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(Since Oct. 7, 1999) Articles Archive

"Joan Rogers Murder Trial Preview"

By Bob Andelman

(Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 1994)

ST. PETERSBURG, FL. - More than five years after the bodies of a Willshire, Ohio, woman and her two teen-age daughters were discovered floating in the waters of Tampa Bay, the man accused of raping and murdering them will begin on Monday (Sept. 12).

Dairy farmer Joan Rogers, 36, and her daughters, Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, disappeared on June 1, 1989, while vacationing in Central Florida. Three days later, their bloated bodies - bound, gagged and nude from the waist down - were discovered by boaters.

A frustrating three-year search for clues - including a nationally broadcast episode of the NBC program Unsolved Mysteries - failed to turn up a serious suspect until a billboard campaign showing handwriting found on a travel brochure in the Rogers' car led detectives to a former Tampa aluminum contractor.

Oba Chandler, 47, who grew up and was raised in Cincinnati, was arrested on September 24, 1992. He was initially charged with the rape of a Canadian woman two weeks before the triple-murder, but shortly thereafter was also charged with three counts of first degree murder. He plead not guilty to all charges and has been held without bail ever since.

The trial, which could last as long as five weeks, promises to be among the most sensational in Central Florida history, replete with alleged confessions made by Chandler to his oldest daughter, Kristal Mays, and her husband on a visit to their Cincinnati home in 1989. Mays later taped telephone conversations Chandler placed to her from jail in which he denied making any confession to murder. During one such call, however, Chandler allegedly offered his daughter $8,000, which she assumed was hush money.

"I'm ashamed to say he's my father," Mays said in pretrial testimony.

A former Pinellas County Jail cellmate of Chandler's, convicted bank robber Dennis Rowe, also claims to have heard the murder suspect brag about raping and murdering the women. Rowe says Chandler had an accomplice, although the police never charged a second person. (As a result of being publicly labeled a "jailhouse snitch" Rowe sued Chandler defense attorney Fred Zinober for defamation and slander - $2-million worth.)

In all, prosecutors say 14 prisoners, two of Chandler's daughters and one son-in-law all heard him confess details of the crime.

Another prison inmate, this one a former Allen Correctional Institute (Lima, Ohio) cellmate of John Rogers - uncle of Michelle and Christe Rogers - told investigators that Rogers admitted his own involvement in the homicides. (John Rogers was once charged with raping Michelle, but the charges were later dropped.) According to Donald Adkinson, the women were killed because Hal and Joan Rogers were involved with John in a drug and pornography ring that operated between Florida and Ohio. The biggest apparent hole in the story is that John Rogers was in jail at the time of the murders.

Adkinson's potential testimony was a late development in the case, announced by Chandler's defense. It caused the prosecution to ask for a delay in the trial, which was denied. "This is a jailhouse snitch, a guy sitting in jail trying to get a deal," Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer scoffed. "This is not 'Mr. Credible Guy.' Not an FBI agent."

And when the defense announced on Wednesday (Sept. 7) that it planned to introduce, among other evidence, a videotape of John Rogers raping a woman in Ohio, the prosecution asked again that the trial be delayed so that it could study the new evidence. The second motion was also denied (Sept. 8).

Meanwhile, five ship-to-shore calls made from Chandler's boat, Gypsy 1, to his Tampa home in the hours after Joan Rogers and her daughters disappeared may also play an important part in the trial. So far, Chandler's wife, Debra, has not revealed the content of those conversations to prosecutors. The telephone calls are the only evidence revealed to date which may put Chandler on his boat when the murders occurred.

She also has been unable to provide him with an alibi for that night or the night a Canadian woman says Chandler raped her, also aboard his boat.

Important testimony may also come from Rollins Cooper, a former subcontractor of Chandler's. Cooper told investigators that on June 1, 1989, his boss rushed off because "he had a date with three women." The next day, Chandler explained his grubby appearance was due to being out on his boat all night. But Cooper's recollection is called into question by Chandler's defense attorney, Zinober, who wonders why Cooper didn't remember the conversations the first three times he was interviewed.

Police initially connected Chandler to the murders by matching his palm print to one found on a tourist brochure in Joan Rogers' deserted car. Handwriting analysts also matched the writing on the brochure to Chandler's writing style.

There are more than 75,000 pages of pretrial documents and a list of 400 potential witnesses. Only the murder trial of O.J. Simpson - scheduled to begin a week later - will complete with the Chandler case for the biggest headlines in the Tampa Bay media.

Murder is not the only charge against Oba Chandler. When this trial ends, prosecutors will try him on unrelated charges of raping a Canadian tourist aboard his boat two weeks before the disappearance of the Rogers women. The Canadian rape victim and her girlfriend - who met Chandler but declined an invitation for a sunset cruise aboard his boat - flew to St. Petersburg after the man's arrest and positively identified Chandler in a lineup as the victim's assailant.

And ten days after his arrest on the murder charges, Chandler was also charged with armed robbery, stemming from the September 11, 1992 robbery of $700,000 worth of jewelry from a man in Pinellas Park, Florida. He plead no contest to the robbery charges and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Chandler also is awaiting trial on unrelated charges of armed robbery with a deadly weapon and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. That case will be tried in Volusia County (Daytona Beach), where Chandler and his wife lived at the time of his arrest.

The Rogers murders set off one of Florida's most sensational manhunts five years ago, involving the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Coast Guard, sheriff's departments in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties (which ring Tampa Bay) and the Tampa and St. Petersburg police departments. Because the women were visiting Florida from a bread-basket of tourism, the Midwest, the grizzly murders set off more than the usual alarm bells with state and local officials.

Of course, arresting Chandler hasn't stopped attacks on tourists in the Sunshine State. In the past year, a German tourist was brutally shot to death while driving on a Miami highway, and a British tourist was shot at a Tallahassee rest area.

Chandler's trial will likely only serve to refresh many memories of the attacks on Florida tourists.

Nothing about the Chandler case has been simple for law enforcement authorities. After pretrial hearings in Pinellas County and spending many months in the Pinellas County Jail, Chandler was told that because the murders occurred in the waters of Tampa Bay, jurisdiction was shared by Hillsborough County (which includes Tampa) and Pinellas (St. Petersburg/Clearwater). He was given the opportunity to choose between them and picked Hillsborough, where he was transferred. But once there, Chandler complained of being held in solitary confinement in shackles and asked for jurisdiction - and himself - to be returned to Pinellas. Eventually, his wish was accommodated. (He may have learned, as Judge Schaeffer pointed out in court, that Hillsborough juries send more defendants to death row than Pinellas juries.)

Lead defense attorney Zinober, meanwhile, attempted to force a change of venue in the case due to extreme pretrial publicity. He cited 170 articles related to the murders in the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune, as well as reports on syndicated tabloid TV shows such as Hard Copy and Inside Edition. Zinober also said that in pretrial testimony, Chandler's own sister, Lula Harris, believed Chandler was guilty based on press reports.

Judge Schaeffer rejected Zinober's motion but agreed to select jurors in Orlando, 90 miles west of St. Petersburg. On Monday (Sept. 12), interviews will begin from a pool of 500 potential jurors. When 14 jurors are selected (12 jurors and two alternates), they will be given a day to organize their affairs before being transported to St. Petersburg and sequestered.

Opening arguments are expected to begin by Thursday (Sept. 15). Judge Schaeffer has set aside five weeks on her calendar for the trial.


©2001, All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author.

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