by Tim Gilmore, 7/26/2019
1. Childhood Confessions
The prosecutor in the September 1983 trial in which a grand jury formally charged Ottis Toole with the murder of George Sonnenberg that winter night at the Springfield boarding house at 117 East 2nd Street asked him about setting fires.
Q: How do you know that’s how you get a fire going?
A: (Ottis laughing.) Well, way back when I was a little bitty kid, I done a house like that, so I can remember it from experience.
Q: You did it back when you were a little kid?
Q: How old were you?
A: I’ll say 10 or 11 years old.
Q: And where was that house?
A: That was a country house. […]
Q: Let me ask you this. On that fire you set when you were 10 years old, when you burned the whole house down, did you confess to setting that fire?
A: That was our own house.
Q: You burned down your own house?
A: The house wasn’t no good and my people was going to tear the house down anyhow, so I went on and burned the house down.
Q: Did you tell anyone you set that fire?
A: Yes, I told my mother.
2. Mama’s Boy
Though it was true, as Ottis once told “true crime” writer Joel Norris, “Look, most people keep track of things—I don’t keep track ’a nothin’—Most times, I don’t even know if it’s day or night,” it’s also true that Jacksonville was Ottis Toole’s town, his lodestone. As he said in the low-budget 1987 documentary Death Diploma, if he could get out of prison, he’d “go right back to Jacksonville.”
Forever lost wandering the most rotten inner depths of the city, Ottis was as much a country boy as his father Bill Toole, who died when Ottis was a teenager, having come to Jacksonville from Toombs County, Georgia, as much a country boy as his grandfather Ira Otto Toole, who died at age 33, having moved from Tattnall to Toombs, as much a country boy as his Uncle Ira Otto Junior and his Uncle Ottis Toole, who committed suicide in Waycross, Georgia at age 28 in 1936, shooting himself in the head, 11 years before Ottis Elwood Toole was born in Jacksonville.
Though Ottis stayed at times in a dozen or so boarding houses in and around Springfield, he also stayed in the port district off Talleyrand Avenue and outside Murray Hill. It was the house at 708 Day Avenue in Murray Hill Heights where he once claimed to have burnt and butchered his most famous supposed victim.
There’s no house there now, because 708 Day was the second of his mother’s houses Ottis Toole burnt down.
And in some ways, it doesn’t really matter now that he didn’t kill Adam Walsh, the boy whose kidnapping transfixed the nation in 1981. Because what people believe so often has little more to do with the truth than it does with logic, reason or likelihood. When I wrote Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic in 2013, my goal to was to write all the versions of Ottis I could find—from court transcripts to urban legends, complete with their wild and frantic contradictions.
Most people prefer to believe that Ottis Toole outsmarted a nation, that he killed 600 people, worked as a secret agent for a satanic cult and perfected the cuisine of cannibalism. Toole’s lover, Henry Lee Lucas, claimed to have supplied Jim Jones with poison for the infamous Guyana Flavor Aid and to have assassinated Jimmy Hoffa. The courts called Ottis “borderline mentally retarded,” pegging his IQ at 75, but since Ottis had grown up the victim of pedophiles and run from bullies his whole life, he was happy to fool “the whole system” into thinking he was the most fearsome predator, not everybody’s prey.
All these years after his death, he still has millions of people fooled.
So the empty lot behind the former “adult daycare,” and, back in Ottis’s day, Hammond Grocery, at the corner of Day Avenue and Rosselle Streets, might as well be the scene of the most heinous acts.
Many of the Florida Times-Union and Miami Herald articles about Ottis in the 1980s called him “the soft-spoken momma’s boy,” “the dimwit pyromaniac,” “a misfit and a loner,” and “the slow-witted lover of convicted mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas.”
Many of them referred to Ottis’s mother “pamper[ing]” him, to Ottis’s always having been stuck to his “Momma’s shirttails.” They refer to his mother’s fervent religiosity. They refer to someone, his mother, or his sister Drusilla, having dressed him up as a girl. “He was a slow-witted, bashful boy constantly seeking and getting his mother’s attention.”
Whatever else might as well be true, when Ottis’s mother Sarah Harley died of heart failure in 1981, he set her Day Avenue house alight, as he had the family’s “country house” when he was 10 years old.
3. Whether Ottis Toole’s Mother Died in Henry Lee Lucas’s Arms
At Henry Lee Lucas’s 1985 murder trial in Texas, he explained how the duo ended up in Ottis’s mother’s house. It began with her telling Henry, “I can’t have you out there in the [Springfield] apartment with Ottis, because you cause trouble between Ottis and his wife.” Ottis’s wife Norvella, a prostitute, as Ottis himself had been, said, “Ottis was good to me and that’s all I know. He always called me baby.”
Henry talked about first meeting Ottis’s niece, Drusilla’s 11 year old daughter, Becky, whom he soon married and probably stabbed to death in Texas. They called Drusilla by her middle name, Arzetta, and Henry testified that he’d “got her out of jail,” but that she’d now committed suicide.
A: Day Avenue came vacant you know, so we went up and talked to the store manager named Robert. Robert something, I can’t remember his last name, and we talked to him about the house next door.
Q: Now, this is the man that ran the little grocery store there?
A: Yeah, on Day Avenue.
Q: And his name is Robert?
A: Yeah. I owe him some money. I owe him about $600.
Q: You still owe him $600?
A: Yeah, so we asked him about the house, and he said, well, I don’t own it, but I know who does. He said they are not going to rent it, they are going to sell it, so we asked him how much, you know. We go back down and talk to Ottis’s mom, and told her the house was for sale, so his mom came on up and looked at the house, and she said well, I like this. It had a small yard, but it was all concealed […]. It had a fence around part of the yard in back, and it was only a three-bedroom house. She liked it because she didn’t have all that house cleaning and stuff to do.
Q: How many of you would have had to live in that three-bedroom house?
A: Well, at one time it was five, six, seven, eight, nine, twelve. Twelve of us.
Q: That is a lot of folks in a three-bedroom house.
A: Well, I built another room on the house.
Q: Oh, did you?
A: I used the back porch. It had a back porch on it, so I took the back porch and made my bedroom out of it. […] And we started living in the house, you know, and I worked a few months there, two or three months, or something, or four months, something like that at the roofing company, and then I went into junking for myself. I just got tired of roofing, so I went into junkin’. […]
When Ottis’s mother Sarah was in the hospital, Henry, who always bragged about murdering his own mother, signed in as her brother and visited her every day. “She died May 12th of 1981,” Henry said. “She died in my arms.” Drusilla Arzetta Toole died of a drug overdose that November. Becky, now Henry’s wife, died of stab wounds in August 1982 in Texas. She was 15.
4. Junkin’ on Day
Ottis would claim that after watching Adam’s head sink into the South Florida canal, he burnt the rest of the body in an old refrigerator in the back yard of his mother’s burnt property at 708 Day Avenue, then took what was left to a North Jacksonville dump.
Beside Hammond Grocery, Ottis and Henry had piled refrigerators, air conditioners, car parts, and all sorts of junk in the back yard of 708. After a while, the junk was hurting Hammond’s business. It kept piling up, the place stunk, and all the trash back there attracted rats.
So Henry decided to take care of the problem. He built a fence around the back yard so nobody could see into it. He had taken that step as a responsible neighbor, so he didn’t appreciate these other neighbors complaining.
So what if it wasn’t the prettiest fence? Was a lot prettier than the several tons of scrap metal and the burnt refrigerators and the car batteries, wasn’t it? But Hammond called it an eyesore, said it was a Frankenstein-fence, because Henry had built it out of scrap wood, broken-up wooden boxes, Venetian blinds, pallets, sheets of fiberglass, and different kinds of wire.
Maybe it would have vindicated Henry to know that 15 years later, cops would shut down the grocery for the crack cocaine that trafficked through it.
Neighbors couldn’t figure out how many people lived in the house at 708. Besides Sarah and her husband, there seemed to be Henry and Ottis and Drusilla and her kids Becky and Frank and Sarah-Christine and a handful of others.
Of all the things that may or may not be true, whether or not Ottis himself first had sex with his niece Sarah-Christine, as Henry had married her sister Becky, Sarah-Christine was the one family member who’d visit Ottis in prison. In prison photos, Ottis, now with dentures, and Sarah-Christine, many teeth missing, look to the camera, inclining their heads each to the other. When Ottis died in prison of liver failure in 1996, Sarah-Christine collected his belongings.
5. When Ottis Toole Got to Thinkin’
After Ottis had said he’d stored the murder weapon, a machete, in his mother’s house at 708 Day Avenue, he told Detective Hoffman, “But I got to thinkin’ more. I done burnt my mother’s house down.”
And Hoffman said, “If your mother’s house was burned down, you couldn’t have hid the murder weapon in your mother’s house, correct?”
“So now you have to tell me what you did with the murder weapon.”
“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.” Then he said, “Maybe I did, I did hear it on the television.”
Indeed, Ottis had gotten almost every detail about Adam wrong, until interrogating detectives asked him if perhaps he really meant something else. He first confessed after watching the made-for-TV movie Adam in jail.
Detective Buddy Terry said, “Look at me!” He told Ottis, “This thing has been eatin’ at you a long time, hasn’t it? But you told people other than me that you did it. Ottis?”
Ottis said, “I still ain’t sure [Becky is] dead, and that’s the only way I could get [Henry] to bring out the truth on it.”
“Ottis, were you lying today?” Terry demanded. “Are you sure you didn’t kill Adam Walsh? Now come on now, let’s don’t do this way. Look at me! Look at me, Ottis!”
But Ottis kept staring at the ceiling and slowly wagging his head around. Then Ottis started to cry, started to sob loudly, and he said, “My mind ain’t gonna take much more of this shit.”
Terry said, “Ottis, look at me! We’ve been pretty truthful with each other, ain’t we?”
Again Ottis felt coached toward saying the right truth and not the wrong one. He said, “Yeah.”
Terry challenged him. “Have you ever lied to me?”
“I don’t really know if I have at all, now,” Ottis said.
And Terry moved in on him. “You’re digging yourself a hole, Ottis, and you’re not gonna get out of it. You know that. You know what you’re doing. You want me to tell you what you’re doing?”
So Terry knew what Ottis was doing, but Ottis wondered what it was. What did Terry know Ottis was doing that Ottis didn’t know? But Terry had offered to tell him what it was, and Ottis said, “What?”
“You’re trying to go to a mental hospital.”
And Ottis panicked. And again Ottis was weeping, rubbing his nose, rubbing snot across mouth, saying, “I don’t believe that shit.”
“You don’t believe me?” Terry said. “Huh?”
And Ottis sobbed hysterically and said, “My fucking life! I…I…I can’t stand it!”
6. Roaring at the Stars
It’s the summer of 1981. Henry and Becky have split off from Ottis and Frank. Becky is still alive, but Ottis’s mother is dead, and Drusilla will kill herself soon. Frank hasn’t yet vanished. Drusilla has been after Henry to adopt Becky and Frank as his own children and Henry has already started calling Becky his wife.
Garbled versions of the story come through court testimony and family recollections. Drifting back east from Texas, Henry and Becky had agreed to meet Ottis and Frank at Day Avenue. After they’ve hitchhiked down Interstate-10, Henry and Becky come walking up Day and here comes Ottis’s brother Howell from the back yard, throwing an armful of rotten plywood onto the great heap of junk by the road.
Henry walks up and picks a fight with Howell, who wants to know where he and Ottis and Becky and Frank have been. Henry says he’s going to the store, but on his way, two cop cars stop alongside him on Post Street by the railroad tracks at McDuff. “Hey,” says Henry, “What’s this all about?”
The police take him back to 708. They ask Henry if what Howell’s said about his underage niece and Henry is true. Allegations and denials go back and forth until Howell says, “I don’t know it for a fact, but I do know I don’t want this bastard on this property.”
Henry doesn’t see it yet, but his car, which he’d left parked in the back yard while the two men and two children hitchhiked to Texas, has had all its windows broken. Howell’s also smashed in the doors and the hood and the trunk.
For years afterward, Howell complains bitterly about how Ottis and Henry came to Sarah’s funeral, stole “a bunch of stuff” from Sarah’s house, and then left town, taking Becky and Frank with them.
Later that night, the house at 708 is empty. Howell had completely broken to pieces the room Henry had built out of the back porch.
Ottis and Henry go next door to Hammond Grocery, and Robert Hammond doesn’t like them much better than Howell does. He doesn’t mind, though, making a dollar or two. Hammond lives one block over toward the interstate, one block from his grocery, and he puts Ottis and Henry up for the night in the garage apartment behind his house.
This is another of multiple versions of these events.
They leave the room above the garage that night, and walk the one block to Ottis’s mother’s house. They walk into the living room and throw matches on the couch. Ottis carries a gasoline can, mostly empty, over to the living room sofa. The fire starts, but then the fire goes out.
So Ottis makes a pile in the living room before the couch. He throws old rags to the middle of the floor. He drops sheets of plastic onto the rags. He finds some plastic containers and a plastic clock. Then he lights the rags and the plastic and the flames start and turn blue and catch chairs and carpet and other trash nearby. The room catches alight. Ottis and Henry walk out the front door and casually walk down the road to a convenience store down on Post Street.
They hear the fire engines, the sirens, and they see the great orange billowing into the night sky. Ottis has seen these funneling flames many times before. He loves fire. He loves Jacksonville. He’ll later tell an interviewer how much he’d love to see the whole city ablaze, what a beautiful sight that would be. Tonight it’s Ottis’s mother’s house that roars up toward the stars.