by Tim Gilmore, 2/26/2017
She names the killer, but says he didn’t kill those girls. His name was convenient, that’s all. Then she names the boy she believes the real killer, says he lives in Tennessee.
“He always said he’d killed before, he’d kill again.”
Throughout the years, he’d joked about it. Homicide detectives never believed he did it. He never was right and wasn’t too bright. From his earliest years, he’d found the sickest things funny. It was hard to understand just what he understood or couldn’t understand.
“How do you know what you’re telling me?” I ask her.
“Ever’body out there knows it.”
“Maybe so, but how? How do they know? How do you know?”
“He always talked about it.”
“But if he did it, why did he do it?”
Her voice shakes, but she doesn’t pause. “He was molestin’ those girls.”
I ask her about the supposed serial killer the police believed responsible.
“That boy didn’t kill those girls. He was just convenient. He grew up close by, hung out with their mama. It was easy to put it on him after they done searched and couldn’t find the girls.”
She’s not the only family member I’ve heard from. Another woman tells me, “Nobody has the right to go back in them woods,” even though the State of Florida recently acquired the lowland seeps and forests, fenced them off, and labeled them a “nature preserve.”
If these woods are “nature,” they’re Eden darkly tainted, a Paradise already Hellish before being “Lost.” Thousands of faded beer cans litter this forest floor, dozens of old tires and perhaps as many mounds of rusted shapes grown over with milkwort and pine straw and years of deciduous leaf-fall. Saplings rise from earthen scars from which rise also rusted gears and popped springs and broken wheels.
Two or three barrows, which feed young trees, cover rusted and collapsed junked cars. You could say the earth forgives, but it’s perdurable renewal is never so personal.
“He wudden the only one either,” the first woman tells me. “A lot of molestin’ happened back there in them woods. I never did tell. Well I’m 80 years old now and I’m livin’ on an oxygen machine. Lots of people’s died that I wouldn’t tell it while’s they was alive.”
The dirt road courses and loops deep into these woods. Nearby sound the firings of shotguns. The upper levels of young growth reach green, but clearly these woods burnt recently black. I acknowledge two squat palms beneath the oaks, green and black and blue, beer cans and whiskey bottles and rusted springs and car tires at their roots.
The second woman tells me, “Nobody’s got the right to go into them woods. Our great-grandfather owned all that land, from water to water, the Florida government gave it to him to farm it, he defended the Confederacy. If you want to go into them woods, I need to check with the family. You let me check with the family. They’ll decide if you can go back in there and they’ll decide what you can say.”
The first woman says, “He gloated. He told ever’body he done it.”
“Why was he never charged?”
“Wudden no evidence.”
“The police questioned him.”
“They certainly did.”
“But they passed him up.”
“Ever’body ignored him the same way ever’body knew what he said was true. They just said he was crazy. He was too. He was crazy so he killed them girls. He was crazy so nobody believed him when he said he did it. Same thing.”
He’d talk more and more the more he got to drinking, and every night he got to drinking, and their daddy could never come up from his depression enough to engage the confessions, and their mama, she “must’a known it, but she could’n’a never said it.”
“But ever’body out there knows it,” she says. “I grew up right there. My daddy was them girls’s uncle. I ain’t lived there since I was a child. That’s ’cause I know what-all’s in there.”
“Whatever she said,” the second woman says, “she ain’t got no business sayin’ it. Whatever I might think about who she said done it, and I know who she said, it wood’n be right for me to say. Wood’n be right for you to say it neither, and don’t’choo say it.”
The first woman says, “He done killed his wife too. She burnt up in the bed. No proof he killed nobody. But he always said he’d killed and he’d kill again. He always said he did. Said he buried one right there at the Gator Hole.”
“The Gator Hole?”
“That’s what ever’body called it. We called it the Duck Pond. But ever’body called it the Gator Hole.”
“The Gator Hole’s right across the cemetery?”
“You go walk around it. The land sinks down about a foot, and the water does the opposite. You can walk on the water out there like Jesus done. It’s Jesus and the alligators live there. It’s their place. I wood’n be surprised to see a ’gator walkin’ upright like Jesus out there. I’m an old woman now. I’m on a oxygen machine. But I sure played out in the Gator Hole when I was a child and that’s where he said he buried her.”
“Said he buried the other one down at Cedar Point, you know, by the tabby ruins.”
The second woman says, “You don’t believe a single thing she might’a said. She has no way to know. Whatever she could know she hasn’t got a way to know it. Wood’n be right for me to say the name.”
I sit down at my desk in my office, tired, set down my tumbler of bourbon, hit the button, and after the long beep, hear the voice of the first woman from 4:17 a.m., 20 hours ago.
“I had a discussion with some of my family members, and, uh, we all come to the conclusion that we prob’ly was just protectin’ our family’s the reason why we didn’t get into all the details of, uh, the family doin’ the killin’, if you know what I mean, it’s just a family thing, and then we had our uncle that we had to protect him until he died, and so we just decided it was family.”
After a long pause, her voice returns, clearly shaking: “I hope you see how things was and understand how we needs to remain. Alright then. It was real nice talkin’ to you.”