by Tim Gilmore, 2/1/2019
WARNING: This story contains graphic content that some readers will find too disturbing.
cont’d from Pickettville: Harrison Pickett House
1. The Interests of Justice
She thought he seemed kind, if a little odd. She never felt threatened. He had the tattoo of the dagger on his right arm, but so what? And he was so little. He stood, at most, 5’3”. He offered to help her.
In 1990, Alice Withers was 17 years old and sick of living in the trailer park on West Beaver Street with her boyfriend and his family. She wanted desperately to go back to New Jersey, back home.
Her father wrote Pat a letter, giving him permission to drive Alice, a minor, across state lines. They would leave in the morning, after Pat picked up his paycheck. He changed semi truck tires for a living.
They’d spend the night in his father’s place on Old Kings Road, a two story house with a tin roof and a four columned porch that ran the width of the house. A family called the Thompsons had built the house around 1920. They’d bought 14 acres from Harrison Pickett, grandson of Seymour Pickett, who’d first occupied this land, later called Pickettville, as a Spanish land grant in 1808.
With the branches of the camphor trees sibilant in the wind that night, Alice felt a strange mix of fear, hope, exhaustion, and relief. She fell asleep on the bed. Pat lay down on the floor.
Sometime later, he crawled into bed with her, and when she resisted, he wrapped a hand around her throat.
At the time, Patrick Allen Herald had no criminal record. Assistant State Attorney Anthony Berry later told Nancy Visser and Paul Pinkham, Florida Times-Union journalists, it would have been too hard to prove Alice did not consent. When State Attorney Ed Austin, Jax mayor from 1991 to ’95, dropped the case, court records listed as cause “the interests of justice.”
Visser’s and Pinkham’s April 14, 1996 story bore the retrospective headline, “Two Victims Share Despair at Attacker’s Short Sentence” because a second rape victim had come forward when the State dropped Alice’s case and she lost all faith in the justice system. Herald had probably not yet murdered prostitutes.
The Thompsons had built this house on Harrison Pickett’s farmland, having agreed to share their home with him these last years of his life, a great kindness. They took care of him until he died in 1928.
2. Turn Up, Tune Off, Black Out
“Right after my son was born,” Ronda says, “we stayed with Pat and his wife at Paradise Village, a trailer park on Beaver Street. Then his wife had their daughter and she left him. Tony was working night shift and me and my son were there alone.”
Ronda was married to Tony Herald, Pat’s brother. She still talks to their sisters. One sister served 25 years for conspiring to murder her husband and Tony served three years for armed robbery, but Ronda says Pat was “the weird one.”
“Around two or three in the morning,” Ronda says, “Pat came rushing into the trailer and asked me that if the cops showed up to tell them he had been there all night. A few minutes later the cops did show up and when they asked me if he was there, I told them what he told me to say.
“A few minutes later, I got their attention and told them the truth. He had been seeing a girl who was a minor and she and him were going to leave the state. She had reported to the police that he raped her. They were there to arrest him. We moved the very next day.”
When Ronda lived with Tony and her father-in-law in the two-story house on Old Kings Road, she says, Pat would come by and walk around naked except for his sister’s and mother’s underwear.
“Pat had mommy issues,” Ronda says. “Him and Tony was only about 15 months apart. And I know his mom didn’t want him. She told me one time that when she went into labor with Pat, she was mad she had to leave Tony to go to the hospital to have Pat. She was mad. Pat was a hard worker, I will say that.”
Once, when he was changing a tire on a semi truck, it slipped off its jack and brained him. He was lucky, maybe, that it didn’t kill him, but the seizures had started long before the traumatic brain injury.
Patrick Allen Herald had suffered from blackouts for years. His attorneys and court-appointed psychiatrist Ernest Miller discussed whether the blackouts were related primarily to his heavy drinking or to the seizures for which he was medicated. They’d acknowledged the possibility he’d committed the murders during his blackouts and was less than completely aware later of what he’d done.
In fact, Herald sometimes “turned up” in far distant places like New York and Elko, Nevada, dressed as a woman and having no idea where he was or how he’d got there.
3. He Was Real Nice.
Near the end of 1993, Jacksonville homicide detectives searched the Harrison Pickett House on Old Kings Road, deep in Pickettville, and a 1950s woodframe house where Pat lived at 8949 West Beaver Street.
Investigators found piles of garbage and broken appliances left to leak into the sandy soil beneath an ancient Old Kings oak. Near a shed behind the house, they found piles of women’s clothing and porn magazines. Mounds of hair had collected in the shed, but the hair turned out to be Pat’s. He’d stood regularly in the same place, stripped naked, and shaved his entire body except for a “belt” of hair left to encircle his waist.
Pat had confessed to killing three of the five prostitutes found murdered in 11 months in or near rural Picketville near Pritchard Road and I-295, the beltway around the city. Just when his violence toward women began is unclear. When and why he moved from sexual assault to murder is also unknown, perhaps even to him.
Pat Herald’s second known rape victim, a Florida Community College at Jacksonville student who requested anonymity, had no idea he was awaiting trial for sexual assault when she met him at Paxon Lounge, where Pat was a regular, two miles south of Old Kings Road on Edgewood Avenue, two miles east of 295, five miles east of the house on West Beaver.
They drank Budweisers and talked for an hour and a half, commiserated over small matters, and laughed. They decided to leave, bought a six pack, crossed 295 northwest in his 1978 Lincoln Continental, then parked beside the Trout River, where it narrows and sidewinds not far from her home in Dinsmore on the rural Northside. The rain dissipated and left the night humid and cool.
“He was real nice,” she told Visser and Pinkham in April 1996, six years later, when she was working as a nursing assistant. “He just instantly changed. I don’t know what happened.”
“She had always wondered,” wrote Visser and Pinkham, “why women being raped couldn’t run away or hurt their attackers.” She pleaded, “Don’t kill me, I’ve got two kids!” When he threw her into a nearby ditch, she pretended to be dead until his headlights disappeared.
She walked back to a convenience store, then another half mile to her house, where she lied to her mother, “a devout Christian,” about where she’d been.
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Berry told Pat Herald the case for rape was weak, that he should plead guilty to “sexual battery” instead and serve five months instead of a possible nine to 12 years.
Patrick Herald told Visser and Pinkham he’d decided “to take the plea rather than to sit around and wait and go to jury trial,” said he’d rather just “spend three months more in the county jail,” then snickered, “That’s Duval County for you.”
At the end of November, 1993, Michael Laforte stepped around the old tin-roofed house on Old Kings Road and the secluded house across from the railroad tracks on West Beaver. Following up. He’d used a newly developed dye called Amido Black, which stains blood proteins in fingerprints a bluish black and is used to detect and identify fingerprints left on human skin.
Speeding across the tracks over highway traffic in late November 1993, a train engineer noticed a trespasser high up beneath the overpass. Concerned for a possible suicide or a drug-addled vagabond, the engineer called the police.
The patrol officer who arrived not an hour later scrambled up the concrete rise between the beltway and railroad tracks and found a woman lying naked, face up, arms and legs spread Vitruvian, her throat cut, her body hacked repeatedly with a knife.
Her name was Gladys “Libby” Miller. She’d been arrested for prostitution several times. From “blood splatter on the concrete,” investigators determined she’d been murdered here, high up behind concrete beams, laid out on the ledge, 45 feet above the railroad tracks but pitched at a 45-degree angle, which allowed the train engineer to spot her.
4. A Fore Multibles
The narrative on Patrick Allen Herald’s booking report, dated December 22, 1993, signed by Detective W.R. Baer, says:
“On 7-03-93 Toni Acosta W/F Age 28 was found OFF a dirt Rd. on Braddock Rd MURDERED, by multible stab wounds. On 7-25-93 CENIA Smith W/F Age 38 was found in a WOODED area off the 7600 block of Old Kings Rd. Murdered by multible stab wounds. On 11-30-93 Libby Miller W/F age 28 was found at I-295 and Moncrief Dinsmore Rd. murdered by Multible stab wounds. Each of the a fore mentioned locations are in Jacksonville, Fl. and on the north-side of town.
“On 12-21-93 A Latent print found on Victim Libby Miller was identified as belonging to this subject. This subject was arrested at his workplace and transported to the homicide office. During a interview this subject admitted to stabbing and killing all three victims, and provided details only known to the killer.” Detective Baer didn’t mention the other two prostitutes murdered nearby. Nor did he specify what those details might have been. They’re gruesome.
5. One of the Few Cops They Trusted
When she first came to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in the late 1980s, Samantha got to know Libby Miller and Cenia Smith, two prostitutes who worked New Kings and Old Kings, the colonial British Florida highways first laid down on Timucuan Indian trails, and the narrower roads where long-distance truckers picked up prostitutes all times of the day or night. Samantha never judged Libby and Cenia, became one of the few cops they trusted, says, for a few dollars, they were always good for information.
Libby and Cenia have haunted Samantha her entire career. She’d known them, she’d understood they’d suffered, she’d empathized. When they showed up dead, stripped, and staged, their stories somehow slipped into Sam’s soul.
Libby and Cenia have “left their energy,” she says, “or ghosts, if you want to call it that, which lingers on the westside from Pickettville to the Trout River. It rises up from those streets when I drive them. I’m surprised not much was ever written about these cases.”
One day, New Year’s Eve of 1993, a pimp named Andre drove a “client” down Redpoll Avenue, in the checkerboard of streets all named for birds (Thrasher, Shrike, Flicker, Waxwing, Finch) back when the rural black community of Lincoln Villas took its name from the president who presided over Emancipation. Then again, Samantha says, maybe it was Bluebird Road, not Redpoll, or maybe Mockingbird. The booking report placed it near the 7600 block of Old Kings. That puts it by Bluebird, Bob O Link, and Owl Roads in old rural Home Garden, just southwest of the railroad tracks from Lincoln Villas.
Andre, Samantha says, passed what he thought must be a leftover Halloween prop. A naked white woman sat upright, tied back against a fence post. The “client” leaned in toward Andre and asked him if he’d ever had sex with a corpse. Later homicide detectives told Sam they could prove nothing. Fog seeps up from the ground here, or ghosts do, or ghost does, and sticks glued to the dead in the earth in cold mornings.
Scott Bonn writes about serial killers posing and staging victims in his 2014 book Why We Love Serial Killers. He differentiates staging from posing, saying the former are crime scene alterations made to mislead or confuse investigators, while the latter are killers’ necessities in fulfilling their own fantasies. Bonn considers Jack the Ripper’s spreading of victims’ legs an act of “posing,” but also part of the killer’s “signature” in shocking investigators and onlookers.
In the wake of Bonn’s book, several TV shows, including the first seasons of True Detective, Hannibal, and The Alienist, based on the 1994 Caleb Carr novel, featured serial killers posing victims in ways that, perversely, could almost be considered artistic.
“Andre went by later,” Samantha says, “and saw that what he’d thought was a gag was a real body. He was totally freaked out to see it. The tongue pulled out of the mouth as far as possible, dress hiked up, legs open with female parts displayed and covered in feces.”
6. The Unread Letter
Ronda recalls when Pat’s father James worked for “the burgular bar company and Pat left the Old Kings Road house to live in the house next to the burgular bar company next to Eatmon Welding Company on Beaver Street. He did some killing when he lived there.”
The Beaver Street house, now home to Holton Construction Roofing Experts, surrounded by a veritable village of small metal sheds for sale, stood secluded across from the railroad tacks in wide expanses of hardwood and swamp. West Beaver, lonely and rural but spotted with junkyards and factories, crawled constantly with big rig truckers and the prostitutes who flagged them. For miles about obtained but swamp and industrial refuse and ancient pines, and Pat Herald snuggled down comfortably there.
After 90 year old James Herald moved to Indiana, and Ronda and Tony followed, she never saw Patrick Allen Herald again. These days, she lives just north of the Ocala National Forest, just east of Whiteville, Florida.
Pat was sentenced to 25 years minimum for the murder of Libby Miller. Though he’d confessed to murdering Toni Acosta and Cenia Smith, he later recanted, and the State had no had evidence. The other two prostitute murders nobody pursued and were soon forgotten.
She can see Pat clearly in her mind, that last time, walking the dirt driveway, when he stayed with Ronda and Tony, her older son a toddler on his shoulders. She hated Pat, hated the sight of him, this devil runt. She hated the sight of her son on his shoulders. And Pat hated Ronda.
“The last connection,” Ronda says, “he wrote my oldest son. He wrote my son a letter. I never read it. Of course I never gave it to him.”
cont’d Paxon Lounge