by Tim Gilmore, 11/9/2023
1. Cross Country
When Ronald Straight left his room at the Watergate Motel in Anaheim, California, around 1:30 in the morning, he saw police officers questioning his friends in the parking lot. When an officer walked his way, Straight pulled a revolver, fired two shots and ran. Police returned fire, but Straight disappeared into the night.
While police arrested Tim Palmes and Jane Albert, additional police cars and a helicopter dispatched to the motel and surrounding neighborhood. Ronald Straight, thin and pale, his long stringy hair matted about his head, shone in the helicopter’s spotlight just a block away. No gunfire this time, just handcuffs.
James Stone, father of four, owner of Scott Furniture Company at 19 North Ocean Street in Jacksonville, Florida, had been missing for eight days in October 1976 when police 2,500 miles away, identified his 1974 Lincoln Continental Mark IV at the Watergate. Stone’s wife Jennie had reported him missing when he failed to come home from work on the 4th. Also missing were his credit cards and several thousand dollars.
Jane Albert, 30 years old, Stone’s bookkeeper and secretary, wasn’t scheduled to work on the 5th and 6th, but she didn’t show up on the 7th either. Her boyfriend, Tim Palmes, 29 years old, had served nine months in state prison at Raiford after shooting and killing the owner of an answering service company in that man’s home. When Stone disappeared, Jane and Tim cleared out of their apartment in a hurry and disappeared as well.
Detectives presumed Jane her boyfriend’s “dupe,” and the local papers said, “When Palmes was tried for first degree murder here in 1974, courthouse officials described him as a shrewd, handsome and dangerous man with bisexual sex habits.” Others soon characterized Jane as femme fatale.
When investigators searched Tim and Jane’s apartment at 3952 Atlantic Boulevard, a single line of new townhouses receding into the ancient oaks a mile south of Downtown, they found bloodstains. When the couple moved, neighbors said, they’d loaded a large wooden box into a rented U-Haul van.
2. “Gay Panic”
The scene at the two-bedroom stucco house at the corner of Talbot and Roosevelt had been staged to look like a robbery gone wrong.
A neighbor discovered the man’s naked body, lying face down in a pool of blood and covered with a carpet. A trail of blood led through the house, from the back porch to a bedroom, down a hallway into the kitchen.
Investigators had evidence that Jim Deegan, 58 years old, who operated a telephone answering service and whom newspapers pointedly called “a bachelor,” was expecting “a business acquaintance” to stop by the night he was murdered. That visitor was Tim Palmes, 27 years old, who owned a record store called The Shop at 1468 San Marco Boulevard. He listed The Shop, but later a rooming house on Cordova Avenue, as his home address.
Palmes had stopped by after dark on Monday, the first of July, 1974, the two men argued, and Palmes had shot Jim Deegan in the head, the stomach, then again in the head sometime after midnight. Palmes’s first of several stories was that Deegan had pulled a pistol, the men scuffled, and Deegan “was shot” with his own gun.
By April, Palmes had figured out his best possible argument, an instance of what later became known as “the gay panic defense,” and his charges, having first escalated from second to first-degree murder, were now reduced to manslaughter. Killing Jim Deegan landed him a sentence of only five years, Circuit Court Judge Susan Black ordering that sentence suspended to two years followed by five years’ probation. Palmes was out in nine months.
3. River Coffin
As police officers brought Palmes, Straight and Albert back to Florida, divers from the sheriff’s marine posse and the Jacksonville Shipyards began searching the St. Johns River near the Buckman Bridge at the Duval / Clay County line. Homicide investigators built a replica of the wooden box they believed Palmes and Straight had constructed as a makeshift coffin before dumping the furniture store owner in the river.
Detectives traced purchases to a building supply company where Palmes and Straight used a worthless check to procure enough pre-cut lumber for a box measuring four feet long, two feet wide and two deep and enough cement to fill the box around Stone’s body. Despite the weight of the body, about 165 pounds, and the cement, another 160 pounds, marine experts said currents could have carried the box in either direction in the previous two weeks.
Stone had been missing for 21 days when the box containing his remains finally surfaced near the Buckman Bridge on October 25th.
When Jane Albert’s seven year old daughter Stephanie told the court how she’d watched the murder of James Stone, she couldn’t stop yawning, her hair falling in thick curls across her shoulders. Occasionally she swiveled and kicked in that giant witness chair. Only attorneys, jurors and members of the press remained in the courtroom, all members of the public removed.
Jim Stone was coming over, Tim had told her, and she was supposed to answer the door and tell him Nancy was waiting for him in the back bedroom. Nancy was the 15 year old girl the furniture store owner had been meeting in secret. Supposedly a runaway and topless dancer, she lived in a different apartment in the same Atlantic Boulevard complex. When Stone knocked, the seven year old said, everybody got in their places. Ronnie stood behind the door with a gun.
“You said Nancy wasn’t there,” said prosecutor Mary Cousar. “Why did you tell Jim that Nancy was there?”
“Because I didn’t want to get a spanking from Tim,” Stephanie said.
When Stephanie heard the deep ripping sound of a roll of tape unwinding, she went into the back bedroom where Tim and Ronnie had Jim Stone “scrunched up in the box laying down with tape on his face.” She said Jim was “just kind of mumbling.”
“When you went back to your bedroom, did you hear anything?” Cousar asked.
“Jim say, ‘Please don’t. I’ll give you all the money you want,’” Stephanie said.
Then Stephanie ate a bowl of cereal and filled a pitcher of water for Tim and Ronnie to make cement, then stood a while and watched.
“Did Tim say anything to you?”
“What did he say?”
“He told me to tell Jim, ‘Bye bye.’”
5. Shooting Rats
“No one case caused as much sensation on the issue of immunity,” The Jacksonville Journal soon reported, “as did that involving the murder of furniture store owner James Stone and the immunity granted Jane Albert, an accomplice in that murder.”
Assistant Prosecutor Ralph Greene said Jane was “not a criminal as we use the term.” He said, “Straight and Palmes are unable to be rehabilitated ever. They ought to be executed as soon as possible.”
State’s Attorney (and future Jacksonville mayor) Ed Austin said, “We don’t condone what Jane Albert did. She’s not proud of what she did. I saw Stephanie in Ralph Greene’s office. She was drawing a flower. I asked Ralph about the child and he said she seemed to be adjusting well.”
Jim Stone’s father and Tim Palmes’s mother both said Jane Albert should have been convicted too. Greene said, “You’ve got three rats and you’ve only got two bullets. What are you going to do?”
Vic Stone, Jim’s father, said he knew the two men had asked his son Jim for a job collecting debts, but that Jim was afraid to hire them. “He was afraid they’d use strongarm tactics,” he said. “Sure, you want somebody to collect the accounts, but not somebody that if they didn’t pay, he’s going to kill them.”
When the State of Florida executed Tim Palmes on November 8, 1984, his mother said, “Tim didn’t kill anyone. He was special.” His final court appeals all said Jane Albert was the real killer.
At six a.m. on his last day, Palmes had a last meal of T-bone steak, eggs, hash browns, biscuits, coffee and orange juice. At 10 a.m., he walked into the death chamber and said, “My family’s love has been my strength. That’s all. Goodbye.”
When Ronald Straight walked into the death chamber on May 20, 1986, he sat in the electric chair, chewing gum, winked once at Father Joe Maniangat, a Catholic priest, and again at Larry Spalding, the attorney who’d handled Straight’s appeals.
6. “Sensitive Boy”
Straight’s final appeals describe his childhood in North Philadelphia in the 1950s. Raymond Straight, Sr., an abusive alcoholic, was the same kind of father his father had been. When Ronnie’s father was an infant, his father had thrown him down the stairs.
As Ronnie entered his teen years, he stepped between his parents frequently, and more than once, according to his mother, saved her life. His father was a religious man and his attraction to young girls, including babysitters, confused Ronnie.
Nevertheless, neighbors thought of Ronnie as a “sensitive boy.” Before he started getting into trouble in the neighborhood, he babysat for several neighboring women. As hard was Ronnie’s life was, lots of kids in the neighborhood had it worse and Ronnie would bring them around for dinner. He brought stray puppies and injured squirrels inside to nurture them.
Said his mother, “The older boys in the neighborhood manipulated and exploited Ronnie because he so desperately wanted to be admired and respected – got him involved in drugs and made him a part of their gangs.” By the time he was 14 years old, in 1958, he was using heroin daily.
He left a trail of arrest records and psychiatric evaluations throughout the 1960s until he tried to kill himself by slicing his wrists in 1969. By 1974, 30 years old, Ronald Straight had spent an aggregated total of 12 years behind bars. All his arrests were for crimes related to drug addiction, which also destroyed his brief marriage.
In their attempt to gain him a final stay of execution, his attorneys wrote, “As a result of this continuous period of substance abuse, Mr. Straight has sustained considerable brain damage. Twenty years of opiate abuse has rendered Mr. Straight incapable of having the requisite mental capacity to make reasoned judgments.”
Americans often think of the 1970s as the lowest point of the 20th century, a hard fall from the white privileged prosperity of which the 1950s became emblematic. The ’50s were a decade of white middle class buoyancy, backed up by the federal government’s financial encouragement of new suburbs at the expense of increasingly impoverished inner cities where only the most desperate remained. Amidst the dark-skinned urban remainders left behind by White Flight were large swaths of working-class whites.
As a decade of hyperinflation and high unemployment, together called “stagflation,” pocked by “oil shocks,” the 1970s smeared economic malaise across the landscape. At the start of the ’70s, several U.S. rivers, including the St. Johns, were “biologically dead.” At the end of the decade, the nation’s murder rate, as measured in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, hit an all-time high. So did U.S. per-person alcohol consumption. The South, as is consistently the case, led the nation in violent crime. As new suburbs bled historic areas like Jacksonville’s Riverside, Springfield and San Marco, cities went bankrupt.
In his 1971 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson described how in the 1960s, his generation had a “fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning . . . We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.” But “now,” he wrote, as the ’70s came on, “you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”
Indeed, the hard fall of the 1970s was the coming of age of children born in that supposedly greatest decade, the 1950s.
7. “I’d Be Out There Right Now”
Outside the state prison, James D. Stone, the victim’s uncle, stood in a cow pasture across the rural highway with his 10 year old son, James A. Stone. James D. wore a tight t-shirt with an image of an electric chair and the phrase “1 Down, 133 To Go.” Jacksonville police had made the shirt as a fundraiser after the execution of John Spenkelink in ’79. The previous year’s fundraiser shirt said, “Sleep Safe Tonight, Sleep With a Cop.”
James D., with his son’s face buried in his belly, said, “Straight got exactly what he deserved, only 10 years too late.” He thought Jane Albert should have been executed too and felt “bitter” that she might be “walking the streets of Jacksonville.”
Only eight people stood on the other side of the fence in the cow pasture, protesting state executions. One of them was a nun named Sister Hannah Daly. “I was with Ron this afternoon,” she said. “I think he was tired of all this. He knew what his chances were. He was very, very peaceful.”
“Yeah, that was me in that picture,” says Jamie Stone, a Jacksonville firefighter, in November 2023. “Jimmy’s dad and my dad were brothers.” Now that whole generation is gone and Jamie remembers little of the tragedy. He was 10 years old at the time of Straight’s execution and mostly remembers missing school and standing in a field. Somebody came out and waved a flag. News reporters and men with cameras accosted them.
The tragedy has slipped into the distance. The pain of every one of those lives has receded like the sullied gloom of the 1970s, that gothic decade.
“All I remember hearing is that my Uncle Vic had owned a store. Then when his son owned it, there was this female who set up a robbery and got these two guys to do the job, and they shot him or stabbed him or whatever happened.”
As a Jacksonville firefighter assigned to the marine division, one of Jamie’s largest priorities is when somebody jumps off a bridge. “It’s just so strange to think,” he says, “how if my cousin were murdered today, and the technology has changed so much since I was born, I’d be out there right now looking for him.”