by Tim Gilmore, 10/24/2020
1. Bumpin’ into Ghosts
Ben Johnson says he doesn’t believe in hauntings because “they’d be so many ghosts everywhere you couldn’t get nothin’ done for bumpin’ into ’em. I mean Florida? Every two feet, somebody done somebody in at some point.” So though he’s heard the Waterford is haunted, he waves his hand dismissively at the word.
Even if deeds stuck to buildings, he says, it’s not like the Beacon Motel’s somehow buried beneath the Waterford Condominium Tower. It’s not like years sit atop earlier years, like the present overlays the past. Is it?
It was at the Beacon in 1974 that “Willie the Kid,” carnival worker from Toledo, Ohio, William Elledge, tied up the motel’s proprietors, the Nelsons, and their grandson, having drifted up from two murders in Hollywood, Florida, then shot Paul Nelson to death.
But all those motels are gone. Gone too are the days in the 1950s when middle class white couples could take an affordable day trip to their own private weekend beach cottage. All those motor hotels fell to the rise of condo towers in the ’80s. The motels of the ’70s went seedy. Affordability had gone to rot, bolted to seed at the sea. Working class vacation stays had curdled into drug dens.
“What happened in the ’70s stays in the ’70s,” Ben says, riffing off the Las Vegas tagline and lighting a cigarette beneath the thatch-roof gazebo in his back yard.
2. Obnoxious Hours
The television in the lobby was little bigger than a cinder block. It may have been the Mary Tyler Moore show playing, laughter down low, the breath of the ocean louder through the walls. The atmosphere of panelboard brown smelled just the slightest bit sour in its staleness, an old man’s whiskey sweat.
It was two in the morning, late Sunday, early Monday, when the knock came. Katherine pulled herself together, shuffled to the door and let in the latecomer. Obnoxious hours, hazard of the trade. Just inside, the traveler pulled the handgun. Paul came out behind his wife. The stranger shrugged, ordered them to give him money, but compliance wasn’t sufficient.
So he waved Paul to a chair with his revolver, tied him and gagged him with a pillow case. Then he ordered Katherine down on the bed in the room behind the office, face to the mattress, and tied her hands behind her back.
He roamed the corridors of the little concrete-block lodge, looking for what he might make his. Or believed to be his already. He opened a door on a teenage boy. Grandson of the proprietors, 17 years old. The boy was awake, had heard something that didn’t sound right, wielded a rifle. What happened next blurred at jagged angles. The stranger had the rifle, locked the boy up with his grandparents, and started prowling again.
Sounds of TV laugh tracks muffled in the chirping of crickets from palmetto thickets outside windows, the shallow waters of the temporary lapping at the deep-time chorus of eons. What happened in the moment occurred against all others.
Somehow the Nelsons loosened their bonds as the stranger stalked their motel. Paul grabbed his pistol. Katherine closed and stood behind the door. They awaited the approach of footsteps. When Katherine next opened the door, Billy Elledge shot her husband once in the chest, once in the right shoulder. Paul Nelson was Elledge’s third murder in 36 hours. Katherine collapsed upon her husband, their grandson sunken in shadows. Willie the Kid, the Toledo carny, disappeared into the late beach night early morning.
3. Then Came Florida
He’d taken the carnival circuit through backwaters and fourth-rate towns, helped erect temporary stages, broke down those creaking wooden rides and tattered big-top tents. The carnival was always the best route for the freak. You didn’t need two faces, a stillborn conjoined twin, a head the size of a pin or an extra thousand pounds. You needed to understand your own status outside. Of, period. Preposition need no object.
Men, he believed, needed to roam. Men needed home away from home, the landscape their living room. “Foxes have holes,” he’d say, “and birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man ain’t got nowhere to lay his head.” Nobody commented on the fact he’d compared himself to Jesus. Ninth chapter, Book of Luke. Bill Durks, “the man with two noses and three eyes,” whom he’d met at a sideshow somewhere in Western Pennsylvania, always found a place to lay both faces. It’s a big country, a far bigger continent, and the truest way to live a life within it, he said, is to drift.
Without his temper, the constant tempter, Willie / Billy might have lived such a life happily enough. He got as lost, however, in his own interior as he did in that of the continent. One kind of arousal, not satisfied, necessitated another kind of release. Then came Florida.
Then came the motel at Hollywood Beach on August 24, 1974. He’d checked in at the Normandy Motel at six in the morning, slept until two in the afternoon. He’d come to Florida with his girlfriend Paula. They’d fought, they’d split up, he’d hit bars and drank all day and all night, come back to the room they’d rented together and found it empty, then wandered down to the Normandy. He woke, hit the motel bar, bought beers for a girl named Margaret Strack while he drank liquor.
According to Willie’s later testimony, the two smoked pot in his room, then Margaret rubbed her breasts against him and came out of the bathroom wearing only underwear. When she resisted his attempts at sex, he choked her, assaulted her, killed her.
After he dumped her body in the parking lot for a church called Resurrection in nearby Dania Beach, he drove Margaret’s Chevy Camaro straight into his next tragedy. He retrieved his Colt .38 from his room, having imbibed more beer at the nearby House of Foam, continually downing whiskeys, afternoons blurring through nights, clipped another car and bulldozed a fence into a trailer park.
Elledge wandered on foot to a Pantry Pride grocery near 60th Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, clambered across the roof and slipped down an air vent. Meandering through the store, between the middle of the night and the distant dawn, he expected to encounter no one, but murdered a 47 year old janitor named Edward Lawrence Gaffney, finding him mopping a lonely aisle and ordering him to lie down in a back room.
He took a pack of Viceroy cigarettes from Gaffney’s pocket, stole the change from a donation box for Muscular Dystrophy, then set out into the coming glow of the Florida sun. He thought about fleeing to Canada, that ultimate American fantasy of escape and final freedom. So few Americans make it. He bought a ticker for a much shorter trip instead and boarded a bus north to Jacksonville Beach.
4. View of the Towers From Under the Hill
The Waterford Condominium Tower was built in 1985. The line of oceanfront motels fell to “Condo Row.” The Waterford stands 15 stories tall, 12 floors of single-floor units topped by two stories of townhomes and the penthouse suite.
Bill Brim has visited his friends Sean and Jeff at the Waterford more times than he can count, but says, “The only story I know that could be remotely related to ‘haunted’ would be they got stuck in the elevator.” The Tom Bush family, which owns the Waterford penthouse suite and car dealerships for Mazda, BMW and Volkswagen has no comment.
Michael Palmer Cagle grew up in Jacksonville Beach “when all the old motels were still around.” He and his partner live in the Water’s Edge Condos, but he visits friends in the Waterford. He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, but says he’s felt “presences.” Not in the condos though.
Realtor Jeff Staggs has called the Waterford home the last five years. He moved from a house on Bourbon Alley in Riverside Avondale that friends said was haunted. “Oh, they said they saw ghosts of little kids dancing around the Christmas tree, things like that, but I never saw or felt anything.” That goes for the Waterford too.
“We heard the ghost stories down in The Hill,” Ben Johnson says, referring to several blocks the other side of Beach Boulevard with a bad reputation. “Our old housin’ projects, days before most people knew about the hookers and the drugs. But who’s ‘most people’ anyway? Maybe the people with money didn’t know about they selves. Maybe down in the sand ghetto, we know’d better.”
In 1999, Priscilla Nelson told Paul Demko of The Broward-Palm Beach New Times, “Any time [my great grandmother] talks about it, she gets upset and has to go to the doctor and get sedatives. Nobody in the family has come to terms with it.” When the condos replaced the motels, that landscape of suffering became Katherine’s own. No one else could see it and she could see nothing else.
5. Moonlight Absolution: Breyer’s Dissent and Kelsey’s Dream
Bob Kelsey lives now in Minnesota. He’s resided in plenty of obscure corners around this neverending continent. He stayed once at the Beacon, it might have been 1967, might’ve been ’71. He connected small business vendors to third parties to military commissaries, liked to stay in family-run motor courts in small cities and those scores of American towns nobody outside of them ever heard of.
One night he stayed at the Beacon, downed beers and whiskeys, many too many, with a clean unassuming Methodist Seabee, felt his stomach stretch and his chest ratchet tachycardia. His ears rung ’til his nerves stung and then his legs went numb. (He’s not touched alcohol now for many years.) They’d watched the moon wrench itself drenched from the ocean, wondered briefly were it possible to estimate how many nights people had watched the wet moon rise since human beings became something other than whatever they’d been.
Four times, each sentencing hearing, spanning 20 years, Katherine Nelson traveled from Jacksonville Beach to Fort Lauderdale to recount, one more time, what happened that August night in 1974. The years silted atop the years. The present overlayed the past.
William Elledge was sentenced to life for Katherine’s husband’s murder, but kept eluding a death sentence for Margaret Strack. Katherine was 74 when she last traveled downstate in ’94. She died in 2004. Having served the second longest sentence on Florida’s Death Row, William Duane Elledge was still alive.
When Elledge died in 2008, 57 years old, he’d lived in Union Correctional Institution in Raiford for 33 years. He’d confessed, right away, to all three murders. Then began his complaints. Prosecutorial misconduct. He appealed his death sentence in 1977, 1987 and 1999. He argued the length of his prison stay merited a sentence commuted to life in prison. Falsely, he called himself a “political prisoner,” claimed that though “the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of my crime does not absolve me of my guilt,” he’d killed in a drink- and drug-induced blackout and was not entirely to blame.
“Prison records show,” wrote Robert Santiago of The Miami Herald upon Elledge’s death, “that no family member or friend ever visited Elledge since his incarceration in 1976,” 32 years prior. Though Elledge, 24 years old when he committed the murders, was divorced with three children, “Efforts to locate his family were unsuccessful.”
Paul and Katherine’s grandson has refused to talk about the incident since the late 1990s. He doesn’t see the point. It took everything from his family and discussing it brings nothing back. Life still might, when you’re young, go a million ways. One incident, early in your life, can color all the rest. And then comes the junction when there’s more to look back on than to come. You fear one particular moment might be your last recollection. So to hell with every other moment that should’ve been and why it wasn’t.
Bob Kelsey remembers his night at the Beacon, all those years ago, after the Construction Battalion man admitted he’d never get over his frogman failure, having fantasized of assaulting the enemy from underneath, when he put his hand on Kelsey’s thigh. Kelsey might have, might not have, according to the impairment of his memory, flung the failed frogman over, drunkenly comatose, and let him sleep deeply until the fitfulness of alcoholic (un)rest woke him into a panic.
When the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Elledge’s appeal in 1998, conservative Justice Stephen Breyer issued a dissenting statement, explaining the Supreme Court’s refusal reflected the backwardness and brokenness of the state of Florida. Indeed, Breyer said, Elledge’s imprisonment “for nearly a generation” reflected not “frivolous appeals on his own part,” but “the state’s own faulty procedures.”
In 2005, Elledge’s lawyer, Fort Lauderdale’s Hilliard Moldof, called him “the poster boy for why we shouldn’t be spending all this money and time trying to execute people in this country.”
Kelsey remembers a dream, one of only a few he’s ever recalled, wherein a magnificent bird with silver bones and golden feathers, came down upon the old motel, sunk its yellowed talons into the roof and walls, lifted it up over the dunes and shoals and and reefs and dropped it into sea. And so the old motel, long gone, lives on, dispersed into all the rest of the world.