King, Queen & Subject: The Snell Isle Murder of Joan Amos

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

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

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

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

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

It was the best hunch Bud Blackmon ever played.

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

Blackmon called the dispatcher to run the tags.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

His father was supposed to be dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this a close family?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Real Name: Jay Amos

Aliases: Preacher

Physical Description: 5’9″ Brown Hair Blue Eyes

Favorite Movie: The Godfather

Favorite TV Show: Star Trek

Favorite Foods: Just about anything!

Favorite Sport: Bowling

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

Summary: NAMES ARE OFTEN DECEIVING!

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

Real Name: Kilroy

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

Favorite Movie: Dangerous Liaisons

Favorite TV Show: Monty Python

Favorite Foods: Just about anything

Favorite Sport: Bowling … Sailing

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

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

Summary: NAMES ARE DECEIVING … THE SHADOW KNOWS!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Real Name: John DeHate

Aliases: nothing polite

City/State: Hell, DeHate style

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

Favorite Movie: sex, lies & videotape

Favorite TV Show: The Movie Channel

Instrument Played: Keyboard, Females

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

Summary: Not a very nice person to meet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

So was Jay.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

And Jay said he decided to kill or be killed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Another problem occurred to Jay.

What to do with DeHate?

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on!” Jay said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The decision to go to trial almost killed DeHate.

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

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

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

While the jury was out, a strange thing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

This case does not yet have an ending.

John DeHate is appealing his sentence of life in prison.

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

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

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

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

end

Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman, Mr. Media Interviews
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