Crucial details overlooked in case against Florida man condemned to death row, Medill Justice Project investigation finds
Ballistics evidence points away from prisoner Tommy Zeigler, experts say
Zeigler’s fate is in play as he seeks new DNA testing in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Florida’s death penalty sentencing rules
Part one of a series
By Miranda Cawley, Rosalie Chan, Kayla Daugherty, Morgan Gilbard, Rafael Henriquez, Will Kirkland, Jacqueline Montalvo, Fariba Pajooh, Shen Wu Tan and Hannah Vicente-Kliot
The Medill Justice Project
WINTER GARDEN, Fla.—On a brisk Christmas Eve in 1975, Ken Roach was behind the wheel of a Ford Torino while his wife, Linda, sat beside him, a gaggle of children in the back, looking forward to a feast of shrimp and oysters at her mother’s. Suddenly, boom. An eruption startled them. They looked to their right, driving at about 35 miles an hour. Over the span of about four seconds, as they passed by the W.T. Zeigler Furniture store on South Dillard Street in the sleepy Southern town of Winter Garden, they heard what sounded like a series of firecrackers.
“Kids are going to get in trouble,” Roach, then 33 years old, remembered telling his wife, thinking the firecrackers were just mischief.
The Roaches gave it no further thought until they heard about the bloody murders that stained the Zeigler store at about the same time they had driven by. They had been about 25 yards away from the store at roughly 7:20 p.m., just as authorities estimated the killings began. The pop-pop-pop sound they heard wasn’t “a pack of firecrackers being ignited all at the same time,” Roach realized, but gunfire.
“At least” 12 to 15 shots, he recalled in a recent interview with The Medill Justice Project.
“About 12,” Linda said.
Attorney Ralph V. “Terry” Hadley III said the Roaches’ information was a crucial detail not known at trial and would have made a significant difference in the fate of his client, Tommy Zeigler, who was convicted of the four murders at the furniture store and condemned to death row.
“Had we known about [the Roaches’ accounts], we would have used it at trial,” Hadley said in an interview with The Medill Justice Project. “It would have been very helpful to us.”
Jimmie Yawn, one of the first Winter Garden police officers to arrive at the gruesome crime scene, is skeptical of the Roaches’ account. “When you’re coming down the road, you can’t count the number of shots,” Yawn said in an interview for this story.
This is what Yawn remembered seeing: He walks through the front door with a flashlight. The furniture store is dark. He makes his way to the back until he sees “two legs sticking out.”
A body: Perry Edwards Sr., 72. His head is bashed in. Blood is everywhere. He’s been shot multiple times.
Another body is found: Edwards’ wife, Virginia, 52. Two shots: One to the chest, one to the head.
Then a third body, that of Eunice, 32, the Edwardses’ daughter. One bullet to the back of her head.
And, finally, a fourth body: Charlie Mays Jr., 35, a store customer. Bludgeoned and shot twice in his midsection.
Moments after authorities responded to the scene, they began to zero in on a suspect—William Thomas “Tommy” Zeigler, 30, who was shot in the lower torso. Zeigler, who owned the store with his wife and mother, later said he had been attacked when he entered the store and then shot before losing consciousness. But Donald Frye, the lead detective, concluded within an hour of entering the store on the night of the crimes that Zeigler was lying.
Another officer had arrived first and rushed Zeigler to the hospital for emergency surgery. This officer, Robert Thompson, told Frye that Zeigler said he had been shot by Mays, the customer. Frye, who had learned about blood spatter analysis a year and a half earlier, made a number of observations of the crime scene that raised suspicions for him; that included finding fresh blood on top of dry blood at the crime scene, indicating at least a 15-minute gap between some of the killings, he said in an interview for this story. In Frye’s view, the gap suggested a methodical, drawn out series of murders—not a store robbery as Zeigler had said. Frye said the “killings should have occurred rapidly if you believe his story, which doesn’t make sense.” At trial, Zeigler said he could not see who attacked him because it was too dark and his glasses had fallen off in the tussle. He reiterated that in a recent interview for this story.
Ultimately, authorities concluded Zeigler staged a robbery and killed his wife, Eunice, for two life insurance policies, worth an estimated combined $500,000, that he had purchased three months earlier. Authorities theorized Zeigler had carefully planned his wife’s murder but ended up killing his in-laws, the Edwardses, who just happened to be in the furniture store at the wrong time.
Zeigler, then a prominent member of the community with no history of violence, has always maintained he was the victim of a robbery, and his personal attorney, Ted Van Deventer, confirmed for this story that he had recommended Zeigler obtain the life insurance. No evidence at trial suggested that Zeigler was in financial straits. According to Zeigler’s version of what happened the night of murders, he was struck on his head after he entered the darkened store to make last-minute deliveries on Christmas Eve—and suddenly found himself in a struggle for his life with unidentified assailants whom he shot at before they shot him.
“I know that I didn’t commit these murders and God knows I didn’t commit these murders and the evidence shows I didn’t commit them,” Zeigler said in a recent prison interview with The Medill Justice Project.
At first, jurors weren’t convinced of Zeigler’s guilt. They were deadlocked six-to-six, court records show, before unanimously finding him guilty and recommending a life sentence. The judge, however, overrode the jury, sentencing Zeigler to death just days after the death penalty had been reinstated in the United States.
“When the verdict came in, it’s the most crushing thing that has ever happened to me in my life,” Hadley said. “I’ve served in the service, I’ve served in Vietnam, I’ve represented a lot of people, done a lot of things. It has been—that was probably the worst moment of my life, is standing beside Tommy Zeigler, believing in my heart that he was innocent, and have the judge sentence him to die.”
Zeigler’s attorneys had tried to have the judge, Maurice M. Paul, recuse himself from the murder trial; just months earlier, Zeigler and Paul had served as character witnesses on opposite sides in an unrelated case. Paul declined to recuse himself. Now a U.S. federal court judge, Paul declined to comment for this article.
Paul’s decision to override the jury and impose the death penalty would be unconstitutional today. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s capital sentencing rules. No longer can a judge impose the death penalty when a jury has recommended a life sentence.
“How can the state execute a man due to a sentence that we now know violated the Constitution?” said David R. Michaeli, a Zeigler attorney at Hogan Lovells, in an interview for this article.
It is unclear how the Supreme Court’s decision will impact Zeigler’s case—or the other almost 400 death row inmates in Florida.
Zeigler’s case continues to generate heated emotions on all sides locally, nationally—and even abroad: A book about the case was published in 1992, documentaries have aired out the case and all manner of theories have sprung up about possible alternative suspects as Zeigler continues to fight in court to clear his name.
Zeigler has already come close to being executed twice, once within a day before the 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay. What he wants is a new trial to prove his innocence.
“A life sentence is nothing in the world but a slow death sentence,” said Zeigler, who at the age of 70 has served nearly 40 years on death row.
It’s not uncommon for inmates to serve more than a decade on death row—some for over 20 years—but Zeigler has been condemned longer than virtually all prisoners in Florida, an extraordinary length due to a series of legal actions by his attorneys to stave off his execution and prove his innocence. Florida, home to the second most prisoners on death row after California, has released more condemned prisoners than any other state after evidence of their innocence was discovered, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Even four decades later, the Roaches remain adamant they heard about 12 to 15 shots as they drove by the Zeigler furniture store on the night of the crime. The Medill Justice Project confirmed it would take about four seconds, moving at about 35 miles an hours, to traverse the length of the street by the furniture store. And ballistics experts interviewed for this article question how anyone could singlehandedly fire a non-automatic weapon 12 to 15 times in four seconds.
“To accomplish all of that in four seconds is unrealistic—actually it’s an impossibility,” said Josh Wright, a firearm and tool mark identification expert who runs Wright Forensic Consulting in Tallahassee, Florida. He added, “You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn that way.”
Recovered at the crime scene were six guns. Three were revolvers, two were .22-caliber semi-automatic pistols and one was a double-barreled Derringer. The FBI, which was brought in by the county sheriff, found 18 bullets in the furniture store and all but one was determined to have been fired by revolvers. And of the 23 cartridge cases the FBI found at the scene and analyzed, 21 were found to have been fired by revolvers.
Wright said it also requires more force to pull the trigger of a revolver—10 to 12 pounds of pressure—compared to about five pounds for a semi-automatic. Even in speed-shooting competitions, revolvers are modified so they require less trigger pressure, he said. And Wright said the fastest shooting in the world is 12 rounds in three seconds but that’s with a revolver requiring one-tenth of the pressure of a regular revolver.
Michael A. Knox, a ballistics expert and head of Knox & Associates, a consulting firm in Jacksonville, Florida, said the firecracker sound indicated that multiple weapons were fired at the same time. If it involved a single shooter, then the sound would produce an “evenly spaced rhythm” rather than a series of overlapping firecracker-like pops.
Another discovery complicated the prosecution’s theory that there was a single shooter in the store. In 1976, the state crime lab found gunshot residue on Edwards, his wife Virginia and Mays, the customer. The report suggested that Virginia had fired a weapon recently, but could not conclude whether Edwards and Mays had also discharged weapons.
Roach, a retired telephone repairman who said he had only met Zeigler once years earlier when called to fix the telephone in the furniture store, said he felt compelled to report what he had heard. But when he called the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in 1976 at about the time of Zeigler’s trial, he said he was greeted by an indifferent voice who told him they didn’t need the information. When he asked for Zeigler’s attorney’s name, he was told to find it himself.
About three years later, in 1979, Roach couldn’t let it go. So he told his story again about the gunfire he and his wife had heard; this time, though, the Roaches went to Zeigler’s attorneys.
But it was too late. The trial took place in 1976. Records show Zeigler’s defense didn’t know about the Roaches until 1979, three years after filing Zeigler’s appeal, which he lost. Bill Duane, Zeigler’s lawyer then, said the withholding of the Roaches’ information, among other factors, kept Zeigler’s attorneys from “gathering evidence and preparing a defense.” Dennis H. Tracey III, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells who has represented Zeigler since the mid 1980s, noted the Roaches’ information was included in a 1983 motion challenging the conviction but their names were kept out of the motion because Zeigler was concerned that “the witnesses’ safety and well-being would be in jeopardy if their identity and whereabouts are disclosed,” according to his motion, which was denied. The Roaches provided affidavits in 1986 explaining what they heard.
What was raised at the 1976 trial was a different version of shots heard by a witness for the prosecution. On the night of the crime, Barbara Tinsley, then a teacher, was visiting her parent’s home just northwest of the furniture store. Tinsley testified she heard, at about 7:25 p.m., “maybe three or four of these explosions” that sounded like firecrackers coming from the direction of the furniture store. Fifteen to 20 minutes later, she heard another set of explosions—“probably six or seven” shots.
Tinsley said her parent’s house was separated from the Zeigler furniture store by a swamp and some homes. The Medill Justice Project measured the distance from the site of Tinsley’s parent’s home to the furniture store, which, according to Google Maps, was about 800 feet. Tinsley noted it was a quiet night with little traffic, and she described what she heard as a “sudden sound that certainly got your attention.”
When told of the Roaches’ recollection of at least 12 shots, Tinsley said in a recent interview for this article she doesn’t “know a whole lot about gunshots so there’s always that possibility” there were more shots than what she thought she heard.
Tinsley said she knew Zeigler and disliked him, saying he had acted as if he were “better than everybody else.” But she is convinced he is innocent because he was known to have poor eyesight—Zeigler said he is virtually blind without his glasses—and a pair was found on the floor of the store. “Supposedly he shot all of those people across the big room in the dark and hit them all,” Tinsley said. “That would have been an act of God and God don’t act like that.”
When Zeigler was rushed to West Orange Memorial Hospital on the night of the murders, he endured hour-long exploratory surgery to determine the extent of the damage caused by a bullet that had blown a hole through his torso.
A medical note showed Zeigler was admitted to the intensive care unit for a “deadly” gunshot wound. He remained in the ICU for several days recovering from his injuries and surgery.
Dr. Albert Gleason, the surgeon and Zeigler’s family physician, found the bullet had grazed the peritoneum, the lining of his abdomen. He feared part of the large intestine had been damaged; if it had, Gleason testified, it could have proven fatal. Gleason died last year.
In his closing argument at trial, prosecutor Robert Eagan asserted Zeigler had shot himself to cover up his involvement in the crimes. “He wasn’t shot in the guts,” Eagan said. “He was shot in a safe place. He was shot by himself through his own desperation.” Eagan, who at the age of 90 still works as a prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties, said in an interview for this story that he continues to believe Zeigler is guilty. Eagan also said he continues to believe Zeigler shot himself in way that didn’t create undue risk.
“Who knows what he was thinking?” Eagan said. “He was desperate.”
Hadley, in his closing statement as Zeigler’s defense attorney, called the state’s theory that Zeigler shot himself “nonsense.” In a recent interview for this article, Hadley said the doctor’s testimony was “in and of itself sufficient to show this is a very dangerous wound.”
Dr. Andrew Dennis, a trauma surgeon, said he has seen thousands of gunshot wounds in about a dozen years at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital in Chicago, and it could have been lethal for Zeigler to shoot himself in the lower torso if the bullet’s trajectory had been angled even slightly differently. “If you get shot in the abdomen, there are so many vital structures,” he said in a recent interview with The Medill Justice Project. “It’s dealer’s choice what you hit.”
Given the risks involved in gunshots to the lower torso, Dennis said Zeigler could not have known he would survive. “I don’t know anyone that would have enough knowledge and skill to know that he’s not going to kill himself,” Dennis said.
Ballistics and forensics experts say it’s rare for people to cover up their role in a crime by shooting themselves to appear as a victim, not the perpetrator. In cases where gunshot wounds are self-inflicted to deflect suspicion, they are more commonly directed at the extremities—legs, hands, arms—where the risk of fatal injury is much lower than being shot in the torso. In a 2010 crime, for instance, a man in Baltimore killed a drug dealer and then shot himself in the leg to make it look like he was a victim. And in a 2007 case, a man from Oswego, Illinois, killed his wife and three children and then shot himself in the left leg and wrist.
The prosecution’s theory that Zeigler shot himself in the lower torso to appear as a victim would be “fairly unprecedented,” said Knox, the ballistics expert. With the danger of hitting vital organs or sustaining life-threatening blood loss, “there is no way of predicting if it would be fatal,” he said. “There’s a lot of things there that could kill you.”
Chicago forensic psychologist Michael H. Fogel said the idea of Zeigler shooting himself is far-fetched. “That is like stuff from TV,” he said. “That stuff doesn’t happen.”
Steven C. Howard, a ballistics expert at American Firearms & Munitions Consulting in Lansing, Michigan, said it “really doesn’t make sense” to shoot oneself in the lower torso to cover up complicity in a crime. “Really doubtful that anyone has the kind of moxie.”
In interviews for this article, ballistics experts also raised questions about the path of the bullet as it ripped through Zeigler’s body. The gunshot wound was parallel to his navel, about “four finger breadths” to his right, hospital records show. The exit wound, on his back, was about two inches higher compared to where the bullet had entered his torso, according to measurements taken by defense investigators.
The upward trajectory of the bullet on the right side of Zeigler’s body meant that he would have had “a lot of trouble positioning the gun,” Howard said. If Zeigler, who is right handed, held the gun with his right hand, he would have been forced to twist his right hand at an awkward angle and pull the trigger with his thumb, ballistics experts said. Or Zeigler could have fired the gun with his non-dominant left hand, which would have made it difficult for him to aim properly. But James M. Gannalo, a retired New York City detective and forensics and ballistics consultant, said, “It is very uncommon that the non-dominant hand would be used to self-inflict a gunshot wound.”
An FBI expert testified at trial that he found gunshot residue on Zeigler’s shirt, indicating the gun was fired within six inches of his body, but he could not conclude the weapon had been pressed against his body. The FBI also found small tears in the fabric of Zeigler’s shirt. Experts told The Medill Justice Project that, with the muzzle pressed against the body, gunshots fired through clothing produce much larger tears than were apparent on Zeigler’s shirt.
Wright said the small amount of tearing on the shirt “raises a big red flag” because it indicated that Zeigler would have had to shoot himself with the gun positioned away from his body, depriving him of the ability to stabilize the gun’s muzzle against his body. “The body would help keep the muzzle from moving around,” he said. Otherwise there’s a “good chance you’re going to miss.”
Zeigler has maintained for more than 40 years he was hit on his head after he entered the store. Gleason testified, and medical records show, that Zeigler had sustained a blow to his head, which produced a bruise severe enough that four days later there remained swelling and tenderness.
Frye, then the lead homicide detective with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, concluded Zeigler shot himself with a .357 Magnum, a powerful revolver, because it was the only gun found with what appeared to be fingerprints, though the identification was not conclusive; other guns were scattered throughout the store. Frye theorized that Zeigler didn’t have the presence of mind to wipe his prints from the grip of the gun after shooting himself. Police found Zeigler inside the store, unlocking the front door, before he fell into an officer’s arms.
Frye, in a recent interview with The Medill Justice Project, said, “There is not one shred, not a shred in my brain of doubt” of Zeigler’s guilt. Frye said he finds the questioning of the case frustrating because he feels that the deaths of Mays, Eunice and the Edwardses are being overlooked. If Zeigler were to be released, he said, “It would be an injustice.”
‘Pop, pop, pop’
Before midnight on the night of the murders, Edward Williams, a handyman, walked into an Orange County Sheriff’s operations center with one of the murder weapons in his possession.
Williams, who had known Zeigler for many years and worked for him, recounted this story then: Williams drove Zeigler to the furniture store to help make Christmas Eve deliveries. When Williams followed Zeigler into the darkened hallway at about 8:30 p.m., Zeigler fired at Williams three times—but all that hit him was the sound “pop, pop, pop” and no bullets.
After Zeigler tried to shoot him, Williams testified he said, “‘For God’s sake, Tommy, don’t kill me.’”
Zeigler said he never attacked Williams, who died in 2007. Hadley, Zeigler’s attorney at trial, said Williams’ account was devastating to their defense. “Edward Williams was the hardest witness we had to discredit,” Hadley said in a recent interview for this article, adding that Williams was the “lynchpin of the state’s case.”
Williams said Zeigler, after trying to shoot him, handed the weapon to Williams, saying he didn’t know it had been Williams as he entered the store. Williams said he tried to elude Zeigler by running behind a trailer in the parking lot in the back of the store. However, the trailer was just inches from the property fence, which would have made it impossible for Williams to squeeze through it, according to Hadley and Curtis Dunaway, a former Zeigler store employee, in recent interviews for this article.
“There was a trailer parked back here at the corner of the lot,” Hadley said. “There was about six inches of space between the back of the trailer and the back fence. … You can’t get around it.”
Dunaway said the trailer “was up against the fence” and, when asked if anyone could have squeezed through it, he said, “No, you could not, no.”
Williams said Zeigler next got on a knee and asked him to come back into the store. After assuring Zeigler he would, Williams said he jumped over a 6-foot-high chain link fence and ran to the Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street to call police.
Williams got to the fast-food joint at about 8:45 p.m., Frye, the lead detective, estimated based on authorities’ interview with Williams just hours after the murders. That would have placed Williams at the Kentucky Fried Chicken at the same time as Thompson, the Oakland police chief, and Yawn, the Winter Garden police officer, who were both there for a coffee break at that time, according to police reports.
Thompson testified he didn’t see Williams at the restaurant. Yawn, in a recent interview for this article, said he had known Williams but had “no recollection of” seeing him at the Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Hadley, Zeigler’s attorney, addressed the Kentucky Fried Chicken timeline at trial and continues to question the plausibility that Williams entered the restaurant at the same time the two police officers were already there.
At trial, John Grimes, a Kentucky Fried Chicken employee, said he remembered Williams wearing a brown jacket or sweater. Grimes died in 1997. On the night of the murders, Williams said in a 1976 deposition that he was wearing “greenish-looking pants and a black sweater.”
Hadley addressed the issue of Williams’ clothing several times throughout the trial and said he did everything he could to emphasize the discrepancies about what Williams was wearing on the night of the murders. “What it means is that Edward Williams went and changed clothes” on the night of the murders, Hadley said in an interview for this story. “… So any evidence that he was not telling the truth is critical to Tommy Zeigler.”
Hadley, 73, said he was so devastated by losing the trial of a man he is convinced is innocent that he never took on another criminal case in his career.
Hadley said, “This case haunts me,” and he questions what he could have done differently. “… When you lose a case like this, you do a hundred shoulda, woulda, coulda’s.” He added, “The toughest thing in the world is to defend an innocent man or woman because then you’re defending someone you know or believe has not committed a crime. And you’re doing everything, with your heart and soul, to keep them from being convicted. And when you lose that—and that’s what cured me of criminal law—when you lose a case, especially when the death penalty is involved with a person who you think is innocent and you know you’ve given it your all … you second guess yourself.”
In Williams’ testimony, he said after Zeigler gave him the gun, he placed it in his right pants pocket. That gun, a .38-caliber revolver, was fired several times with two bullets found in Zeigler’s father-in-law’s body and one in his mother-in-law’s, FBI reports show. According to the defense’s forensic expert report, issued shortly after the trial, a chemical analysis of Williams’ pants revealed negligible concentration levels of gunshot residue that were “inconsistent with having carried a recently discharged firearm.” These results were not available to the defense until after the trial because, Hadley said, the prosecution didn’t release the evidence until shortly before trial.
“Since Edward Williams’ clothing does not have any gunshot residue in the pants pocket, he has no support that he carried the … revolver murder weapon around in his pants pocket,” wrote H. Vernon Davids, one of Zeigler’s defense attorneys, in a 1986 petition submitted in response to Zeigler’s second death warrant. The petition asked the court to consider facts not entered in the trial, resulting in a stay of execution.
Williams testified the revolver police retrieved from his 1970 gray Camaro was not cocked. But the Orange County sheriff’s deputy who found the weapon testified it was cocked. Hadley, Zeigler’s attorney, said he hadn’t recognized the cocked gun as a “critical piece” of evidence during the trial, but now sees it as evidence of Williams “not being truthful.” Hadley said it’s unlikely Williams carried a cocked gun in his pocket for the whole night, given the risk of harming himself.
About three weeks after the crime, a man named Frank Smith came forward, telling police he had purchased two .38-caliber revolvers for Zeigler, according to police records. In Smith’s trial testimony, he said Williams had introduced Smith to Zeigler by telephone; Smith also said Williams served as the middleman, purchasing the guns on Zeigler’s behalf. Zeigler said he has never spoken with Smith, who died in 2004.
Smith’s testimony, coming on top of Williams’ account, further implicated Zeigler in the murders. So, too, did the testimony of Mary Ellen Stewart, who said she had known Williams for four years and said Zeigler had asked her “where I could get some illegal guns.” Stewart said she told Zeigler she could get Smith, her son-in-law, to obtain the guns. At trial, Stewart said she was a furniture store customer of Zeigler’s and that he had called her about overdue payments. Zeigler said he never spoke with Stewart about purchasing guns.
Williams and Stewart both testified that just hours after the crime, Williams went to her home. Williams said he told Stewart what had happened at the furniture store and they drove together to tell authorities.
Stewart and Smith’s testimonies “bolstered Edward Williams,” Hadley said. “A circumstantial evidence case is a jigsaw puzzle. So every little piece that they had to bolster Edward Williams painted a picture that the state wanted to paint. And Edward Williams wanted to paint.”
What Hadley and Zeigler didn’t know was that there was a closer affiliation between Williams and Stewart than revealed at trial.
Williams testified Stewart was a “friend” and “neighbor.” But Davids, one of Zeigler’s attorneys, made a series of discoveries which were included in a 1986 court petition, showing a deeper relationship: Williams and Stewart signed a mortgage deed for $20,500 in 1973 as husband and wife, property records show. They also were named as husband and wife in a warranty deed, confirming their ownership, that year. Two years later, in 1975, Williams signed a quit claim deed, handing over the property—4549 Marbello Blvd in Orlando—to Stewart for the sum of $10.
“Edward Williams appears to have lied about his involvement with a critical state witness to bolster his credibility with the jury,” Davids said in the 1986 petition.
Lynn-Marie Carty, a private detective who has dedicated much of her life to working for Zeigler for free over the past several years, has made a number of discoveries in the case, including finding, in 2011, a Stewart affidavit, on the Orange County Comptroller’s site.
In that 1989 affidavit, Stewart admitted she used the name Mary Ellen Williams and pretended to be married to Williams to purchase property. “I have never been married to Edward Williams,” she wrote. “We took title as husband and wife to the property … in 1973 to qualify for a mortgage …”
The circumstances surrounding that affidavit remain unclear. Stewart died in 2014. Her daughter, Ernestine Campbell, said in an interview for this story she didn’t know anything about the document.
Late on the night of the murders, a field hand named Felton Thomas bumped into a police officer at a place serving coffee on Route 50 not far from Winter Garden. Thomas, saying he knew something about the crime, was escorted back to the crime scene where he told this story: It was nearing dusk on Christmas Eve as Thomas sat by a bonfire just miles from the Zeigler furniture store. Mays, a customer of Zeigler’s who was a citrus grove crew chief, pulled up in a blue van and asked Thomas to go for a ride. Thomas, who had worked with Mays, said, “I ain’t got nothing else to do.”
This was Thomas’ account, which he gave in a 1976 deposition, less than two months before appearing as a crucial witness for the prosecution at the Zeigler murder trial. But Thomas’ version of what happened the night of the crime has changed significantly, with details shifting and disappearing over the past four decades, according to police records, trial transcripts, other court documents and Carty’s investigative reports.
“Felton Thomas was the second key witness, the key witness being Edward Williams,” Hadley said. “… Everything that could have demonstrated that these guys were not telling the truth would have been very significant.”
Thomas did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. His daughter, Simonia, said her father does not want to speak about this part of his past.
In Thomas’ first account, in the hours after the murders, he told this to a detective, records show: Mays said he wanted to pick up a television for his wife so he and Thomas drove to the Zeigler furniture store but when they arrived, no one was there. From the van, Thomas could see the store lights were off. Mays and Thomas parked to the side of the store. A man then arrived in a Cadillac. Mays introduced Thomas to the man as Zeigler. The man indicated there was another person coming from Apopka, a nearby city. The man said he wanted Mays and Thomas to test three guns. He asked Mays and Thomas to get into his Cadillac so they could drive to an orange grove and fire the guns. Once there, Mays fired three or four shots from one of the guns. Thomas picked up another gun, put it down and then tried firing the third gun before it jammed. Then they returned to the store. The man identified as Zeigler told Thomas to pull the electrical circuit breaker on the north side of the building. Zeigler and Mays climbed over a 6-foot-high fence to enter the back of the furniture store. Zeigler picked up a “piece of pipe” and struck a window, and Mays retreated back over the fence. Zeigler said he thought he had an extra key to the store at his home so the three men drove to Zeigler’s house and retrieved the key and a box of bullets. Zeigler told Mays to reload a gun. The men returned to the store and parked next to a Buick in front and Zeigler opened the front door. As Zeigler and Mays entered the store, Zeigler said to Thomas, “Come on, Tom, we need your help, come on, Tom.” Thomas refused. “I didn’t know the man [sic] ways but he had some peculiar ways about him,” he told the detective. “The, the, the way he seemed to be acting, you know, it, it, it wasn’t right, you know.” Thomas waited in the car outside before deciding to go across the street to a variety store to get a ride to nearby Oakland.
In a second version of events, which Thomas gave in an April 26, 1976, deposition, he said when he arrived at the furniture store with Mays, the lot was not vacant; now, unlike his first version, the Buick was already parked out front. While Thomas was waiting in what he described as a two-door car, he decided to leave but in this version, he offered a reason not mentioned before, apparently referring to Zeigler. “I ain’t paying too much attention because he was on the truck when everybody trying to get their equipment sharpened there. So my mind just told me to get out so I just got out of the car.” It is unclear what Thomas meant by the truck or sharpening of equipment.
When Thomas gave a third account, this one at trial on June 18, 1976, he said Zeigler, on the night of the crime, indicated “the guy that owned the store hadn’t got back yet.” This contrasts with Thomas’ first version in which he acknowledged that Zeigler owned the store. Thomas also said at the citrus grove Zeigler removed something from a paper bag which contained three guns; in the two previous versions, there is no mention of this.
Thirty-five years later, on July 11, 2011, in an interview with a private investigator hired by Carty, who is working for Zeigler, Thomas said Zeigler fired out of the car window at the citrus grove. This is the first known version Thomas gave in which Zeigler fired a weapon at the grove. Also, this is the first known version where Thomas didn’t mention he fired at the grove himself. In this account, two other facts have changed: The time Thomas pulled the electrical circuit breaker; and his mention of the man from Apopka has disappeared.
In a fifth version, Sept. 23, 2013, in an interview with Carty, the private detective, Thomas reverted back to his first account in which he said the furniture lot was empty—“No cars. No nothing there,” he said. In his second and third versions, he said there was a Buick out front. In this version, the three men drove to the citrus grove in a four-door car, not the two-door he mentioned in his 1976 account. And now, he said he did not fire any of the guns at the citrus grove: “No, no, no,” he said. “No, I ain’t fire.”
In the two versions where Thomas explained how Mays and he drove to the furniture store, the route he described would have meant that they drove through a 3-foot-high cement wall, according to Hadley, Zeigler’s attorney. The trial transcripts show Hadley questioned Thomas about the route. Hadley said he didn’t challenge Thomas about driving through a wall because it would have given Thomas the opportunity to come up with an alternative explanation. “My thing, of course, is that you don’t give a witness a chance to try and explain something when you can catch them saying something so blatantly false … Don’t let him wiggle out,” Hadley said in an interview for this story. In his closing argument, Hadley said, “Ladies and gentlemen, he’s got Charles Mays’ truck jumping over a three-foot concrete block wall.”
In at least two versions, Thomas said Mays parked his van in an inn parking lot, which was behind the furniture store and behind a 6-foot-high chain link fence, making it difficult to pick up a television set as he said they had planned. The front of the furniture store, 82 feet wide, was open with empty parking spots.
In all five accounts, Thomas said he joined Zeigler and Mays to pick up Zeigler’s store keys from Zeigler’s home. But there were no keys to be had there, according to recent interviews for this story with Zeigler, his cousin Connie Crawford and Dunaway, the longtime store employee, all of whom said the keys were always kept close by.
“The Zeiglers,” Dunaway said, “were very close to their keys because that was their livelihood and their business.”
Zeigler said the first time he met Thomas was in court, after Zeigler was accused of murder.
At 10:40 a.m. on March 31 in courtroom 10B of the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando, Zeigler and his attorneys continued to fight to clear his name nearly 40 years after his conviction.
At issue was whether the defense, out of its own pocket, could test DNA evidence based on technology not available during Zeigler’s trial. Called touch DNA, it reveals genetic material from deposited skin cells. What that means is, if, for instance, an assailant came in physical contact with a victim, the assailant’s touch DNA would be found on the victim. Some law enforcement agencies use this newer DNA technology to help solve crimes.
In this case, the defense wants to test the two guns Williams said he obtained from Smith for Zeigler and were found at the scene of the crime, the white undershirt and rust-colored button-down shirt Zeigler was wearing that night, his wife’s clothing and his father-in-law’s clothing and fingernails.
Zeigler said he believes touch DNA will prove his innocence. “I am still fighting, I still believe in DNA and that’s why we went back with this new touch DNA,” Zeigler said, adding, “If this will convict a man, it will also free a man.”
Michaeli said touch DNA would reveal who cleaned and maintained the weapons. Also, if Zeigler’s clothing does not have his father-in-law’s skin cells on it, and if Zeigler’s skin cells are not on his father-in-law’s clothing, the defense said this would refute the prosecution’s theory that Zeigler beat him.
“Whoever beat him to death had to have a significant amount of blood and skin cell DNA on his clothing,” Michaeli said. “… Let’s test [Zeigler’s] whole damn shirt.”
At the hearing, the prosecution countered by saying, among other things, that the DNA testing would not clearly establish what happened.
In the 1976 trial, Zeigler testified he fought off assailants whom he could not identify and crawled over a body to call for help. But the prosecution asserted that Zeigler beat Edwards, his father-in-law, while holding him in a head lock with Zeigler’s left arm. This theory relied on the bloodstains found on the underarm of Zeigler’s shirt. The blood was type A, Edwards’ type.
But a DNA test, requested in 2001 by Zeigler’s attorneys, did not reveal Edwards’ blood.
The defense filed a motion to vacate Zeigler’s conviction based on those DNA results. The state objected on various grounds, including saying the entire shirt had not been tested. The Circuit Court judge in Florida denied the defense’s motion, expressing concern that the sample from Zeigler’s shirt was, among other things, too degraded to be tested reliably.
In 2009, Zeigler filed another motion for DNA testing of the victims’ clothing and Edwards’ fingernails but the same judge denied this request as well. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the judge’s decision.
As part of the new DNA motion, the defense wants to use other newer testing methods, such as mini-STR and Y-STR. Mini-STR technology can better test degraded DNA. Y-STR testing filters out X-chromosomes, leaving behind Y-chromosomes, which would isolate the male genetic material.
The defense notes that Eunice, Zeigler’s wife, had bloodstains on her clothing that were not hers. These advanced DNA tests would reveal whose blood it is.
“What the Y-STR kit lets us do is filter out 100 percent of her DNA, leaving only the killer’s,” Michaeli said. “In a case like this, where [two of] the victims were women, that is particularly powerful. This is something that did not exist before.”
In its response, the prosecution said Zeigler has made several requests to test DNA evidence, testing has already been done and “Zeigler has not shown how he is entitled to any additional DNA testing.” In addition, the prosecution said of touch DNA and mini-STR, “Zeigler has not demonstrated how the use of either of these technologies would lead to an acquittal or lower sentence,” adding, “The defendant’s motion illustrates that he is simply on a fishing expedition.”
The prosecutor’s office declined to comment for this article, citing the pending case before Orange County Circuit Court Judge Reginald Whitehead.
When Zeigler woke up the day before Christmas in 1975, he was a master of his world: He said he was worth a million dollars. On occasion, he was known to ride shotgun in a police cruiser with his buddy, the chief of police. He and his wife of over eight years bred Persian cats for showcase.
When Zeigler wakes up today, it’s 3:45 a.m. on death row at Union Correctional Institution in a remote outpost filled with barbed wire in northern Florida. He prays and reads the Bible. When he leaves his 6-foot by 9-foot cell to meet visitors, Zeigler, who’s nearing the age of 71, is shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles.
“If Tommy gets out, he’s going to walk out a man with virtually nothing,” Hadley said. “… My dream is to have Tommy Zeigler walk out a free man and come to my home here in Cross Creek and walk the grass as a free man … hear the birds sing, see the fish jump, eat some blueberries as a free man with nobody looking over his shoulder. … I fear it is a dream that will go unrecognized, but I hope not.”
Zeigler’s parents are gone. So too is much of his extended family. The money is gone too, most of it. The furniture store is now a thrift shop, selling secondhand things such as used water guns, dishes and clothes. And all that’s left of Zeigler’s past is tucked away in a corner of a glass windowpane at the front of the store: a single bullet hole.
This investigation was conducted by 10 undergraduate and graduate students at Northwestern University as part of an investigative journalism course taught by Prof. Alec Klein, director of The Medill Justice Project, which supported the class work. Amanda Westrich, director of operations at MJP, Allisha Azlan, MJP associate, Rachel Fobar, MJP intern, and David Freedman, MJP board member, also contributed to this report.