This chapter of Tim Gilmore’s Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic is part of the only biography of the supposed serial killer Ottis Toole. Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic is the only full-length exploration of the contradictions of Jacksonville’s Ottis Toole and the story that supposedly led to one of America’s worst serial killers.
January 4, 1982. The Florida Times-Union.
“4 injured in rooming-house fire.”
“Four people were injured—one critically—when a fire started last night on the first floor of a two-story Springfield rooming house and spread rapidly to the upstairs rooms, forcing at least four people to jump.”
Regina Hersey was 15 years old. The newspaper said she was 16. She had been in Springfield for a week. She would spend much of the 1980s wondering if she’d lived that week in that 1880s Victorian house with serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, wondering if she recognized Ottis Toole’s picture because she had seen him in the crowd that watched the house burn, the crowd that watched her fall to the ground from that rear second-story window and break her back.
She spent much of the 1980s thinking about how one night had changed her life, thinking about the psychological basis of evil, and the theological basis for damaged children growing up to damage other people.
In January of 1982, she had just married David Davis. He was 19 years old. They had eloped. Regina grew up on Amelia Island in an affluent enclave north of Jacksonville.
“We were very young,” Regina says. “Springfield in the early 1980s was a very rough place, but we didn’t understand how rough it was. David and I wanted to marry, but our families wanted us to wait. So we escaped to the only place we could think of where our families would not find us.”
They left the small community of Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, and moved into the inner warrens of the nearest city. They didn’t just move to some satellite suburb. They moved to the “big city” itself.
They moved directly to the heart of the city, but didn’t understand the extent to which the heart of Jacksonville in the early 1980s was rotten.
“Sadly,” Regina says, “there was one kindly old gentleman, he seemed to be a decent man who was down on his luck, who very gently made us aware that we were naïve, that we were not in the right environment.” And that kindly old gentleman was George Sonnenberg.
Will can’t believe his ears. He hangs on the edge of his seat. He’s heard so many stories. He’s heard that Ottis went directly after Sonnenberg. He’s heard they were lovers, that Sonnenberg had jilted Ottis. He’s heard that Ottis had set so many fires in the prior couple of months and that Sonnenberg just happened to be in the house this time.
Will can’t help but feel that this is the closest he’s gotten. He’s sorry that gossip had George Sonnenberg in a sexual relationship with a suspected serial killer, when he was only a lonely man fallen down on his luck. People are always ready to judge the fallen. If you fall, it’s your fault, and that protects those who have not fallen and believe they never will.
And Regina remembers that night. She remembers it as clearly as any night she’s ever lived. She and David, newly married and hiding from their parents in the inner folds of Jacksonville, saw smoke approach beneath the door of their second story room. “And David said, ‘Do you see that?’ I said, ‘I do.’”
Both of them had so recently said, “I do.”
And David said, “Don’t touch it,” and went over to the door.
“He was a very wise young man,” Regina says, three decades later. She’s never spoken so directly about that night.
Then David opened the door and the two of them saw a wall of flames raging up through the house. “He slammed the door and took charge of the situation,” Regina says. He ran to the window immediately and said, “We have to go out the window.”
And Regina said, “I can’t.”
So David stepped out the window and stood to one side on the trimming outside the window frame. Then he told her how to jump. He said to press her feet together and bend her knees. He said, “We have to jump.”
Regina stepped out the double windows and stood on the opposite trimming from David, but she panicked. She felt that she couldn’t move. Then the flames entered the room.
So David said, “Listen. This house is going to burn down, and no one’s going to get here in time. I’m going to jump. Then I want you to jump. And I’m going to do the best I can to catch you.”
And 30 years later, Regina says, “He did exactly what he told me to do. We were barefoot. And he jumped. And he landed. But I was in shock. I found it very hard to do anything. I couldn’t imagine what was happening or why it was happening.
“Now David was on the ground calling up to me and telling me to jump. I said I couldn’t. He said, ‘You have to jump! This house is burning down and no one is coming!’ Then the flames reached the window area, where I was standing perched outside the sill. And the smoke had become so thick that I couldn’t breathe. So he became more demanding. ‘Jump now!’ he shouted. And I just jumped. I jumped backward. It was the way you might jump off a diving board. And it didn’t work out. I landed on my lower back.”
Now David screamed to all these people he saw gathering nearby. “All kinds of people were standing there on the sidewalk and on the street.” And from what Regina later heard, “Ottis was standing right there on the sidewalk, watching that tall house burn.”
She remembers lying there on the ground, and the house burning, and someone running burning from the house out onto the front porch.
Regina says her mother-in-law had “the means and the resources” to follow up with investigators and pursue the story. Most of the people living in Springfield rooming houses didn’t have the means, or family who had the means, to pursue justice. So they didn’t get any.
Ottis increased the frequency of his arsons in the next couple months. Officials from the Fire Marshal’s Office suspected a serial arsonist was preying on the southeastern part of Springfield. They put out flyers and walked door-to-door, alerting neighbors.
The week of fires that culminated at 117 East 2nd Street ignited Ottis’s final pyromaniac frenzy.
From what she later learned, Regina says, “Ottis Toole set a great deal of Jacksonville on fire that week.”
Ottis would later tell an interviewer, “I’d like to see a whole city burn down. I’d like to see a whole city. I’d like to see the tallest building burn down.”
But she doesn’t believe she ever met him. “I do believe I saw him, but I can’t say where or when. It was almost a year before I saw a photograph of him, and when I did, I recognized him. Whether it was from seeing him around the boarding house, or whether it was from seeing him standing on the sidewalk that night while the house burned, I don’t know.”
A couple of years later, in the mid-1980s, Regina heard that Ottis had set fire to the house because he was targeting Henry Lee Lucas. “And when I heard he was targeting Lucas, I thought now this man has changed his story.”
So she found out who Lucas was. She heard that Lucas had gone to Texas with Ottis’s niece Becky, that he’d called Becky his common-law wife, that she was only 13 or 14 years old, and that he’d murdered her in Texas.
“When I heard that Mr. Toole was targeting Lucas, I thought that perhaps Lucas was there that night. Then I wondered how close I had come.” And if Ottis was everything he’d said he was, she wondered if she’d been living in a house with two serial killers.
“At first,” Regina says, “I was told that he burned this house down for sheer pleasure, for the sheer pleasure of watching people jump out of it, for the sheer pleasure of watching it burn, for the sheer pleasure of seeing people burn—and I thought, when I first heard this more than a year later, about how my life had been altered, about how I was now pregnant with my first child, about how fragile my back was—and I thought this man had set this fire for the sheer pleasure of having people suffer. And I was one of those people.”
She pauses. “And then I understood what evil was. And I was that young. And that stole my innocence, my innocence in thinking that people were inherently good.”
Regina broke her back, jumping out of the window that night on East 2nd Street. Doctors told her she would never walk again. Though she did walk, and does walk, she’s lived with a great deal of pain. Nor has all the pain been physical.
“At the time, because I was so young, I didn’t realize how much it had affected me, but a great fear had taken root. I understood how easily we can be harmed. Life is so fragile. But at the same time, it was a blessing to understand, at such a young age, how fragile life is. I never could take life for granted.”
In the years that followed the fire, Regina had problems trusting people. She had problems with constant and monstrous fear. She thought about it continually and she came to understand that evil and good are real forces in the world, not abstract notions. She understood this from a theological standpoint, “but I understood it within myself before I understood it theologically.”
Regina can still see the faces along the street and the sidewalk outside the burning house. She can still see the faces in the emergency room.
People didn’t yet see these kinds of images repeatedly on a 24-hour news cycle, as they would a couple of decades later. “I could see the shock and the disbelief on people’s faces. Even in the emergency room, the dialogue was one of disbelief. It wasn’t that this kind of thing didn’t happen, but we didn’t see images of such deep tragedy constantly like we do now,” she says.
“We were not yet desensitized. We were more innocent then. The shock and the disbelief were more real, more immediate.”
Regina has studied both theology and psychology in her educational paths since the early 1980s. Despite all the pain this one night of her life has caused her, she feels compassion for Ottis Toole.
“I feel compassion for the horrific way he and Henry Lucas had been treated their whole lives. I feel compassion for them even in the horrific way they chose to respond to the way they’d been treated. Or maybe to the only way they knew how to respond to how they’d been treated.”
Having studied both psychology and theology, Regina blends them in the way she makes sense of what happened to her and in how she understands the man who set the fire that devastated her life.
“When people have been severely damaged by other people, that damage leaves them susceptible and open to the influence of evil.”
She says that each time Ottis and Henry “responded with evil to the evil that had been done to them, evil became more and more powerful in their lives. Through the power of repetition and pattern and habit, that evil influence becomes more and more powerful still.”
But she doesn’t believe anyone is ever lost.
And just as she doesn’t believe anyone is ever lost, Will feels the presence of Ottis as a real man. Back there, behind all the stories, stood a real Ottis Toole. Ottis set a real fire that caused a real teenaged girl to jump from a real burning house and break her very real back. Ottis’s suffering was real. The way he responded to his pain was real.
And here was the real George Sonnenberg, kind, decent, down on his luck, a gentleman, someone who told these two naïve young runaways that they didn’t really understand what kind of place they were in, that this place was not the place for them.
The newspaper reported, “Eleven tenants were in the wood-frame rooming house […] when the fire began at 9:45, fire officials said.”
The newspaper article said Regina was a year older than she was. She was 15 years old and she was in love. She was running away to get married. They were young and had all their lives ahead of them. The world was big and full of promise. Everything in the world was out there, waiting for them.
And from the Times-Union, “Capt. Jerry Hiers, an investigator for the Fire Marshal’s Office, said the fire apparently started on a mattress in a vacant first-floor room. The fire possibly started by someone smoking on the mattress, he said.”