him tell you.”
Rodgers told Lamar, “Jon Lawrence was the one that killed the girl.” Rodgers was anxious to show Lamar the photographs. They walked into the bedroom for more privacy. Rodgers handed over the stack. Lamar grabbed them and didn’t even get more than a glance of the top photo before he said, “Oh, I can’t, here,” and gave them back to Rodgers.
And once again, treating them like the sacred relic they were to him, Rodgers brushed them off on his Levi’s shirtfront and shoved them into his back pocket. The trio went back outside. Lamar went up to Wicks; Rodgers and Elijah stayed back.
“The last one seen Jennifer was Jon Lawrence,” Lamar told Wicks.
“That isn’t going to be good enough,” Wicks said firmly. “I can’t let Jeremiah leave.”
“Come on, Elijah, I’ll take you into the woods,” Rodgers urged while Lamar kept talking.
“No,” Elijah answered just as firmly. “I’m gonna take you to your car and you just do whatever, ’cause I’m calling the law.”
“Well, I’m turning myself in,” Rodgers snapped back. But he was scared that if and when he did, the cops would beat his brains in.
In later statements to police, Lamar and Wicks related what happened next.
“No, they won’t,” said Lamar, who had come over and had overheard. “I know some friends where you won’t be hurt. Get in your car and go to Lisa’s, park and you stay right there. I’ll call you over there because I know a cop.”
“Which one of you went out with Jennifer Robinson last night?” Wicks interrupted.
“Yeah?” said Jeremiah Rodgers, turning at the question.
“Don’t you have a conscience?” Wicks asked Rodgers. “Don’t you? Come over to Jenny’s house and meet her momma. You didn’t bring her home last night. She wants to know where she’s at,” he pleaded.
“I feel bad, but I don’t know where she is,” Rodgers said. “She was with Jon Lawrence.”
The brothers turned.
“I can’t let y’all leave,” Wicks shouted. “Y’all got to come talk to Diane, tell her something, you know; you got to tell her something. You have to get in the truck and ride with us.”
Rodgers tried to gauge these two guys. There was the distinct possibility that like many in the Panhandle, they had shotguns in their car, maybe even rifles and a handgun. To say no might mean his death, or worse.
The South has a tradition of lynchings. It’s not something Southerners are proud of or even like to talk about, but it’s there, lurking in its recent past. People in the area could still remember when blacks were lynched because of their skin color. Whites had been lynched too on occasion, when there was a perception that doing so was the only way to achieve justice.
After a few tense moments, Rodgers said, “I’ll get in the truck and ride with you.”
Elijah sidled up quietly behind Wicks.
“Don’t come up behind me,” Wicks said, suddenly aware of his presence. Rodgers was walking toward the truck, not sure whether to get in or stay out.
“The last place I seen her was with Jon Lawrence,” Rodgers implored. “Jon Lawrence has guns! He’s crazy!”
Elijah slammed the back of the truck with his hands. Rodgers and the other two turned at the sound. A second later, Rodgers ran after his brother. Elijah opened the door of the truck, looked inside and shouted, “It ain’t in there,” shut the truck door and ran toward the house.
Randall and Wicks took the comment to mean there was supposed to have been a gun in the truck. But it hadn’t been there. Instead, Elijah had left it in the house and was running to get it. They didn’t have any weapon. Elijah might be getting a pump action or something equally as deadly.