Malabar Motel Murder

by Tim Gilmore, 5/7/2022

1. A Simple Stupid Murder

It was a stupid crime, senseless, followup to a threat, the robbery and murder of a 31 year old woman who managed the Malabar Motel out north on U.S. 1 with her husband.

Malabar Motel, original postcard, 1960s

It was not the stuff of myth. It wasn’t Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas, but almost nothing later said to be Toole and Lucas was Toole and Lucas.

“I can still see it,” Jim Crosby says. It was almost five in the morning not quite 43 years ago and Jim was a 21 year old patrol officer. When he’d first joined the police force, his mother had to buy his bullets, since he wasn’t old enough. He can see the motel office at the center of the open horseshoe of rooms, the counter, the curtains behind it that separated the office from the Knotts family living quarters, Dianne Knotts lying on her side on the floor behind the counter and bleeding from the bullet hole in her face.

from The Florida Times-Union, November 27, 1979

“The murder was my call,” he wrote in an essay for a Summer 2015 “Animal Crime Scene Processing” class while working on a master’s degree in Veterinary Forensics at the University of Florida. “I look back on it often due to the lack of proper evidence collection and processing, the failure by investigators to use proper procedure, and the readiness to attribute this crime to someone who had nothing to do with it.”

Nearing completion of his Ph.D. in Veterinary Forensics, Jim Crosby is now an internationally sought consultant on animal crime scene cases. Crosby came into the field after the 2001 murder of lacrosse coach Diane Whipple in San Francisco. Whipple was killed by weaponized dogs owned by a member of the neo-Nazi group Aryan Brotherhood and targeted because she was lesbian. Gregarious and gracious, Crosby sits across a bistro table from me in Five Points and recalls this case from the start of his career.

Diane Whipple, courtesy San Francisco Chronicle

He wasn’t two miles from the Malabar when the call came from dispatch, so he turned in the median of New Kings Road and headed northbound, passing two men in an old car with a burned out taillight. That car turned west on Moncrief Road.

Jim would find the car, a couple days later, at a run-down apartment building on Moncrief. By then, he’d located a police report showing two men had threatened Holt Knotts, Dianne’s husband. The address on the report matched that of the rental. The name matched the car’s registration.

Malabar Motel, 2022

But Jim was a young cop, a patrolman, and when he turned the information over to detectives, they ignored it. They’d already compromised the crime scene. He watched them ruin it right before his eyes. Their hubris allowed Dianne Knotts’s murderers to get away. Even worse, detectives later cleared the case, as they cleared scores of others, by pegging the killing on Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas.

photo on Dianne Tadlock Knotts’s headstone in Phenix City, Alabama

After Jim Crosby retired in 1999, his former riding partner Jimmy Parker took over cold cases. The handling of the Malabar murder had bugged Jim his whole career. When Parker looked for the old police reports, the one regarding the original altercation and the one Jim made the morning of the murder, the reports had disappeared. Not only did Dianne Knotts’s murderers escape justice, but now not even their names can be recovered.

2. Justice for Dianne

The November 27, 1979 Florida Times-Union headline announced, “Mother of 3 Slain in Motel Robbery.” The lede said, “A 31 year old mother of three children was shot to death early today in a robbery of a family-run Northside motel.”

Elizabeth Dianne Tadlock Knotts in her bedroom at the Malabar Motel, 1979, image courtesy Knotts family

Elizabeth Knotts was also Dianne Tadlock. The Social Security Application and Claims Index lists her as Elizabeth Dianne Tadlock in 1964, Walker in ’68, when she was 20 years old, Griffin in ’72 and Knotts in April 1976.

When her daughter Brenda started a blog in 2008 called “Justice for Dianne,” she wrote, “Elizabeth Dianne Tadlock, mother of three, was killed at the age of 31 in 1979. Her case is still considered ‘unsolved’; however, the police know who killed her. They just can’t prove it. So we are held in limbo waiting for Justice for Dianne…

Bo and Brenda at the pool at the Malabar Motel, 1979, image courtesy Knotts family

Dianne kept her piano in the motel bedroom. Her kids loved to hear her play and sing, “You Light Up My Life” and the 1972 Donna Fargo song, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”

Sherry was 13 when her mother was murdered, Brenda 12, their little brother Bo 11. They learned to swim in the pool in 1979, which by that time was surrounded by a tall chain link fence that bore a sign saying, “Registered Motel Guests Only.” Brenda learned to operate the motel telephone switchboard.

Brenda at the motel telephone switchboard, 1979, image courtesy Knotts family

Brenda called the Malabar home from early 1979 until 1980 or ’81. She’s not entirely sure when they left. Her stepfather’s friends John and Virginia owned the Malabar and lived with their kids Charles and Becky in the brick ranch-style house next door.

“The two rooms on either side of the office was our bedrooms,” Brenda says, “and there was a kitchen between the rooms and behind the office separated by a two-way mirror that allowed us to see into the office from the kitchen. If you were in the office you only saw a mirror. Sort of like police Interrogation rooms.”

Brenda and Becky at the pool at the Malabar, 1979, image courtesy Knotts family

And then there’s chapter 47 of R.J. Ellory’s 2010 novel The Anniversary Man, which says, “And so it went on – killings through Christmas, through January, February and March of 1980.” It lists bodies dumped “at the side of the highway,” killings of “mom-and-pop owners of a liquor store in Austin, Texas,” then, “Twenty-first of November, while robbing a motel in Jacksonville, Cherokee County, Lucas raped, then shot to death, a thirty-one-year-old woman called Elizabeth Knotts.”

Ellory’s novel is what most novels are: fiction. And you can tell because he says the victim is “called” Elizabeth Knotts that he’s British. Violent American primitivism is exotic to Brits, though they were never as civilized as they thought and we’re even less civilized than they think.

So you might say it doesn’t matter that Ellory says Knotts was raped when she wasn’t, that he fictionalizes the date, that he makes up “Cherokee County.”

But Dianne was a real person. Maybe it’s less objectionable to make fiction of the real person known as Ottis Toole, since he never was innocent, tried to burn down half his neighborhood and walked Main Street for tricks. But who grants innocence and who takes it? Sexually abused from earliest childhood, Ottis was prostituted by his family of prostitutes, likely born brain damaged, never had a chance. Ottis aside, what did Dianne Tadlock do to wrap herself into his mythology, the urban legends and true crime paperbacks, his Ottissey?

3. Crime Scene Compromised

When Jim arrived, the first officer at the scene, he saw tire tracks in the dirt parking lot, just after 4:30 a.m., and had the presence of mind to “pull up short” and tell his backup to angle his car to block off the area. He told Holt Knotts and the couple’s three children, 12 and 13 year old daughters, Brenda and Sherry, and 11 year old Bo, to stay behind the curtain that walled the living area off from the office.

Malabar Motel office, 2022

Jim and his backup called for detectives and an evidence technician. “I had been trained how to do this,” Jim tells me four decades later, “and I’m looking around at these detectives I’m supposed to respect and I’m seeing they’re doing absolutely everything wrong.”

“The first detective on scene drove between the two police cars blocking off the possible tire marks and obliterated them,” Jim wrote in his 2015 essay. Then detectives destroyed sheetrock on all sides of the office, trying to dig out bullets, and covering Dianne in debris. She had a .22 caliber revolver in her right hand. Nobody tested her for GSR (gunshot residue).

Officer K.L. DeHart, evidence technician, arrived and started to document and photograph the scene, recognized it was already compromised, and noted a bullet one detective had dug from the wall and “damaged beyond ballistic comparison.” Latent fingerprint technology at the time was “brush-and-carbon-dust.” Only smudges emerged from the cash register. Blood spatter patterns went undocumented, Dianne’ own gun disturbed, opened, altered. Was she struck by a single gunshot traveling through her hand and into her face or shot twice?

Detectives not only ruined the scene but ignored young a patrolman’s followup efforts. They were arrogant, sloppy, entitled. They thought of patrol cops, especially brand new to the force, as nobodies, dismissible. Perhaps they’d already settled on their narrative, suited what evidence they accepted to match it, flattered their own intelligence.

Jim spoke to the owner of a junkyard, a few hundred yards the other side of New Kings, wakened by his dogs barking at 4:30 that morning. A trail of blood led from the motel office across the dirt parking lot to the street. Tire tracks marked where a car had been parked in front of the junkyard.

After Jim tracked the car with the burnt-out tail light, he spoke to neighbors of the apartment on Moncrief where the car had been parked. That early morning, oh yeah, one of the two men, crying out, said he’d taken an accidental bullet.

You know how good ol’ boys could be at night with a few too many drinks. Just fooling around. He’d taken a hit and driven all the way to Waycross, Georgia, 70 miles away, for treatment, bypassing the four or five Jacksonville hospitals he could have visited. Records requests showed the man owned a handgun. He’d fled the day Jim checked on the car.

4. Patsy Toole

Almost everything ever written about Ottis Toole is wrong. Blatant examples: that Ottis, in concert with his lover Henry Lee Lucas, murdered around 600 people; that he was a Satanist; or a necrophiliac; or a cannibal; that he was a CIA operative; that he trained at a secret Satanist camp in the Everglades; that in 1981 he murdered Adam Walsh, son of John Walsh, who later hosted the TV series America’s Most Wanted.

Ottis Toole mugshot, 1982

Toole and Lucas met on Valentine’s Day, 1976, at the City Rescue Mission in Jacksonville. Lucas, a Texas drifter, scrapped metal. Ottis’s mother, Sarah Harley, kept him a room “fixed up” at her house on East First Street. She took care of him always, pampered him. He stayed in half a dozen or more boarding houses across then-derelict Victorian Springfield and loved to set them on fire. He donned makeup and his sisters’ clothes and turned tricks on Main Street. His IQ variously registered between 68 or 75. Ottis only ever killed a boarder named George Sonnenburg, when he set afire the grand old house on East 2nd Street owned by his employer Betty Goodyear.

Old City Rescue Mission Building, Laura and Beaver Streets, photo by Virginia King, 1970s

In my 2013 book, Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic, I tried to write all the different versions of Ottis against each other, but the book takes stamina to get through. The Jax-based writer Johnny Masiulewicz called it “a 400 page fever dream,” which is true. Others have said it’s too repetitively lurid, or luridly repetitive, which is also true. Then Stalking Ottis Toole took the stage at Florida State College at Jacksonville in 2017. Still Ottis wasn’t finished with me. More Ottis stories kept rearing their heads, dictating themselves to me, and I transcribed them, at JaxPsychoGeo and in my 2020 book Murder Capital: 8 Stories, 1890s-1980s.

After Ottis and Henry went to prison, in Florida and Texas respectively, they started confessing to lists of violent crimes that helped investigators jack up their clearance rates and made the confessors “important” criminals. In his 2015 essay, Jim Crosby wrote about the problems of a “culture of clearance” in police departments.

Ottis Toole’s 1971 Cadillac, photo Florida Department of Law Enforcement, 1983

It was Ottis Toole brought me and Jim together. Every time I’m done with Ottis, he knocks on my door. Another arson, never solved, comes to my attention, and it’s Ottis and I have to write it. His “death car,” for which he never had a license, disappears from police evidence, then reappears 40 years later in my rearview mirror. One Saturday at the end of April 2022, I meet Jim Crosby at San Marco Bookstore and he tells me there’s a murder case that’s bothered him since 1979, that it was pegged on a patsy named Ottis Toole.

5. A Culture of Clearance

The final moments of the 1970s were the last days of the Wild West. So says Jim Crosby at a coffeeshop in Riverside in 2022. He creases his brow thoughtfully but playfully, says, “You know why people become police officers?”

He says, “Most of us want to do good, make a difference, all that stuff, but more than pie-in-the-sky, it’s because we’re nosy bastards. That’s it. We can’t keep our noses out of other people’s business.” He rolls his eyes at the idea of police conspiracy theories. There’s a saying that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, but a whole police department?

former Jacksonville Police Headquarters, 711 Liberty Street, 1970s, courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jim finished police academy, he says, just as the force was becoming less corrupt. Progress occurred, though it was “patchy.” Cops beat people up, but did so less frequently. Jim’s father was an Episcopal priest and had become police chaplain two years before Jim joined the force, but that was a separate pressure.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office moved into its new address at 501 East Bay Street not long after Jim became an officer. Stories about bad cop behavior trickled down to rookies. “When we were still at 711 [Liberty Street],” Jim says, officers congregated in the next-door parking lot and passed drinks around. They worked a rotation of shifts and after leaving work at the crack of dawn on Monday morning, not having to return to work until Tuesday afternoon, a sense of carnival took over.

Jacksonville police fundraisers featured pro-execution t-shirts and shirts that said, “Sleep Safe Tonight, Sleep with a Cop,” image from The Miami News, July 19, 1979

“The Navy had its offices for Shore Patrol right on the other side of the police department. In came complaints of officers getting tanked and shooting out street lights in front of Shore Patrol.” He raises his hand, as if to say, “Scout’s honor.” It was a time period “when women would get passed from one police car to the next.”

But “the culture of clearance,” as Jim calls it, was one of the most troubling aspects of police culture. In his 2015 essay, he writes, “The case languished for many years. I was transferred and left the investigation to the detectives. I found out a few years ago that the case had been ‘cleared’ by detectives and assigned to Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole.”

Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole

I’m intrigued by his use of the word “assigned.” All words are polysemous, but Toole and Lucas being “assigned” this case makes them sound like they were on payroll. They might as well have been. Across the country, but especially in Florida, Toole and Lucas falsely confessed to hundreds of crimes and allowed police departments to clear old cases.

The way Jim puts it over coffee is less polished than what he says in his essay. “Whenever, for instance,” he writes, “a suspect in, say, an armed robbery was killed by police in a stakeout for business robberies, multiple cases in the area were ‘cleared,’ even though the suspect description may have been profoundly different.”

Over coffee, Jim describes multiple robbery stakeouts at Minute Markets or other convenience stores in the Springfield area in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He describes police “hiding in the cooler,” jumping out, shouting, “Don’t move!” and shooting, with a “high chance that someone was getting shot dead.”

When that happened, “it cleared cases all the way from Gateway to Downtown.” It didn’t matter if you’d shot a midget,” he says, and the suspect was 6’9”. He saw cases cleared when the deceased was a different race from the subject. He stresses that he spent his whole career in patrol and was never a detective. Clearance wasn’t a goal for patrolmen, but he saw false clearance happen time after time.

The Miami Herald, two years after the Hollywood Police Department declared via “exceptional clearance” that Ottis Toole killed Adam Walsh

When in 2008, the Hollywood [Florida] Police Department declared Ottis Toole the murderer of six year Adam Walsh in 1981, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, Chief Chad Wagner cited an instance of “exceptional clearance.” If clearance was a problematic practice, exceptional clearance was exceptionally dubious.

One of the last photos of Ottis Toole, Florida State Prison in Raiford, December 1995

Ottis had died of cirrhosis in 1996. He’d made and retracted numerous false confessions in 1983, unable to keep more than a single fact straight. The Hollywood Police Department had “lost” crucial evidence in the case, including the so-called “death car.” No one had brought Ottis Toole to trial for the murder of Adam Walsh, but with exceptional clearance, no trial was necessary. All that was necessary was death of the suspect, any suspect. Case closed. Mystery solved.

6. Footnotes in Infamy; Or, The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.

A job in motel management might bring a sense of responsibility, especially if the job adjoined lodgings. It wasn’t always easy to find work and it wasn’t always easy to find a place to stay. These “motor hotels” had opened as middle class establishments for day trips in the 1940s and ’50s, just before the interstate highway system destroyed smaller highways.

This stretch of the King’s Road, an old Spanish and English footway traced over indigenous walkways across Florida hundreds if not thousands of years old, had become already infamous. In the footsteps of colonizers and American slavery and Jim Crow laws, racial violence bled into this landscape to seed itself up sadly in sidewalks and trees and boys walking home from school and liquor stores and burning Ku Klux Klan crosses.

Just around the corner from the Shaw family’s landscaping company, their Confederate flags hoisted high over the beltway of I-295, white supremacists murdered Johnnie Mae Chappell in 1964, and though Chappell’s was one of thousands of area racist murders, hers, as mother of 10, a woman who made her living cleaning the homes of wealthy whites, stirred white consciences and galvanized mainstream media outlets.

“Oh I be glad to let you into the office,” Cheryl says, a rare white face at the Malabar, almost 50 years after the murder of which she’s never heard. She’s the office manager. She turns to the suspicious black woman seated in the lawn chair before the room next door, says, “Ain’t it open?” Cheryl’s been here for 15 years, raised her kids here, though she’s in her 60s, and is eager to learn the Malabar’s early history, claiming the motel was built in 1929.

The suspicious woman mmhmmms that the place was built in ’29, but says maybe it was the ’40s or ’50s, says she’s been here since the ’80s and wants to know where I was when the baby drowned in the swimming pool then. Yes, she says, she’s seen the old post cards, shames me for not knowing when the baby died, for that’s when the pool was filled in.

Steven Paul McKenney, image courtesy Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office

She reminds me of the three mistrials of Steven Paul McKenney, Navy veteran and CSX rail transportation employee, accused of strangling his roommate, Terry Edward Blount, with a rope and breaking his neck here at the Malabar. One news lede began, “A shady hotel, a cocaine binge and a murder mystery that lacks a conviction.”

Malabar Motel, original postcard, 1960s

When the Malabar was new in the 1950s, it was a cozy blue collar daytrip inn. It was hot enough in the summer to convince visitors they were on the Malabar Coast of southwestern India, if they knew such a place existed. Old postcards show clean-cut white folks gathered around the swimming pool, big umbrellas and inflatable beach balls, garden gnomes assembled by the diving board.

Malabar Motel, original postcard, 1960s

In 1969, Junior Olympians stayed at the Malabar when they traveled to Jacksonville for the track-and-field meet. Ottis Toole, most likely, never set foot here; he certainly never murdered anyone here. Yet lies, both Ottis’s and official, made the Malabar, and Dianne Tadlock, unfair footnotes in his infamy.

But the Malabar was the Malabar before and apart from all this sordid history. And Elizabeth Dianne Knotts was Dianne when she was Dianne Tadlock before she was Dianne Walker and before she was Dianne Griffin and before she was Elizabeth Knotts in newspaper stories. She was Dianne when her hair was blonder and her permanent central incisors hadn’t yet come in and she wore that big collar with the big buttons and that big smile.

Dianne Tadlock, mid-1950s, image courtesy Knotts family

She was Dianne when she played the piano and sang, “Shine on me, Sunshine. / Walk with me, World.” She was Dianne when she brushed Brenda’s long brown hair and John and Virginia’s little girl Becky’s long golden curls. She was Dianne when she sang, “Do you love wakin’ up next to me / As much as I love wakin’ up next to you?” She’s Dianne in that blurred shadowy image, orbs before cheekbones beneath dark eyes in shade, curls piled up and dark turtleneck sweater; if innocent, also mysterious. She was Dianne when she played the piano in her bedroom behind the curtains and that two-way mirror behind the front office and sang, “It’s a skippidy doo dah day. / I’m the happiest girl in the whole U.S.A.”

Elizabeth Dianne Tadlock Knotts, late 1970s, image courtesy Knotts family