by Tim Gilmore, 11/8/2018
1. “I Am the Judge and I Am God”
Vera Gould was returning to Wales, to the country of her birth. Her husband had died the year before and she was lonely. She’d planted a For Sale sign in her front yard on 17th Avenue North, Jacksonville Beach. Later, Vera Gould’s granddaughter, K. Hester, stepdaughter of former Mayor Hans Tanzler’s Chief Aid Lex Hester and niece of Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Mike Gould, said she, her fiancé and his sister had stabbed the 74 year old woman to death “to drive out Satan.”
After K. Hester, Billy Lee Magnuson and Billy Lee’s sister Renee choked the elderly woman with a “piece of metal,” stuffed her mouth with paper, stabbed her to death with a butcher knife, set the knife on the kitchen table, and set five small fires around the kitchen, police found them walking the neighborhood barefoot, “chanting strange phrases.” They were arrested at 18th Avenue North and 3rd Street North, by Fletcher Junior High, just after six in the evening. Billy Lee was 20 years old, the girls both 19.
Newspapers soon quoted Billy Lee and K. calling Vera Gould “Satan,” themselves “the New Trinity” and Lex Hester “the Antichrist.” They’d had some kind of religious experience together in Savannah, Georgia and North Carolina. Headlines called the murder a “Ritual Killing,” a “Ritualistic Knife Death,” a “Satanic Slaying,” and “the Satan Killing.”
At their bail hearing, when County Judge Louis C. Corbin asked K. Hester if she wanted the court to provide her an attorney, she said, “I feel my silence will serve as my attorney. Therefore, my lips will keep closed.” She stood before the judge wearing a sleeveless sundress and no shoes, her hair and eyes wild.
In her Florida Times-Union story, Jessie-Lynne Kerr described Billy Lee Magnuson as “a tall, slender man with short dark hair and a thin mustache.” Kerr said he “was smiling while trembling and at one point appeared to laugh.”
Newspapers at first reported the three were “on drugs,” though psychiatrists later said testing had shown “no evidence of any drugs or alcohol.”
When Judge Corbin asked Billly Lee why he declined an attorney, he said, “I am the judge and I am God and you know my voice, don’t you?”
Corbin asked, “Is there any other reason?” and Billy Lee replied, “Is there any better reason?”
Renee Magnuson appeared before the judge wearing a green sweater, white slacks, and wedge sandals. She seemed dazed, but said nothing “out of the ordinary.”
On his booking sheet, Billy Lee Magnuson listed “God and Jesus Christ” as an alias, “self-employed” for his employer, “Heaven” as his employer’s address, and “He is his religion” for religion.
Kerr wrote, “Jacksonville Beach Fire Captain Frank Brunson […] refused to speculate on the origin of the fires, nor would he confirm or deny that several lighted candles were found,” adding, “Satanic rituals often involve the use of candles.”
2. “Oh Here’s to My Sweet Satan”
The Magnusons and K. Hester showed obvious signs of psychosis, but the eagerness for reporters to call them a “Satanic cult” and the killing a “Satanic ritual” led newspapers to distort the case.
In the late 1970s, Satanism and “Devil Worship” became favorite urban legends. While people most easily swept up in the “Satanic Panic” were Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals, newspapers and law enforcement fell for the falsehoods too.
Around the country, things had gone wrong, come undone, turned inside out. Young people had upended sexual and gender norms, drug use became normal, gas stations ran out of gas, cities went bankrupt, and violent crime soared. In the 1970s, all the flower-power “Age of Aquarius” utopianism of the ’60s crashed into a decade-long bad acid trip.
Religious conservatives saw the Devil everywhere. Anton LaVey had founded the Church of Satan in 1966 and published The Satanic Bible in 1969. The peace sign was a Satanic symbol, an upside-down cross with the arms broken downward. The bestselling 1980 memoir Michelle Remembers supposedly represented a woman’s uncovered and repressed memories from when she was a child possessed by the Devil. Fundamentalist and evangelical church groups played rock songs backward, claiming that backward messages, even when listened to normally, influenced teens to worship the Devil and kill their parents.
Played backward, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” said, “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan.” Listening to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Eldorado” backward, evangelicals heard, “Christ, you’re infernal” and “Everyone who has the mark will live.” They said “the mark” referred to the number 666, “the mark of the Beast,” or the Antichrist. The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” backward, informed listeners, “Satan organized his own religion.” The Eagles, church groups said, posed Anton LaVey, looking from an arched window over a courtyard, for the album’s inside cover art, and the song line “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969” referred to the year LaVey published The Satanic Bible. “Hotel California,” from which “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave,” Christian evangelicals said, was a euphemism for the Church of Satan.
The cultural fascination with the Devil in the 1970s and early ’80s led law enforcement, the press, and the public to believe the most ridiculous stories of Ottis Toole, the fake serial killer who claimed to have murdered hundreds of people, to have had sex with, cooked and eaten them, even to have been a secret agent for a Satanic cult that met in the Everglades and exerted influence at all levels of society and government. In the early 1980s, Ottis Toole’s tall tales closed cold case files all over Florida and the South, with law enforcement officers rarely questioning his “confessions.”
Billy Lee’s and K.’s bizarre statements included mentions of Satan and the Antichrist, but the three young people believed they were doing God’s work. They never claimed to worship the Devil.
Having recently undergone some kind of life-changing religious experience together in Savannah and North Carolina, it was Satan they were trying to kill, unfortunately in the form of K. Hester’s grandmother. They also believed they had the Antichrist in their sites. Billy Lee told psychiatrist Ernest Miller the Antichrist was none other than K.’s stepfather, the former Jacksonville chief administrator and architect of Jacksonville-Duval County Consolidation, Lex Hester.
3. The End of the World, 1982
Two days after the murder, December 17 headlines announced, “Hester to Visit Girl After Satanic Slaying.”
Lewis Alexander Hester III grew up just outside Jacksonville in Neptune Beach and studied public administration at Florida State University. In 1965, civic leader J.J. Daniel, spearheading the effort to consolidate the governments of Jacksonville and Duval County, appointed Hester chair of the new Local Government Study Commission of Duval County, for which he directed the “Blueprint for Improvement” to outline Consolidation.
Hester served as chief administrator for Mayor Hans Tanzler, from the beginning of consolidated government in 1968 to 1975, and later as chief administrator for Broward County, for the City of Orlando, and again for Jacksonville in the 1990s.
“Broward County Administrator Lewis Hester said he’d leave for Jacksonville after work today,” wrote Steve Parker of The Fort Lauderdale News on Friday, December 17, “where he hopes to see his 19-year-old stepdaughter, charged Wednesday in the satanic cult-linked slaying of her grandmother.”
Hester never formally adopted K., his first wife’s daughter from a previous husband, but K. lived with Hester and her mother from age three to her mid-teens and took his last name. He hadn’t seen her in over six months, since she’d last visited him in Fort Lauderdale in May. He said, “It’s a terrible tragedy,” added that K. had abused drugs in the past, but said, “She is still my daughter.”
For the past several years, K. had moved back and forth between her mother Phyllis Joanna Hester in Savannah and her maternal grandmother Vera Gould at Jacksonville Beach.
Tracey Hester Flynn, K.’s half-sister, the daughter of Lex and Joanna Hester, says no one in the family discusses the murder, though Tracey occasionally sees her sister on holidays.
“I was a small child,” Tracey says. “No one in the family will discuss it. It’s never even been discussed with me.”
By the end of January 1977, psychiatrist Ernest Miller reported that K. Hester and the Magnuson siblings “had been intensely involved in a religious experience in Savannah,” that K. believed she was “endowed with special” powers she called “the seven gifts of Abraham” and exerted a strong psychological influence over Billy Lee and Renee.
A close family friend of the Hesters in the 1970s says K. met Billy Lee and Renee in Savannah, when Billy Lee was stationed at the army airfield at nearby Fort Stewart. “They went up into North Carolina together and had some kind of religious experience there,” she says.
On January 14, 1977, the Associated Press reported that Billy Lee may have had some kind of psychotic break when he joined the Army, at which time he’d also become intensely religious. Psychiatrist Eduardo Sanchez said, “He went back to his family in New York and they noticed a tremendous religiosity in him, something out of character with his previous beliefs.”
Ernest Miller, meanwhile, referred to the Magnusons as “very disturbed persons.” He said, “Both suffered great psychological and physical abuse at the hands of their natural parents.”
In Savannah, K. first met Renee, who “easily fell under [her] dominance,” Miller reported. Renee then started to mimic K. “in mannerisms and even speech.” When K. met Billy Lee, Miller said, “he also fell under [her] persuasion.” Miller called K. Hester “the strongest of the three personalities,” and said Billy Lee and Renee “quickly allowed her to organize and take control of the situation.”
Newswire headlines said, “Hester’s Stepdaughter Committed to Mental Hospital,” and on January 29, 1977, The Florida Times-Union announced, “3 Held in Ritual Murder Ruled Schizoid, Hospitalized.”
Jessie-Lynne Kerr wrote that “all three defendants” were staying in the psychiatric ward at University Hospital. Ernest Miller said they “commonly shared a visual hallucination on at least one occasion.” Billy Lee called himself “the last prophet,” said the world would be destroyed in 1982, and promised to fight the Antichrist at that time.
Wrote Kerr, “Billy identified the Anti-Christ as being K.’s stepfather, Lex Hester, Broward County administrator and former chief administrative officer under Mayor Hans Tanzler.”
4. Sharing Psychosis to Keep the Peace
Though newspapers reported K. Hester the “dominant personality,” each story showed Billy Lee the central and most charismatic character. It was Billy Lee who said he was God, that he lived in Heaven. It was Billy Lee who said he was going to fight Lex Hester, the Antichrist, at the end of the world. It was Billy Lee, the United Press International reported on January 14, 1977, who said the Army was training him to use nuclear weapons.
So it makes sense that psychiatrist Eduardo Sanchez, who met with K. Hester and the Magnusons in early January 1977, recalls Billy Lee as the dominant personality in a trio of shared psychosis called folie à trois.
“I remember talking to Magnuson,” Sanchez says, pausing to express wonder that the case was more than 40 years ago. “He was fully psychotic. He was chanting and telling me he was God. I couldn’t even take a full history from him. It was impossible to have a reasonable conversation with him.”
Sanchez recalls Billy Lee’s psychotic reasoning, that he kept claiming Vera Gould was still alive. “He kept telling me he was God and that the grandmother was not dead.” Paradoxically, he both admitted he had stabbed Gould to death and maintained that he didn’t kill her.
His logic went like this. He said he’d closed his eyes when he killed her. He said he was God and God sees everything. Since he’d closed his eyes when he killed her, he didn’t see the killing. Since God sees everything and he, God, did not see her die, Vera Gould was still alive.
Sanchez believes the three young people suffered a shared psychosis, but perhaps only Billy Lee was schizophrenic. Four decades ago, Sanchez diagnosed him “schizophrenic of the paranoid type.” Regarding K. Hester and Renee Magnuson, Sanchez says, “A person can have a psychotic episode without being schizophrenic.”
Sanchez would later testify in court about the mental state of Ottis Toole, who suffered under the influence of his lover, the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, in a shared psychosis, a folie à deux. A shared psychosis, Sanchez says, occurs when a weaker personality becomes completely dependent on a stronger personality that happens to be psychotic.
“The weaker person will change his perception of reality to maintain the psychological connection with the stronger person,” Sanchez says. “You can see, even in a marriage, how in order to keep the peace, one partner will distort his or her reality to match that of the other. In a folie à deux or folie à trois, the psychotic process is transferred to someone else to maintain the relationship.”
Whatever religious experience Billy Lee and Renee Magnuson had with K. Hester in Savannah, Georgia and North Carolina back in the fall of 1976, Sanchez believes K. and Renee fully shared the psychosis of the dominant Billy Lee, who had defeated the-Devil-as-K.’s-grandmother and was ready to fight the-Antichrist-as-K’s-stepfather, Lex Hester.
5. “We May Never Pass This Way Again”
Vera Gould had “led such a full life with her husband and family that at times she’d talk of not being needed any longer,” said an anonymous teenage friend of both K. Hester and her grandmother. “The Friend,” as Bob Price of The Florida Times-Union called her in his December 17, 1976 story, “would visit Mrs. Gould even when K. wasn’t in town.”
“Lonely but friendly to all” was how The Friend and Gould’s neighbors described her. She missed her deceased husband, John Russell Gould, terribly. When she sold her house, she would return to Wales, where she’d grown up.
The Friend said she felt closer to Vera Gould than to her own grandmother. In fact, she’d met K. while visiting Gould one day, not the other way around. She told Bob Price, “I’m still stunned at the news. K. just couldn’t do something like that. I thought K. had everything straightened out.” When Price asked her what she meant by that, The Friend “wouldn’t elaborate.”
Vera and John Gould had married during World War I. After the war, John worked as a chef at Hotel Statler and other hotels in New York. Once, when the Goulds operated a nightclub during Prohibition in the 1920s, they were robbed by Al Capone’s gang.
* * *
In 1977, K. Hester was indicted. After her charges were dropped for reasons of “insanity,” she spent time in a state mental institution. Two years later, she married and had a son and a daughter. She works sporadically as a hairstylist.
* * *
A close family friend of the Hesters in the 1970s says, “Lex was devastated, shocked and heartbroken for K.”
Richard Bowers, who worked for Mayors Jake Godbold and Tommy Hazouri and first met Lex Hester in 1971, says, “Lex was one of the smartest people I ever knew and an absolute gentleman. When I had my heart attack in 2000, he was the first person to visit me in the hospital.” Within months, Lex Hester suffered a heart attack and died. He was 64.
* * *
Renee Magnuson served on Chittenango High School Student Council in 1975. In her yearbook, she wrote: “Ambition: Receive my RN [Registered Nurse training], get married and have a happy life. I’d like to forget: My faults during the past 2 years. I’ll never forget: A lot of beautiful people and places in my past life.” ’75 was the school’s centennial. Kids posed in a giant 100 on the school lawn. The Palladium’s staff captioned the photo, “We May Never Pass This Way Again.”
Renee now goes by a married surname and has lived in several places around Florida and North Carolina, where she currently works as a shift manager at a Dollar General store.
* * *
In 1997, Billy Lee Magnuson married “Reverend Carole,” who’d been attending a religious commune called Dayspring Farms in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina since the late 1970s. It’s likely Billy Lee brought Renee and K. Hester to this encampment in the Outer Banks, that Dayspring is the place the Hester family friend referred to when saying, “They went up into North Carolina together and had some kind of religious experience there,” that Kill Devil Hills is where the New Trinity had their “religious experience” before trying to kill the Devil in the form of K.’s grandmother.
In 2004, “the Apostle Bill” and Carole Magnuson founded a church called House of David Ministries in Virginia Beach, 90 miles north of Kill Devil Hills. On November 18, 2015, Bill told his congregation, “My precious wife, Reverend Carole Magnuson, went home to be with Jesus yesterday at 2:55 pm.” On November 30, Bill’s son posted on Facebook, “Last night, I’m sorry to say, my dad passed away. It was quick and he didn’t suffer.” Carole’s obituary said she had “heard from the Lord Jesus” at age six that “in her Golden years she would pastor a church.”
In a 2016 blog called “Dayspring Remembers Bill and Carol [sic] Magnuson,” Mike Parsons writes, “We at Dayspring Farms were honored to fulfill Sister Carole and Brother Bill’s last request that they be laid to rest here on the Farm.” Funeral services consisted of a eulogy and “the blowing of the Shofar.” Carole had visited 59 countries and was 59 years old. So was Bill.
“Sister Carole,” Parsons writes, first came to Kill Devil Hills in the late 1970s, when “Revival was still going strong […] We would have meetings at many different houses as well as churches. Carole often hosted meetings while she lived here on the Outer Banks.”
Parsons writes about “the Pentecostal Camp in Virginia” where “Carole had been going […] for years,” about traveling to other countries, about “praying-in” Bible smugglers to Vietnam, about how in Saigon, “During prayer they began to laugh in the Spirit as somehow they knew God had assigned angels to help and they were doing something so funny,” about how “when Bill and Carole moved to Franklin, Virginia, the Lord had Carole go pray for this one church every day for six years.” Finally, after six years of daily prayer outside the church, God told her to come inside, where “the pastor said to her, ‘Come up here. The Lord says you are to take this service.’ As Carole was preaching shortly after that, healings began and other gifts of the Spirit began to manifest.”
After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Parsons writes, Pastors Bill and Carole prayed with a small group of people “on the Farm,” when someone said, “I hear bells.” Parsons says, “The next day a woman was rescued from the rubble [in Haiti] who said, ‘I heard bells and had hope I would survive.’”
* * *
Rattan chairs wait at the top of the driveway at the house where The New Trinity murdered Vera Gould. The lawn remains manicured, the hedges trimmed, the house shingles maintained. Power lines and phone lines hang swayback over rooftops. Telecommunications towers rise from heavy palm fronds on street corners. Plaster dolphins and manatee stand faithfully in front yards holding mailboxes.
I want to skip onto a stranger’s lawn, open a mailbox, thank a smiling plaster dolphin, and retrieve a letter from 1975 that tells me, “Everything will be alright.”
I circle a baseball diamond, listen to the rattling of palm fronds. All streets carry a presence, both other and more than that of the lives that inhabit them. Land was sentient even before the countless stories enacted and left themselves in the land. The sensitive landscape echoes.
Fletcher Junior High’s become Fletcher Middle School, and San Pablo Elementary has mushroomed up beside it. At the street corner where police found The New Trinity, not two weeks before Christmas in 1976, barefoot and dazed, chanting unintelligibly, a pickup truck idles, palms and oaks tilt, and condo towers block the beachfront.
A self-acknowledged hippy who lives just down 17th Avenue North takes his girlfriend for shrimp tacos and carnitas braised in orange juice and Coke around the corner at TacoLu. They’re kind, gracious, gentle people. Recently they won two goldfish and three stuffed animals downtown at the county fair. She tells him, “You make me so happy.” It’s a good word with which to end any story. Everybody loves a happy ending.