Authors: Fred Rosen
“I ain’t going to let y’all do this here; I ain’t going to let ya’ll do this here,” Randall shouted.
Then the door burst open again and the brothers made a run for it. Before Wicks and Randall could react, Elijah was at the wheel of his truck with Rodgers beside him. Cranking up the engine, he put her in reverse. Brakes squealing, he drove off. Wicks and Randall hopped in their car and followed. Elijah turned the corner and kept going, picking up speed and distance.
Far up ahead, Wicks saw the vehicle coming around a corner. Still moving, Jeremiah Rodgers executed an expert forward roll out the passenger door that would have made a movie stuntman proud. Rising to his feet, he quickly got into his white Chevette parked in the driveway.
“He just literally disappeared,” Wicks later told police. “I don’t know where he went.”
Elijah Waldrop’s memory of his brother’s quick exit is more detailed in his police statement.
“I dropped him off at [his] house and he got in that little Chevette, a one-of-a-kind car. It’s got two little palm trees beside the word ‘Sheriff’ on the back window. No tag. No insurance. All he had was a little piece of brown poster board where the tag is supposed to be. He left the house and went up the street toward East Spencer Field Road. He took a left and that was the last I seen of him.”
Frustrated that they had failed to stop Rodgers from escaping, Dennis Randall and Leonard Wicks drove over to the Lawrence compound. Jon Lawrence was home, watching TV.
“This guy Rodgers says you were with him and Jennifer yesterday?” asked Wicks.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Jon Lawrence answered fervently, head down. “I don’t know Jeremiah Rodgers and I don’t know this Jenny, but if I can help find her, I will,” he promised. “I wish I could help,” Lawrence added, feigning sincerity.
Something about Lawrence and the way he spoke made the two men feel sorry for him; it took all the wind out of their sails.
“We left him,” Wicks recalled to police. “And that’s all he really told us. He didn’t tell us anything other than he didn’t know her. Period. I mean, he acted, he didn’t act scared or nothing, you know, like he was nervous or anything like that. And we … actually believed him.”
Back in the car, Wicks and Randall scoured the neighborhood.
“We looked all over, back over by his girlfriend Lisa Johnson’s house, and I looked in the old trailers behind the school, where when we was kids, we used to go running,” said Randall.
Everyone in Pace knew the place. But they weren’t there or anyplace else. They even searched up the dirt roads behind the high school, to no avail. After a while, they gave up and went back to Diane Robinson’s house to see if anyone had heard anything there.
Out on the road, the community had become active in the hunt. Civilians patrolled Pace’s roads—friends and family of Diane Robinson’s, up and down the river, down over to the interstate, back toward the Wal-Mart and up in back of the high school, all looking for one thing: Jennifer Robinson, who was hopefully alive.
It just wasn’t like Jenny to suddenly disappear. She had to be in trouble; she had to be found. By then, there were twenty-odd people organizing things. Some were in charge of the search; others were handing out flyers with Jenny’s picture, name and description all over Pace, Milton and Pensacola.
Back at her house, Diane Robinson’s emotions alternated between fear and hope.
“My dad, my brothers, we called all of Jenny’s friends, we searched and searched throughout the day,” said Diane. “We came up with nothing.”
As for Elijah, by the time he got back to brother Lamar’s, people were already there wondering what the hell was going on. Did Elijah know something about Jenny Robinson’s disappearance?
“Everybody was, like,
what’s going on?
Tell us everything that happened. I couldn’t tell ’em, I was so shook up,” said Elijah.
Jenny’s uncle Hoyt was there.
“If you know something, you need to tell us,” Hoyt said to Elijah.
A conscience is a dangerous thing. It can actually make you do the unthinkable.
It is unthinkable to most people that they would ever do something to hurt a relative. Particularly if that relative is part of your immediate family—brother, sister, father or mother. What nightmare could possibly make you choose between your conscience and your family? For Elijah Waldrop, it was not a theoretical question. It was a real situation.
His brother Jeremiah had confessed to being part of a horrific murder. If he was telling the truth and Jennifer Robinson was dead, it was just a matter of time before the cops figured it out. Waldrop picked up the phone and dialed 911.
“I, Elijah Waldrop, was sitting in my truck in the front yard when my brother Jeremiah Rodgers came up and started to tell me about something,” he later began as his official witness statement to Santa Rosa County deputies.
Connecting the dots is the policeman’s art. Piecing together not only the how but the why of seemingly different crimes is a true talent. But the opportunity to connect those dots has to be presented. Someone has to make the initial link.
When Hand interviewed Diane Robinson, she had told him about Rodgers and Lawrence’s potential involvement in her daughter’s disappearance. Now another detective had interviewed Elijah Waldrop, who had given a statement that implicated his brother Jeremiah Rodgers in a murder. Everyone in the Santa Rosa County Detective Bureau knew of the Justin Livingston case and that Todd Hand was handling it. They also knew that Rodgers was a suspect in that case. As soon as Rodgers’s name came up in regard to Jennifer’s disappearance, Hand was notified.
Todd Hand was forced to wonder why Rodgers and Lawrence were now suspects in not one but two murders. How were they linked? As much as Hand wanted to believe Justin Livingston was alive, he really didn’t think he was. He figured his body had been dumped or buried someplace where it would be impossible to find, unless you knew where to look.
Rodgers and Lawrence were among the last to see both Justin Livingston and Jennifer Robinson alive. Early investigation showed Rodgers had a date with Jennifer and then left her, supposedly with Jon Lawrence, who was “crazy and has guns.” That, plus Lawrence’s failure at the voice stress analysis test, meant he knew a lot more than he was telling.
It was late afternoon when Todd Hand drove back out to the Lawrence compound. He found Lawrence at home, watching
Hooter Mania: Volume 1
Have you seen Rodgers?” Hand asked.
“No,” said Lawrence, head down, his manner as soft and emotionless as ever.
“You know anything about a missing girl, Jon?”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“Good. I’m real glad you said that.” Hand paused as if he were thinking. “Tell you what,” he said at last, “why don’t you ride with me to see Elijah Waldrop?”
“Sure,” said Lawrence, who rode voluntarily with Hand to see Elijah.
As they drove, Jon Lawrence was calm. His demeanor changed when they turned onto Elijah’s street. Suddenly Lawrence got very nervous. Hand didn’t want to push him, not yet anyway. Todd Hand turned around and drove back to the Lawrence compound. When they got there, Hand looked out at the house. It was a wretched piece of property.
And he remembered what Elijah Waldrop had said in his statement about a stack of Polaroids.
“Do you have possession of a Polaroid camera or any Polaroid photographs?” Hand asked Lawrence.
“I don’t have those things,” Lawrence answered.
“I’d like permission to search your cars and your house, okay?”
Hand was treading on shaky constitutional ground. Since he didn’t have a search warrant in his possession, he couldn’t legally search anything. The only way to conduct such a search was for Lawrence to give consent.
Most criminals think that an innocent man would offer such consent. Instead, the innocent man is more likely to say no precisely because he knows his constitutional rights. Being a criminal, Jon Lawrence said yes to Hand’s request. He signed consent forms allowing Hand to go prowling through his home.
Once inside, Hand found Polaroids that had been cut into pieces and deposited in the garbage container. A quick rearrangement of the pieces into some sort of semblance of order revealed what looked like a young woman’s body. The face looked like Jennifer Robinson’s. Hand went outside, looking up at the sun, still bright and warm on the spring day.
Todd Hand now knew that Jon Lawrence was lying. The presence of the Polaroids in his house proved that. Why else would Lawrence have them if he wasn’t in some way involved? He could conduct a more thorough search, but he still had no warrant; Lawrence’s consent to search could only go so far. The first priority was reading him his constitutional rights. If Lawrence was subsequently charged with a crime, the situation needed to be constitutionally clean.
Casually Hand reached into his jacket pocket and took out the Miranda card that every cop in Santa Rosa County carried. He did not announce that Lawrence was under arrest; Jon Lawrence wasn’t, not until Hand read him his rights and made sure he understood them.
“Jon, would you mind answering some more questions?”
“I don’t mind.”
“Jon, you have the right to remain silent. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Lawrence answered.
“Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand?”
“You have the right to the presence of an attorney. Do you understand?”
“If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you by the court. Do you understand?”
“Jon, do you own a Polaroid camera?”
“Do you have any Polaroid photographs in your possession?”
“You know what a Polaroid camera and photographs are?”
“Sure,” said Lawrence, perplexed.
“Jonathan Lawrence, you’re under arrest for the murder of Jennifer Robinson.”
Vilma Barnes had no reason to think it was anything but a typical morning. A maid at the Gregson Motel, off Interstate 10, she got to work at about 6:20
. Within five minutes, more or less, it was the time she got to work every day.
She went to the office to pick up the room keys and talk with the desk clerks for a few minutes. Then she walked around and headed to the laundry room to get her supplies and get started. Vilma unlocked the laundry room door, went in and took the cleaning rags out of the washer and put them in the dryer. Vilma turned when she heard the door slam shut a second time. She thought it must be the maintenance man. Instead, facing her was a man who pointed a gun at her head. He held his other hand, palm up.
“Listen, I’m not going to hurt you,” said Jeremiah Rodgers. He looked a bit disheveled, like he’d slept in his clothes, which he had. “I just want your car. I need your car. I’m not going to hurt you. Give me your keys.”
The safety was off. The gun was loaded. The hammer was back, ready to fire. Vilma began to panic. The last thing Rodgers needed was to shoot somebody out in the open where people could see. He lowered the gun.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Rodgers repeated.
“Okay,” Vilma replied.
“Walk with me to your car,” he said, taking her gently by the elbow. “Don’t try anything; all I want is your car. [When I’m done,] you’ll find it three miles down the road.”
Vilma walked out of the laundry room first.
“Don’t be my second victim today,” Rodgers warned.
Halfway to the lot, she held up her keys, making it easy for him to get away and out of her life. Rodgers grabbed them.
“All right,” he said, “you can walk back to the laundry room when I’m gone.”
“Can I stand here and watch you leave in my car?” Vilma asked.
“No, just go back to the laundry room until I’m gone.”
Quickly Jeremiah got behind the wheel of Vilma Barnes’s blue Chevy Corsica and shifted the automatic transmission into drive. He headed out of the lot and onto Interstate 10 east. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do when he got to Lake County. At least he would be home. But he had given his word to that girl back there and he intended to keep it.
The day before when he had tumbled out of his brother’s car and gotten behind the wheel of his ’84 Chevy Chevette and driven out of Pace with the cops—he felt certain—on his heels, a hazy plan had formed in his mind to drive south, back to his home county. Just get on Interstate 10 eastbound, then go south to Lake County and visit his sister. Yes, that was it. Then he’d be on home ground. He could figure out his escape from there. But it just wasn’t Jeremiah Rodgers’s day, it seemed, when his Chevette broke down soon after getting on Interstate 10.
He had pulled onto the shoulder and parked. He looked around at the soaring palm trees and bushes lining the roadway and smelled the moist air coming in off the Gulf. Cars whizzed by. No one stopped to offer assistance. Rodgers walked to the last exit. As he trotted down the off ramp, he tried not to attract attention—though a pedestrian on a Florida highway is an unusual occurrence.
Rodgers had gone to the nearest motel off the highway that he could find. The sign said
. He went toward the back and stayed there for several hours while walking all over the place. He went to a couple of convenience stores and two adjacent motels.
“I was trying to find a car that would get me all the way down to Lake County,” Rodgers later explained. “I didn’t want to rob anybody or hurt anybody to get the car, so that night I ended up sleeping in an abandoned car,” adjacent to the Gregson Motel.
Rodgers’s mind had raced that night. He had the same recurrent nightmare: Justin’s open eyes in the grave when the blanket had come off his face. He awoke in a sweat about four o’clock the next morning. He walked around the motel a little bit more and sat on the steps out back until it got light.
“People started leaving, packing their stuff and leaving.”
Could Rodgers fire his gun if he had to—without Jon Lawrence backing him up? A thirty-year-old white woman, with shoulder-length blond hair, wearing an apron like she was a maid, walked by where Rodgers was standing.