The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is anything but a circus, despite its familiar name.
Found in a remarkably gorgeous, serene setting on the Intracoastal Waterway amidst banyan trees that are themselves works of art for their endlessly intricate branches, the museum campus is a natural attraction.
Inside, the 21 original galleries built by the famed circus man are a source of never-ending change and wide-eyed wonder. Don’t take our word for it, though; The Ringling is a State Art Museum of Florida and part of Florida State University. And the facility itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.
(The following story appeared in Tampa Bay Life in 1989.)
Rosie Owen just wanted to cash a check. What she got that clear November morning was a few minutes of sheer terror that will last a lifetime.
“I had just gone up to the teller and she was verifying my check,” remembers Owen. “I heard an awful commotion behind me. I looked back and I saw – it looked like a giant, a man wearing a stocking over his head! He was a big man, close to six feet. He was heavy, kind of clumsy. He was waving a gun – he looked nervous. He told everybody to hit the floor.”
Twenty miles from Disney World, at 10:15 a.m. on November 14, 1988, the Florida National Bank branch at 6306 W. Colonial Drive in Orlando was being robbed by an awkward, six-foot-three, 370-pound bandit wearing pantyhose over his head, green surgical gloves and armed with a .22-caliber revolver.
“He kept yelling at the tellers to hurry up and put the money – all the money – on the counter.” He particularly asked for 50s and 100s.
“If you give me any dye, I will come back and kill you,” threatened the bank robber. “I’ll come back and blow some brains out!”
When the tellers had emptied the money from their drawers on the counter, the bandit came to Owen, 46, who was face down on the floor. He hit her on the shoulder with the gun and said, “Lady, get the money.” He gave her a gray plastic bag to collect the bundles of cash.
“I have no idea why he singled me out. Trying to make my life more miserable, I suppose,” says Owen. “I was so nervous, I kept fumbling the money. He said, ‘Hurry up, lady, or I’m going to start shooting!’
“He was really nervous. Afterward, everybody kept saying he must not have been a professional because he took so long. But part of the reason he took so long was I kept dropping the stupid money.”
Outside the bank, Glen Lannon, a 26-year-old landscape worker, was stuck in traffic, driving his company truck to a job. As usual, he was paying attention to everything but the other cars on the road. “My girlfriend always gets on me for looking all around and not paying attention to traffic,” he says. This particular day, his wandering eye caught something more interesting than a fast girl in a pretty car. This morning, he saw a big man hurriedly exit Florida National Bank and run to a silver 1985 Dodge Caravan.
“I seen him running. He’s a big boy; kinda looked suspicious. I said to myself, ‘I know what that guy’s doing,'” recalls Lannon. “I said, I’m going to catch that fucker.”
Just then, a red dye packet smoked and exploded inside the bandit’s money bag. Realizing the money was no good to him, he dropped it in the parking lot and took off in the van.
“I called my supervisor on the truck’s radio. I said, ‘Hey, guys, I’m going to follow this bank robber!'” Lannon’s boss had a phone in his car and alerted authorities. For the next 20 minutes, the young landscaper – who noted the van’s license plate had been removed but who didn’t know the bandit was armed – followed the bank robber from a distance, passing their changing locations on to the police through his boss.
The bandit became suspicious at a red light.
“He opened up the van door and leaned down like he was looking under the van,” says Lannon. “He looked back and seen me and made a quick turn-around. The police nabbed him right after that.” A .22-caliber revolver and stocking mask were found on the van’s floorboard. Ironically, the man was captured in front of an Orange County Sheriff’s Department sub-station.
(Lannon says Florida National Bank sent him a $1,000 reward and a letter of thanks. Ironically, the same bank later refused him a new car loan. “I didn’t have enough collateral,” says Lannon. “Too risky.”)
Back at the bank, the police brought the bank robber back in chains for witnesses to identify. Rosie Owen had no doubt this was the man who robbed the bank – Hillsborough Community College Director of Student Services William J. “Bill” Strawn.
“I cannot express the fear in words,” says Owen. “You start thinking about your family and the Lord. I thought, ‘If this is it, forgive me for what I’ve done … ‘ It was kind of hard for me to sleep for about a week after it happened. I’d start falling asleep and I’d wake up having nightmares about it.”
* * *
The jails of this country are filled with innocent men and women, law enforcement officials will tell you. They say that sarcastically because few ever admit to committing crimes of which they’ve been convicted. Bill Strawn is different. He confessed to robbing banks, first to the police, then to the Orlando Sentinel, then to Tampa Bay Life. Strawn has seen the evidence, he knows he had possession of stolen money, he knows he tried to get away. He claims he doesn’t know why he did these things and, if you believe him, he has no memory of the events themselves. He says he was in a seizure-induced trance each time a robbery occurred.
Strawn had actually robbed four Orlando banks by the time he was caught, netting more than $80,000. The junior college administrator says that in each case, he only remembers getting in his car to go to work and then – much later – coming out of a trance and finding a sack of money in his van.
“It’s a very strange case,” says FBI Special Agent Larry Curtin. The FBI was involved in a joint investigation of Strawn; Curtin says Strawn is not a suspect in any further bank robberies. “It’s unusual that someone in the position Mr. Strawm occupied would be arrested for and suspected of bank robberies. He was gainfully employed.”
Strawn, his eyes red and welling up with tears, insists his capture was the first time he knew for sure where the money came from.
“What would you do,” he asks, “if you were riding along and looked down and saw a garbage bag, a plastic bag, with money in it, wrapped up with things around it where you could see where it was from, and you didn’t know where it came from? What would you do? Would you go to the FBI? Would ‘ya? No sir. Would you go to the police? What do you do? I had that dilemma. I didn’t know what to do. I wish, now that I look back, I had called Lee (Elam, his attorney and friend) and said, ‘What do I do?’ But I didn’t. I was afraid that all they’d do is arrest you. ‘Man, you robbed a bank, you’re under arrest.’
“Well, they caught me at it,” he says with resignation and shame. “They took me back to the bank several hours later, handcuffed, chains around my waist and walked me up to the window outside the bank, people everywhere, all around. And the people who had been there and witnessed it were inside saying yeah, that’s him.
“Thank God it was that (bank robbery) and not something more serious. Thank God I didn’t have this urge to go out and kill somebody or something like that. I look back now and I think it was like kleptomania or something,” he says. “It had to be. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Legal and medical authorities don’t know how to describe it either.
A lifelong victim of concussions, seizures and two major auto wrecks, Strawn’s family, friends, ministers, former students and physicians are attempting to paint a picture of him as a long-suffering man in pain, a man beleaguered by demons, voices and blackouts. They have written 66 letters to Orlando Circuit Judge Jeff Miller begging for leniency and mercy on Bill Strawn’s tortured soul.
Independent experts and even Strawn’s own psychiatrist say his behavior could be explained by complex seizures and brain damage once – maybe even twice. But four times strikes all four of them as suspect. They’re not buying the former educator’s story.
Rosie Owen has read all the newspaper reports about Bill Strawn’s mental health problems. Unlike the bank robber’s friends and family, however, she saw what he did. She was the one he threatened point-blank with a revolver.
“He’s pulling wool over their eyes,” she says. “He’s no more sick than I am.”
Strawn pled no contest to four counts of robbery with a firearm in an Orlando courtroom. “It’s obvious,” says Strawn’s Brandon-based attorney, B. Lee Elam, “that on the one count (robbing Florida National Bank), he wouldn’t stand a chance, outside of the fact that he admitted it to a newspaper reporter. And I don’t think he is capable of standing trial. We got through the plea part and I had my fingers crossed. Then they told us to sit in the back of the courtroom while they filled out some paperwork. But we never got to the papers. The bailiff tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’ve got a problem.’ And I looked at him (Strawn) and he was having a seizure. So I knew he would never be able to get through a full trial. And I’ve noticed every time I’ve had occasion to have him come into the office, no matter how small an area or topic we’re covering, he has seizures. The smallest stress causes it. I was concerned that maybe trial stress might be life-threatening. … I just didn’t feel comfortable taking him through the stress of a trial. One count or four counts, it’s all the same stress on him. Maybe this is something a lawyer shouldn’t say, but Bill’s not only a client, he’s the closest friend I have. I had to consider that. I had to put that into the equation. Would I take a chance on seriously injuring a friend as well as a client?”
Some might suggest that Elam – who won an out-of-court traffic accident settlement for Strawn in 1983 and donated his services to Strawn pro bono – should have set aside friendship and let another lawyer handle the criminal case. Arguments can be made that instead of pleading Strawn nolo contendre, Elam should have attempted to have him declared not competent to stand trial. At least one nationally recognized psychiatrist examining his case believes that if Strawn were unable to contribute to his defense or control his behavior – demonstrated by the courtroom seizure – his own psychiatrist and attorney had a responsibility to seek to have him declared not competent to stand trial.
The crimes Strawn has pled to carry minimum mandatory sentences of three years each because a weapon was involved. In Florida, bank robbery is a crime punishable by life in prison.
* * *
While the cash from the Florida National Bank job was recovered, none of the money from three previous robberies has been located. Strawn says it never will be found.
“The first time, I put it in a dumpster at the college,” he says. “I put it in two bags so you couldn’t see through it. They came everyday and dumped our dumpster, about 4 o’clock. I put (the money) in it about 3:30. I looked out and there was this guy out there looking for aluminum cans. I had never seen that before – he was going through the dumpster. I nearly had a heart attack. I went out and chased him off. They finally came and picked it up.
“The others – I burned ’em in a 55-gallon drum (at his Plant City farm). I think if somebody went out there and looked in that drum, if they could identify ashes, they could identify that. … I thought about flushing it down the commode, but that’s a lot of flushing. And burning it is not easy. It takes a lot of gasoline and you gotta drop it in a few (bills) at a time. It’s not easy, it’s tough. You gotta stir it. It’s hard to burn money – it’s the hardest thing to burn in the world. I used gasoline and I stirred it, more gasoline, and I stirred it.
“I was scared to keep it. All I could think of was it had numbers on it so if you spent it they’d catch you anyhow. But I didn’t want to spend it. I’m really not a bank robber. I’m not a bank robber.”
Rosie Owen and the staffs of three banks – Florida National Bank (robbed Nov. 14, 1988), Southeast Bank (robbed May 1, 1987 and May 16, 1988), and First Union Bank (robbed Sept. 9, 1987) – might disagree.
* * *
“When I received the call from Orlando telling me Bill had been arrested I wondered if I knew him at all.”
Those are the words of Jean Strawn, Bill’s wife of 35 years. She wrote them in a letter to Orange County Circuit Judge Jeff Miller, begging for mercy on her husband. (Mrs. Strawn declined to be interviewed for this story. She attempted to have this story stopped after her husband had been interviewed at length – despite the presence of his attorney. She also threatened a lawsuit against Tampa Bay Life – “You’ll be sorry if you print any story about us … This is our lives and you better not print this.”) Two weeks prior to her husband’s arrest, Mrs. Strawn purchased the gun he used in the Florida National robbery at a garage sale for $20.
Strawn remembers the moment he had to call home and fess up to what had happened.
“(When) I called my wife, I said dont say anything. Just listen. I said, ‘I want you to divorce me. Tell my grandchildren I died. I want you to forgive me.’
“When I was arrested,” he says, “I was laying out on the concrete, face down. There must have been 30 guys with guns and I was cryin’: ‘Please shoot me. Please do.’ I started to get up and run, so they would. And then I thought, no, if I do that, they’ll think I’m really guilty of something.”
Strawn is a beloved figure in Plant City and at Hillsborough Community College. The inexplicable twist his life has taken has left friends and former co-workers wondering if they, like Jean Strawn, knew Bill at all.
“The whole community was just in total shock,” says Sadye Martin, a city commissioner and former mayor of Plant City. “He was just such a role model in the community for so many young people. When they said what happened, I thought it had to be somebody else. He was an upright citizen.”
Barbara Kent, editor of the Courier in Plant City, wrote an editorial about her friend that began, “Some things are hard to believe” and ended, “Say it ain’t so, Bill.”
“I can’t recall ever hearing anybody saying a bad thing about him,” says Donna Allen, HCC’s director of communications. “If you were down in the dumps, he’d do something to cheer you up. I thought the world of him. He was one of the nicest co-workers I had. I can’t imagine what happened. There’s something not right for someone to have that kind of double personality.”
Two administrators at HCC – Safety and Security Manager James A. Lassiter and Plant City Provost Charles Deusner – wrote sympathetic letters on Strawn’s behalf to attorney Lee Elam, which were forwarded to Judge Miller. Lassiter’s letter was written on school stationery; Deusner’s was not.
This is the second case of administrative mischief to rock HCC in the 1980s. Back in 1982, Ambrose Garner was pressured to resign as president of the community college after charges he sexually harassed female professors, administrators and students (“Sexual Politics at HCC: Did Ambrose Garner Go Too Far?” chronicled in the July, 1982 issue of the now-defunct Tampa Magazine).
* * *
Bill and Jean Strawn met as students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and have been together ever since. They live – along with all four of their parents, Strawn’s brother Richard, twin sons Terry and Perry, 29, daughter Valerie, 32, their spouses and children, six cows, five rabbits, five horses, two geese, a donkey and a goat, 21 people and 20 animals in all – on a 15-acre Plant City farm with an estimated market value of $300,000. They have lived there since 1981.
The entire extended family eats together every night at 6 p.m. in a screened-in dining room. “I use the (Strawns) as an example of what people and families should be like,” says family friend and attorney B. Lee Elam. “They live together; they eat together in a common area. They’re the most amazing family.”
There are a lot of little details about Bill Strawn that describe the kind of man his friends and family know. Born in Norfolk, Va. … Rose to rank of Eagle Scout. … Member, Sigma Nu fraternity at Vanderbilt, which he attended on a football scholarship. Tossed out of Vanderbilt in freshman year when his picture appeared on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean during a panty raid. … Transferred to Western Kentucky and added shotput and wrestling to his athletic prowess. … Declared 4-F by the military because of a bad shoulder. … Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebacker/center but left after a few weeks in camp because of his shoulder. … Earned bachelors and masters degrees in counseling and guidance from Western Kentucky. … Learned to shoot a gun in ROTC. … Taught high school in Portsmouth, Va. and college in Kentucky (Lees Junior College) and West Virginia (Marshall University). … Enjoys gardening, fishing, crabbing. … Conducts bible study every Sunday at his home. … Doesn’t smoke and hasn’t had a serious drink of alcohol since 1955.
During 20 years with Hillsborough Community College, Strawn made a lot of friends and rose quickly from a guidance counselor to department head to dean of student services, in which he oversaw the library, counseling, advising, financial aid, custodial staff, admissions, records, job placement services, student government and newspaper. After a 1979 auto wreck, he took a lesser position as director of student services at HCC’s Plant City campus. Still, he was well-compensated for his work and years of service – he earned $46,500 in 1988, $52,000 in 1987. Strawn was suspended with pay from his position immediately following his arrest; he resigned in January.
Early reports indicate he was desperate for cash when an antique business run by his son Terry, 29, went bad – their combined debt was said to be $14,000. From 1982 to 1986, Bill also owned Heaven Sent Nursery. Both businesses operated from the Strawn compound in Plant City. In a telephone interview from jail immediately following his arrest, Strawn told the Sentinel, “I was going to work and I stopped and said, ‘I’ve got to get some money.’ I was in debt badly.”
That may explain one robbery, but not four.
Most people who earn $46,500 have a measure of debt between credit cards, auto loans and home mortgage. Few turn to bank robbery. They negotiate consolidation loans, extended payment terms. Anything to avoid the public humiliation of inventorying your trousers, shoes, blouses, knick knack shelves, bandsaw, fishing rods and surrendering your automobile to the bank.
According to their voluntary petition for personal bankruptcy, Bill and Jean Strawn owe $114,553.37 on their mortgage, $9,000 on the Dodge Caravan getaway van (since repossessed) and $19,252.57 in credit cards and medical bills. (Their list of unsecured debts includes notations for First Union Bank, Florida National Bank and Southeast Bank – institutions Strawn robbed – all with the word “undetermined” where the amount should be listed.) It is a lot of money but leveragable with Strawn’s income and property holdings. He knows he went to an extreme. And that’s what makes his case so strange. Bill Strawn doesn’t go to extremes. By all accounts he’s level-headed, even-tempered and quite bright.
Or at least he was until those two auto accidents.
“I used to be a hyperactive person who was everywhere,” says Strawn. “Now I’m slow. I don’t function like I used to. This is no cop-out, but I’ll guarantee if I hadn’t been in those two accidents, this would never have happened to Bill Strawn.”
* * *
Do you know Orlando very well?
I don’t. I really don’t.
You’re not familiar with the streets?
I have been to Orlando probably 10 times in my whole life. And usually when I go there it’s to a deans’ meeting and then right back.
Have you ever been there for a week?
No. In fact, I don’t have any idea how I found these banks. And frankly, I don’t even know where they are. If I had to take you to them right now, I couldn’t take you to any one of them.
You were charged with four armed bank robberies. Did you commit any bank robberies?
I had the bag of money. I dont know. … But from everything I’ve read, I think I did. I didn’t know what I did. I didn’t have any idea of what I did, from the time I left Plant City. I really couldn’t tell you. I didn’t know what I was doing. I really didn’t.
You don’t remember driving from Plant City to Orlando?
You don’t know why it was this bank and not that bank?
I have no idea. But I’ll say this: It’s not uncommon for me not to know what I did that day. It’s not. There are so many days that I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened to me all day long. On the others, I came to somewhere around Lakeland when I was driving back. I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ The last one, I came to when I was coming out of the bank.
You realized then that something was wrong?
That’s when I realized I had done something wrong, when I found the sack there. I wish I’d been caught the first time.
You remember burning the money the first time?
Oh, yeah. I was perfectly sane then. But I’ll tell you this – there wasn’t any way that I could figure out – and I still can’t figure out – any way to have turned it in. Especially the second and third times.
I’ve got my whole family saying, ‘Why didn’t you turn it in, why didn’t you tell us?’ My wife, especially.
Did she have a hard time understanding why you didn’t confide in her?
Well, yeah. Because I confide in her in everything. But this was a horrible thing to me.
The money was gone. What did you do then?
I prayed every night that I wouldn’t have this thing happen again. One day when this happened, the next day, two guys from the FBI came to visit me. It was about something unrelated, nothing to do with this. But it scared me to death. I thought, they must know. They must be checking me out.
* * *
Strawn’s claim to being unfamiliar with the locations of the banks he robbed is dubious at best.
The first two banks, Southeast and First Union, are both located on Sand Lake Road, mere blocks from Interstate 4. “Easy-on, Easy-off,” as read the fast-food drive-thru signs that beckon to hungry highway travelers. Theoretically, Strawn – who allegedly used a lever-action rifle in at least one of these crimes and a short barrel shotgun in others – could have exited I-4, robbed a bank and been 10 miles west toward Plant City before police arrived. Except that Sand Lake Road provides access to Orlando’s Hotel Row, International Drive, making ingress and egress slow at best. Authorities say banks in this area are frequent robbery targets; Southeast has at least six video cameras visibly trained on its lobby.
Explaining the choice of the Florida National Branch may be more complicated. Its West Colonial Drive location is far off the beaten trail, five miles – and a few dozen traffic lights – west of I-4. Along that route Strawn would have passed branches of almost every bank in town. But Strawn likely knew a faster route than I-4 to Colonial Drive because of his many years as a junior college dean. State Road 435 intersects I-4 and ends north at Colonial. How could Strawn, who claims to barely know Orlando, find his way across town on such a local road? Perhaps because Valencia Junior College sits midway between the bank and I-4 on S.R. 435. Even on this route, he had to pass branches of C&S, Barnett, Sun, and Orange Banks before arriving at Florida National. The route also passes the Mystery Fun House and under-construction Universal Studios Tour.
Just after being arrested, Strawn told the Orlando Sentinel he chose the tiny Florida National Bank branch over another institution across the street, The First Financial Center, abecause there were fewer cars in its parking lot.
What puzzles most people examining these crimes is – if Strawn planned the robberies – how he ever expected to get away unrecognized with a stocking mask over his face. His sheer girth – 370 pounds – made him memorable to witnesses; he couldn’t possibly be confused with a medium-build bank robber.
* * *
Tom Oatmeyer wrote a letter to B. Lee Elam, Strawn’s attorney, to be used in his defense. In it, Oatmeyer balances tales of Strawn’s humanitarian gestures with what he calls “unusual occurrences.” Once, he writes, his friend Bill gave a speech to HCC students and suddenly spoke in Turkish. Four Turkish students thanked him afterwards for his comments and asked where he had learned their language. That same morning, his secretary found a note he had written – in Arabic. A student had to translate; Strawn couldn’t read his own note. “It said that Bill would come by to pick up the president of Hillsborough Community College in a rickshaw,” writes Oatmeyer. The stories are also confirmed by another witness and letter writer, Earl Hartman. “It was very obvious … these experiences were tormenting Bill,” according to Oatmeyer.
In February, Jean Strawn asked Oatmeyer to “come quick, something was wrong with Bill.” He arrived to find Strawn in the midst of one of his spells. He announced he was leaving his family and never coming back.
“He left with nothing,” writes Oatmeyer. “I decided to check the airport because Bill loved flying. I arrived to find a ticket in Bill’s hand for a northern city. He had no luggage, (he was wearing) a short sleeve sport shirt and (was) going to a city that had temperatures in the 30s. When I went to him, he was in a daze. He acted like he didn’t know me. I kept talking to him until finally I reached him. At that point he said, ‘I don’t know why I have this. I don’t even know anybody in this city.’ He was now ready to go home, shocked at how he even got to the airport.”
There is a huge body of circumstantial evidence such as Oatmeyer’s letter that supports the claim of Strawn family members, friends and physicians that Bill Strawn is mentally ill. While certainly biased, the authors build a caseload of bizarre twists in Strawn’s life. They tell wildly different stories which form an undeniable pattern of abnormal events and behavior.
o Joe Menendez wrote a very moving letter about Strawn. After describing his familiarity with Strawns blackouts and seizures, Mendendez got to the root of their relationship: “Many years back he counsled (sic) me, week after week because I was in a very bad stage of depression and I was about to kill a few of my coworkers (sic). If the Lord have (sic) not put this man in my path I just don’t know what I would have done.”
o William Seeker is now president of Florida Keys Community College in Key West, but from 1970 to 1979, he was Strawn’s supervisor at HCC. “I noticed Bill would have periods of memory lapses and/or blackouts. He did not remember conversations we had, assignments I had given him or meetings that he had attended. At one particular staff meeting he actually went into what I would call a convulsion.”
o Strawn himself tells many examples of his troubles, including pre-cognitive experiences wherein he foresaw a friend having a heart attack or his father being struck by a train.
Being at work did not make him immune from seizures and blackouts; secretaries, teachers and administrators used to cover for him regularly.
“My secretary and I worked on a grant one day,” he remembers. “We worked on it from seven in the morning until 5:30 at night. We finally got it finished and we mailed it. We were so happy. The next morning when she came in, I said, Stella, we’ve got a big job today – we’ve gotta get this grant done. I had already worked on it for an hour and she said, ‘We worked on that yesterday.’
“I had secretaries who would really help me, who would keep up with me if I wouldn’t come back on time. They’d try to find out where I was. They probably should have been getting my salary.”
o Jean Strawn’s eight-page letter is the most revealing and poignant plea to Judge Miller. In it, she traces a number of steps in the life of her husband that helped set him apart from most men. As a high school history teacher in his younger days, he gave anti-communism speeches at night at Baptist churches. Drawn by a need for teachers in Appalachia, he moved his family to Jackson, Ky. There was the time he pulled a man from a burning car shortly before it exploded. Or when the bleachers collapsed at a basketball game and Strawn pulled them apart to release trapped arms and legs. A neighbor stopped breathing and Strawn got him started again with CPR.
Despite all of these super-human acts with neighbors and strangers, Strawn faltered when it came to dealing with family crisises and job stress, according to his wife. “He would want to lie down and within minutes he was out of it and talked out of his head a lot. One time he really scared me because he was talking to his dead grandfather. (Strawn) said he wanted to go with him. I pleaded with him for about an hour not to go because I needed him here. He has also seen his dead uncle Francis. He tells me about places we used to go and it would be so real to him. He said he could taste the chicken at Farrells which was a place back in (our) college days.
“I used to accuse him of being too weak to face up to problems. I told him every time I needed him most he folded up on me. Now that I look back he was having a form of seizure then whenever he got under pressure or stress.
“His life has been memorable,” Jean writes. “Some day I know I will find out what God’s plan for him really is and then I’ll know why Satan has tried to destroy him.”
On the day she wrote the note, Jean Strawn writes, her husband had survived 15 seizures.
* * *
It is difficult to compile an exact list of incidents contributing to Strawn’s head injuries because there are insufficient medical documents and only family accounts to go by. But problems seem to have begun at age seven, when a baseball bat fractured his skull; other incidents include a number of concussions, two broken jaws and a fracture skull in 1952 and 1953 while he was in college playing football; multiple hospitalizations in Bowling Green, Ky.; a 1979 head and neck injury in a Tampa automobile accident that left Strawn unconscious for an hour and paralyzed for ten hours; a second auto accident, in Brandon in 1982, resulted in back surgery. He won out-of-court cash settlements in both accidents.
Strawn has suffered from grand mal and petit mal seizures off and on since 1975. Grand mal seizures take place when the victim falls down, begins convulsing on one side, bites his tongue, foams at the mouth, wets his pants and/or wakes in a stupor, unaware of having had the seizure. Petit mal seizures cause the person to stop, sit silently and not know what is going on around him, then regain consciousness and not realize anything was amiss. They are considered physical, not mental, problems caused by electrical disturbances in the brain’s temporal lobe.
Strawn’s frequency of either seizure type occurring varies between daily and every few weeks depending upon how well he controlled he is medication-wise. Stress is widely considered a trigger to the seizures. Strawn has had seizures at home, church, school, doctor’s and lawyers office and in court and jail. They manifest themselves differently from incident to incident.
“There are times when I can’t carry on a conversation, times when I forget a whole day,” he says. Sometimes he sees and hears things that aren’t there. “I would actually see these creatures telling me to hang myself. I’m not the kind of guy to do that. But there were times when I really felt like I was going to do it.”
* * *
Is Bill Strawn telling the truth? Could seizures and blackouts have caused him to rob four banks over 19 months?
A quintet of nationally recognized experts in epilepsy and neuro-psychiatry say yes, it is possible that Strawn was not in control of his actions when he committed the first bank robbery, maybe even the second. But none is convinced such a pattern could occur four times.
The four authorities consulted by Tampa Bay Life for comment who were not directly involved in the case were given details during individual telephone interviews, including hearing direct comments from the deposition of defense psychiatrist Dr. Walter Afield and from an interview with Strawn. Participants in the “psychiatric autopsy” were:
o Ann Scherer, director of Information and education for the Epilepsy Foundation of America in Landover, Maryland.
o Dr. Dietrich Blumer, a psychiatrist specializing in epilepsy at the University of Tennessee Epicare Center. The Epicare Center is the largest center for the treatment of epilepsy in the Southeast. Blumer was recommended as an expert by the Epilepsy Foundation of America.
o Dr. George Dohrmann is a neorosurgeon at the University of Chicago and was recommended as an expert by the Brain Research Foundation.
o Dr. Helen Morrison, an M.D. who is certified in general, child, adult and forensic psychiatry, has been an examiner for the American Board of Forensic Psychiatry. Morrison – who was recommended by Dohrmann – is also director of The Evaluation Center, a neuro-diagnostic program in Chicago for the evaluation and treatment of people with organic and emotional problems. She has examined serial killers Michael Lockhart and Bobby Joe Long as a witness for the prosecution.
o Dr. Walter Afield, a former professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, was retained by the defense to examine Bill Strawn and form conclusions about his mental fitness. Afield is an accomplished psychiatrist who has a private practice in Tampa and works as an expert psychiatric witness in criminal trials across the country. He worked for the defense in the trials of Bobby Joe Long (opposite Dr. Helen Morrison), William Cruise and fire-bomber Billy Ferry.
Afield says that in reviewing a battery of neuro-psychiatric tests (including EEG, Luria, Halstead) and documented seizures, he has no doubt that Strawn has suffered severe brain damage and intractable seizures. He says that Strawn did not undergo the now common magnetic resonance imaging tests because he was too big to get in the machine. There could have been a “definite correlation” between Strawn’s seizures and the bank robberies, according to Afield, until he learned the number of crimes had grown from two to four.
“That was the hardest part for me to understand,” says Afield. “That was a little difficult. I’d be a little hard pushed with the evidence that four were due to that. But you do have a man with brain damage and it can make a man do strange things.”
The expert consultants agree that criminal activity is rare as a result of even complex seizures, but not out of the realm of possibility for a man with Strawn’s history of head injuries and brain damage.
According to Dohrmann: “Some people who do things out of character can have something wrong with the left frontal lobe, impairing their judgement or understanding of right and wrong. The frontal lobe’s function is to ride herd over a person’s impulses. When that’s gone, people can be quite impulsive. Normally they wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t know what I did.’ They’d say, ‘I did it – so what?'”
All three doctors doubted epileptic seizures alone could cause Strawn’s repeated criminal activity. But they believe the seizures might be part of a greater neuro-psychiatric malady.
“There are a tremendous number of possibilities,” says Morrison. She says robbing a bank would not be unusual in the “Fugue” state, a form of amnesia. In this state, someone can do incredible things, like disappear only to “wake up” years later. It is caused when people are unable to handle extreme stress and become amnesiac as a result. Another possibility she cites is multiple personalities, which the mind creates as a defense mechanism. But she is ultimately skeptical of a stereotyped crime being repeated over and over with the same highly organized pattern.
“Why not just rob a bank and a gas station or a speeding ticket?” wonders Morrison. “If he has brain damage, why would it be limited to bank robbery? Does brain damage explain the robberies? It doesn’t. Can you definitely connect the damage to the action? No, you can’t. No one can prove this man’s seizures led to the robberies.
“A thousand things can aggravate seizures,” she continues. “If the person is going to have a seizure, why wouldn’t he have a seizure while robbing the bank? Or while going through the complex act of burning the money? Does that seem like the action of someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing? He was scared? One time, okay. Twice, maybe. Three, four times? Forget it. It doesn’t take any psychiatry to figure that out.”
* * *
What should society do with Bill Strawn?
He robbed four banks at gunpoint. That seems beyond dispute. Pre-meditation is more to the question. Did failing health and looming debt push Strawn to knowingly commit these four criminal acts? Can his claims of being in a trance-like state be borne out by medical evidence? And if he was not responsible for his actions, does the state still have its own responsibility to his victims to mete out some form of justice?
In some ways, society has already begun taking its measure of the Strawn Family.
“We’ve gone through bankruptcy, we applied for food stamps the other day” – Strawn pauses as tears well up in his eyes – “we’re about as poor as you can be. I’ve taken my family through a lot of embarrassment, I know. I can’t get near water, I can’t get near machinery, I can’t drive a vehicle. And yet everything I’m trained to do requires those kinds of things. I can’t go up steps, I can’t walk near a durn ditch that’s got six inches of water in it – I could drown. I almost drowned one night in the bathtub, taking a bath. Now I have to take showers. Part of the real punishment I’ve had is seeing my family go through this. Every day is something in the mailbox. Every day is another call. Every day there’s another hell to face.”
Dr. Walter Afield, who examined Strawn, thinks the accused is ashamed, embarrassed and of the opinion he should be punished for what he did. That worries Afield.
“He’s depressed, suicidal,” the psychiatrist believes. “If he makes it to jail I wouldn’t be surprised if he kills himself. He’s not a jail kind of guy.” Afield feels that because of Strawn’s continuing need for medical attention, justice, the community and Strawn would be better served by community control. “House arrest is cheaper on the taxpayer. If he falls down on his head, we’re going to get a $50,000 bill.”
“Obviously, the gentleman’s going to prison,” says Assistant State Attorney Gary Dorst, who is the new prosecutor on Strawn’s case. Dorst notes that sentencing statutes in firearms cases have been rewritten to take discretion out of the hands of judges. They are required to issue minimum mandatory sentences and there is no “gain time” for good behavior in firearms cases. He estimates Strawn could get anywhere from six years to lifetime in prison or 100 years probation. One possibility that could reduce prison time would be to run sentences for each bank robbery concurrently. “It’s a crime punishable by life,” says Dorst. “He’s looking at four life sentences. That’s the possibility. He probably won’t get it.”
“I wish they would put me in a situation where I could do something worthwhile,” says Strawn, wistfully.
Whatever Bill Strawn’s fate is, he has changed Rosie’s Owens’ life forever.
“I have a great fear of going in the bank,” says the woman who felt Strawn’s gun at her back on the day he was caught. “It was a frightening experience – it goes with you. It’s something you never forget.”
(“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.
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.”
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
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.
“Wrap It Up!” cover story of Tampa Bay Weekly, by Bob Andelman, about Dunedin, Florida company promoting safe sex with t-shirts, etc., under the brand name “Wrap That Rascal.” (Thanks to Robert LaMonte for sharing)
“Bobby from St. Pete, you’re at bat. Take a swing!”
“Okay! I was at the airport the other day and Phil was there. He’s getting on a plane going to Newark. I said, ‘Hey, Phil! Good luck!’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it!'”
For those who don’t know the players on a first-name basis, Chris Thomas explains to the rest of his listeners that “Phil” is Phil Esposito, president of the vaporware Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I have to think the National Hockey League is losing its patience,” opines Thomas, host of WFLA 970 AM’s “Tampa Bay Sports Line.” “It has been two months.”
“He looked really nervous,” reports Bobby from St. Pete. “I wondered if you have an update?”
“Naah,” says Thomas, waving his hand in disgust as if Bobby from St. Pete could see it. “Because the NHL doesn’t believe in the First Amendment and free speech, the league has a gag order in place.”
Bobby from St. Pete, satisfied, hangs up.
Thomas, 43, looks across the WFLA studio to his engineer in the next room, explaining to him on the air how the name Bob is a palindrome because it is spelled the same way backwards and forwards. Only Thomas can hear Jesse’s response in his headphones, but he tells the engineer, “Jesse, you are not a palindrome, you are a meathead.”
Four nights a week, Tuesday through Friday from 6:30-8 p.m., WFLA-TV Ch. 8 sportscaster Chris Thomas gives up his dinner break to spend 90 minutes talking to listeners on WFLA radio. It’s worth it, both to him and to listeners. There is no more commanding presence and personality in local sportscasting on either TV or radio. Thomas has all the elements, from a voice dripping with sarcasm and bombastic exuberance to an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and a devil-may-care attitude.
Moments before the radio show begins, he and his producer, Kevin, discuss upcoming guests.
“I thought we could get (former Colts quarterback) Earl Morrall,” says Kevin. “Did you ever talk to him in Baltimore?”
“Oh, sure,” says Thomas. “I know Earl.”
“Are you kidding? Guy’s in his 50s, still wears a crewcut!”
When the show starts, Thomas chats up his listeners a bit to warm up. “We’re going to have a special guest whose name escapes me,” he admits, cracking himself up.
During the first commercial break, Thomas confesses his only gripe with Tampa Bay sports fans: they’re too passive.
“They tend to sit back and listen,” he says. “We know they’re there. Sometimes I have to kick ’em in the butt. Sometimes I say, you’re killing me, you’re going to get me fired, my daughter’s not going to be able to go to a good college … Then they call.”
Even when they do call, Thomas says area sports fans don’t have the same fire in their belly found in Boston, New York, Chicago or Baltimore. “You listen to callers in big cities, they’re brutal! Rabid! They’re passive here,” he says. “There’s a latent audience of Bucs fans that want to go berserk, but what’s to go berserk over? It’s the worst team in the league.”
Back on the air.
“Is our guest on the phone yet?” Thomas asks Jesse. “He’s not? Play the music. I have to get my notes.” Turning off his microphone, Thomas thumbs through his bulging briefcase and asks the engineer: “What’s our guest’s name again?”
The man’s name is Cliff Charpentier and he’s just published his eighth book on fantasy football. Thomas knows the game well and makes conversation easily. Despite his bluster, he never hesitates, never takes more than a breath between one solid question and then another.
Charpentier does not light up the phone lines and Thomas grows bored. While the fantasy football expert drones on, Thomas turns off his microphone, coughs, and says, “Guy’s pretty exciting.” He then closes his eyes and his forehead bangs into the microphone, as if the sportscaster has fallen into a deep coma.
The feeling is not held back from his listeners, either. “Thank you for being on the Sports Line, Cliff,” says Thomas, disconnecting Charpentier. “Exciting guy, that Cliff,” he says, laughing. “Not quite in the Hoyt Wilhelm league … ”
Former knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm played Major League Baseball far later in life than most athletes. Thomas interviewed him one night for the show. “It was dreadful,” he recalls. “He kept doing this (clears his throat, with great difficulty) before answering questions. I thought he was going to die. First of all, why did you come on the show if you’re going to die? And if you’re going to die, don’t take me with you.”
Thomas never set out to be in broadcasting. His mind was set on journalism until he accidentally walked into the campus radio station at the University of South Carolina. “I heard this guy doing sports. He was horrible! I turned to this guy and said, ‘He’s horrible! He stinks! You ought to fire him!’ He said, ‘Who are you?'”
But Thomas won an audition and bulldozed his way on the air, working as both DJ and sportscaster. He worked in radio for years, in South Carolina and Baltimore, adding TV later on. This isn’t the first time he’s worked both media, either.
Back to the phones.
The blue computer screen to Thomas’s left indicates the name of each caller, their sex, topic of interest and how long they’ve been waiting. Cellular car phone callers usually get through quickest.
Mike from Clearwater: “I think you and Tedd Webb should get off Ray Perkins’ back.”
Thomas: “Hey, I haven’t mentioned his name in two days!”
Some callers are better than others, of course. They require the host’s full attention. That’s when Thomas puts down his latest Marlboro, his eyes narrow and focus on a point beyond the microphone, talking to it like the caller is actually in the room.
Thomas, like other talk show hosts at WFLA, has his regular callers. Kerry is distinguished by his horse laugh. Bill has a very distinctive voice. And Bill is a retiree from Detroit. Thomas prefers “open phones” to interviewing authors and minor celebs, which makes the job seem more like work.
Physically, Thomas is different than you’d expect from seeing him on TV. Instead of the de rigeour jacket and tie, he shows up at the radio studio in his golfing clothes, yellow shorts and multi-colored polo shirt. And where TV makes him look pudgy, he’s not. Thomas is tall, thin, tanned and taut. The camera, she lies.
Six calls later – and discussion of Arena football, Hugh Culverhouse, the Seattle Mariners behind him – it’s 7:55:01 p.m., time for the Fat Lady to sing.
“This is a marvelous country, ladies and gentlemen,” says Thomas as Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” comes up behind him. “It’s a land that I love … Stand beside her, and guide her … From the mountains, to the prairies … ”
A year ago, a listener sent him a tape of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Thomas used it to close the show for a week or two as a gag. When he stopped, listeners demanded her return. Now WFLA promotes Chris Thomas and Kate Smith as “America’s Sweethearts.”
“Everybody needs a signature,” says Thomas with a shrug. “Not only that – it shortens the show by three minutes!”
Interview: Shelly Broader, president of Kash n’ Karry/Sweetbay Supermarket.
By Bob Andelman
(This story originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of the Maddux Business Report, published in St. Petersburg, Florida. The story below is the unedited version and includes material that does not appear in the published version.)
Shelley Broader works customers in the prototype Sweetbay Supermarket in Seminole in a manner reminiscent of Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot. She talks to everyone she encounters, charming them in conversation, infusing them with her bubbling enthusiasm, and tempting them to sample everything from blueberry sausage to lemon cream cake. When they’re looking for something special in the produce department she doesn’t point towards their object of desire and send them on their way. Instead, she guides them to its location and ensures their satisfaction. Marcus, known for biting the fingers of Depot associates who point instead of taking customers by the hand and guiding them, would be proud.
This is not your old n’ crusty grocery executive who has seen it all and cannot be moved by the latest and greatest variation on deli fried chicken. Broader, 41, is an evangelist, the woman who might just save supermarkets from themselves in the 21st century.
Even better, she has an unusually delicious sense of humor for a corporate executive.
In showing off Sweetbay’s extensive international foods aisle, the chain’s president and chief operating officer looks left, then right, then left again before pointing out her favorite British canned product. Assured no customer will see or hear her, she continues, displaying the sponge pudding like the finest of Barker’s Beauties on “The Price is Right.”
“I’m just too immature not to laugh at a can of ‘Spotted Dick’! It’s just wrong!” she says, cackling like a naughty schoolgirl.
• • •
Few readers of the Maddux Business Report have probably been in a Sweetbay’s yet, so consider this a preview of a store that may change more than a few family shopping habits in the Tampa Bay area in 2006. It’s already occurring in the chain’s out-of-town tryouts. Fort Myers and Naples were the first communities to experience the retirement of grocery discounter Kash n’ Karry and the arrival of Sweetbay. Even as you read this, the last K n’K stores in Bradenton and Sarasota are being made over. And in 2006, the 50 stores in the Tampa Bay areas will go under the knife and re-emerge with extreme supermarket makeovers.
Walk in a typical grocer’s front door and the first thing you see will be cash registers or a customer service desk. Boooooring! Walk in the front door of a Sweetbay and all of your senses will be assimilated, including sights and smells.
In the produce department, the average Sweetbay offers almost two dozen varieties of tomatoes and at least as many mushroom varieties. Then there are the exotics, including lemon grass, Thai coconut, cherimoya, kiwano horned melons, name, yautia, batata and a Broader favorite, celery root. “I boil it, peel it, cut it in cubes and add it to mashed potatoes with some horseradish. Here,” she says, scratching one with her nail. “Smell.”
“I’m obsessed with food,” Broader says. “Once I was in a restaurant when I was really young. We were having prime rib. I thought the bowl in front of me was coleslaw, so I took a big forkful – it was horseradish! The top of my head about blew off! But it started my love of food.”
A particular weakness: the bakery department.
“I try to operate at 30,000 feet, but sometimes I come down right to the cakes,” she says. “I ate an entire one of these while working in the store’s break room one day – it took four hours – and now it’s called ‘The Presidential Cream Cheese Fudge Cake.’”
A few bakery items will survive the transition from Kash n’ Karry to Sweetbay, including the chain’s signature home-style-baked donuts and Cuban bread.
If you ever see Broader walk from one end of a Sweetbay to the other, you’ll wonder why she doesn’t weigh 400 pounds. She samples everything in sight.
“My favorite cheese is white Stilton with blueberries and champagne. It’s the most decadent thing on earth,” she says.
If pronouncing Sweetbay the future of supermarkets sounds crazy at this juncture, consider some compelling evidence:
• BREEDING: Forget 50 years of Kash n’ Karry. Sweetbay’s ancestral line traces directly back to Hannaford, the “Publix of New England,” if you will. Founded in Scarborough, Maine, in 1883, it is one of the top upscale grocers in the Northeast and highly respected around the country.
• EARLY SUCCESS: Sweetbay, Kash n’ Karry, Hannaford and Food Lion aren’t even half of the 11 supermarket subsidiaries owned and operated by Delhaize-America. (The Belgium-based Delhaize Group has food operations in 10 countries on three continents.) And while the company trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol DEG, it doesn’t break out individual sales per supermarket.
But here’s a number that Broader will disclose: 40.
That’s 40 as in the former Kash n’ Karry stores that have been retired so far are doing, on average, 40 percent better in a year-to-year comparison as Sweetbays. “It’s early; nobody’s popping the champagne yet,” Broader says. “But consumers have really responded to what they’ve seen.”
• MANAGEMENT: When Broader was handed the Kash n’ Karry chain in June 2003, she was given the authority to do whatever it took. She achieved a cultural revolution in part by finding key cogs for her new machine from several already well-oiled engines with portfolios of best practices experience.
“I have finance guys from Food Lion,” she says. “Our corporate development and real estate person is from Wal-Mart. Our merchandising and procurement person is from Kash n’ Karry. Our retail operations person was at Kash n’ Karry for three years and prior to that was at Hannaford. Our marketing, HR and organization development folks are people I asked to come down from Hannaford.”
Broader, incidentally, was Kash n’ Karry’s ninth president in 17 years.
“When I came here, it was to help Delhaize focus on what the opportunity was,” she says. “It became clear it wasn’t about changing Kash n’ Karry. It was about developing a new brand.”
• TRAINING: Just because a cashier worked at Kash n’ Karry yesterday doesn’t guarantee he or she will be punching the clock at Sweetbay tomorrow.
“The person who just comes in and punches a clock but doesn’t like food has a choice – change or leave,” Broader says. “They either are motivated to change or they are asked to leave. It’s a different environment.”
Even the company’s employment application is different. Beyond the front-page basics requesting name, rank and serial number – and there are four pages in all – Sweetbay says “Let’s Talk Food.” Take Question No. 2, for example: “Tell us about your favorite foods. What makes them special to you?” Forget checking a box or writing one-word answers. Sweetbay wants whole sentences that demonstrate a knowledge and love of food from every position.
“Once you get inside,” Broader warns, “you will see questions that either inspire you or make you say, ‘These people are not for me.’ Retail pay rates are fairly standardized. What matters is whether we have people who are connected, rather than people who just show up. When you buy an auto part, the guys working in those stores love cars. They want to help you fix your car. We’re in the food business. And until now, we’ve done a poor job attracting people who love food.”
And with Sweetbay stores employing up to 30 people more per unit than the average Kash n’ Karry, the commitment to customer service is real. “We have 10,000 people who work for us,” Broader says. “If they’re turned on, they’re going to be great ambassadors.”
• “What ingredients are in your favorite recipe?”
• “What three items will always be found in your refrigerator?”
• “Describe your favorite meal or food experience. What was the setting? Who were you with? What did you eat?”
That last question leaves enough room for an answer in essay form, incidentally.
• INTANGIBLES: Sweetbay, like Hannaford, smells irresistible from the moment you walk through the automatic sliding doors. The experience at both begins with the pungent aroma of fresh fruit and the racetrack layout then moves unsuspecting shoppers into the even greater aroma of a fresh bakery. Taste buds working overtime, the path then leads to the ready-to-eat deli, multiple fresh seafood counters (which, to their credit, don’t smell at all) and the butcher before you remember to pick up tawdry stuff like laundry detergent and Spotted Dick.
“It’s more crucial than ever for supermarkets to know where they fit in, what differentiates them from the competition, to have an edge,” says Jenny McTaggart, senior editor of Progressive Grocer magazine. “Wal-Mart’s edge is low price; you could also argue convenience. But on customer service, Publix wins. I think Sweetbay will be an interesting concept to watch. Our editor-in-chief went down there to profile one of their stores. He was pretty impressed.”
“Publix, Wal-Mart and Target are going to be the leaders for a while,” says Craig Sher, president of St. Petersburg-based Sembler Company and a long-time development partner with Publix in Florida and Georgia. “I think you’ll see Sweetbay right behind them. I think they’re on to something with the concept. I don’t think they’ll climb to No. 1 or 2, but they can be a strong No. 3 over time as long as they have capital committed and their leadership is good. I think their new stores are nice.”
• • •
When Broader took charge of Kash n’ Karry and its 144 Florida stores more than two years ago, the novice chief executive’s first dramatic act was closing 34 stores, primarily in Orlando, essentially abandoning that market.
The remaining stores have been converted by media market, moving south to north: Naples/Fort Myers, Sarasota/Bradenton and now, St. Petersburg/Clearwater/Tampa. The 50 stores here will receive their makeovers in 2006. There won’t be a single grand opening day, but none of the old K n’ K stores will officially close in the conversion either. There will also be two new Sweetbays built from the ground up in Riverview and St. Petersburg’s Midtown area.
There will most likely by 108 Sweetbay stores by the end of 2006, when the conversion process is complete. Beyond that, and without releasing specific numbers, Broader promises “significant” new store growth in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Sweetbay has different real estate requirements than Kash n’ Karry did on access and egress from the road, visibility and who its outparcel and shopping center partners are, preferring complementary users, not competitors. With in-store pharmacies and liquor stores, for example, it isn’t interested in locating next to a CVS, Walgreen’s or independent liquor stores.
“We’re looking at a lot of existing sites now that are currently occupied by a tenant thinking of leaving and we’re also looking at new construction,” Broader says.
Including Winn-Dixie stores?
“I think everybody is looking, absolutely,” she says.
• • •
What, you may wonder, does Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets think of this ugly duckling turning into a beautiful swan in its own backyard?
We have no idea.
In response to our written request for an interview with Publix executives on a wide range of topics, company spokesperson Maria Brous responded thus:
“Our stategy (sic) and success is simple – we focus on customer service, quality of product and best value for our customers. Our goal is to provide the best shopping experience possible, and we know we have been successful when our customers refer to ‘their Publix’. Our business philosopy (sic) has made us successful for 75 years and we’re looking ahead to the next 75. No matter who the competitor is, no one matches our commitment to service and to our communities.”
And – no kidding – Brous misspelled “strategy” and “philosophy.”
An appeal to Publix President Ed Crenshaw (the subject of a Maddux Report cover story in July 1996 when the grocer entered the Georgia market) brought a similar response – without the typos. “I appreciate your desire to include a more definitive response for your story. I do hope you understand it would not be appropriate for me to participate. Publix has been very consistent with the response to media requests of this nature and to make an exception would not be fair to others.”
(Albertsons and Winn-Dixie also declined comment for this story.)
But with Winn-Dixie in retreat (a.k.a. bankruptcy protection) and rumors swirling that Albertsons may abandon Florida (it exited Northeast Florida in May, selling six stores to Jacksonville start-up, Rowes), there is an opening for a new No. 3, especially for one with the resources that Delhaize brings to Sweetbay.
Broader has no illusions of knocking Publix off its throne as Florida’s No. 1 grocer, although she isn’t intimidated by it, either.
“I think they’re great, an incredibly well run company,” Broader says. “They have terrific execution, a great real estate strategy. Sweetbay is not looking to be No. 1 in market share in a market where the ratio is 900 to 1 in store count. We’re not trying to imitate what Publix does. They execute their go-to-market strategy flawlessly. We’re trying to do something different and give people a viable option.”
Broader threw in the towel as far as Kash n’ Karry’s discount concept ever succeeding against Wal-Mart, which No. 2 in the state. That’s a move with which no one takes issue.
“Wal-Mart has been huge for a long time, longer than most people realize,” says Chuck Cerankosky, an analyst who follows Albertsons, Kroger, Safeway and Whole Foods Market for KeyBanc Capital Markets in Cleveland. “But they segment the market to a lower tier and upper tier. Wal-Mart is not known for selection and higher quality. That’s where Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats or Publix can do a better job, especially in the fresh food categories. To the same extent that not everybody wants to buy clothes at Wal-Mart, the same goes for food.”
(According to The Shelby Report, a grocery industry trade publication covering the Sunbelt states, Wal-Mart is the grocery market share leader in the following SE states: Alabama; South Carolina; Tennessee; Mississippi; and Louisiana. It is second in: North Carolina; Kentucky; Virginia; Georgia and Florida.)
As for Albertsons…
“I hear a different rumor about a different competitor every day,” Broader says, “ever since Albertsons made the announcements of adopting the GE model of being one or two or out. But you can’t hold every decision in the hopes something will change with your competition. Anyone after a share of stomach is a competitor to me; I consider 7-Eleven a competitor. When we made the decision to start a new supermarket chain in Florida, Winn-Dixie was a viable competitor, as was Albertsons. If one of those banners change, it’s still competitors going after the same food dollar.”
Winn-Dixie, obviously, has serious competitive issues ahead. They’re going to operate a leaner company and need to find a niche and stick to it.
“I don’t know if they have time to do it,” Sher says. “You have to change margins and image to go against Wal-Mart. I think they need to invest more on their stores. The knock on them has always been their stores were less up to date.”
Albertsons is another enigma in Sher’s eyes.
“They’ve tried to sell their stores and exit the market and not lose everything,” he says. “They have decisions to make; they’re just kind of treading water. They have an announced corporate policy that if they can’t be No. 1 or No. 2, they get out. Well, they’d have to invest really heavily to get to that. That’s really tough when you’ve got Publix and a Wal-Mart ahead of you on the ladder.”
Cincinnati-based Kroger has emphasized being No. 1 or 2 as a strategy for many years, says Cerankosky. “Retail rewards economies of scale. Albertsons has shown willingness in recent years to exit markets where it has small market shares. They have a lot of stores in Florida but they’re spread throughout the state and have strong market share holders ahead of them. They’re still digesting their American Stores (merger) from 1999 and they’re not doing as well as Kroger and Safeway in recovering from the recession and other competitive factors.”
(The American Stores merger brought Acme, Jewel-Osco, Osco Drug, Sav-On Drug and Lucky stores in California under the same roof with Albertsons In 2003, Albertsons – the nations second largest grocery chain overall – also acquired Shaw’s and Star Markets in New England.)
Tampa-based RMC Property Group works with Publix to find and develop new stores across Florida, as does Sembler Company. Both companies discussed the Lakeland supermarket with some trepidation.
“Sharing info is not their favorite thing,” says Mitchell Rice, CEO of RMC. “A component of what we see of their strategy is looking to have their existing stores maximize their strategic location. We see Publix doing significant remodeling of their existing stores. At Dale Mabry, & Linebaugh, they tore the store down and built a new prototype in its place. That’s a painful process for Publix because they have to close the store and be down. I think they justify it by having other stores in the relative trade area. They spend a lot of money in older facilities remodeling but they’re left with the same physical plant.”
Publix is now growing in South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama; they pretty much have Florida covered, says David J. Livingston, managing director of DJL Research in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. “Publix is smart and they will not cannibalize sales unless nearby stores are so successful they need to take pressure off.”
During the 1990s, Publix experimented with 60,000-square-foot superstores, a strategy it appears to have backed away from in favor of more targeted neighborhood stores (such as the 29,000-square-foot shops at Carillon and University Village in St. Petersburg or scaled prototypes of 39,000 and 49,000 square feet), a natural foods banner, GreenWise, and a Hispanic foods concept, Sabor.
“I toured the Sabor store in Hialeah,” says Progressive Grocer’s McTaggart. “My impression was that they’ve done their homework. They’ve had many years of catering to Cuban customers. They have good products and know how to do it. If anyone can do it, Publix will be the one to watch.”
While most of the attention in the Florida market has focused on Publix and Wal-Mart, Sher says that Target and membership warehouses such as Costco and BJ’s shouldn’t be discounted as big players in the grocery business.
“I think Target is on a major push to broaden their base in Florida,” he says. (Sembler developed the Super Target store at the new Clearwater Mall.) “It’s a high priority for them; they perform well here. Publix is more selective. It seems like they’re everywhere. They’ll replace substandard stores and upgrade them. They’re not slacking; they’re very consistent in what they do. They’ve got some interesting new concepts, including the Spanish one and the GreenWise, whole foods concept. They’re going to try a few of them. I think they’re smart to customize Publix to different areas. If you can hone a concept that’s good for a Latin population, that makes sense. And if certain areas want more than the usual Publix, that makes sense, too. Publix can merchandise anyway they want because they’re that good.”
Sweetbay isn’t the only grocer nipping at Publix’s heels and with design on a bigger piece of upscale market share.
Whole Foods Market, which has only one of its seven Florida stores on the west coast (in downtown Sarasota), is a national dynamo in the organic grocery market. It hasn’t announced plans to open a store in Tampa or St. Petersburg yet, but economies of scale and the growing upscale residential environment suggest that announcement could come at any time. (The company declined to comment on expansion plans.)
“We did a Whole Foods store in Atlanta,” Sher says. “It’s a great store, a beautiful store. They will be here in isolated places. They may do one or two in the Tampa Bay area. They’re not one to be on every block. I would think they’d go to South Tampa first. Somewhere with lots of parking.”
“Sooner or later they will,” agrees David Conn, a senior vice president of retail services for CB Richard Ellis in Tampa. “I can’t imagine they’ll run with the lone outpost in Sarasota and nothing else.” Wild Oats, however, is already under construction with its first Tampa Bay location at Walter Crossing at Dale Mabry Highway and Interstate 275, where in March 2006 it will be a neighbor of the new Target store.
“One of our real estate strategies for this year and next is to do greater density in our existing markets,” says Wild Oats Communications Manager Kristi Estes. “Our South Florida stores are doing really well; Tampa is a natural extension of those.”
The 26,000-square-foot Wild Oats store is a new prototype for the company, offering expanded organic produce, meat and seafood selections as well as a new in-store café. And it is flying in the face of the traditional image of natural foods stores that in the past tended toward rehabilitating abandoned supermarket and drug store locations and keeping overhead low.
“We’ve been doing a lot of stores in lifestyle centers – alongside high end boutiques and stores like Target. They’ve been very successful,” according to Estes. “With all of our new stores we seek out high traffic locations.”
The Wild Oats store will employ about 150 people and be open seven days a week from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. – typical hours for mainstream grocery stores, not narrowly defined boutiques.
“Publix definitely could be a competitor of ours,” Estes says. “We compete quite a bit with conventional grocery stores. They are introducing organics more and more.”
Wild Oats will definitely compete with Fresh Market, a similar concept that recently opened stores in Countryside and Tampa. Estes hadn’t heard of Sweetbay yet. “If there are other stores that offer natural and organic foods, we tend to grow the market together,” she says.
• • •
To the casual shopper unaware of Sweetbay’s lineage through Hannaford, the expectation might be that this is a nice experiment that will crash and burn. But that’s not likely. A visit to a Hannaford store in its Scarborough, Maine, headquarters community reinforces the notion that there is little of a random nature in the presentation, organization, pricing or even the lighting at Sweetbay.
One of the subtle keys to a store’s success and culture is its collection of store brand products. Publix-branded products, for example, often do well in side-by-side taste and quality comparisons with national brands. Kash n’ Karry store brands… well, there wasn’t much to recommend them.
As for Sweetbay branded products – there are none. During the early days of the transition, Broader stocked her new stores with pre-packaged Hannaford-branded foods as a stop-gap measure until Sweetbay was large enough to justify ramping up product of its own line. But then something unexpected happened. Sweetbay customers really liked the Hannaford foods, especially the frozen gourmet “On The Go Bistro” line, which includes crabmeat tartlets, cranberry & brie phyllo, spinach walnut ravioli, and molten lava cakes. And for the many transplanted northerners in Florida, finding the Hannaford brand is like being reacquainted with an old flame.
“All of our fresh departments are branded Sweetbay,” Broader says. “When we were making the decision to transition, we looked at costs on private label brands. But we would have had to carry Kash n’ Karry and a Sweetbay private label. The cost of carrying a label with such low volume was economically prohibitive, so we looked at what outside label we could use. We decided the depth and breadth and quality of Hannaford would be a great way to reduce the cost of the transition. What we’re finding now is making that label exclusive at Sweetbay is an advantage. We may well be Sweetbay offering Hannaford brands in the long haul. It’s been well received.”
• • •
Shelley Broader never dreamed of a career running a supermarket. The Spokane, Washington, native majored in broadcast journalism at Washington State University and figured she’d be in front of a camera, reporting on four-alarm fires, police reports, stuff like that.
“When I graduated and did my internship, I hated it,” she says.
Derailed from the life she imagined, Broader relocated to Boston in search of a “big city adventure.” She wound up employed by a mutual fund company, discovered a love of finance and she earned a National Association of Securities Dealers Series 7 investment broker’s license.
Through a series of moves with clients she landed Hannaford Brothers Co. as a client, working on a debt placement for them. They told her that if she wanted to advance her career with them, she’d have to learn their business from the ground up.
Broader accepted a position as manager of an inner city Hannaford’s grocery on Central Avenue in Albany, New York. But before they let her run the store, she had to start with the basics: running a cash register.
“I was a cashier, and not a very good one,” she says. “Even worse, people I had done multi-million-dollar deals with were coming through my line and they were horrified. I’d look at them and I knew they wanted to call their attorneys. To say I changed careers was an understatement.”
Ron Hodge was the New York division head for Hannaford back then; he’s now the company’s CEO and Broader’s mentor for 12 years as she rose to senior vice president of Hannaford.
“He said, ‘You’ll know right away – you’ll either love it or hate it.’ I love it. The people side of it, the products, the strategy. It’s a great business.”
Bob Andelman worked as a cashier at a Stop n’ Shop supermarket during his senior year of high school in North Brunswick Township, New Jersey. He was never considered future management material.
(Former Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride died suddenly today, December 23, 2012. It saddened me greatly as I always enjoyed interviewing him and just being in his company over the years. He and his wife, Alex Sink, were delightful people and I think I captured a moment in time with them pretty well in this profile, originally published in Florida Business/Tampa Bay, 1989.)
It’s Friday, almost 7 p.m., and Bill McBride is driving his pale blue Jaguar XJ6 — the one with the baby seat in back — to Simon Schwartz, where he’ll buy groceries to make dinner for a client who is coming by at 8 to meet his wife, Alex. She’s due in on the air shuttle from Miami any minute. That’s why he’s describing his life as one of Florida’s most influential attorneys while squeezing produce, grabbing six-packs of Amstel Light and Kirin Dry and directing the butcher to five juicy N.Y. strip steaks.
“If I’m tired, one of the reasons is our little girl has been waking up at 3 a.m. and not going back to sleep,” explains the Tampa managing partner of Holland & Knight. “And I’ve been staying up with her.”
Bill McBride and Adelaide “Alex” Sink are happily married with two young children, Bert and Lexie. They are a thoroughly modern couple.
He lives in a comfortable home in Tampa’s Palma Ceia neighborhood. She has a condominium in Coconut Grove, a suburb of Miami, because that’s where her job as a senior vice president with NCNB National Bank of Florida is. The kids — ages 20 months and 17 weeks — live in Tampa with Dad. Mom jets home to see them on the weekends.
“It’s a pretty interesting story,” says Jim Chandler, vice president of public affairs at NCNB National Bank of Florida. “They live lives in different cities and still make time to make babies.”
Commuting gained a whole new definition when Bill and Alex tied the knot three years ago. Not only do they commute to work, they commute to married life.
“Every once in a while we question whether Alex is working in Miami or in Tampa,” jokes Tamara Klinger, communications manager of the United Way of Dade County, where Sink is on the board of directors. “I think she spends most Fridays on an airplane.”
ALEX SINK: “When Bill came along … He was a professional, well established in his career and he was a Democrat. When he told me on the first date he was getting ready to go to the Democratic National Convention as a Gary Hart delegate, I thought, ‘This is the right man.’ Because I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to marry a Republican.”
The shoes of McBride, 44, and Sink, 40, are not ones in which most of us would comfortably fit. McBride is one of three managing partners at Florida’s largest law firm, Holland & Knight, where he oversees 250 lawyers. Sink is among the highest ranking women at NCNB. They see each other primarily on weekends, but sometimes in one city or another as business needs dictate.
“We have a big office down there, so I have to go down a lot,” says McBride. “And her headquarters is here in Tampa with NCNB. So we go back and forth. If we didn’t have that relationship, it wouldn’t be easy.”
“I used to read about these marriages,” says Sink, who married McBride two years ago. It is her second time around, his first. “When the idea was first being thought about, you’d read about these high-powered New York/Washington couples and you’d think, ‘How foolish!’ And now I’m in the middle of it.”
Gregg Thomas, a partner at Holland & Knight in Tampa, says the lawyer’s co-workers have a great appreciation of McBride’s unusual lifestyle. “I think it’s just accepted that she’s on a career path that’s as important as his. I think it’s neat he’s taking as much care of Bert as he does.”
The McBride/Sink courtship lasted two years and was largely based on airline schedules, a warm-up for married life. When they finally wed, the pair shared shelter for nine whole months before a promotion and better money in Miami was too good to refuse.
“Bill was going into the office Saturdays and Sunday mornings,” remembers Sink. “I would go in on Saturdays and stay late. I became convinced that when you added up the hours we spent together, it’s about the same. I never thought we would go back to commuting. I stay late in Miami so when I come (to Tampa) for the weekend I don’t have to think about work. And he does much the same thing.”
Sink oversees NCNB’s consumer banking services in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. That translates into 75 bank branches, 800 employees and $2 billion in deposits.
“Her job in Miami is a good one,” says McBride. “My wife is the highest ranking woman officer in NCNB. She is on the executive committee of the Chamber of Commerce in Miami, she’s on the United Way Board of Directors. She’s a pretty formidable person in her own right. My judgement is she should continue. So for now, the babies are staying with me. (I’m) sort of Mr. Mom.”
“He has much stronger mother’s instincts than I do with our children,” says Sink. “He has different sides, but he’s very soft-hearted.” Then, believing that might be misinterpreted, she adds, “I mean, nobody’s going to accuse Bill McBride of being a wimp.”
They make an unlikely couple for more reasons than sheer geography. She is a delicate, pretty, exotic looking woman with Oriental roots (her great-grandfather was one of the original Siamese twins) who grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. He is a stocky, gentle man from Leesburg who went to the University of Florida on a football scholarship (a bad knee subsequently kept him from playing) and served in Vietnam with the Marines.
McBride was ready to settle down and have a family when he turned 40; Sink wasn’t.
“I wasn’t looking to get married,” she says. “After the first marriage, I made up my mind to work at my career and get financially independent. I didn’t care about having kids, so there wasn’t that pressure. When Bill came along … He was a professional, well established in his career and he was a Democrat. When he told me on the first date he was getting ready to go to the Democratic National Convention as a Gary Hart delegate, I thought, ‘This is the right man.’ Because I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to marry a Republican.
“It’s like religion,” says Sink. “My politics are very important to me. I couldn’t see myself living with someone of a different philosophy or someone who was apolitical.”
Politics are an integral part of McBride’s life and are becoming more so by the day. When Hart didn’t work out in ’84, he signed on first with Joe Biden and then Michael Dukakis in ’88. There’s still a yard sign in the garage. “I’ve always been a Democrat,” he says. “I may be the last one.” A supporter of Bob Martinez when he was the Democratic Mayor of Tampa, he has closely aligned himself to the 1990 gubernatorial hopes of Rep. Bill Nelson (D.-Melbourne), a friend since they met in Key Club while McBride was at Leesburg High School and Nelson at Melbourne High.
Nelson and McBride have a long history together. The congressman is a frequent house guest. While in Tampa, McBride fills his friend’s days and nights with meetings and social engagements to help Nelson spread his political base across Central Florida.
“When we have time together, we make the most of it,” according to Nelson. “Bill would fill every available minute with meetings — over breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Sink has been drawn to the campaign by her husband’s friendship with Nelson. “When the guy comes and spends the night in your house about once a month for three years, you can’t help but get involved with him,” she says.
The bond between lawyer and politician is their shared goal of excellence in Florida’s future. “I think he’s the best. I give him a lot of money. I’m a fundraiser,” says McBride. “And I’m going to work on issues with him.”
“(McBride) has specific ideas about what ought to be done and the kinds of individuals that ought to do them. I went to him first, saying that I wanted to be governor,” says Nelson.
While McBride lacks an official position with the Nelson campaign, he doesn’t lack for influence. “He’s broadened my support in Hillsborough,” says the candidate, “and he’s been a help in fundraising. He has poured everything — his heart and soul — into it.”
“Bill — I call him a man of no moderation,” says Sink. “He does things 110 percent.”
But what kind of a business manager is Barrister McBride?
“I’ve never had trouble walking into his office and bitching and moaning about something going on,” says Holland & Knight partner Gregg Thomas, a media law specialist in the firm’s Tampa office. “He is the only peer who criticizes me, and I criticize him regularly. It’s a good, constructive relationship.”
Bill Nelson says you need only compare McBride’s age with his position to know how talented he is. “Bill has had an extremely rapid rise at one of the state’s most prestigious law firms. Law firms usually defer to managing partners who are very senior. And what’s Bill, 43, 44? That sort of speaks for itself.”
The partners of Holland & Knight must think a lot of McBride; they elected him in Jan. 1988 to a three-year term as a managing partner.
“I’ve worked with McBride for the last 10 years,” says Thomas. “I’m always amazed at him. I think he’s the reason we’re doing so well in Tampa. Tampa is a changing market. Through McBride’s leadership we realized we needed to reach out and find new and developing clients. He’s getting us motivated about being lawyers and being involved in our community. Being not only marketing-oriented but community-oriented has come from McBride.”
Atop the book shelves in McBride’s office sits a colorful, bearded wizard in flowing robes who has certainly worked his magicks upon the holder of the office. From his office on the 21st floor of new NCNB Building in downtown Tampa, Bill McBride balances tremendous responsibilities as a managing partner at Holland & Knight and one of several heirs to the mantle of his personal mentor and law firm founder Chesterfield Smith. That would be enough alone for most energetic men. But McBride also finds time to be a member of Nelson’s campaign for governor, a barrage of regional transportation committees and civic groups.
He is a mega-manager.
“Bill McBride is one of the most dynamic men I have ever known,” says his friend and associate on many transportation commissions, Joe McFarland, president of McFarland & Fries Financial Services. “He is really a go-getter, in spades.”
BILL McBRIDE: “When I was in the Marine Corps,” he recalls, “we’d come back from the woods in Vietnam. The number one thing we wanted to get was ice cream. One time they said they were going to get ice cream for dessert and then the freezer broke down. There was a riot.”
And don’t lose site of his responsibilities at home; the live-in nanny cares for the kids all day, but they’re McBride’s to deal with after 7 p.m.
“I work a lot,” he says. “I don’t play golf, but I’m not a nut. I do a lot of public service stuff, probably more than most people. And I have a lot of good friends that work with me. I get a lot of support from my partners. I’ll do the job at hand without too much messing around.”
Alex Sink — and no one seems to ever refer to her as Mrs. McBride — has a similar no-nonsense approach to her career. She has worked hard to rise to prominence within NCNB, starting 15 years ago as a branch planning analyst in Charlotte. That’s when NCNB only had one name — North Carolina National Bank, not NCNB of Florida, Texas, et al. At Wake Forest she studied math and married soon after graduation. Her first husband work took them to three African countries where she taught school. But the relationship soured and, after three years, Sink returned home and joined the bank at age 25.
“One advantage I had was that I was single,” she says of her advancement. “If I wanted to stay out late, I had the flexibility. If I saw ‘the boys’ were going out for pizza or beer — and provided they invited me along — I went. I didn’t have that sense of exclusion that a married young woman might. Today, I’m one of the old-timers … Maybe I’m one of ‘the boys’ now.”
As a senior vice president, she has come full circle in terms of her job focus. Sink is again responsible for finding new branches for NCNB, but she also works on increasing consumer lending and deposits, overseeing employee training and developing new products. She is on the road a lot.
“Alex has been a star for a lot of years,” says Jim Chandler. “She’s gregarious, friendly, very outgoing. She’s loaded with energy. She works probably 80 hours a week, never slows down.”
Chandler calls Sink “a member of the team,” noting an independent study by the International Leadership Center in Dallas which identified her as the second most powerful woman in Miami.
“I’ll tell you a little story,” says Chandler. “It goes back to my early days with the company. I was flying to New York with Thomas Storrs, the retired president of the bank, and Buddy Kent, who is now chairman of NCNB Texas. Storrs told Kent, ‘I just made some business calls with a lady who was the best prepared executive I’ve ever dealt with on your staff. Every ‘i’ was dotted, every ‘t’ was crossed. Her name was Alex Sink.’ That was part of the secret of Alex’s success — being recognized as good and thorough.”
Community service and involvement is a commitment stressed in the lives of both McBride and Sink. They give time and money to causes and projects they believe in. It gives them character; it is also the tie that binds them together.
“My civic work is very important to me,” says Sink. “Things like the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce are an important part of our lives.”
Ray Goode, CEO of The Babcock Co. in Coral Gables and vice chairman of public affairs for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, says Sink does an “exceptional” job running the chamber’s state affairs committee. The committee is a political lobbying arm which promotes the chamber’s legislative package in Tallahassee. “She’s very knowledgeable about what’s going on in greater Miami and statewide,” according to Goode. “She has gotten to know the ‘actors,’ she knows where the sources are and knows how to work with these sources. She is a particularly relevant model to women who want to work and stay on the career path and start a family. She has proven that it can be done.”
“Alex has chosen to be a leader not only in her company but in the community,” agrees Tamara Klinger of the United Way of Dade County. “Each year, Alex has taken on a different role in the campaign and each year she comes through for us.”
As for McBride’s relentless devotion to community — he serves on the board of directors of United Way of Greater Tampa, Tampa Ballet, Tampa Downtown Partnership, Tampa Marine Institute and Tiger Bay Club of Tampa; founded the District VII Transportation Coalition and the Marion Street Transitway Coalition; works as a member of two state committees, the Gender Bias Study Commission and the Task Force on the Future of the Florida Family; and he is also chairman of a partnership conducting a human needs assessment for Hillsborough — he says that because lawyers have a legal monopoly on what they do, they have a greater responsibility than most professionals to give something back. “I trained under a lawyer — Chesterfield Smith — who said that’s how you should be. (The law) isn’t just a way to make money. You should work to make it better.
“Money has never been a motivating factor for me,” says the past-president of the Hillsborough Bar Association. “But I’ve been very lucky. I do very well — much better than I deserve. Maybe I do a lot of the free work to make myself feel better about leading such a luxurious life.”
A lot of lawyers do the same quality work. Who do you choose? Maybe the guy who gives back to the community. At least that’s the theme McBride follows. He says his motives are not entirely pure; he still has a law practice to build. But many would argue he has a hand in many more civic projects than would be necessary to impress the average citizen or corporate client.
Driving home from the grocery, McBride pulls into a drive-thru Farm Stores outlet. Being home a lot, McBride says he’s getting fat. “It’s a lack of willpower,” he says. “I like ice cream a lot. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but the best ice cream in the world is Farm Stores’. I think they pour as much sugar as they can in a carton with cream. It’s incredibly good. One of the best they have is chocolate chip.”
JOE McFARLAND: “Bill McBride is one of the most dynamic men I have ever known.”
Ice cream, of all things, reminds the lawyer of his tour of duty in Vietnam. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in ’68 and went into the jungles as an infantry platoon commander, company commander, and combined unit commander of Marines and Vietnamese popular forces. A sword from the Marine Corps hangs proudly over the family fireplace.
“When I was in the Marine Corps,” he recalls, “we’d come back from the woods in Vietnam. The number one thing we wanted to get was ice cream. One time they said they were going to get ice cream for dessert and then the freezer broke down. There was a riot.”
At the house, the children’s nanny could probably use a cold beer, not chocolate almond ice cream. She is frazzled from hours of chasing McBride’s son around the house. “Bert’s at the stage where he wants to run all day,” says a dad who probably figures he’s got a chip off the old block.
“You know,” says Bill McBride, “the complaint I hear most from guys my age who got married early is they didn’t spend enough time with their kids. The most important thing to me up until now has been the law firm. Having children at 43 doesn’t even remotely resemble having kids at a younger age. I would not have been as good a father as I hope I’m going to be.”
There are advantages to having a spouse living 300 miles away. Think of the frequent flyer points. McBride and Sink used theirs to take a vacation in Australia last summer. While they probably won’t be able to do anything that extravagant again until the children are out of diapers, they do have a fishing boat in the Bahamas for summer vacations and long weekends.
Sink calls. Her flight is running late; she’ll probably miss dinner with the client. McBride takes it in stride. He’s bragged of his cooking prowess and will have an opportunity to practice on a business associate. That’s later; right now he’s playing with Bert, who looks like his mother, and Cheryl Alexander — “Lexie” — who looks like her mother.
“My wife calls her Lexie. I call her ‘Myrtle’ because it rhymes with ‘Bertle.’ That’s what I call Bert — Bertle the Turtle.” No one in the family, it seems, goes by their given names. McBride turns to his son, William Albert, who is coloring the daily newspaper on the coffee table with huge crayons. “Bert,” he instructs, “say, ‘E-I — E-I … ”
“O!!” shouts the little boy to his father’s glee.
Gregg Thomas, who brings his kids over to play with McBride’s, believes there are limits to the boss’s “Mr. Mom” act. Like changing diapers. “I said, ‘Bill, Bert’s got a problem with his pants. You got a diaper?’ He says, ‘No, Alex will be home in 15 minutes.’ So there are some things he doesn’t like to deal with.”
McBride goes to bed every night at 9:30, right after Bert. He wants more children; Sink doesn’t seem so inclined. “I worry a lot that I’ll be 60 and my kids will just be going to college. But I kinda accept things as they come,” she says. “On the other hand, “Five years ago, my company wasn’t prepared for women on the career-track to have children. Today we have a lot of benefits.”
The McBride/Sinks will settle on the one family, one city concept before too long. Both parents acknowledge that it’s inevitable. But where will they live? Whose career will have to give way to the best interests of the family?
“I sort of think those things take care of themselves,” says Bill McBride. “It’ll work out.”
Sidebar: Don’t Drive, He Said
Bill McBride has seized transportation as an issue very important to him. His outspoken views on mass transit solutions, outlined in the January, 1989 issue of FLORIDA BUSINESS, show him to be a supporter of innovative solutions to Tampa Bay’s stalled traffic patterns.
“He has become one of the acknowledged experts on transportation in Hillsborough County,” according to Rep. Bill Nelson.
Joe McFarland has served on many transit committees with McBride, who succeeded him as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Highway & Public Transportation Council in 1987. “He didn’t know the first thing about our transportation problems the first day took over our transportation council. But he’s a fast study. What he doesn’t know, he’s quick to tell you. One of the first things he perceived was that busing was in trouble. He decided we needed a group from the power structure who could be vocal.”
The result was the formation of the Marion Street Transitway Coalition, which successfully pushed for construction of a regional bus mall in downtown Tampa.
McBride is widely credited with founding the District VII Transportation Coalition, the first regional (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco counties) organization in Florida to support area transportation needs and legislation. “He perceived we needed an overall constituency for regional transportation. He was the father of it. It was his baby,” says McFarland.
The credentials don’t end there. McBride is chairman of the Citizens Advisory Council to the Metropolitan Planning Organization; a member of the Rail Transit Study Management Team; co-chairman of the Hillsborough County Transportation Financing Alternatives Committee; organizer of the Advisory Committee on Hillsborough County Transportation Concepts; member of the Tampa Interstate Study Advisory Committee; and a member of Tampa’s Transportation Finance Committee (appointed by the mayor). — Bob Andelman
By Bob Andelman Maddux Business Report September 2007
You can’t appreciate the allure of St. Petersburg’s new mid-rise and high-rise residential and office towers until you’re standing above the low-rise profile of the older part of the city.
Suddenly the street level clutter and concrete clears and it’s quite apparent what keeps drawing developers, residents and new tenants to this reborn Florida city: the 360-degree panoramas are spectacular, led by the view of the sparkling blue waters of Tampa Bay.
The view has always been there, but until recent years there hasn’t been as much pressure to get up high enough to see it all. Today, however, despite a construction slowdown in many places, downtown St. Petersburg just keeps getting taller, its views getting better and better. And it’s not just the views up above that are improving.
Architectural expectations in the city are also on the upswing. It’s no longer enough to have great sight lines looking away from the city; the look of the city itself is also evolving in dramatic fashion: