Bob Merkle for the Defense! 1989 INTERVIEW

(Originally written in November 1989 for Florida Business/Tampa Bay; also published the same year in the Orlando Sentinel Sunday magazine. Merkle died at the age of 58 on May 6, 2003.)

Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)
Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)

The man who stared down Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, the man who sent Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder to prison, the man who challenged Connie Mack for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate-yes, Bob “Mad Dog” Merkle-couldn’t turn on a telephone.

He’d never before seen a phone that ran on batteries. The federal government didn’t buy ’em that way.

That wasn’t Merkle’s only problem in setting up his first business since running a lemonade stand as a kid. There was all that governmental red tape, all the bureaus to visit and license fees to be paid. For a man who had spent his entire career in government, it was an eye-opening experience being on the other side.

Until he could afford a secretary, Merkle did his own typing. He rented office space within another law firm until he could get on his feet. Merkle only had two phones-one in his office and one for a parade of temporary secretaries. That left his partner, Joe Magri, in the cold. When someone called for Magri, he’d have to use Merkle’s phone and Merkle would have to wait outside the office.

Then there was the problem of research. Unable to afford their own law library, Merkle and Magri had to spend nights and weekends looking up cases in the Pinellas County Courthouse law library. “It was inconvenient as hell,” says Merkle. “It’s very inefficient having to leave your office, especially when you’re the only one there. You go downtown, look for a parking space then find you don’t have any change for the meter.” Merkle’s notoriety didn’t help; everyone he ran into wondered why the infamous attorney was doing his own searches through the stacks.

When they finally bought their own statutes, Merkle and Magri discovered a new problem: no room in their makeshift office for book shelves. So the lawyers took out the indexes and had to leave the rest of the books in boxes. To find something, whole cartons would have to be shuffled.

“It’s one of those things you look back fondly on,” says Magri, “and thank God it didn’t last long.”

Welcome to the world of private lawyering, former federal prosecutor style.

Among modern U.S. attorneys, only New York-based Rudolph Giuliani enjoyed more renown and infamy in the 1980s than Bob “Mad Dog” Merkle. While Giuliani played the game of federal prosecutor in a bigger arena, there are many similarities between him and Merkle, including national television profiles in 1987-Giuliani on ABC’s “20/20,” Merkle on CBS’s “60 Minutes”-and the failure of both to leapfrog from appointed to elected office. (Giuliani wanted to be mayor of New York in ’89; Merkle chased the role of U.S. Senator in ’88). Now both face at least the immediate future in private practice.

From 1982 to 1988, Merkle went after the biggest fish in the sea of 32 counties making up the Middle District of Florida. His office’s cases never failed to make headlines: the corruption trials of members of the Hillsborough County Commission and Nelson Italiano, a once-prominent figure in Hillsborough County Democratic politics; drug indictments brought against Lehder, Noriega and ex-baseball star Denny McLain; perjury charges against State Rep. Elvin Martinez; investigation of former Hillsborough State Attorney E.J. Salcines; and the prosecution of plastic surgeon Dr. Dale B. Dubin on child-pornography charges.

“We didn’t win all the cases, but nobody does,” says Merkle. “It was claimed I only went after Democrats, that I only went after lawyers-depending on whose ox was being gored, that defined ‘the problem with Merkle.’ If there’s a rap there, it was that I went after everybody. Nobody was above the law.”

Merkle was the first U.S. attorney to successfully extradite and prosecute a member of Colombia’s feared Medellin Cartel. The life sentence drug lord Carlos Lehder received in 1988 was a precursor of the bloody civil war that has since wracked Colombia.

When he won, Merkle lavished compliments upon the American legal system, judge and jurors. When he lost, Merkle explained it away by saying the jurors and judge didn’t understand the case.

Along the way, many respected voices called for his firing, including Florida Governor Bob Martinez (cross-examined by Merkle in the Italiano case), Barry Cohen (Salcines’ attorney), a majority of Florida’s sheriffs, the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times. Senators Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles were openly critical of Merkle. (The Times eventually recommended Merkle over Connie Mack in the Senate primary; he refused to accept.)

Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)
Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)

Clearly, not everyone will be rooting for Merkle to succeed in private practice. Not Tampa attorney Barry Cohen, who sought Merkle’s removal from office with a full-page newspaper ad and petition campaign after the U.S. attorney’s three-year, public investigation of Cohen;s client, E.J. Salcines, damaged the former Hillsborough State Attorney’s reputation. Merkle never brought charges against Salcines, but all the negative publicity probably costing Salcines re-election.

Although Cohen declined comment for Florida Business, he did describe to Morley Safer of “60 Minutes” what he called Merkle’s “McCarthy mentality.” On the nationally broadcast television program, Cohen accused Merkle of ” … inducing people to tell untruths … threatening people that they’ll be indicted if they don’t tell you what you want to hear so that you can manipulate the facts … telling witnesses that you’d better testify in a particular way.”

Merkle and Magri have both had run-ins with Cohen over the years. They say Cohen is an expert at trying cases in the media. “Barry Cohen is a good defense attorney in that he knows how to utilize the media,” says Magri. “He gives talks on how to use the media to help defend a case.” Cohen used a Florida Bar seminar in October as a forum to criticize Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Richard Mensch for prosecuting chiropractor William LaTorre as a way of getting back at Cohen for winning a drug case.

After leaving office, Merkle continued to lose friends and influence enemies. He called his former boss, Attorney General Edwin Meese III, a liar and described Connie Mack and Bob Martinez as a “dynamic duo of sleaze.” When Mack refused to debate him, Merkle traveled the state with a lifesize representation of Mack, which he dubbed “Cardboard Connie.”

Whatever his faults, the sleepy-eyed, sharp-tongued Merkle has never been dull.

* * *

Merkle, a graduate of Notre Dame and reserve fullback on the football team in 1964, spent 17 years in professional law enforcement as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and as an assistant state attorney in Pinellas County for the Sixth Judicial Circuit before being recommended by then-Senator Paula Hawkins to be U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida in 1982. Merkle left office in mid-1988 to challenge Connie Mack for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, which Mack later won.

After the campaign, Merkle set about finding a job to feed his wife Angela and their nine children. He set up an independent law office in downtown Clearwater and, at age 45, began competing for the first time for clients.

Merkle has done his best to make the setting of private law as similar to public work as possible. He took on his former chief assistant, Joe Magri, as equal partner and hired his former secretary, Dot Bunger, as office manager. Also joining the firm from the U.S. Attorney’s office was Ward Meythaler, who spent five years as an assistant under Merkle; Jeff Albinson spent five years as an assistant state attorney in Pinellas County; Robert Persante, a nationally ranked chess player, folded his sole practitioner office in Tampa to sign on; Dayra Morales is the freshman member of Merkle & Magri, having just graduated University of Florida Law School.

The Merkle & Magri team goes back to a time shortly after Merkle’s appointment by Ronald Reagan in 1982. “I met him at a party that my law firm threw on Capitol Hill,” recalls Magri. An uncle of Merkle’s was a partner in Cummings and Lockwood, the firm where Magri worked. “We got talking about doing some prosecutions and it really sounded good to me. And he liked to play golf.”

Over the years, a good working relationship developed into a deep friendship and respect between the two men. “We complement each other well,” says Merkle. “There are certain talents he has and certain talents I have that mesh. It’s a very good relationship.”

Magri, 41, was promoted to acting U.S. attorney when Merkle left office in June 1988 to run for the Republican senate nomination vs. Connie Mack. Less than six weeks later, then-U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese announced Robert Genzman of Orlando would be the new U.S. attorney for the middle district of Florida. The announcement may have been timed to embarrass Merkle just days before the Republican Senate primary; Merkle has said he had an understanding with Meese that Magri would be his permanent successor. Had he known otherwise, Merkle has publicly suggested, he might not have left office. (Magri served as acting U.S. attorney until early 1989.)

“We’ve been about as close as two lawyers could be in terms of our working relationship over seven years,” says Magri. “I have a great deal of respect for his ethics, his approach to the law. He’s a very aggressive lawyer. He fights very hard for his position. I think he’s an exceptional lawyer.”

There are enough rooms with a Rocky Point waterfront view for five more attorneys in the spacious, 11th-floor Waterford Plaza law offices of Merkle & Magri. There is plenty of work to go around; Merkle himself is likely to surpassed his $70,000 federal salary in the firm’s first year of business. “I wouldn’t commit myself to significant salaries if I didn’t have the work to support it,” he says. Then, adds Merkle with a twinkling eye on the bottom line, “That’s a fundamental business decision.”

One of the advantages to private practice for an attorney with Merkle’s celebrity status is that it draws in all kinds of people with unusual problems. That is also the chief drawback of being Bob Merkle, P.A.

“I get people who, frankly, are nuts,” he says. “I had one guy who claimed he was the past owner of Amtrak, Yankee Stadium and the Skyway Bridge. This was a conspiracy to involve all sorts of people. I didn’t accept him as a client. I used to get these people at the U.S. Attorney’s office but I had a screening process where we could file a letter in the nut file and let it go.

“I spend an awful lot of time talking to people who have no intention, no wherewithal to hire me. They’re looking for emotional support, free advice.”

Then there are clients operating under what might be called “Mad Dog Fever,” which Merkle says has been spread by defense attorneys and newspaper reporters. The “Mad Dog” nickname began in his assistant state attorney days when he took on unwinnable cases and won them.

“My clients have hired me,” says Merkle, “because they perceived I was the meanest, nastiest sonuvabitch in the valley. They feel, ‘I don’t like you, but I want you as my attorney.’ They perceive that I can walk in, wave a wand and they get what they want. But that’s not the way the system works.”

Merkle insists he’s no frothing wild animal; it’s not practical. “I have always been in total control of myself in the courtroom. The image of a mad dog is certainly a repugnant image for a lawyer to have. A mad dog foams at the mouth and attacks everything in a mindless fashion.” The image has been built out of proportion but he hesitates to reject it entirely. “The good side is the way it was coined. It connotes tenacity and fearlessness. The irony is that that fiction hasn’t hurt my business,” he says. “But there’s another side of that. Sometimes when I walk into a courtroom, a judge who hasn’t met me operates on the same principle.”

Joe Magri is the perfect partner for Bob Merkle: he’s used to standing in the “Mad Dog’s” shadow. For seven years of federal prosecutions-successful or not-it was “Merkle this, Merkle that.” Guys like Magri and Meythaler worked just as hard but in relative anonymity. “Joe Magri deserves every bit as much credit as I do for what we did at the U.S. attorney’s office,” says Merkle.

In the private sector, the magnetism of Merkle’s name will be a mixed blessing. It will keep Magri in the shadows but probably make him a rich man.

“I don’t consider that a real issue,” says Magri. “If you want to talk about it from a business standpoint, an attorney that has the ability to attract attention generally attracts cases. That’s very good. That’s what we’re here for. If things go well for me and Bob does well, I’m going to be happy. What’s important is that the firm do well. If that results in Bob Merkle gaining publicity or continuing what he has, that’s something we should embrace.”

* * *

The days of chasing corrupt county commissioners and drug lords are over.

Bob Merkle has made a conscious decision to generally refuse criminal cases. He doesn’t want to belittle a long career of criminal prosecution by switching sides to defend drug dealers. Instead, he has chosen the more dignified civil arena, specializing in lender-liability, environmental and land-use litigation.

“There are obviously differences,” he says. “But there are some fundamental things that remain the same. A hearing is a hearing. A deposition is a deposition. The law is the law. Clients come to me because there’s the prospect of real litigation experience.”

Merkle says he’s not ruling out criminal defense work entirely, but he is unlikely to accept it unless “there is a situation where I can work to further both the client’s interests and the government’s interests at the same time. (Otherwise) it would be an abrupt and unacceptable jolt from what I’ve been committed to for my entire professional career. That’s a prospect when I’m using my skills to defend people who are otherwise guilty. I will not do drug work. I happen to have a personal experience in which I have a very high anti-drug profile. I don’t want to be in the position where I get people off as a routine manner of the way I work. I’m aware of the recidivism rate. I’ve known lawyers who’ve represented criminals and gotten them off. I don’t feel comfortable in using my talents to get these people off. Why should I be a mouthpiece for the Mob? Why should I be in-house counsel for a drug organization, insuring their people get back on the street?”

George Tragos, managing partner, managing partner at the Law Offices of Tragos, Sartes & Tragos, Clearwater, by Bob Andelman
George Tragos, managing partner, managing partner at the Law Offices of Tragos, Sartes & Tragos, Clearwater

George Tragos was a chief assistant under Merkle at the U.S. attorney’s office; like Merkle, Tragos also put in time at the state attorney’s office. But when Tragos left the federal prosecution business, he had no trouble working for the other side.

“I made the transition from prosecuting criminals to defending criminals,” says Tragos. “I’ve done it twice. I just wake up one morning and see the Constitution from the other side. I see words I never saw before. I enjoy practicing law and I enjoy trying cases. I don’t care if I’m prosecuting or defending.

“Bob-his personality didn’t allow him to make that transition,” according to Tragos. “He’s a person that didn’t feel psychologically he could defend criminals. Some people can, some people can’t. (Merkle) has a very negative idea of criminal defense lawyers. If you’re talking political ambition, representing drug smugglers and criminals doesn’t get you a lot of votes. He’s doing the right thing not tarnishing his image as a crimebuster.”

Tragos believes that the different directions he and Merkle have taken has been largely responsible for the end of their social contacts. But, notes Tragos, “In the civil work I’ve done, some of the people I’ve met have been bigger crooks than in criminal.”

Denis M. de Vlaming is another former assistant state attorney who turned the tables on the system and now makes his living as a criminal defense specialist. He expects Merkle’s aggressive style and tactics will be preferred by a certain type of client and that the former prosecutor will do very well in private practice.

“I admire him for not accepting criminal cases,” says de Vlaming. “I’m sure Mr. Merkle could win six-figure fees for drug dealer cases.”

de Vlaming says he once had a client who had been charged with three different burglaries. The man was acquitted of the first two charges. This occurred when Bob Merkle was an assistant state attorney. “The third time, Merkle came in and said, ‘You’re not winning this one,'” recalls de Vlaming. “Judge Fred Bryson has since said it was one of the most enjoyable cases he ever had. We went after each other, nose to nose. And he topped me. He did a good job.”

* * *

Attorneys who have spent a portion of their careers in public service say there are a number of differences between working for Uncle Sam and Joe Shmo.

For one thing, there’s money. When you work for Uncle Sam, he pays all the bills no matter what the cost and whether or not he can cover the debt. That’s important when a Carlos Lehder can pay a reported $2.5 million for his defense. And there’s a regular paycheck to depend on, utility bills are paid and plenty of No. 2 pencils and yellow legal pads. In the case of Merkle and Magri, there were also 47 assistant U.S. attorneys to share the work load.

Joe Shmo, on the other hand, won’t necessarily pay his bill on time. He’ll pay it late if he can and it’s no fun for a dignified attorney to chase down deadbeat clients. And if the firm doesn’t get paid, there’s no blank check from the government to keep the wheels turning. It’s a quick lesson in business for lawyers who haven’t had to worry about such details in government service.

“When you’re a U.S. attorney,” says Merkle, “you’re here for the United States. You have a client who exists, from a certain perspective, in the abstract. When you are a private lawyer, you find out how many problems there are out in the world and how many there are that can’t be solved.”

When you’re with the government, you’re 100 percent lawyer. But when you’re in private practice, you’re 50 percent lawyer and 50 percent businessman. And the business responsibilities can really get out of hand.

“If you open an office and make lots of money, it’s easy. If you’re not making money, you have to budget,” says George Tragos. “I can’t operate at a deficit as the U.S. Government does. Nobody ever said, ‘You can’t do this drug smuggling (case) because we can’t afford it.'”

For attorneys who plan to stay in business and prosper-perhaps even drop a shoe in the political arena-there is an even broader agenda to be considered in private practice.

“You become very conscious of not just your role in a given piece of litigation,” says Joseph Donahey, a partner in Clearwater-based Tanney, Forde, Donahey, Eno and Tanney, “but the practice you see over many years, the relationships you have with colleagues, the relationships you have with the bench. Your approach is different. When you’re a prosecutor, you’re not beholden to anybody. You can approach each case in any manner you choose.”

There is also the growing issue of attorneys who make campaign contributions to judges. Merkle supports blind trusts for judges or judicial candidates so that the influence of law firms making large financial contributions could not give a hint of judicial impropriety. “I guarantee you’ll see contributions go down,” says Merkle. “I’m not going to indulge in the practice I’ve heard other lawyers do-routinely contributing to incumbents on the bench. Somebody may get their nose bent out of shape by my saying there are incompetents on the bench. But there are incompetents on the bench.”

A potential drawback for a Bob Merkle-type attorney shifting gears is the distinct lack of limelight surrounding most lawyer’s everyday affairs.

“One of the things you really have to develop a means of handling is the hum-drum routine of all our lives,” says Joe Donahey. “I’m looking at a mound of work. I have the same commitment to each of these files yet there’s probably only two that that any challenge or any meaningful legal interest.”

Not every case, in other words, is a international drug cartel or politician with his fingers in the cookie jar. The average lawyer rarely makes headlines.

Spending time on the government payroll has been lucrative for many people who earn huge consulting fees, write books or end up as partners in nationally respected law firms. Some simply add marquee value; some bring real insight.

George Tragos has says when Bob Merkle was appointed to be U.S. attorney, the two discussed Tragos’ joining the team. Tragos told Merkle he couldn’t afford the pay cut but ultimately used his savings to maintain the lifestyle which he had become accustomed to as a high-price lawyer. “It was worth it,” says Tragos in retrospect. “I made contacts all over the country. Now my business is 60 percent federal.”

* * *

There are many stories floating around that reinforce the “Mad Dog” nickname Merkle earned as a young buck coming up through James Russell’s Pinellas County State Attorney’s office in the ’70s..

“Bob Merkle in the courtroom was like a linebacker bursting through the line,” says Denis M. de Vlaming. “He’s extremely intense, almost physically imposing. When he argued, he would walk right up to you and argue. Almost to the point of intimidation so his opponent cowers. It’s a style that’s only his.

“I went snow skiing in Vermont with him one year. I don’t know if I’d go again,” says de Vlaming. “He has to go faster than you, he has to go further than you. He has to beat you at everything. We had an argument over dinner. He always has to be right. He carries over that competitive aggressiveness into every aspect of life.”

“The guy is an excellent trial lawyer,” says George Tragos. “But if I see him in an airport-as well as we know each other-I have to say hello first. He’s not personable. That’s just the way he is. But I like him.

“You have two schools of thought,” says Tragos. “There’s people who really hate the guy. And there’s people who think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. I think he did more good than bad. The people-they got their money’s worth with him. Not everything he did turned out right, but on balance, he did more good than bad.”

* * *

Is Bob Merkle merely on hiatus from public office? When he does run again, will it be for governor?

“Ah,” he answers, “the old question-resting-on-a-presumption trick.”

Those who know him best expect the “Mad Dog” to slip his leash again and run for office after feathering his private practice with a layer of cash insulation. “I personally think he’ll run for public office again,” says George Tragos. “I don’t think he can be happy so far out of the limelight. I don’t think money motivates him.”

Joe Magri—who knows exactly what his partner’s plans are—is cagier about making predictions.

“One of the important things in life,” says Bob Merkle’s law partner, “is that people who are doing that which they want to do tend to be the most happy and productive in life. If you spend the time swimming against your emotional current, you achieve less. I think it’s important for people to maintain the options that exist.”

If he does run again, Merkle will have to plan his next campaign better than his first, which began with just 70 days to go before the primary. (Connie Mack had been beating the hustings for more than a year.) The first campaign cost a remarkably paltry $70,000 but ate up Merkle’s federal retirement, money he lent to the campaign and another loan he is still paying off. But he has no regrets.

“It was an ad lib effort, an amateurish campaign by necessity. It was fun in that regard. I think I performed pretty credibly,” says Merkle.

Not surprisingly, Merkle isn’t ready to tip his hand. He certainly won’t rule out another shot at election-“it depends on a lot of things,” he says, then adds, “I have no intention of running for governor.

“I don’t have much patience with people who say, ‘You have to run for governor.’ I say, ‘Oh, yeah? Who’s going to feed my kids?’ I didn’t see anybody in October (after he lost the senate primary) offering to give me a hand. Not a soul. Bitter? No. Practical? Yes. I’ve been approached many times. I say, get real. Don’t talk ideals or how great I’d be. Talk the language. Talk about what I need to be an effective candidate. I’m a pretty tough, resilient guy. I was going 24 hours a day in that campaign. I’d be willing to do it again. But there’s got to be a germ of success. I’m not going to be somebody’s spear-carrier. There should be enough people now that know I’m a credible candidate.”

end

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Elizabeth Kovachevich The Judge is a Lady (Tampa Bay Life)

(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life in 1989)

Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right
Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right

By Bob Andelman

“If I had any respect left for Elizabeth Kovachevich, that disappeared when she locked me up. She had a good public image, but I discovered firsthand that she was willing and able to abuse her power … The hanging judge had a rope for every occasion.” — Denny McLain from his book, Strikeout

CLEARLY, Denny McLain thought the worst, wrote book while in jail, then got outy the last pitcher to win 31 games in major league baseball, was not a great fan of Elizabeth Kovachevich, a United States district court judge in Tampa. Few would be fond of the person who sentences them to 23 years in federal prison. McLain is more than a little direct in his criticism of Her Honor in his 1988 book, Strikeout. Remarking on her work in his trial on racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and describe her drug dealing charges, McLain uses the following descriptions: “sham,” “botched,” “farce,” “she went nuts,” “ringmaster of the circus,” and “outrageous.”

That was before McLain decided to acknowledge he was guilty of racketeering and possession of cocaine with intent to sell. It was written while McLain was serving 29 months behind bars, before the “hanging judge” commuted his sentence and put him on probation.

McLain has a new message, suggested to him by Judge Kovachevich: don’t believe everything you read in his book. He may have been hasty in his character attacks against Tampa’s most controversial jurist.

“I always had mixed emotions at what had gone on during the trial,” says the ex-Cy Young Award winner by telephone from Fort Wayne, Ind. “But she proved to me she had the ability to be fair. She showed us some insight that I didn’t know existed. She didn’t have any bitterness. She gave me back my life, my family. She turned out to be quite a lady. I can’t get over it.”

•••

During 1988, the name Kovachevich was synonymous with controversy.

Besides the McLain case, the single, 52-year-old has been strongly identified with two landmark AIDS rulings. She was responsible for the settlement reached in the complaint of Arcadia’s Ray brothers — Ricky, Robert and Randy — who sued the DeSoto County School Board when they were refused admittance to public schools because they had contracted AIDS.

And arguments in the case of Eliana Martinez — a mentally handicapped 7-year-old girl who is in the advanced stages of the AIDS virus — may outlast the Tampa child whose mother has been fighting to find her a place in public school. Kovachevich caused a maelstrom when she ruled that Eliana could only attend school if she was kept in a glass isolation booth. The idea was inspired by a 1976 made-for-television movie starring John Travolta, “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” Neither the Hillsborough County School Board, Eliana’s mother, Rosa, nor a federal appeals court found the ruling acceptable.

Those were just the most recent cases that put Kovachevich’s name in the spotlight as prominently as the defendants’ before her. Here are a few others:

* In 1987, Kovachevich ruled that a menorah in front of Tampa’s City Hall — celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — violated constitutional safeguards separating church and state; for the city to light candles would suggest Tampa was endorsing one holiday over another. The ceremony was canceled over the protests of the Jewish community, which is awaiting a ruling from a higher court on the issue. (Kovachevich is a practicing Roman Catholic; Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who lit the first candle in 1986, is Jewish.)

* As an adjunct to the McLain case, Kovachevich removed his attorney, Arnold D. Levine, for evidence tampering and initiated a formal rebuke of Levine by a three-member panel of federal judges.

* When Clarence Ferguson, an employee of the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, was fired for absenteeism due to alcoholism — which the federal government recognizes as a disease — Kovachevich set off a national dialogue with her ruling. She said that as a federal employee with a disease, Ferguson should be considered a handicapped worker and was protected from being fired without first being helped. She wrote that Ferguson’s supervisors had a responsibility to help him before they fired him.

* Arthur Jones, multimillionaire inventor of Nautilus exercise equipment, sued ABC-TV’s news program 20/20 for $4 billion in 1988 for defamation of character, reportedly the largest libel suit ever brought against a news organization. Kovachevich ruled against Jones.

•••

Elizabeth Kovachevich never dreamed of becoming a judge.

After a successful private law practice in St. Petersburg and a term with the Florida Board of Regents — during which she gained notoriety for calling coed dormitories “taxpayers’ whorehouses” — friends started whispering the words “Judge Kovachevich” in her ear.

“I thought, well, they feel I have something to offer,” she recalls. “I was the first woman who ran for circuit judge (in Pinellas County). It wasn’t until after I got into the position that I realized I was doing what I was meant to do.”

Her first campaign sought to get Kovachevich elected and teach the public how to pronounce her last name (Ko-VATCH-uh-vitch). Remembering the old Burma Shave signs that she once saw while driving across America on Highway 66, Kovachevich found the method worked for selling candidates as well as shave cream.

“We put a KO on one sign. Then 50 feet down the road we put the VACH, then the E and the last sign would be VICH. And then we would run another set of them. KO-VACH-E-VICH, KO-VACH-E-VICH. It was like a choo-choo train. All the way up Fourth Street (in St. Petersburg), you could see the signs.”

Three Republican presidents have had a hand in guiding Kovachevich’s career. Richard Nixon appointed her to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in 1973. Gerald Ford first nominated her to be a U.S. District Judge in 1976, but it took until 1982 for Ronald Reagan — via former U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins’ recommendation — to finally appoint Kovachevich to a lifetime job wearing judicial robes in the Middle District of Florida. She spent two years in Orlando and then transferred to Tampa.

Republican Congressman Bill Young has been a fan of Kovachevich’s since she clerked for him back in 1960 when he was a state senator in 1960.

“She is very intense and determined to do what’s right,” according to Young. Kovachevich, he goes on, is “rather inflexible, but determined to do what in her heart she considers is the right thing.”

Bob Merkle, former U.S. attorney and Republican senatorial candidate, also comes across as being in Kovachevich’s corner. It was Merkle, incidentally, who brought the original charges against Denny McLain.

“She’s very bright, very personable,” he says. “While I haven’t agreed with everything she’s done, all in all I think she’s going to be a great judge. She’s everything you look for: she’s not distant or arrogant.”

•••

Tampa still hasn’t made up its mind about the fast-talking, no-nonsense redhead who daily admonishes slow-moving, jive-talking lawyers to move it or lose it.

“In show business,” she says with a laugh, “they would say Tampa is a tough ticket.”

When the Hillsborough County Bar Association asked its members to rate local judges, Kovachevich received the most negative response of the city’s nine federal judges. Hillsborough’s 56 judges, her rating was fifth from the bottom.

Dallas Albritton, president of the Bar in 1987 when the results were released, cautions against interpreting the results as negative.

“Only a small portion of lawyers (500 out of a possible 2,000) chose to respond. I would hope they were not just lawyers with an axe to grind,” he says. From his own experience, Albritton adds, “I think she’s a crackerjack judge. She’s no-nonsense; she recognizes hot air when she hears it. I like to appear in her court. She’s a lively judge.”

Not everyone is taken with Kovachevich.

“I think she did a terrible job,” says a man who appeared before the judge and prefers to remain anonymous while his case is appealed to a higher court. “I was told by my lawyer that the last judge you want is her.”

•••

Two AIDS cases presented before Kovachevich in 1988 drew nationwide attention to Courtroom E in downtown Tampa’s federal courthouse.

“She was faced with a potential media circus,” says Judy Kavanaugh, attorney for the Ray brothers. “Some judges are very sensitive to the press and very hostile. But she handles it real well. She really tried to be fair. I she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”

In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.

“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.

“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”

In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.

“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.

“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”

Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.

“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”

In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.

“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”

•••

The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”

Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.

“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”

In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.

“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”

•••

The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal offense has a right to his or her day in court within 70 days of arrest. That’s a tall order for a judiciary that is already overworked and underpaid. But in Judge Kovachevich’s court, if it’s fast justice you need, it’s fast justice you’ll get.

“All she cared about was her precious docket and how many hours we were behind schedule,” wrote Denny McLain in his book, wherein he describes how during his months-long trial, Kovachevich extended the court’s typical day from seven hours to 9-1/2 hours, exhausting all parties involved. “To hell with my rights … the woman was obsessed with the clock.”

“I’ve heard she really pushes cases along, and that antagonizes lawyers who drag their feet,” says Bruce Jacob, dean of Stetson University’s College of Law and a one-time fellow student of the judge’s. “I admire her for trying to move cases along.”

“In our case, she did that,” confirms attorney Judy Kavanaugh, noting that the Ray case was scheduled for February but the judge abruptly pushed it up to October. “At the time, it was painful. But in our case, it made us get our act together.”

“She manages her time well,” says St. Petersburg attorney Tony Battaglia. “Judges who are very conservative have a great concern about the docket because everyone has a right to their day in court.”

Kovachevich brags about her ability to do three things at once while sitting in judgment on the federal bench. While hearing testimony in January at the drug trafficking case of Pedro Gomez, she could be seen reading, writing and occasionally making conversation or exchanging notes with one of her court clerks. Remarkably, she never skipped a beat through a parade of witnesses, objections or even a tired looking jury.

“I’ve been criticized by some people that did not realize I am capable of reading and doing two and three things at once and paying full attention to each one of them,” she says. “When I’m up on the bench and in a long trial, there is no way that paperwork can get out of this office without having it funneled in and out (of the courtroom). … It’s very fatiguing to do this. I’m not going to tell you that coming home at the end of the day you are not tired. Mentally, you are whipped! But if I only did one thing at a time, the two other things wouldn’t get done. And you multiply that in trials.”

And heaven help the attorney who doesn’t wrap up a case at precisely 4 p.m. Along about 3:55 in the Gomez trial, Kovachevich began staring at the clock on the wall as the lawyers examined, cross-examined, redirected and re-redirected.

“Any re-redirect?” she asked the prosecution.

“Just one question, your honor.”

“I knew there would be.”

And moments later, to the defense: “Any re-recross?”

“Just a moment, your honor.” It was five minutes after 4 and Kovachevich’s eyes were rolling in frustration. When the questioning was completed, the jury was led out. Before adjourning, the judge didn’t ask, she told the attorneys they had better be ready to wrap it up tomorrow. The underlying message: speed it up, fellas.

Numbers mean a lot to Kovachevich and she has quite a few of them committed to memory. To wit: She has more than 500 civil and 200 criminal cases pending at any given time. When she came to Tampa, her docket included cases as old as 16 years, many of which have only recently been concluded. She has done her part to raise the middle district’s case completion rate from 55th out of 94 in the nation to 2nd. The middle district judges are first in case completions in the 11th Circuit (Florida, Georgia and Alabama).

“I take a great deal of pride in that,” she says. “We provided resolutions for people. That’s what we’re there to do. We could sit and cogitate about it indefinitely and maybe we’d get through with one case in an elongated period of time. But what about all these other people waiting for our attention?

“I believe that Chief Justice (William) Rehnquist said it very well. He said that in our zeal for perfection we take so long to contemplate cases that other people are not getting any justice at all, just or unjust.

“We are getting our work out, getting our decisions out,” she concludes. “If people are not satisfied and they have a basis for appeal, fine. At least we’ve given them an answer.”

•••

“It is never a pleasure to sentence anyone. It is a duty to perform.” — Judge Kovachevich, before sentencing Bentley A.McFarlane to 15 years in prison on drug charges

•••

“She is singularly one of the most spectacular women I know,” says Roy Speer, a former Stetson University law school classmate of Kovachevich’s and now chairman of the board at the Home Shopping Network. He knows the federal judge about as well as anyone could.

As a student in the late 1950s, Speer used to go to school during the day and pay his way by working nights. Because Roy and Elizabeth were a bit of an item in those days, he was a regular at the Kovachevich dinner table in St. Petersburg.

“Before I went to work,” recalls Speer, “her mother used to feed me. I became like a dog — you feed ’em, they become very close.”

Speer was attracted to the future federal judge by her sense of humor, her high spirits and her fancy footwork.

“She was a fabulous dancer … one of the best,” he says. “She’s just a lot of fun to be around.”

Kovachevich was the only woman in her 1961 graduating class. There were at least two other future judges, however: Circuit Court Judges Fred Bryson and Vincent Giglio. Another Stetson alumnus of the period: State Attorney James T. Russell.

Although the judge prefers not to talk about her parents, they gently smile and look over her shoulder in two sets of photos behind her desk. Speer describes her mother as a simple person, “a great cook (with) a great sense of humor.” She must have made a good match for Kovachevich’s father, a retired postman who knew everyone in town and whom Speer affectionately calls “a clown … Very gregarious, like Elizabeth.”

Her parents’ serious illness in recent years has caused the judge to put aside her social life. It is one of the reasons she has never married, according to friends.

“She probably has one of the greatest devotions to her parents of any person I’ve ever known,” says Speer. “Elizabeth is an only child. She was always very close to her mother and father. It’s a very close-knit family. She has sacrificed her life to them.”

Hobbies are few and far between, with the little time left after working all week and caring for her parents. Kovachevich takes briefs and precedents home every weekend. She tries to find time to hit a tennis ball or run, however; photos and trophies in her conference room attest to the judge’s athletic ability.

•••

Elizabeth Kovachevich isn’t convinced that the controversy that always seems to swirl around her has anything to do with her being a woman.

“I don’t know if it’s having a woman on the bench,” she says. “Having this woman on the bench, I would think that’s a more obvious observation.

“When I was an attorney,” remembers Kovachevich, “good friends of mine would say, ‘I really like the way you practice law.’ And I’d say, ‘Why is that?’ And they’d say to me — and mean it as a compliment — ‘Because you think like a man.'”

“It’s still a boys’ club,” says Judy Kavanaugh, “but it is changing. Judge Kovachevich has had many controversial cases. She’s a tough law ‘n order judge. She’s known for that.”

Kovachevich thinks that women have a long way to go in the legal profession before men naturally treat them as equals.

“It takes more time,” she says, “for a woman to ‘prove herself’ to whoever is looking, than perhaps for a man and that is just the way of the world. When I became the first woman judge in Pinellas County, the bar did not endorse me for the position. I had lawyers come to me and say, ‘You know they’re just waiting out there on the streets to see what you’re going to do.’ And I was bemused by that. I could almost look out the office window and see everyone lined up on the street saying, ‘I wonder what she’s going to do next?'”

end

©2017 All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author.


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Profile: Oba Chandler’s defense attorney Fred Zinober by Bob Andelman

Attorney Fred Zinober, By Bob Andelman
Attorney Fred Zinober

(Originally published in Pinellas County Review, September 1994)

They call it the Oba Chandler Room.

In it, more than 75,000 documents and 300 pieces of evidence are stored, helter-skelter, in thick blue binders and floor-to-ceiling metal cabinets, all relating to the murder trial which has turned the usually quiet Countryside commercial law firm of Tew, Zinober, Barnes, Zimmet & Unice inside-out and upside-down.

A man who has never seen the inside of this room, triple murder defendant Oba Chandler, is the cause of this tumult. Chandler is currently on trial in a Pinellas County courtroom, accused of the 1989 rape and murder of an Ohio dairy farmer, Joan Rogers, and her two teen-age daughters, Michelle and Christe. The women disappeared on June 1, 1989, while on vacation in Florida and were discovered three days later floating in Tampa Bay, their bodies bound and gagged, nude from the waist down.

Mug shot of Oba Chandler.
Oba Chandler mugshot, image via Wikipedia

Chandler’s attorney, Fred Zinober, 42, is responsible for packing this former office, as well as for dragging the firm into a case which consumed 2,300 billable hours in a year – even before Chandler’s four-week trial began on Sept. 12.

Unfortunately for the firm, it will never be able to bill its $200 per hour average rate for Chandler’s defense because Zinober agreed to accept a flat $100,000 from the state when he took on the case. It seemed fair at the time, but for those whose math isn’t strong, that’s now $43 an hour and dropping daily.

“I think, on balance, (taking the case) was the right decision,” says the firm’s managing partner, Joel Tew. “It wasn’t necessarily the best financial decision, however.”

The case promises to be the firm’s – and certainly Zinober’s – highest profile case ever. In the course of being interviewed for this story, the attorney’s secretary handled an inquiry from the Maury Povich Show. The case has already been the subject of reports on Unsolved Mysteries, Hard Copy and Inside Edition.

When Zinober, a veteran of four years in the Pinellas-Pasco Counties State Attorney’s office, joined Tew’s firm eight years ago, he was expected to become the commercial firm’s star litigator. And he has. But it wasn’t long before Zinober was itching to re-enter the criminal arena, this time as a defense attorney.

“I said, ‘Look, I really want to get back into this, just this one criminal case, let me have some fun.’ The partners said fine,” Zinober says.

Zinober took three risks eight years ago in defending John Burke, a man accused of first-degree murder. First of all, he and Larry Jacobs represented the man for free. Second, criminal defense was not in his firm’s mission. And third, he had spent the last four years prosecuting accused murderers, not defending them.

Naturally, he won the case. (And met his future wife, Dala Ann. She was the court reporter.)

“It was such an incredible rush,” he says. “Everybody said, ‘Wow, first case you’re defending, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime, you’ll never do it again.’ ”

After Burke, Zinober received permission from his partners to defend another man accused of murder. This time, he teamed with Paul Levine, now a judge. “And what do you know?” Zinober says. “The second guy was found not guilty.” So was his third client, Mark Hartsell, a man who shot a woman in the face in front of her husband and two children. He was declared not guilty by reason of insanity.

“I’m a trial lawyer, I’m not a criminal defense lawyer,” Zinober says. “I do this, quite frankly, more as a hobby to keep myself sharp and because I love it. I love the fight. And I love going to trial.”

Michael Hayes, an attorney in the Washington, D.C. firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, recently worked alongside Zinober as co-counsel for Cox Enterprises in a civil matter.

“Fred is tenacious, intelligent, creative – a wonderful guy to work with,” Hayes says. “Trial lawyers have a perverse side to them in that they like a good fight. It would be a challenge to be on the opposite side from Fred.”

Outside of the criminal realm, Zinober has also helmed several high-profile civil cases, including a concerned citizens group supporting former St. Petersburg Police Chief Curt Curtsinger’s attempt to get his job back after being fired. Later, when Curtsinger ran for mayor and lost, Zinober unsuccessfully challenged the results of the election.

Ironically, many of the police officers he represented in trying to return Curtsinger to police chief are now detectives working to convict Oba Chandler in the Rogers triple-murder. It’s a challenge he anticipates with a certain glee.

“Cops are pretty good,” Zinober says. “They respect you if you beat them. They’re tough, and if you can beat them or be tough against them, they’re the kind of guys that when they’re in a jam, you’re the kind of guy they come lookin’ for.”

Certainly he enjoyed a better relationship with the police when they both worked the same side of the legal fence. For instance, as lead trial assistant for the state attorney’s office, he and Jim Hellickson (now working against Zinober on the Chandler case) prosecuted Richard Rhodes. He’s on death row now, convicted of strangling his girlfriend in downtown Clearwater’s old Edgewater Hotel just before the hotel was demolished and the debris removed to a local gun club. Several weeks later, Rhodes’ girlfriend was discovered, her body badly decomposed. The prosecution’s case was made on “very meticulous circumstantial evidence,” Zinober says.

“I get really fascinated by circumstantial evidence cases,” he says. “(In the Rhodes case,) we got an anthropologist from the University of Florida to reconstruct how the bones were broken. See, the cause of death was strangulation. You had a body that had decomposed for 3-1/2 weeks. The bones had totally been crushed because they brought the backhoes in to demolish the building. We reconstructed the cause of death as manual strangulation because the hyoid bone – this little bone underneath your jaw – was broken. And even though every other bone in her body was broken, the only way that one could have been broken was by manual strangulation.”

The tale of Zinober’s dissection of the Rhodes case doesn’t end there, though.

“I get into these things,” he says. “(Rhodes and his girlfriend) were last seen in a bar by the bus station. That was the last time she was seen alive. Well, I wound up dressing down one day and walking around the seedier part of town, going in and out of all the bars, seeing what things were like, reliving what these people were going through to get a sense of what really happened. Had a few beers, talked to the people. Not doing any investigating, just trying to get a sense of ‘what would it be like?’

“When you’re trying a case,” Zinober says, “what you’re trying to do is reconstruct everything to the jury. And the best way you can do that is be a part of it yourself. It’s easy to get them to picture in their mind what happened if you can picture it in your own mind.”

He put this notion into practice again for the Chandler case. When depositions needed to be taken in Orlando, Zinober stayed in the same hotel where Joan Rogers and her daughters spent their last night before driving to Tampa.

“I got a sense of, this was the last place they had been before they came to Tampa and were killed. What is it that they saw? It’s kind of like you’re living a true crime novel,” he says. “You read through all these reports – I can’t put them down. ‘Well, what happened next? What did they do next? What did they see?’ ”

When he’s not working a murder case, Zinober usually has his nose buried in true crime books. His tastes run to Vincent Bugliosi and Joe McGinness; he also enjoys John Grisham’s works of crime fiction. He and Jim Martin, Clearwater lawyer and fellow veteran of the state attorney’s office, recommend books to each other.

“Jim made a good comment. He said, ‘The true life situations are so much more interesting than fiction.’ Which is true. If anybody wrote these things and said it was fiction, you’d say, ‘This could never happen.’ But when you read the police reports, you go, ‘Gee, whiz, this really did happen.’ And it’s even weirder than somebody could write about.”

Along the lines of switching from fiction to non-fiction, Zinober says the jump from criminal prosecutor to defender wasn’t as difficult as he imagined. He credits his ease with the two years he spent in New Hampshire in private practice before joining the state attorney’s office in 1982.

“When you’re a prosecutor,” Zinober says, “you see (crime) from the victim’s perspective and the defendant is kind of an impersonal name, a file. When I left the state, I was one of these guys who said, ‘I’ll never represent a criminal.’ I said, ‘Joel, I don’t have any desire to represent any of these dirtbag criminals. Don’t worry about it.’ But criminal law is in your blood. And I kind of eased into it because of the first guy I represented, John Burke. I was totally convinced that this was the aberration. This guy was getting screwed and he needed me to protect him. I’d always been real good on protecting other people. Then the more I talked to people I felt well, what they’re saying makes sense. Maybe the way the evidence looks isn’t right. Maybe there’s a reason the evidence looks the way it looks. When you start actually meeting these people and defending them – and some of them have even done some really kind of screwy or bad things – I don’t have a problem with it at all.”

That might disappoint James T. Russell, the long-time state attorney for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, who hired Zinober as a prosecutor in 1982.

“Mr. Russell has always been like a father to me,” Zinober says. “I mean, I’ve gone my rounds with him, too; I’ve been yelled at more than once by him. Russell was just a brilliant guy. Tough, fair – he ran that office the way that office should be run. I missed my own farewell party because I was in Russell’s office till 8 o’clock talking about the Bears and the Giants. He was that type of guy.

“One time, we were prosecuting a guy by the name of Athanasio John ‘A.J.’ Maillis,” Zinober recalls. “A.J. had been probably the No. 1 confidential informant in the history of the CIA for Operation: Grouper, this big thing they had in the Bahamas. When he got out of the CIA, he wound up being one of the top cocaine traffickers in Tarpon Springs. Russell warned the federal government: Put the wraps on this guy. The intelligence on this guy was A.J. was doing a lot of coke. Russell kept saying to the feds, ‘Get this guy out of here or get him under control!’ They wouldn’t do it. So finally Jimmy said, ‘I’ve had enough of this shit.’ The sheriff’s department made a case. It was a tough case, two keys of coke. Beverly Andringa and I prosecuted the case. The CIA was not happy, the federal government was not happy. They sent some people down to see if there was something that could be done and we said no. Then somebody pretty high up in the CIA came down and we had a meeting in Russell’s office. Everybody else had this fear of the CIA. Russell just sat there. I’ll never forget him looking at the CIA people and he unleashed on them like he used to unleash on us when we screwed up. He said, ‘You people have forgotten where your responsibilities lie! You put this drug trafficker in my community and now you have the nerve to come down here and complain?’ He blew them over.”

The opportunity to defend Oba Chandler came in a phone call from the judge in the case, Susan Schaeffer, last October.

“I had heard it was this massive case,” Zinober says. “I had heard about ‘The Wall,’ the euphemistic expression for the wall of reports down at the St. Petersburg Police Department. I heard that it was an overwhelming amount of paperwork. Now, paper doesn’t scare me as much as it might a normal criminal practitioner because in commercial work, I’m used to paper. I knew it was going to be a lot of work. I don’t think I knew how much work it was going to be.”

Zinober discussed the case with the three attorneys who preceded him, public defender Ron Eide and criminal defense attorneys Tom McCoun (now a judge) and Bob Dillinger. Then he appeared once more before his partners, seeking their counsel and support.

Partner Andy Salzman said, “This is one of those cases that may come along once in your life. The question is, do you let it go by?”

Zinober, a film buff, answered by recalling Ann-Margaret, of all people, in Grumpy Old Men. “Ann-Margaret said, ‘The only things in life you regret are the risks you don’t take,’ ” Zinober says. “Which is true.”

The firm – not without its share of dissenters, admits Joel Tew – agreed to support Zinober one more time. “There was a disagreement among the partners as to whether it was something we should get involved with,” Tew says. “But everyone has since pulled together and supported Fred in this.”

Very little work had been done when Zinober finally cleared his desk and began on Chandler’s case in earnest last April. By August, he was so focused on the case, the rest of the world just slipped away.

“I’m the type of guy who will put milk in the cupboard,” he says. “I’m not allowed to drive when trials are going on, people have to drive me around. I focus around the clock. I’m thinking of this case all the time. I dream about the case. My wife is sick of me thinking about nothing but this case.”

His work habits at the height of a murder case are maddening, not just for his family but for the 14 lawyers and other employees of his firm. “He expects the people who work with him and for him to be the same way he is,” Tew says. “And he’s liable to show up at 2:30 a.m. to work. He dreams it, eats it and sleeps his practice. We just leave him alone and let him do his thing. He couldn’t change if he wanted to. That’s Zinober.”

Dala Ann Zinober, his wife, wasn’t initially thrilled with his choice of client, this time around.

“Let me put it this way: my wife understands,” Zinober says. “At first, I have to admit, she was a little bit concerned about this. She said, honestly speaking, ‘Gee, Fred, do you really want to take this case?’ But she sees how I feel about it and it gives her some pause. I’m fortunate in that she’s been through the court system. She’s a court reporter so she understands. She’s a very conservative person, the type I would not want to have on a jury if I were defending somebody.”

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Zinober says his client has been “very easy” to work with. More importantly, Zinober – despite 17 witnesses who say his client confessed the murders to them, plus physical evidence – believes he has a winnable case.

“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “No question about it.”

Would he have taken it even if he wasn’t convinced it was winnable?

“I doubt it,” he says. “Quite frankly, the challenge was one of the reasons I took it in the first place. And if I didn’t feel it was a winnable case, that challenge wouldn’t have been there. There’s no question in my mind this is a winnable case. It’s not an easy case. At all. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting the Russian army with a water gun. But I’m not afraid of that.

“I’m here to defend a guy’s life. But sometimes it seems everywhere you turn, people are looking to knock you down. You have people saying, based on what they read in the newspaper, ‘How can you defend this man?’ The press – my case is getting hammered in the press. Sometimes you just feel you’re fighting everybody.”

His partner, Joel Tew, says it’s not hard to see why Zinober feels this way.

“Based on the number of prosecutors working against him, frankly, Fred needed an O.J. Simpson team with him,” Tew says.

Instead, he has two part-time investigators and two paralegals.

“Sometimes it feels I’m fighting insurmountable odds,” Zinober says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m some ‘Man of La Mancha.’ I identify with a guy going up and fighting a windmill. It’s an awesome responsibility. You’re the one, in the end, people look to. If he winds up suffering the death penalty, you’re the one questioning yourself for the rest of your life. ‘Have I done everything? Did I make sure the guy got a fair trial?’ ”

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BAY LAWYER FILE

Name: Fredric S. Zinober

Title: Attorney; Tew, Zinober, Barnes, Zimmet & Unice

Birthplace/date: August 2, 1952, Queens, N.Y.

Spouse’s Name/Occupation: Dala Ann Zinober, court reporter

Children: Tina and Luke Chaffin, 17 (twin step-children); April Lynn Zinober, 4

Pre-Law: “My father was editor of an automotive magazine in New York for 30 years, and my mother is an elementary school teacher. My primary pre-law activity, outside of academics, was sports. I was a linebacker on my college (Middlebury College, VT) football team, and was an infielder/defenseman on the lacrosse team.”

First Law Job: Clerked for Rockville, MD, attorney Charlie Shaffer before graduating from Catholic University of America Law School in 1980

Subsequent Career: Associate, Cleveland, Waters & Bass in Concord, NH, 1980-82. Hired as assistant state attorney by Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor James T. Russell. Joined Tew, Zinober, Barnes, Zimmet & Unice in 1986.

Biggest Victory: “The not-guilty verdict by reason of insanity in the Mark Hartsell case. Prior to this, it is my understanding that it had been over a decade since a man was found not guilty by reason of insanity on a first degree murder charge at trial.”

Biggest Disappointment: “Every loss I have ever had is equally disappointing.”

Lawyers Most Admired: Albert Krieger of Miami; Bobby Lee Cook of Georgia; Terrance McCarthy, federal public defender of Chicago

Favorite Law-related Book: Blind Faith by Joe McGinness

Favorite Non-law-related Book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fred Zinober WebsiteLinkedIn

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Q & A: Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman! MADDUX REPORT 1991

(This interview with Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman was recorded in March 1991 for the Maddux Report.)

Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman
Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman

Sandy Freedman’s fingerprints are all over her city. In typical big city fashion, nothing of any significance happens in Tampa these days without the mayor’s nod of approval or hands-on contribution. It’s evident in the Tampa Convention Center — for which she had final approval of details down to the color scheme — and the arrival of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise, which she personally rallied the National Hockey League Board of Governors to award. She participated in the city’s successful efforts to lure Salomon Brothers to Tampa and pushed the coming Florida Aquarium from dream to reality.

The mayor — who won re-election in February with the support of a crushing 73 percent of the electorate — made a reputation for herself during his first term as what she calls a “facilitator,” someone with a knack for bringing parties to the table to work out their differences. It was her influence that broke down years of mistrust between Tampa and St. Petersburg and set the stage for such infant trans-bay organizations as the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Bay Congress of Chambers of Commerce. She went to St. Petersburg to meet with the National League Expansion Committee in February and express the entire Tampa Bay area’s support for a baseball franchise in the Florida Suncoast Dome.

She says her early days in the office were awkward as city staff and business leaders struggled to adapt to not just Tampa’s first woman chief executive but to a mayor decidedly different in style and execution from her predecessor, Bob Martinez.

Still, however, she is a lioness searching for a voice, as her quiet asmidst the racial storm of the cancelled Gasparilla invasion and parade demonstrated. It was the perfect episode for the mayor of harmony to take a stand and be heard, yet she was largely silent, preferring to stay in the background.

Freedman talked with the Maddux Report for an hour in her city hall office in April, the day after she was sworn in for her second term.

MADDUX REPORT: You were re-elected by a landslide, probably making you the most powerful woman in Florida …

SANDY FREEDMAN: I never think about that. I hope I’m a good role-model for women. That’s the only way that comes into mind. It does say that women can be in executive positions, not just legislative position, that woman can lead and do well and have the support of the public as they’re doing it.

MR: What does it mean for Tampa that you did so well, that you established clearly that you are the mayor of all of Tampa?

SF: What it says is that people like the direction the city is in now, the direction we’ve taken these last four years and they want to continue along that course.

MR: What message did your victory sent to the citizens of Tampa and the city council in terms of your mandate and your ability to govern.

SF: One of the things I was interested in was winning big. Because there were an awful lot of things that I started and I wanted to continue. I think the margin lets everybody know that the public is supportive of those things and they want to keep ’em going, whether it’s the housing program or economic development. I hope they’re going to remember that as we move into new areas and that the public widely supported me. I might REMIND ’em on occasion. (She laughs.)

MR: You’re widely thought to be someone who’s low-key, a behind the scenes person, not a grab-’em-by-the-lapels mayor — almost a contradiction in a ‘strong mayor’ form of government.

SF: When you’re my size you can’t grab people by the lapels. (She laughs.) Kick ’em in the shins, maybe.

MR: What tops your agenda for the next four years?

SF: We will contine working on reducing crime in creative ways. It’s not just hiring more cops. The housing programs, which, of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of them. They’re really helping people. We’re going to continue them and fine-tune. We’re doing one pilot project, rebuilding and revitalizing, in effect, an entire neighborhood. If we make that one work, we’ll be able to take that model to other neighborhoods. I’m confident we’re going to get a convention hotel, but on terms the city can afford and handle, as opposed to someone else’s terms.

Hopefully some of the things that are the hardest to do — race relations, the arts — will be in better shape.

MR: How would you describe your style of governing?

SF: It’s a different style than this community is used to. And I think that’s why it’s was hard early on for some people to understand, even for some of the staff members. It was very different from the way Bob Martinez dealt.

I work in a very open way. People are in and out all day. It’s not a closed, inner circle and then another circle, as might have been the case in the past. Everybody has access to this office. It’s a very democratic kind of thing. Everybody shares their ideas, free-for-all. We don’t sit around a conference table; I’m not comfortable there. We kick around ideas and then I say okay, this is the way we’re going to do it. And everybody gets behind it.

I think it works. The people who work with me — I don’t think they’re scared out of me. They know I can be tough and I can be a taskmaster, but I don’t ask of them anything I don’t ask of myself.

It’s low-key, behind-the-scenes much of the time, non-traditional, maybe. There’s a lot of team building. We do some things out of the office, we socialize together. We spend more time together than we do with our families so we better like each other. There’s a lot of humor, a lot of laughter, a lot of kidding. There’s a great deal of camaraderie.

I get around a lot to the departments. If I need information, instead of asking them to come here, I go there. It helps for people to see me, to know I care about what they do. I probably know more people by name than any other mayor ever has. I like people. Maybe that’s the difference.

MR: You have been given credit for a number of things that have happened during the last four years — hockey, Salomon Brothers, the convention center, the Florida Aquarium. What do you think your contribution to these things has been?

SF: Often times I’m a facilitator. I take pride and some degree of credit in getting the convention center done on time and on budget. Every Wednesday morning I got a report on progress from the moment that project began to insure it came in on time and on budget. My credibility and the fortune of the city was at stake and I wasn’t going to let it get away from me.

Hockey, that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of things. I’ve been given a lot of credit, but I think I just said, ‘Let’s pick up the pieces. You get the private financing and I’ll go down (to the NHL Board of Governors meetings at The Breakers in Palm Beach) and make the pitch for you.’ But I think they wanted to give Phil Esposito a franchise. There was an electricity when he walked in the room that is a very rare thing to see.

MR: There was a great picture of you holding a hockey stick over your head after the team was awarded …

SF: I hated that picture. Everybody else loved it. I guess it was because it was very different for me.

Women who started in politics a long time ago came along at a time when there were very few women involved in politics, when we really had to be smarter, be better, do more homework. At least we thought we did. We were held up to a microscope, much more so than the men who were elected. As a result of that, a lot of us developed what appears to be a level of intensity, much more thoughtful, less humorous, less frivolous. That has kind of carried over with me. That’s why it’s still hard for me to see myself with a hockey stick.

MR: What did Salomon Brothers ask of the city that the city could — and could not — deliver?

SF: They asked very little, quite honestly.

I think they knew the answers but in the early stages had to have discussions as to whether they could have tax incentives, tax abatements, the normal questions that everybody asks. I think they had well-researched this area and knew what the Florida Constitution allowed and also what it prohibited. They really didn’t ask much. They were very receptive to the few offers we made — the partnership school concept, which I took to them very late. They were very very enamored with the concept and they are going to be implementing it in conjunction with the Hillsborough County school system. We certainly offered to help facilitiate the process through permitting. Not to give them anything, but to help make sure that things move as quickly as possible. We’ve done that for others and will continue to do that.

I think they were most especially interested in the feel for the community, the receptivity to the top people who came down. They were interested in housing, the arts.

MR: Was there anything Salomon Brothers wanted that you just couldn’t give them?

SF: I don’t recall anything that ever came up that they said, ‘We have to have this,’ and we had to say no, we can’t provide it for you.

MR: You have maintained a very strong hand in negotiations for a convention center hotel, turning back some well-known, would-be developers. What were they asking for that the city can’t or won’t deliver?

SF: They’re asking more than we’re able to deliver or even want to deliver. I don’t think the city of Tampa — as interested as we are in getting a convention hotel in close proximity to the facility — should be in the convention hotel business. And some of the requests made of us have been to, in effect, own a piece of the rock. Not to own it, but we would have to put so much in, that in effect, we would be kinda partners even though we wouldn’t own it. I don’t want to do that, I don’t think the public wants that. There are certain things we can work with and they’ve been widely reported, from the parking situation — we’ve got a couple little parcels down there that might be part of the deal — and there’s a little bit of tax increment financing money, maybe some help with the meeting rooms. But owning half a hotel, in effect, is not what we’re going to do.

MR: Is there anything in particular holding up the process right now?

SF: I think the economy certainly hasn’t been in our favor. Land prices down there have been very, very high, although they seem to be coming down a little bit, which may help facilitate the deal.

I’m pretty confident that in the not too distant future we’re going to see something happen down there. I don’t have anything to announce — but there’s more interest in the last couple months than there was in the six months prior to that.

MR: You have made a mini-career of bringing together disparate groups and telling them to meet, talk among themselves and work together.

SF: I’m glad that I’ve been able to fill the facilitator’s role. It will mean more to me if those things become long-lasting. That’s one of the reasons why the way I operate is different. Some people say I should stand here, pound the desk and say, ‘THIS IS THE WAY IT’S GONNA BE!’ I don’t view that behavior as being for long-term progress. I think the community has to come together. I see my role as bringing those forces together for the long-term interest.

MR: Will Bob Ulrich’s decision to step aside as mayor of St. Petersburg interrupt the mood of cooperation across the bay?

SF: No. I think it’ll continue. David Fischer and his wife were at my swearing-in ceremony. Bob Ulrich was also there. That never would have happened four or five years ago.

I don’t know David Fischer at all, but I know of him and I’m real comfortable with him.

MR: Would you favor a Tampa BAY Sports Authority if a Major League Baseball team is awarded to St. Petersburg? What about a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts?

SF: I’m not sure I favor a Tampa Bay Sports Authority or a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts.

As much as I support regionalism, there are always going to be times — and there should be times — when we maintain our separate identities. Yes, we should work together on sports, but no, I don’t think we ought to have a Tampa Bay Sports Authority.

MR: How would you describe your relationship with the business community?

SF: I think I have a good relationship with the business community. There were times early on that maybe it wasn’t as good as it is now, but I think that was because I was somewhat unknown to them as a chief executive. My style is very different. I don’t just call a half-dozen people for advice. I call a LOT of people. And so I think there might have been some people who thought they were cut off.

I’m very supportive of good, sound economic development.

MR: Do you consider yourself and your administration pro-business?

SF: I think we’ve demonstrated that we are.

MR: What do you think of the Hillsborough County Commission’s proposal to establish its own economic development commission?

SF: I think it’s a mistake.

Government does some things very well and some things we don’t do very well. I think we need to acknowledge that. I don’t think this is an area government could do really well. We can help facilitate economic development, clearly, by our actions as well as our resources. But I think the Committee of One Hundred has done quite well; I think they can do better. There’s been a fragmentation of economic development with the proliferation of University North, the Parkway Association, Ybor City, downtown, Westshore — which hasn’t necessarily accrued to the benefit of the overall economic picture.

Personally I would hope there would be some pulling in of all of those in more of an umbrella effort, so that those resources that are expended in all of those areas might be more efficiently administered. But I don’t think it ought to be done by government.

MR: So you don’t favor the creation of another EDC.

SF: Absolutely not.

One of the frustrations (of the county commission) — and I have felt it myself — is as a public official you’re expected to know everything. And yet there’s an arena in which you can’t know everything. There’s a confidentiality when you’re dealing with corpprate relocations. Even as the mayor, I don’t know all the people or groups that we’re wooing. And I shouldn’t.

MR: There was probably one election issue that no one was happy with you about and that was your handling of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. You were uncharacteristically silent about the Krewe’s unwillingness to take in blacks, women and minorities, seemingly unwilling to take sides, unwilling to alienate the black coalition or the white power brokers who make up the Krewe. In the meantime, as the sports world prepared to come to town for Super Bowl XXV, Tampa’s national image took a beating in the press. Was it a mistake to not be more outspoken?

SF: I don’t know that I was silent. I said the city wouldn’t participate any longer (in the Gasparilla parade) with our services, the policemen, clean-up and everything else.

I’ve thought that one through dozens, hundreds of times probably by now. What could I have done differently, what would have been better? And I haven’t figured it out yet. I worked from day one behind the scenes, trying to bring the parties together, trying to get the Krewe to integrate, trying to make order rise from chaos and (Tampa received) a black eye, a nationwide black eye. But I don’t know what could have done differently.

MR: Did you not get a sense that people on both sides were waiting for you to come out on one side or the other?

SF: Yeah, yeah. But either way was a losing proposition. I think it was handled poorly all the way around from a public relations standpoint. I tried very hard to get that moderation between all the folks that were involved. I’m not sure that I could have handled it any better; perhaps if others had reduced the rhetoric and maybe belayed their actions … It was a painful thing. But sometimes, no pain, no gain. We’re gonna be a stronger community as a result of it.

MR: Will Gasparilla return to the city?

SF: We’ll have to wait and see.

MR: And if it does, will the city be involved with the Krewe?

SF: If the Krewe wants to put on a parade with the support of the city, then it’s going to have to be an inclusive organization.

MR: Cecil Edge said your fingerprints are on every downtown building built in the last four years and every building that will rise for the next four years. (The mayor laughs.) Do you have a clear vision for downtown?

SF: I think I have a pretty good vision for downtown. We put together the downtown plan to help articulate that vision. That’s to give everybody guidelines, to put everybody on a level playing field.

I have a vision. I’d like to see the waterfront very people-oriented. I would not like to see it walled-in with high-rise buildings where you couldn’t see the water or there was no green space. I think we have had the last of our buildings that is going to be concrete and steel, sidewalk to sidewalk. I hope we have. I think there’s going to be public art in downtown. I hope we will attract more retail and housing. Those are tricky, very tough. I hope the architecture will be architecture people will view in and of itself. Good architecture doesn’t cost more money.

MR: What will drive the Tampa Bay market in the next decade?

SF: I think we’re learning that we’ve got to have more homegrown. The SRI study proves that to be a reality. There aren’t that many corporate relocations out there. The real value-added is going to come from within and it should. We ought to have an environment that can nurture that.

MR: Your predecessor used this office to leap first into the governor’s mansion and now the president’s cabinet. What’s ahead for you?

SF: I get asked that question at least once a day. I don’t know what’s ahead. My schooling, my degree, was in local government. I get a great deal of reward and personal satisfaction from what I do. It’s probably a good thing that I can only serve two terms. But who knows? Maybe if there wasn’t a charter revision, maybe I’d want to keep on going. There’s a lot to do in this community and a lot I’d like to be involved with.

end

Tampa Bay Times calls Stadium For Rent (Second Edition) “Notable” for 2015 baseball season!

Stadium For Rent by Bob Andelman, Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays
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King, Queen & Subject: The Snell Isle Murder of Joan Amos

(“The Snell Isle Murder of Joan Amos” was originally published in Tampa Bay Life, Spring 1991)
 

Sgt. William T. “Bud” Blackmon Jr. broadcast the second BOLO on the alleged fleeing murderer of a wealthy St. Petersburg socialite at 1 a.m. January 30, 1990 to the four sheriff’s deputies spread across Sumter County, prowling in the dark night.

Be on the lookout for a white male, late 20s, driving a steel blue Mercedes-Benz. Homicide suspect. Considered armed and dangerous.

It was a chance in a million, Blackmon figured, too much of a long-shot to be worth patrolling the interstate. The perp from St. Pete probably lost himself in the city until things cooled down, anyway. No way he’d be so obvious as to get on I-75.

Still … the only place open for miles around was the Chevron mini-mart at the State Road 48 interchange. The nearest all-night gas stations were 15 miles south and 12 miles north. With less than two hours to go on his shift, Blackmon figured he could afford to drive over and wait across the street.

It was the best hunch Bud Blackmon ever played.

No sooner had the 35-year-old sergeant begun filling in details of the dog bites man report at 1:45 a.m. than a steel blue Mercedes pulled up to the self-service pumps. Blackmon drove across the street for a better look, cruising behind the car. It matched the BOLO description, but there were two passengers, not one – a white male got out on the passenger side to pump the gas. And the tag numbers didn’t match the BOLO.

Blackmon called the dispatcher to run the tags.

Sure enough: right car, wrong tags, right owner. No explaining the extra passenger yet. Meanwhile, the teenager pumping gas saw the Sumter County Sheriff’s vehicle and appeared nervous to Blackmon. The teen paid for his fuel and got back in on the passenger side.

Blackmon couldn’t approach the Mercedes here; a gas station shoot-out could be hazardous.

The car pulled away from the pumps and toward the road. So did Blackmon. The Mercedes driver waited for Blackmon. Blackmon didn’t budge. Seconds passed like hours. The Mercedes driver finally entered traffic. Blackmon came up from behind him. At the northbound interstate on-ramp, the Mercedes driver slammed his pedal to the floorboard and took off. Blackmon flipped on his blue lights and gave pursuit.

Six miles into the high-speed chase, Blackmon lost sight of the vehicle on a curve. His hunches still paying off, he looked back to the S.R. 470 overpass, glimpsed a cloud of dust and turned around.

The Mercedes took the exit but couldn’t see the sharp curve of the ramp. The driver hit the brakes late, marking the road with dark skid marks before plummeting into a ditch.

Stadium For Rent by Bob Andelman, Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays
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Quickly, the two men grabbed their belongings and crossed the interstate’s northbound lanes on foot. The driver of the vehicle dropped a 9 mm semi-automatic revolver in the median before the two crossed the southbound lane and scrambled down into a culvert, crawling head-first into a narrow drain pipe beneath the southbound on-ramp.

That’s where Sgt. Bud Blackmon and a K-9 bloodhound named Luke captured Jonathan “Jay” Ashley Amos and John Albert DeHate.

When Jay Amos was booked in Sumter County later that morning, under “next of kin” he wrote his grandmother’s name. He hoped his parents were both dead by now.

 

The first time John DeHate was in the split-level Snell Isle home of Charles and Joan Amos was January 29, 1990. It was 2 a.m. Sunday morning and DeHate was not an invited guest of the millionaire St. Petersburg insurance brokers.

Using keys and instructions given him by the Amos’s 26-year-old son Jay, DeHate, 19, disabled the burglar alarm from outside and entered the house. He expected Joan and Charles to be asleep. Joan was; Charles wasn’t. He was returning to the den from the kitchen with a snack when the front door opened.

“What the fuck are you doing in here?” Charles asked the intruder he found in his foyer.

DeHate, who did not appear to Charles to be armed, became agitated.

“Jay and I were working in the office and he sent me to pick up some computer back-up tapes in the kitchen,” he chattered.

Charles didn’t believe the young man, although there were computer back-up disks in the kitchen from Friday’s close of business at the Amos family’s firm, Aanco Underwriters, Inc. DeHate said Jay was at the office waiting for him; while Charles thought it unlikely his son was working this late, he gave DeHate the benefit of the doubt. They went into the kitchen and called the Aanco office. Jay was there, although he swore he didn’t know DeHate and that he had lost his keys.

“You two better get your stories straight,” Charles told his son.

Handing the phone to Dehate, he told him, “You better work this out. You’re in my house and according to my son you’re not supposed to be here.”

“Jay, Don’t bag me,” DeHate told Charles’ son during a short conversation.

Charles, his suspicions intensifying, took the phone away from DeHate and told his son to leave the office immediately. He didn’t trust Jay and didn’t believe his denial of being acquainted with DeHate. Hanging up, he snatched his son’s house keys away from DeHate.

Charles let the intruder leave his home without calling the police. DeHate said he was going back to the Aanco office to meet Jay.

After DeHate left, Charles woke Joan and told her to dress. They were going to confront Jay in person at the office.

Driving north on 4th Street, the Amoses passed DeHate pedaling furiously at 54th Avenue. By the time Charles and Joan got to the office building they owned at the corner of 9th Street and Gandy Blvd., it was 2:40 a.m. The Aanco offices were dark but for a light in the computer room where they found Jay.

The Amoses waited 40 minutes for Dehate to show up. Charles quizzed Jay about the two different cigarette brands snuffed out in the ashtray; Jay said they were both his. Joan even retraced the route to the office by car but couldn’t find the teenager. Charles searched the office unsuccessfully for DeHate’s belongings. At 4 a.m. they left with a sheepish Jay in tow.

Charles, a man of strong, sometimes physical temperament, blew up at his son when they got home.

“I don’t want you giving out the goddamned keys!” he roared.

“But I told you, I LOST them,” Jay insisted.

Charles was disgusted with his son. He told Jay he was going to cut his pay and keep his house keys. His son would only be able to get in the Amos house when one of his parents was home.

When Jay went off to bed, Joan told her husband he was too severe with their son. Charles acceded to her wishes and returned the keys to Jay before he fell asleep. He also backed off on reducing his son’s pay.

In the morning, Joan and Jay went to church. When they returned home, about 9 a.m., Charles called the police to report the break-in.

Things calmed down by dinnertime. Charles, Joan and Jay cooked steaks on the back porch. Jay got up to leave for his daily Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at 4 p.m. But before he did, he reached over and hugged his mother.

“It’s great to have parents like you,” Jay told Charles and Joan.

 

When the phone rang at Aanco Underwriters at 2 a.m. Sunday morning, Jay Amos was surprised only by the identity of the caller. He had been expecting a call from John DeHate, not his father.

His father was supposed to be dead.

John DeHate was supposed to have killed him and Joan Amos.

Weeks earlier, Jay had given DeHate a map of Snell Isle and detailed information on both disarming the household security system and the layout of the house. He also left his father’s 9 mm Walther and a 12-inch carving knife in a trash compactor in the garage. There was also a pair of socks for Dehate to wear on his hands when he killed Charles and Joan Amos.

Between his father’s second call and his parent’s arrival at the Aanco office, Jay received a call from DeHate. He was at the 7-Eleven at 38th Avenue North and 1st Street.

“Your father was awake when I got to the house, Jay! You said he’d be asleep!” complained DeHate.

“He should’ve been. I don’t know why he wasn’t.”

Jay told DeHate not to come to the office. He had to hang up because the elevator just stopped and opened at Aanco’s third floor offices.

“I’m gonna take a cab and go home,” said DeHate. “Call me Monday.”

 

Charles Clinton and Joan Marie Amos – each an only child – met in 1960 in a nightclub in Joan’s hometown of Leominster, Massachusetts. He was 20, serving with the Army Security Agency; she was 25, a theatrical ice-skating instructor and former national skating champion. They were married in 1962; Jonathan was born in January 1963.

Joan gave up skating after the wedding. She stayed home to raise Jonathan during his formative years, but in 1969 began working with Charles in the insurance business. She was an astute businesswoman with a talent for accounting by her husband’s description, his right arm and secretary/treasurer of the company for almost two decades. She was hard – hard-nosed, hard to get along with – exacting and precise.

Charles was a self-made man. Born in Tucson, Az. and raised in New Mexico, he spurned the opportunity to work in his father’s lumber business and studied electrical engineering at the University of New Mexico. After his stint in the Army, he stayed on in Leominster with Joan and found work with the Beneficial Finance Co. and later, with Wausau.

The Amoses went into business for themselves in the late ’60s and bought several a series of small insurance agencies. “Massachusetts was starting no-fault auto insurance,” recalled Charles. “All the old guys wanted out; I wanted in. Once in a while you hit timing – THAT was timing.”

No-fault insurance was the beginning of a windfall for Charles and Joan Amos. In 1972, Charles – who hated the snow and cold weather – sold the company and moved the family to Florida.

Charles contracted Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 1977. The muscular disease gradually degenerated his sense of balance and forced him to rely upon an aluminum walker. Shortly after he was diagnosed, the family moved into the roomy house at 300 Raphael Blvd. in St. Petersburg’s posh Snell Isle neighborhood just north of downtown.

In the St. Petersburg community, Joan was active, raising $250,000 over the years for All Children’s Hospital, Pinellas Association for Retarded Children, Florida Orchestra, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Cross of Lorraine. (After her death, Charles made a substantial contribution in her memory to the Gulf Coast Lung Association and also gave $500,00 to Ruth Eckerd Hall.) Charles was no wallflower; he spent five years on the Pinellas County Housing Commission.

Joan had her charities, Charles his collection of antique Corvettes. Joan was an early riser, throwing open the curtains at 6 a.m. and declaring, “What a beautiful morning,” no matter what the actual weather. It was a small irritation to Charles, who stayed up later and later and stayed in bed long after his wife was dressed and got on with her day.

Still, he said, “I was very fortunate. In 28 years, I never saw another woman that I was interested in. None whatsoever.”

 

Jonathan “Jay” Ashley Amos was an outgoing, smart child – an I.Q. measured at 150 – with blue eyes and brown hair. He loved to be around people, taking more after his mother than his father. Charles, by his own description, was “the clandestine one in the crew.”

Mother and father were strict with Jay. “We weren’t as liberal as a lot of parents,” conceded Charles.

Jay, who wore big, clunky glasses that hid much of his face, was no athlete like his father, although their physical resemblance became more pronounced as the boy matured.

And while he was not a problem child until his teens, even then he was less rebellious than withdrawn. “Something happened when Jay turned 13,” said Charles. “It was almost like you rang a bell,” according to Charles. “On his 13th birthday, everybody became dumb, blind, ignorant and stupid to him. Jay became very secretive. He started staying to himself.”

The boy who once brought a trail of friends to his home now brought no one.

Charles tried to teach Jay to be independent; don’t rely on anyone for anything. In one alleged incident during Jay’s youth, Charles stood behind his son and said, “Fall back in my arms.” Jay did it and Charles let him fall to the ground. The boy became angry.

“See?” Charles told him. “Don’t trust anybody.”

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Jay received his diploma from Shorecrest Prep and moved to Gainesville, where he attended the University of Florida for a year. There was talk of studying business and computer science, but it didn’t pan out and he returned home.

Jay had worked in the Aanco office part-time since he was a teen, running errands, working in the file room. He started full-time in 1981 as a receptionist earning $180 a week. As he learned the serious side of the business and worked his way up, his salary grew, from $225 a week in 1985 and $400 a week in ’87. His last increase – to $33,500 per year – came in November ’89.

“If I wanted something done and done right, I’d give it to Jay,” said Charles. “He always wanted to be an insurance agent. He’d been talking about that since he was 10, 11 years old. Never varied. I’d say, ‘Jay, study computer science.’ He’d say no. I told Jay, ‘Understand one thing: the hardest thing in the world is to work for your parents.’ … I wanted him to do insurance, but I never did say it. My dad set up a business (lumber) for me – I didn’t want it. I figured the only way Jay would come in is if I said I didn’t want him.”

In addition, Charles had a lucrative financial arrangement awaiting his only son. Prior to age 21 he was promised $100,000 upon graduating college (he quit after one year), $100,000 upon marriage (he rarely, if ever, dated), and a 25 percent share of ownership in Aanco Underwriters at age 30. That offer was later amended to give Jay a 25 percent stake in the Amos estate at age 30, another 25 percent each at age 35 and 40 and the balance when he turned 45.

His father also told him he’d inherit an estate worth $9 million – including six Pinellas County properties valued by the property appraiser’s office at $1.6 million, $2.2 million in life insurance on Charles, $2.96 million on Joan – when Charles and Joan died.

Was this a close family?

“My own father’s definition of the home,” according to Jay, “is that it was a simple dictatorship: king, queen and subject.”

 

The police had a file on Jay Amos with multiple entries long before January 1990. No violent crimes or destruction of property, just stupid things.

Jay was arrested for breaking into his parents’ $260,000 home in 1983. He planned to steal a few checks and forge Charles’ name. But Joan came home unexpectedly. Jay hid in the closet, afraid to be caught by his mother. She didn’t come upstairs immediately, however, and Jay fell asleep in the closet. When Joan finally approached her bedroom she saw tools on a chair and saw the broken door. Then she noticed three checks had been removed from her checkbook. She went back downstairs and told Charles, who called the police.

Charles told the investigating officer that his son was probably the burglar. Jay had written several bad checks and had taken money from his father without permission, according to Charles. Unable to find Jay or any other perpetrator in the house or neighborhood, the policeman left.

The police got a second call from Charles Amos soon after and returned to the house. Joan had heard snoring in the bedroom closet. Charles took a 9 mm revolver and opened the closet door, finding his son sound asleep on the floor.

Instead of yelling at the boy – then 23 – or even striking him, Charles trained his gun on Jay, closed the closet and called the police.

The officer didn’t want to press charges, but Charles insisted. “I want to teach the little bastard a lesson,” he said. “Show him the inside of a jail cell, keep him overnight. We’ll see if he ever tries a stunt like this again.”

The officer relented. He read Jay his rights, led him out of the house in handcuffs and booked him into the St. Petersburg jail for breaking and entering. Charles didn’t bail him out until the next day.

Jay became well known to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, acquiring 14 citations in six years for moving vehicle violations ranging from speeding and driving under the influence (DUI) to reckless driving and operating a motor vehicle without a driver’s license or tag certification. His license was suspended a total of nine times – three times each for DUI, points and failure to pay traffic tickets.

The last time, his driver’s license was revoked for 10 years.

 

Computers provided an escape for Jay. He had 200 games stored in the Aanco Underwriters computer, but his real entertainment came from socializing with other lonely dataheads like himself via on-line computer services such as Meganet, which he could access by telephone modem.

Meganet users took on “handles” or nicknames much like Citizen Band radio users do. Jay was known as “Preacher,” although he sometimes used “Mortician” or “Shadow.” From Jay Amos’s on-line autobiography:

Real Name: Jay Amos

Aliases: Preacher

Physical Description: 5’9″ Brown Hair Blue Eyes

Favorite Movie: The Godfather

Favorite TV Show: Star Trek

Favorite Foods: Just about anything!

Favorite Sport: Bowling

Other Hobbies/Interests: Sailing, Antique Cars (Restoring/Showing)

Summary: NAMES ARE OFTEN DECEIVING!

Under the name Jay Amos, he had a second Meganet file:

Real Name: Kilroy

Physical Description: If you really need to know … it’s too late …

Favorite Movie: Dangerous Liaisons

Favorite TV Show: Monty Python

Favorite Foods: Just about anything

Favorite Sport: Bowling … Sailing

Other Hobbies/Interests: Gathering information … for personal edification …

General Info: Not Small, VERY little sense of humor …

Summary: NAMES ARE DECEIVING … THE SHADOW KNOWS!

 

Joan Amos would have made the Pharaoh proud, such a slave driver was she. Even her family acknowledged it at times.

“We used to have a standing joke between one person and myself in the office,” Jay said. “Who was going to knock her off first?”

At least one employee didn’t remember it as a joke. Jay had asked him, “Do you know any good hit men? For $10,000 I could have someone bump her off.”

By January 1990, Jay had come up from working for his mother in the accounting department to being her boss as ad hoc office manager. The change was made partly in response to Jay’s hard work, partly due to a rash of employee turnover. “An attitude needed to be changed,” Jay said of the period. He was made responsible for hiring and training office staff and it didn’t sit well with Joan.

On December 15, 1989 the Amoses held a family meeting. Charles told Joan that she was running Jay and the rest of the staff too hard. “The pressure on (Jay) had to be horrendous,” said Charles. Jay took two weeks off from work just to get a break from being around his mother.

Joan herself needed a break, some time off. Charles suggested she take a breather for the entire months of January and February. Furthermore, he asked Jay if he could take over Aanco’s accounting responsibilities from Joan for the two months. Jay said yes and the meeting ended.

The day after Christmas, Jay forged Charles’s name on five company checks worth $11,000. Among them were two checks for $1,500 each and a gift check for Jay’s “girlfriend,” Judith Schiess, a woman in Bowling, Ky., whom he had talked with electronically via computer modem but never met. (Jay sent the money to Schiess by Federal Express.) He planned to cook the books in January to cover the checks while his mother was away.

But on New Year’s Eve, Joan reconsidered her vacation. There was too much to be done, she told Charles; she would postpone the rest until March and April.

Jay was panic-stricken. He knew that when the bank statement came on February 1, his scheme would be revealed and he’d be fired, kicked out of the house, disgraced.

Since he couldn’t do anything to prevent the check from coming back, he decided to prevent his parents from ever seeing the discrepancy.

 

John Albert DeHate hardly knew his father, Richard DeHate, and was shunned by his paternal grandparents. His mother, Betty Jean, divorced Richard when John was 14 months old. She remarried twice, the first when her son was 5, the second when he was 15. Neither union lasted more than five years.

When DeHate was 15, Betty Jean married Robert Lawrence, a co-worker at the telephone company. The couple took early retirement and moved from San Jose, Ca. to Florida in 1985, purchasing Crabbies Sandwich Shop on John’s Pass in Madeira Beach. Business was good and they opened a second shop on the boardwalk, Sweet Licks Ice Cream.

The family deteriorated when Lawrence couldn’t handle the 3,000-mile separation from the four kids he left behind in California from his previous marriage. Betty Jean’s third husband abruptly left her and returned to California.

“John had to take my husband’s place as far as work responsibilities go,” said Betty Jean. “He became a lot more cynical.”

Things didn’t get better. DeHate quit Pinellas Park High School, grieving over the on-campus murder of Dean Richard Allen. There wasn’t enough money to hire help for the family businesses so mother and son were together 24 hours a day – at home, at work, at home and at work. It was like being in a bad marriage. Betty Jean sold Sweet Licks Ice Cream at a loss when she and her son couldn’t manage it and Crabbies. DeHate quit Crabbies and took a job at a Pick-Kwik convenience store. Within months, in 1988, Betty Jean lost the sandwich shop.

DeHate drifted in and of several jobs. Not having a car didn’t help. DeHate got a Florida driver’s license in 1988 but relied on buses, cabs, rides from friends, walking and bicycling for transportation.

To occupy themselves, he and a friend offered a service via the BBS they called “Anything, Inc.”

“A lot of people don’t know what that was,” said Betty Jean. “‘Anything, Inc.’ was – you’d tell them, ‘I’d like a radar detector that does this and this.’ And they’d design it. He would sit down for hours at the sandwich shop drawing schematics. They were talking designing these things and taking them to a shop like Honeywell. You sell them your plans and get a prototype built. It’s a far-fetched plan but that’s how these things originated.

“At the trial,” she said, “they made it sound like Murder, Incorporated.”

 

Alison Smith was four years older than her latest boyfriend, John DeHate. The short, spunky, green-eyed redhead met DeHate in August ’89 the same way they met Jay two months later – via the Meganet computer bulletin board. Alison was “Cheshire”; DeHate was “DeHate.”

DeHate enjoyed telling people on the BBS that “DeHate – it’s not just a name, it’s an attitude.” From his on-line autobiographical information:

Real Name: John DeHate

Aliases: nothing polite

City/State: Hell, DeHate style

Physical Description: A boy with dark hair, skin and hazel eyes … big enough not to care.

Favorite Movie: sex, lies & videotape

Favorite TV Show: The Movie Channel

Instrument Played: Keyboard, Females

General Info: Been called ‘harmless’ … by people who need to stop being naive.

Summary: Not a very nice person to meet.

“He was 18 when I met him,” said Alison. “I didn’t like him at first. He had a tendency to do things to annoy people. His personality was his bleak sense of humor. John and I were able to share a lot. He was a real good listener. I was having problems; a lot of girls on the BBS would call him and he would listen to their problems.”

Both were dreamers; Alison, the member of Wicca, a coven of white witches; and DeHate, who fantasized of being a computer programmer, an engineer, a bodyguard or chauffeur. He also daydreamed about secretly doing “jobs” for people.

There were plenty of things about Alison to attract DeHate. Both were voracious readers of adult comic books, science fiction and fantasy; DeHate could consume a book a day. Alison introduced him to alternative rock music, philosophy and ladies’ erotica. Four years earlier, Alison had been involved with a sociopath who she said kidnapped and abused her. “This was the guy who wanted a job as a hit man,” she recalled. “He was a nut case. He seemed to get a kick out of scaring people. John just liked annoying people.”

DeHate told Alison he was in love with her; he even joked about getting married. “I’ve had a few affairs, been out with a lot of guys, and John really stood out,” said Alison. “We were very complementary. Like Yin & Yang, you know?”

Alison moved into her own one-bedroom apartment at Foxbridge Apartments in Largo. DeHate moved in with her in October 1989 and stayed on and off through the next four months. He was neater than most guys; his worst habit was changing his socks a few times a day and leaving the dirty ones all over the apartment.

DeHate and Alison broke up around Thanksgiving 1989, although DeHate continued living in the apartment. Partly for financial reasons – DeHate was perpetually broke and between jobs – partly because DeHate was depressed and had started drinking.

They were still co-habitating in January, drifting in and out of a relationship.

“John was real nervous the whole month,” Alison said.

 

Being a good listener on Meganet made a lot of friends for John DeHate. Jay Amos was another sympathetic ear on the service, but his anti-alcohol tirades earned him the sobriquet “Preacher.”

When DeHate had problems with Alison, he told them to Jay. Jay took it all in, even offering advice to his friend. DeHate was glad to have someone to talk to.

So was Jay.

He was intrigued by DeHate’s advertisement on Meganet for “Anything, Inc. (not a joke)” When Jay asked what Anything, Inc. had done, DeHate told him his business was mostly burglaries.

That’s when Jay knew DeHate would listen to his murder scheme. Especially if Jay dangled money before his depressed, unemployed new friend. That’s when he knew he had DeHate’s attention. DeHate took him very seriously when they talked money.

Jay offered DeHate $15,000 to kill Charles and Joan Amos: $5,000 up front, $10,000 when the deed was done.

DeHate was disappointed Jay didn’t hire him to work on computers at Aanco. But he worshipped money. It made him feel like a big man. Having a wad of bills in his pocket meant power.

 

The $5,000 Aanco check that Jay Amos forged on January 12 was made out to Alison Smith. The money wasn’t a generous post-Christmas gift; it was a downpayment to pay her boyfriend for the murder of Jay’s mother.

“He flaunted the check all over town,” according to DeHate’s mother. “He’d have to be a real moron to do that.”

DeHate told different stories about the money. It was an advance against his new job as a computer programmer at Aanco. Or, as he told Bill Lang, he was going to work for Jay Amos’s crippled father as a driver.

The closest DeHate came to telling the truth was when he told his girlfriend that he was hired by Jay to do a burglary. “The only thing he didn’t tell me was who the people were,” said Alison. He even showed her a diagram of the house Jay Amos had drawn on a yellow legal pad. “Supposedly, Jay had something he wanted out of the house,” according to Alison, who didn’t know it was Jay’s house.

From the time he picked up the check, DeHate enjoyed spending the money. He withdrew $1,500 in cash and took friends and acquaintances out to dinner and repaid debts to his mother, girlfriend and ex-roommates. Alison wrote checks to pay for a $700 TV and VCR at McDuff, stereo equipment for $698 at Sound Advice and $225 at Service Merchandise for a black, 18-speed Huffy bicycle.

When it came time to earn his money, DeHate failed. After the furtive run-in with Charles Amos on Sunday morning, he lied to Alison about what happened at the Amos house. There was no one home, he told her. What I went for wasn’t there.

“He thought it was a set-up,” said Alison. “It was like someone had known he was coming.”

 

DeHate’s failure to kill Charles and Joan Amos on Sunday morning gave Jay second thoughts. He told DeHate he wasn’t going to go through with the plan.

Monday morning he changed his mind again when Joan allegedly held a 9 mm revolver to Jay’s head. It was not the Beretta she carried in her purse and had supposedly pulled on him the first week of January but the .357 magnum Charles kept in his bedroom.

According to Jay, his parents were altering the insurance company’s books with regards to workman’s compensation clients. Speaking to Joan in her second-floor bedroom, he told his mother he planned to leave the company in four months and go out on his own. If Charles or Joan tried to stop him, he threatened to reveal the discrepancies. That’s when he said she told him he had a non-compete contract with Aanco and threatened to kill him.

And Jay said he decided to kill or be killed.

An alternate – perhaps more plausible – explanation for the scheme being re-started was that early on Monday, Jan. 29, 1990, Joan discovered $10,000 was missing from one of the company’s Merrill Lynch checking accounts.

There were two specific transfers of which she had no record. Jay denied knowledge of them so she requested fax copies of the transfer orders be transmitted to the Aanco office. Merrill Lynch said it would take two working days to research the request and transmit the orders. By end of business Tuesday, she’d have the information.

Jay called DeHate on Monday at 9:30 a.m. from the office after finding out his mother was on to him.

“I want this done tonight,” he said. “Both of them.”

“The only way I can do that is if you help,” DeHate said.

“Fine,” Jay said. “I’ll call you after work and set it up.”

He knew then that one way or the other, the end was coming.

 

 

At 6 p.m., Jay went into his father’s office. His parents were planning to work late. Jay offered to stay and pitch in, but Charles said it wasn’t necessary. This was Jay’s second anniversary with Alcoholics Anonymous and he didn’t want his son to miss the celebration.

Joan and Charles worked until 9 p.m. and went home together. Joan was in bed and asleep within an hour. Charles stayed up and watched TV. Jay – who told DeHate to meet him at The Clock restaurant on 4th Street North at 9:30 p.m. – took a cab from A.A. to The Clock.

While awaiting DeHate’s arrival, Jay called Judith Schiess in Kentucky from a pay phone. They chatted about their plans to finally meet in Nashville in February. Jay had even booked a room for them at the Opryland Hotel under the name “Mr. and Mrs. J. Amos.”

A friend dropped DeHate – wearing blue jeans and a sleeveless gray hunting vest – and his bicycle at The Clock.

Their business completed at 11 p.m. and the plan set in motion, DeHate headed for Snell Isle on his bicycle. Jay waited 20 minutes then took a cab home. He greeted his father in the den, put on light blue pajamas, a dark blue robe and tan moccasins and joined Charles in the den to watch a videotape of professional wrestling. Joan always left the room when wrestling came on, but Charles and Jay loved it.

At 11:30, Jay said he was going to put the trash out for the morning pick-up and went out to the garage. Charles dozed off in his chair.

 

Thick fog hung over the darkness of Snell Isle like a dank shroud as John DeHate hid his new 18-speed Huffy bicycle in some high, brown grass near a creek behind the Sunset Country Club. He crossed the golf course behind the homes on Raphael Blvd. and came up behind the Amos house.

Jay let DeHate into the house through the service porch off the garage and showed him the knife and gun (the same 9 mm Walther with which his mother threatened him) he had hidden in the trash compactor on Saturday. DeHate took the knife and put on the socks he had asked Jay for to avoid powder burns or blood on his hands.

Jay wrapped a brown towel around the gun barrel as DeHate followed him into the dining room. As soon as DeHate heard the first shot, he was to go upstairs.

“My mother’s in the upstairs bedroom,” Jay whispered. “I’ll take care of my father.”

 

Jay re-entered the den at 11:45, his footsteps awakening his 49-year-old father. Charles thought he was dreaming as his son pointed a blazing brown towel at him from 10 feet away. Two shots fired.

“There,” said Jay, “that will take care of both of you.”

“What the hell did you do that for?” Charles demanded to know, clutching his stomach in pain.

Jay didn’t answered. He pulled the trigger again but the gun jammed – exactly the kind of thing that always happened to Jay under pressure. As he banged the gun on the sofa, Charles reached into the drawer next to his chair for his gun. In that moment of anger, he wanted to blow his son away.

“You better get out!” he told Jay. Remembering his wife, he tried to call her. “Joan! Stay the hell upstairs!”

But his gun was gone – only vaguely did he comprehend it was his own 9 mm revolver being used to shoot him. Unable to defend himself, Charles grabbed the telephone and dialed 911.

 

Upstairs, DeHate quietly pulled down the covers and climbed into the sleeping woman’s bed.

“Jonathan!” she cried out, frightened, thinking her son was the attacker.

DeHate clamped one hand to Joan Amos’s mouth and brought his knife to her throat with the other. The first cut was tentative, as DeHate grew his nerve. In a defensive move to block another attack, Joan drew cuts on her left hand and right wrist and bruises to her right hand, right wrist, forearms and legs.

The next thrust of the carving knife plunged deep into the base of the throat and cut a dogleg slightly to the left, slicing fatty tissue and muscle six inches deep to a point below the collarbone, severing the internal jugular vein.

Joan was conscious, in agony, when DeHate grabbed her purse and left, but she passed out within moments. Her blue nightgown was soaked with blood – so were the bed sheets, carpeting and a nearby chair. Joan sat upright on the floor, leaning against her bed, unconscious, but still breathing.

 

Failing to fix the jammed gun, Jay watched his father call the police and made no effort to stop him. He was unable to act as his scheme unraveled before his eyes. His father was supposed to be dead, not calling the cops. Just like Sunday morning when DeHate first slipped into the house and Charles was waiting for him. Just like a hundred other times in his life, his father wasn’t making it easy for Jay

Another problem occurred to Jay.

What to do with DeHate?

The original plan was blown. Joan may be dead upstairs, but help was on its way for Charles. Even if the old man died, he’d already fingered Jay to 911 as the trigger man. There was no getaway plan because only Jay was supposed to survive. DeHate thought he’d come out of John’s bedroom, rough Jay up enough to look realistic, tie Jay up, rob the house and split on his bicycle, his duffel bag stuffed with loot. He never realized Jay was planning to kill him, too.

Jay, in a fit of vengeance, planned to shoot the “intruder” who killed his dear mother and father. For once in his life, Jay Amos would be a hero. Plus, he’d be rid of his parents once and for all. With DeHate dead as well, there would be no loose ends, no one to jeopardize his inheriting cash, property, the insurance business and life insurance policies worth $9 million.

But it wasn’t working out that way at all.

Leaving his father, Jay climbed the six stairs and yelled to DeHate, “John, he’s called 911! Let’s go!”

Jay ran into his bedroom and grabbed some street clothes – still on their hangers – so he could change out of his pajamas. Then he ran into his father’s bedroom – Charles and Joan slept in separate bedrooms – and took a set of car keys. DeHate went downstairs first, leaving blood stains on the handrail at the top of the stairs as they ran downstairs.

“Come on!” Jay said.

Running through the kitchen and out the door into the garage was another bad move. DeHate left bloody fingerprints on the kitchen wall and Jay neglected to shut off the security system. It blared loudly when the door swung open, waking neighbors on either side of the house and across the street. Even if his father hadn’t alerted authorities minutes before, they were certainly on their way now.

Pressing the automatic garage door opener, they threw their clothes, Joan’s purse and other stuff into the backseat. Jay bypassed the Rolls-Royce and a Chevy Suburban and hopped into the driver’s seat of Charles’ ’78 steel blue Mercedes-Benz and roared out into the night to the curious stares of more than a few aggravated, sleepy neighbors.

Crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge on Interstate 275, DeHate, quite pleased with himself, said he did his part. Joan Amos was dead.

That’s when Jay informed his hired hand that his gun jammed and Charles, most likely, was not dead.

DeHate suddenly wished he could kill Jay, the pathetic bastard.

 

Charles was discovered conscious and in great pain by the police, still in his den. Joan was in a sea of blood, barely alive.

She arrived at Bayfront Medical Center in downtown St. Petersburg with no pulse or blood pressure. Dr. Charles A. Howard pronounced her dead at 1:10 a.m.

Howard treated Charles for three gunshot wounds to the abdomen and one to the left arm. Of them, one bullet entered and exited through a hernia in a protrusion of the abdominal wall; a second lodged in the upper abdomen; and the third in the left arm. The doctor said it was possible the three abdominal wounds were caused by one bullet; after four hours of surgery and in deference to Charles’ other medical problems, Howard elected not to remove the two bullets he found. Charles remained hospitalized until Feb. 10.

It wasn’t until several days after the incident that Charles learned someone other than Jay had stabbed Joan to death. But by then, it didn’t matter to him; as far as he was concerned, he no longer had a son.

 

The state offered plea bargains to both Jay Amos and John DeHate, despite what they thought were solid first degree murder and attempted murder cases. DeHate confessed to St. Petersburg Police officers upon his arrest, although the confession was ruled inadmissible. The deal was life in prison without chance of parole for 25 years for the first-degree murder charge and a 15-year concurrent term for the attempted first-degree murder in exchange for admissions of guilt and testimony against the partner.

Otherwise, the pair faced a certain trip to the electric chair.

Jay accepted the plea on August 23, 1990 and gave a 50-page deposition describing the crime and implicating John DeHate as his accomplice.

DeHate, who had no prior police record, declined the plea bargain agreement.

The decision to go to trial almost killed DeHate.

Evidence clearly drew a path for DeHate from his bicycle, lock and jacket being found behind the country club to the back door of the Amos house. A map of St. Petersburg was found among his belongings with a blue line drawn to Sunset Country Club where DeHate hid his bike. When he was captured with Jay in Sumter County less than two hours after the crime, DeHate’s windbreaker and pants had Joan’s blood on them. Inside the house, evidence included mud tracks from the kitchen into the green carpeted hallway and the six steps leading upstairs to the master bedroom. More mud was exhibited from the imprint one of DeHate’s size 11-1/2 Korean-made Kaepa brand sneakers on a sheet in Joan’s bed.

Jay described the night of January 30 to the court in grave detail, revealing no emotion. He said that he hired DeHate and that killing his parents meant “survival” for himself. He said he felt financially, emotionally and physically abused, claiming that his father beat his mother and physically abused both his mother and himself.

After three days of deliberations in January 1991 – almost a year to the day of the murder of Joan Amos – a Pinellas County jury needed just two hours to decide the guilt or innocence of John Albert DeHate.

While the jury was out, a strange thing happened.

Charles Amos, who attended the entire trial with the exception of his son Jay’s testimony, drove the motorized wheelchair he has needed since being shot toward Betty Jean Lawrence and talked to her in whispered tones for at least 15 minutes. The two – stone-faced but distinguished Amos, his salt and pepper hair immaculately groomed, and chubby, blonde-haired Betty Jean, her nerves frazzled – were an odd sight.

“He tried to talk to me the night before,” said John DeHate’s mother. “But I felt very awkward. It’s like you want to apologize to everybody.

“He wanted to explain some things to me, since I hadn’t been there, about Jay and Joan. It had happened to him and Joan but he said I was a victim, too, because for all intents and purposes (my) life is changed, too.

“He told me as far as he was concerned, he didn’t have a son. He told me, ‘If I was you, I’d forget I had a son, too,'” according to Betty Jean. “I said I can’t do that. Even if he were guilty – and I don’t think he was – how do I erase 20 years of my life?”

Back in the courtroom, DeHate took a deep breath and held it as the judge asked jury foreman Todd Llewellyn for the verdict. The accused exhaled quickly when it was read. The jury unanimously convicted DeHate of first degree murder and attempted first degree murder. His shoulders sagged. Betty Jean Lawrence sobbed. Even DeHate’s attorney, Robert Dillinger appeared startled.

DeHate was devastated. He had told his mother he expected a not guilty verdict.

Sentencing deliberations took an hour. The jury was split 6-6 between death in the electric chair and life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. Judge Richard Luce ruled DeHate would serve 25 years to life for the first degree murder charge. And while he insisted there were no “freebies” in his court, he ordered the 15-year sentence on the attempted first degree murder be served concurrently. In other words, a freebie. The only mitigating factors in DeHate’s favor were that he had no previous record and that while DeHate committed the murder, Jay Amos hatched the plot and received life in prison.

As he was fingerprinted and led out of court, John DeHate paused to flash the two-fingered salute he learned in Cub Scouts to his mother.

“He had tears in his eyes when he did that,” Betty Jean Lawrence said. “Ever since he was in school, that’s how he’s said goodbye to me.”

 

 

A $2.9-million-dollar insurance policy pay-out is a lot of money, even for a wealthy man like Charles Amos. With his wife dead and his only son in the state penitentiary for 25 years to life, Amos is a widowed 51-year-old man with Multiple Sclerosis and no heirs.

“I’m the last guy,” he said bitterly. “I don’t have anybody to leave it to. It’s all going to scholarships and charities. There will be a lot of kids who get a lot of breaks they would not have gotten but for one stupid kid. I guess the world has its own checks and balances system afterall.”

 

This case does not yet have an ending.

John DeHate is appealing his sentence of life in prison.

Jay Amos has accepted his penalty but is not yet through trying to destroy his father. In August 1990 he began mailing a series of letters to Florida Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and the audit departments of several major insurance companies accusing Charles Amos and Aanco Underwriters of falsifying final audit reports on worker’s compensation and liability policies of its insureds.

The state was investigating Jay’s allegations at press time and no charges had been formalized or indictments handed down.

“It’s a rat’s nest,” said one prominent Pinellas County insurance underwriter. “In a case like this, every time you lift a stone you’re going to find a rat. Maybe three or four.”

Events and conversations in this story have been reconstructed from interviews with the parties and court records. Neither Jonathan “Jay” Amos nor John Albert DeHate were interviewed for this story, under advice of their attorneys.

end

Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman, Mr. Media Interviews
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Tampa’s Finest: Jane Castor worked her way up the ranks to make PD history (Maddux Business Report)

By BOB ANDELMAN
Maddux Business Report
(Cover Story)
May 2010

Let’s say that Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio made a list of the things she wanted to accomplish before the end of her second term. Among them might be:

• Complete the new Tampa Museum of Art;

• Complete Riverwalk;

• Save as many essential services jobs—police, fire and emergency services—as possible from severe budget cuts.

Nowhere on the list—we asked her to double-check—was making local history by naming a woman as police chief.

And not just any woman, but an openly lesbian woman.

“I don’t think like that,” Iorio said. “That’s not how I make appointments.

“The era of ‘the first’ is long over with,” the mayor adds. “She’s not the first female police chief across the nation. We’ve come too far for that. Women are in top leadership positions all across our nation.”

As for the gay thing? Might as well re-read the answer above.

“That’s not a factor at all,” according to Iorio. “I think we’re way beyond that as well. It’s not relevant. In my hiring it’s irrelevant. From the time I hired her, other than the media, I haven’t received a call, a letter or a single comment from a single person in Tampa regarding the issue. I knew Jane was capable and had a lot of the traits I looked for. It was actually an easy decision to make.”

In a lot of places in the South, this decision would have been riven with controversy and outrage. It was only three years ago, for example, that the city manager of Largo shocked the community he served for 17 years by announcing that he wanted to be a she. A backlash caused him to be fired.

But there is something different about Jane Castor, 50, who Iorio named Tampa’s new police chief on September 16, 2009.

“Pretty impressive individual, isn’t she?” asks Castor’s predecessor, Steve Hogue.

Indeed. And Castor is someone who—based on a photo published in the St. Petersburg Times of her working out in a police gym—could kick the butt of anyone who doesn’t think so.

• • •

Jane Castor is a product of Tampa, through and through. She grew up in the city, the fourth of five children, lettering in basketball, swimming, volleyball and track at Chamberlain High and attending the University of Tampa on an athletic scholarship, At UT, she became a figure of legend, a 1,000-point shooter on the women’s basketball team.

She credits growing up around so many boys—brothers, friends and classmates—with putting her on the path to a rewarding career in athletics that, in turn, opened the door to developing her leadership skills in the PD.

“I was involved in athletics my entire life,” she says. “Working out—that’s my stress relief. I tell everybody, the more I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the more stress you will know there is in my life… I think that you learn all of the life skills out there on the court or the field. You learn how to be a leader, you learn teamwork, discipline, and you learn how to lose and win gracefully… I think most people would describe me as very easygoing, but I don’t think they would ever mistake that for being weak.”

Her whole life, she’s rarely missed a day in the Cigar City. The longest time away was 10 weeks at the FBI Academy; she earned her masters degree from Troy State by attending classes at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

“I love this place,” she gushes. “My family, everybody around my family, my sisters-in-law and other people, always say that our family is not normal, because all of my brothers and sisters get along very well, and I could never leave. We all live here in Tampa, and we are very, very close. We have a very close family, and I could never imagine living anywhere else. I love this city.”

“She’s definitely homegrown,” Iorio says. “And that’s a great part of her selection. She knows so many people. She’s an integral part of the community. She’s comfortable in all neighborhoods. And it’s always nice when you’ve grown up in a community and then you’re able to serve it.”

And if all that weren’t enough, she’s just so damned likable.

“She is very well respected and liked in the law enforcement community and the community as a whole,” according to Hogue. “People that know her—and a lot of people do know her; she was already significantly better known and liked than I was—find she’s very down-to-earth. It’s a genuine quality that comes across to everyone she comes into contact with.”

• • •

Police Chief Castor has never fired her weapon in the line of duty.

Closest she ever came was on a call that, ironically, involved Steve Hogue. He had just made lieutenant and was riding around in a patrol car. A report came of a group of young men committing street-corner robberies with a shotgun, shooting people in the legs with birdshot.

Castor found the suspects’ car going into the Robles Park housing project and Hogue happened to be behind her.

“I assumed that they were all going to jump out and run,” she recalls, “so I was telling everybody, ‘Set up a perimeter, let’s get ready.’ When they turned down the main street through Avon down through Robles Park, they gunned it, doing about 80 mph, at which point my keen police skills told me they were not going to jump out, they were going to flee from me. I leaned down to turn on the siren, and I heard this loud ‘Bang!’ I looked up, and the passenger was leaning out the door with a shotgun, shooting at me!

“It was funny after the fact. I told everybody that my initial reaction was, ‘He can’t shoot at me, I’m a police officer!’”

Law enforcement is not for everybody. You are your own boss out there on the street; you never know what’s going to happen. Or as Castor puts it, “It can be boring one minute and terror the next. But it’s very exciting.”

• • •

One of the surprises Castor discovered on the job is how often this position will pull her away from the actual day-to-day operations of the police department if she allows it. There are a lot of requests for her to be the face of the Tampa Police Department, making public appearances in the community and with the department’s business partners.

“There is a lot of value in it,” she says, “but still, I’m a police officer at heart. That’s what I came into law enforcement for, so I want to get my hands dirty in the actual day-to-day operations of the police department.”

One of the time killers she has to face as chief that she didn’t as assistant is dealing with the media. One day it’s the Tampa Tribune or the Times, another it’s the Maddux Business Report or former E! TV anchor Steve Kmetko interviewing her for a gay website called MyQmunity.com about the unique responsibilities of being a lesbian police chief.

“Part of our job is to ask questions and get to the bottom of situations, but I always look at that as a give and take process,” she says. “You have to build relationships, even if it’s out on the street with a victim or a suspect, so I don’t mind reporters asking me questions. They’re not going to uncover anything earth shattering. I’m the same individual I was 26 years ago.”

• • •

An officer candidate goes through the police academy, graduates to walking or driving a beat, eventually moving up the chain of command. Not many rise to chief.

How does Officer Castor prepare to one day become Chief Castor, responsible for an organization with 1,300 employees and a $133 million budget?

“I’ve benefited by being able to work in just about every aspect of the police department,” Castor says. “When I first made major, I was sent to the administrative division. I told everybody that they had to drag me in kicking and screaming into that division, and then I did a mad dash out when I was released, because it really doesn’t have anything to do with police work. But in it, I worked with all of the areas that support police officers, and I learned exactly how the police department is run. My time in the administrative division was invaluable to me as a chief, learning the budget process, learning all of the different support elements of the police department and how they function, and how we interact with other city departments. All of that I learned in my time in the administrative division, so it was very, very valuable.”

• • •

One day, Castor and Iorio may find themselves on a Tampa porch somewhere in rocking chairs, remembering these as the good ol’ days.

Budgets will not be kind to the city in the next few years and certainly not to the police department in particular. Job cuts are almost certainly coming.

“Mayor Iorio has been very, very supportive of the Tampa Police Department,” Castor says. “We could not have been as successful in reducing crime as we have been without her support. She has told us in the last three years of this economic downturn to cut as much from our budget as we could without taking any police officers off of the street. That support has just been invaluable for us. If you look nationwide at other jurisdictions, usually the police department’s budget is one of the biggest, if not the largest, in any city, and close to 90 percent of that budget is personnel. So to be able to make any meaningful cuts without taking police officers away is very difficult to do. We have trimmed our budget as far as we could in those three years and given back to the city as much as we could. We have efficiency and effectiveness task forces in place, looking at every aspect of the police department.

“This year,” Castor continues, “I don’t know that we are going to be able to go without cutting officer positions. We won’t cut any jobs; it will be through attrition, but I think the reality is that we have gotten to the point where the city has cut everything that it can and that doing more with less, we are at about the end of the road on that one.”

Tampa, according to Castor, has sustained one of the highest officer/citizen ratios in the state with three officers for every 1,000 citizens. The national average is two for every 1,000.

• • •

Tomorrow’s Tampa Police Department will be smaller but more technologically savvy, in part because it must be to survive, but also because of a monster, $60 million grant it received from the Department of Homeland Security. The Tampa PD is administering the grant on behalf of the Urban Area Security Initiative, which locally covers Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Before becoming chief, Castor was in charge of coordinating the initiative.

One application of the money is for a software program called COPLINK, which is a kind of Google search engine for police officers. It is a pass-through system that takes all of the local jurisdictions’ divergent information databases and connects them.

“If I type in ‘Jane Castor,’ I can see that I might have been pulled over in Hillsborough County for a traffic citation, or arrested in Tampa for a misdemeanor. All of that information is brought to the officer’s fingertips in their cars,” Castor explains. “We have solved many crimes with COPLINK, events where a robbery occurs, and one of the suspects will call another one by a nickname, and we enter that into the nickname database, and out pops a suspect. Same thing with tattoos, all of that.

“The officers today have the technology that allows them to work much smarter than we did,” she says.

• • •

When Castor was on the streets, working a beat, she found plenty of frustration with the way the department was administered—just as anyone in an employer/employee relationship does.

One day, Chief Hogue asked his then assistant, “Doesn’t it bother you when people are critical of staff?”

“No, not at all,” then-assistant chief Castor said. “Because when I had five years on the job, I said, ‘Make me chief, I’ll change this place!’”

The biggest aggravations came before she understood the inner workings of the police bureaucracy. “Sometimes how slow the processes move was very frustrating,” she says, “and it still, even as a chief, is frustrating to me. You want to get things done and move on, and it’s just not that easy. A lot of red tape.”

She intends to continue showing up, unannounced, at roll calls and meeting with officers as much as possible on a daily basis to hear their beefs and keep the lines of communications open between them.

“I don’t have any issue with criticism or questioning,” she says. “The best ideas are going to come from the officers out there on the street, so I don’t have any problem with them questioning a process or a procedure or any kind of criticism of the staff. I just want it to be informed. The old saying, ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,’ that’s frustrating to me. I don’t mind criticism, just make it informed criticism.”

• • •

Asking the Tampa Police Chief about her sexual orientation as a lesbian woman is hardly an inviting prospect. But it has to be done, in the same way the media would routinely inquire about the home life of Tampa’s straight female mayor: Are you married? Do you have kids? Dogs? It’s part of the information download when you choose to a public figure.

Fortunately, the muscular Castor, who has essentially been out since college, is extremely at ease with her identity. She and her former partner share the responsibility for raising their two boys, both age 10. The chief says she’s not in a hurry to develop a new personal relationship beyond her sons and her two Labradors.

“I don’t stand up in front of people and preach one thing and then lead my life in another way,” she says. “I lead my life every day as an example for others to follow. I always try to be fair, honest, open with everybody that I deal with.

“I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t detractors out there just based on my sexual orientation,” Castor adds. “A common perception of police officers is that they are a close-minded group, and I really see it to be just the opposite. We are called in to run people’s lives every day, and as long as people get along and they have a positive home life and they are not committing crimes and they are not beating each other up, then police officers are very accepting individuals. And within the Tampa Police Department, you are judged on your ability to do the job, regardless if you’re male or female, gay or straight.”

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