by Tim Gilmore, 10/29/2019
Spencer Bennett had known Ottis Toole, he said, for 15 or 18 years, since the mid to late 1960s, knew him through Ottis’s mother Sarah, who’d bought clunkers from him several times. Bennett had run Spence Auto Sales at the corner of 4th and Main since 1961.
It was November 1983, six months since he’d last seen Ottis. When the detectives asked him, “What was that about?” Bennett said Ottis had just “dropped in.” Two months later, Spencer Bennett was dead.
The police detectives had come up from Hollywood, Florida and hoped to pin Bennett ever so neatly to the narrative. The story could easily have it that Ottis had bought the death car right here on this lot, possibly that he worked for Bennett and parked his old Caddy here, even that Ottis had stashed the murder weapon in Bennett’s office.
Detective Ron Hickman hung back, but Jack Hoffman seethed. Just like he had with Ottis. Ottis was in jail for a fatal arson he’d set around the corner at 117 East 2nd Street. When he saw the made-for-TV movie in his jail cell, the one about the murder of six year old Adam Walsh, he told police he was responsible. Hoffman would ask Ottis a question, then interrupt him, calling him a “retard” and an “asshole.” People had called him a “retard” all his life. Once when a cop named Hoisington handed Ottis a sandwich, Hoffman knocked it out of his hand.
It was Hoffman who interviewed Ottis, alongside Buddy Terry, a Jacksonville detective later removed from the case for telling Ottis they might corner a book deal together. Terry and Hoffman kept telling Ottis his answers to their questions were wrong. “Think about that now,” Hoffman would say and Ottis would change his answer. Or Terry would turn to Hoffman when they didn’t like Ottis’s answer and say, “I think he wants to tell us the truth.” So Hoffman would ask the question again and Ottis’s answer would change.
When Bennett last saw him back in May, Ottis was working for Betty Goodyear, helping sweep and “keep up” the boarding houses she owned all over Springfield. That early summer day, Ottis Toole came lumbering up Main Street toward Spencer Bennett’s used car sales lot.
The little white stucco garage with “Mediterranean” flourishes and red clay roof tiles was built in 1924 as a Standard Oil Station. At the time, service stations bore the designs of “revival style” architecture found in surrounding neighborhoods—Tudor and Mediterranean and Gothic Revival. In the 1930s, the station became part of William Catlin’s used car lot empire. Catlin Truck Accessories still operates two blocks south at the corner of Main and East 2nd. A decade later, the garage was Fourth & Main Service Station; Bennett opened shop 20 years after that.
Detective Hoffman asked Bennett repeatedly if he knew Ottis was homosexual, sometimes interrupting his responses to say, “He is such a blatant homosexual, I have a hard time understanding why in the contact you have had with the family that you weren’t really aware of that?”
“Like I say,” Bennett said, “I had heard he was, but, you know, I just never did—”
“What behavior patterns to you would mean an individual was a homosexual?” Hoffman barked, again interrupting.
“Well,” Bennett answered, “I never was around homosexuals. I wouldn’t really know,” and Hoffman corrected him: “When you were around Ottis, you were around one!”
Bennett said he’d seen male prostitutes walking Main Street. Everyone in Springfield had. “I seen them get out there and wear umbrellas up and down and walk and wear rouge and I seen them posing.”
“Did you see Ottis do that?”
When Bennett said no, though other Springfielders had, Hoffman interrupted him again, said everybody else in Springfield knew Ottis was homosexual. Either Hoffman was trying to get Bennett to change his mind or he didn’t believe him. Bennett couldn’t tell which.
Bennett said he’d sold Ottis a car back in 1975, some kind of Plymouth. He sold him another car, he said, “in March of ’81 or ’82,” a Cadillac, but said, “Under the new law in Florida in the last year or two, the tag don’t go with the car and after Ottis’s mother died, Ottis didn’t have a driver’s license,” in fact had never had a driver’s license, “his brother Howell took over the payments two weeks later and paid the car out and then took possession of the car,” and then, he said, “I sold him another car in March of ’82, I believe, and that’s the car he left in Bowing, Texas and he stills owes me money. And Ottis came by and made two $25-a-week payments after he knew that Frieda and Lucas had left with the car.”
Bennett took a breath, then continued. “He didn’t know that they had gone, but he knew they had left him, and he thought they were probably still in town, so several months later I got a call from Texas and they had left the car deserted.” He lamented, “’74 Ford, nice car. Probably worth $600 or $700.”
Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas weren’t yet claiming to have murdered hundreds of people all over the country. Everybody knew Ottis and Henry were lovers, but not everyone knew Henry had “married” Frieda Powell, Ottis’s 13 year old niece. Henry called her Becky. Ottis’s sister Drusilla called her Angel. Dru wanted Henry to adopt her, but Henry drove her to Texas, claimed to have married her, forced her to live in a chicken coop, then killed, dismembered and buried her.
“Was his mannerisms effeminate?” Hoffman wanted to know, still fixated on Ottis’s sexuality.
When Bennett said, “Not too much, I couldn’t tell,” Hoffman barked, “He’s a blatant homosexual! He talks a lot about it! He has no qualms about it!”
Bennett said Ottis still owed him $400 or $500 for that last car.
Several people in Springfield, Hoffman told Bennett, “not that there is anything wrong with this, but they said that Lucas and Ottis both worked for you on occasion and would help repossess cars.”
“Oh, no, no, no!” Bennett responded. “They never worked for me, no sir!”
Hoffman said he had a sworn statement to the contrary.
“Somebody just didn’t know what they were talking about.”
“They never helped you maybe repossess cars from somebody?”
“Never, never, never!” Bennett said.
Hoffman again asked Bennett if he knew Ottis was homosexual. Then he asked if Bennett were married.
“I’m married 1941,” Bennett said. “Been married 42 years.” Owned a lovely little cedar shingled cottage on Oakwood Street up in the Panama Gardens neighborhood.
Hoffman reminded Bennett that he and Hickman had visited the car lot two days before, that they’d asked him if any tools had been found in any vehicles Toole had purchased from Bennett. “And then you indicated there was an occasion that you found,” and there’s a word omitted from the record, “on your premises that miraculously appeared.”
When Hoffman said, “Is that correct?” Bennett answered, “That’s not correct.”
Buddy Terry had asked him, Bennett said, if he’d “ever run across a machete.”
On October 24th, Ottis had told Terry and Hoffman that he might have cut the boy’s head off, Adam Walsh’s, after he’d kidnapped him in Hollywood, Florida, then thrown the head in a drainage ditch off the Florida Turnpike near Vero Beach. It took him a while to get those facts lined up, having proffered false murder details until Terry and Hoffman coached him toward the right ones. He said Adam said his name was Jim, that he was wearing dungarees and mittens in July. He said he was going south toward Miami. Or maybe north toward Miami. He said Henry was with him; he said Henry wasn’t. When they showed him a picture of Adam’s head, he became upset, then said he might have decapitated the boy with a machete. Or it might have been a bayonet. Then he said he made the whole thing up to get Henry back for what he’d done to Ottis’s niece.
Two weeks later, on November 2nd, Spencer Bennett told Buddy Terry, “The fact is, there’s a machete here now, but I couldn’t tell you where it come from, because it…See, I never did have a car that belonged to Lucas or Toole, either one, on my lot.” It was Clyde Miller, “a fellow working for me,” who “found a knife seven or eight months later in Bob Harley’s, Ottis’s stepdaddy’s car,” a brown 1973 Chrysler, “which could not have had any bearing on the case.”
It was an old hunting knife with a four-inch blade, rusted and lying in the trunk of Harley’s car. Bennett had never seen Ottis with or near his stepdaddy’s car. Nevertheless, word got around that detectives had recovered a bloody machete from Ottis’s Cadillac.
When, Hoffman asked, had Bennett first found the machete that he kept in the office?
“It’s been two or three years. Just been throwed back in the back. There’s nothing uncommon found. I found two or three of ’em. I just don’t let them get away from there and I don’t leave them outside ’cause you know somebody is liable to grab it up and hurt somebody with it and I just threw it in there, like I say.”
And had Bennett ever known Ottis to “possess or operate a 1971 Cadillac”?
“Never did. I seen that on television, but I never seen that car.”
“You never saw him in that car?”
“I seen him in a Cadillac, but it was a ’69 two-door.”
“White with a black top.”
“That’s the car Howell took over, right?”
When Hoffman and Terry had asked Ottis about the murder weapon—Was it a machete?—he gave them wildly conflicting answers. First he told them, yes, it was a machete, said he’d stored it at his mother’s house at 708 Day Avenue. He said he’d killed Adam Walsh, then said he hadn’t, back and forth repeatedly. The night before Ottis’s confession, he’d watched the movie Adam on TV in his jail cell.
Then Ottis told Hoffman, “I got to thinkin’ more. I done burnt my mother’s house down.”
It could be hard to connect these dots, to know in what direction Ottis’s thoughts tended, but Hoffman responded, “If your mother’s house was burned down, you couldn’t have hid the murder weapon in your mother’s house, correct?”
“Correct,” Ottis affirmed.
“So now you have to tell me,” Hoffman continued, “what you did with the murder weapon.”
Hoffman didn’t want to lose what little cohesion the narrative contained. He’d worked so hard to stitch it together. But Ottis shushed him.
“Shhh,” Ottis whispered. “That’s why I’m trying to give you all these statements. I’m not really sure that I really did kill Adam Walsh. Maybe I did just, I did just hear it on the television.”
In 1983, the technology did not yet exist to test blood, supposedly found on the machete and on the floorboards of the 1971 Cadillac, for DNA. By the time DNA testing became available and investigators suggested that establishing Ottis’s guilt or innocence might rest on the results, Jacksonville police had lost the carpeting pulled from the Cadillac and Hollywood police had lost the machete. And the car.
Spencer Clement Bennett died in January 1984, not quite 64 years old, two months after speaking to Detectives Terry, Hickman and Hoffman. People used the phrase “mysterious circumstances.” Several Springfield oldtimers maintained he’d been murdered, but his widow Blanche said he’d committed suicide. Whether he employed Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas remains unclear. They did “odd jobs” all over the neighborhood. Gossip said he used aliases for them in his records. Probably paid them “under the table.”
In 2008, 12 years after Ottis Toole died of cirrhosis in prison, 25 years after Ottis’s false confession, the Hollywood Police Department officially announced Ottis Toole the murderer of Adam Walsh. No new evidence. No trial necessary. It’s called “exceptional clearance.” Case closed. The mystery, headlines declared, was “finally solved.”
Of course nothing had been solved, least of all the question of why police had determined to hang Adam Walsh’s murder on this illiterate loner and “mama’s boy,” sexually and otherwise physically abused all his life, with an IQ of 75, whose hundreds of confessions to other murders had been discredited and discounted.
Meanwhile, on this particular corner of this strange and lovely old Jacksonville neighborhood called Springfield, minor plot twists and “red herrings” in a narrative-that-never-quite-was remain unresolved and disconnected like ghosts lost between stations. Who knows? Maybe one more clue waits patiently for some future archaeologist.