Skulls in the Woods

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

Workers trimming trees on the side of West Beaver Street on the far Westside in October 2009 call the police when they discover a human skull. The crew is trying to weed out invasive vegetation.

Later, other bones are found, but apparently no complete skeleton can be assembled from the ground in the palmettos and pines.

Detectives don’t know if the skull and nearby bones might have belonged to some drifter passing through or to one of several names on the current “missing persons” list.

In the early 21st century, people have referred to Jacksonville, a town with almost a 50 percent functional illiteracy rate, as the “murder capitol of Florida,” not a new thing, since in 1942 Stetson Kennedy wrote in his first book, Palmetto Country, that Jacksonville had one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Into this setting was born Ottis Toole, growing up inner-city hillbilly illiterate, with an IQ supposedly in the 70s, claiming his grandmother was a Satanist who dug up bodies in the hellfire-and-brimstone God-fearing South, meeting serial killer Henry Lee Lucas in a Jacksonville homeless shelter in 1976, bringing him home to his mother in that 1880s house in Springfield near where Truman Capote visited his grandmother as a little boy, the two—Henry Lee and Ottis—becoming lovers before supposedly killing hundreds of victims and cannibalizing and having sex with them in and around Jacksonville and across the continent.

Just before he died, Toole smiled effusively and told an interviewer named Billy Bob Barton, “People eat pigs, cows, horses. I like to eat people. It’s good meat too. You ain’t tried it, don’t you be saying it ain’t tasty.” Police departments across the continent fell for his bullshit. He would be proud.

August through October, 1974, five Jacksonville girls, ages 6 to 12, disappeared. Other young girls walking home were threatened and followed by two or three men in cars. Police found Virginia, 12 years old, shot in the head, off a dirt road in the woods off Beach Boulevard. (“Missing Girl Found Dead; Police Search for Others; Woods Near UNF Campus”) One of the police who found Virginia had a 10 year-old daughter whom, four years later—February 8, 1978—a man tried to persuade to go with him in his van instead of walking home from school. Next day, an hour and a half west of town, the same man, Ted Bundy, killed a 12 year-old girl, Kimberly Leach, his last victim before arrest. The year before, the body of a missing girl named Ann was found in the woods off Heckscher Drive. The other three girls missing from those three months have never been found, but Lillian and Mylette, sisters, were linked to Jacksonville serial killer Paul John Knowles, who killed between 18 and 35 other girls and women across the country.

Didn’t the killing spree in Truman Capote’s famous non-fiction novel In Cold Blood begin in the woods at the edge of town? Jacksonville was the hometown of one of the two former soldiers and there they killed two Georgia women, their first victims. “The scene of the encounter was an Esso station on the dark outskirts of Jacksonville; the date was the night of May 29, 1961.”

Detectives have no idea who the skull in the dense woods along West Beaver Street belonged to.

Dense woods inside city limits. 1968, Duval County and Jacksonville city governments consolidate, so the whole county is considered the city. Most of the city is woods.

The woods are full of police officers, detectives, evidence technicians. Someone lost his head, a wry cop cracks. Do you know where your skull is tonight?

Somebody else says we got this damn prehistoric t-rex on Beach Boulevard we can’t get rid of, and I don’t know if this goddam skull been out here for one year or 50.

At the end of a long day, police officially suggest, “There is evidence some kind of development was once on the property.” At some point in some decade, some trailer park was located here, as some rusted flecks of metal, window casings, road outlines, and a trailer hitch hint. No current city records indicate when the trailer park was here, who owned it, who lived here, or when it disappeared.

Moment of accidental poetry, an investigator says, “It all just seems to have disappeared into the years and the earth and the trees.”

Either some killer ditched some victim’s remains in the woods a year ago, five years ago, 15 or 30 years ago, or one human skull and some random bones are what’s left of life in a trailer park that must have once been here, though no records document its existence. Most of the past leaves no record. Most human beings come into the world and leave it with nothing to show they ever lived.

Somebody walked around with a skull in a face and with thoughts in a skull that was found today in the woods way out at the edge of the city limits. A whole tin-can trailer community used to be parked right here, but nobody knows when and nobody knows who and nobody knows what happened here.