A couple of months ago, Raymond McDaniel showed up unannounced at the Tampa Bay Times office in Port Richey. He had a pack of Clippers cigars in his front pocket and a story to tell.
He had a wife once, he said, and children. He said he tried to do right by them. The law said otherwise. One of his children had died of horrible neglect, and McDaniel had gone to prison for it.
But even a guilty man has a right to be indignant when he is wrongly accused.
Justice demands that we hold people responsible for the things they did, not for the things they didn't do.
Five years ago, he said, he went to prison for harming a baby that didn't exist.
• • •
Raymond McDaniel told his story in a series of interviews this spring. The first was at his squalid encampment in the woods off U.S. 19 in Hudson, where he sat in a salvaged armchair and bolstered his story with a stack of documents he carried in a fingerprint-smudged manila envelope.
He said he met Joy Ann Wells in the early 1980s. He was driving home from his job setting tile when she caught his eye. She was sitting in a lawn chair outside a drive-in theater in Holiday, a slim woman with reddish-brown hair that ran all the way down her back. He pulled over and asked if she'd like to come over for a beer.
She insisted on Miller High Life in the bottle. After two sips, she admitted she wasn't a drinker. When it got late, he kissed her good night.
Soon they were inseparable. She never talked about her past, saying only that she was an orphan who had left Michigan for a fresh start.
Before long, she was pregnant with their first daughter, Amber. In 1985, they had a son, Raymond Marc McDaniel Jr. They called him Marc.
Court records show they were, at best, horribly incompetent parents.
On Oct. 25, 1985, authorities found Marc dead in his crib, naked and covered in his own feces. He had severe diaper rash. A medical examiner said Marc, 2 months old, hadn't been fed in at least four days, and might have gone without food for up to 16 days. He had died of Salmonella D, a rare disease contracted by contact with human feces. The couple were charged with third-degree murder and released on bail. Amber went to live with relatives in Ohio.
Raymond said their son's death came as a shock: Marc was fed, clothed and fine the night before. "I didn't see anything wrong," he said, adding that Joy was "a good mother." Raymond said he drank a 24-pack of Old Milwaukee each day as he and Joy awaited trial.
• • •
The murder trial was postponed at least 17 times, mostly because the medical examiner was sick for nine months and unable to give a deposition. During the nearly three-year wait, Raymond and Joy married, and Joy had two more babies. By court order, both were taken away.
As the murder trial unfolded in 1988, Raymond said he was horrified to learn Joy had been married before — and that she'd had other children she was accused of neglecting.
In 1977, her name had been Joy Ann Riker and she had lived in a Hudson trailer park. Her two children, a 1-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl, were found naked and covered in their own waste on a mattress on the floor. Beside them lay a bottle with a feces-smeared nipple. Reports state that the children bit holes in the mattress out of severe hunger. The stench was so bad, child welfare workers had to walk outside for fresh air.
Joy pleaded guilty to child abuse charges. Authorities took the children away.
When the couple went on trial in the summer of 1988, Raymond testified that they had no idea their baby was sick. The prosecutor, Allen Allweiss, held up a photo of Marc's body.
"Do you see its little ribs sticking out? That baby looks healthy to you?" Allweiss asked. "You're the father. You brought that baby into the world and you have no explanation?"
"I don't know," replied McDaniel, who said the baby was always bathed, dressed in clean clothes and fed five times a day.
They were convicted of third-degree murder. Pasco Judge Edward H. Bergstrom gave them each seven years. Joy was released in 1989 on probation, after serving 22 months. Raymond did 21 months in prison.
With their parental rights severed, neither Raymond nor Joy would ever see any of their children again.
• • •
Raymond returned to setting tile when he got out of prison in 1989. Joy came with him. Together, they put down floors in condos around Tampa.
He says she cursed too much, even for a construction site. She says he loved his beer more than her. They slept in separate rooms, then in separate houses.
Neighbors on all sides heard the arguments, even when the pair wasn't home. Raymond said they had an African Grey parrot, Smoky, who played back the fights while they were away. Neighbors told him the bird always ended with the same line:
"You wanna make love?"
The last few years of the marriage show up in court records as a long string of aggravated battery accusations and domestic violence injunctions. Tires were slashed. Hair was pulled. Most charges were dropped.
In August 2006, the day Raymond filed his last restraining order against her, Joy and two friends left for New Bern, N.C. She returned a few months later and moved in with a friend who lived a block away from Raymond. Then in February 2007, Raymond found her. He noticed her large, round belly. She was 46 at the time.
"Who's the father?" he asked.
"You are, dummy," she said.
Joy stayed with Raymond, living in the garage. Within a couple of weeks, she accused him of choking her. At his trial, Raymond said he never touched her. He said Joy had slipped and hit a door while they were arguing.
The jury didn't buy it. He was convicted in August 2007 of aggravated battery on a pregnant woman.
Five years in prison. You just couldn't treat another person like that, especially if she was carrying your baby.
• • •
Raymond walked out of Mayo Correctional Institution with a laundry bag full of trial transcripts, a bus pass and five crumpled 20s tucked in his sock.
It was May 2011. Raymond hopped on a Greyhound bus and got off at a Burger King in Spring Hill. His first meal as a free man was a Whopper and a large order of fries.
He had no place to go. While he was away, the court finalized Joy's request for a divorce. She got everything, including the house, which slipped into foreclosure.
Raymond took a taxi to Florestate Drive, where Joy once lived with her friend Melinda Petley. Raymond sat outside with Petley, drinking coffee. Then he said Petley dropped this bombshell:
"Y'know, Joy was never really pregnant."
He stopped her.
"What do you mean?"
He had seen Joy's enlarged belly. Court documents listed the child's birth date as April 13, 2007, a Friday the 13th. That was four months before Raymond was convicted, but he'd been in jail that whole time awaiting trial, so he hadn't seen the baby. After Raymond was sent to prison, divorce records show, Joy had graduated from parenting classes so she could keep the baby girl. They had picked a name years ago:
• • •
The information sent Raymond spinning. If Joy hadn't been pregnant, Raymond's offense would have been a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in county jail, said Larry Hart, a New Port Richey defense attorney who reviewed this case for the Times.
"What transformed it into a felony is the condition of her pregnancy," said Hart. "It was the pivotal factor."
Raymond had believed she was pregnant. But Joy's pregnancy was never questioned in the trial, so no proof was offered. Her testimony under oath was enough to meet the grounds for the charge, Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis says now. He also cautioned that Joy never actually had to deliver the baby for Raymond to be charged. With the testimony and photos showing Joy's enlarged belly, he said the attorney in the case proved to the jury, beyond reasonable doubt, that she was pregnant at the time.
"If she said it and she looked pregnant and nobody asked about it, sure, that's sufficient proof," Halkitis said.
"If (Raymond) would have contested that issue, we would have gotten her medical records," he added. "We would have talked to a doctor."
But nobody did.
• • •
After his conversation with Petley, Raymond told his story last August to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The next day, Detective David Boyer of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office took the case.
He called Joy. When Des're came up, she raised her voice.
According to Boyer, Joy said the baby wasn't Raymond's. That Des're had a different blood type and red hair. Boyer asked who the father was.
"That's none of your business," she said, according to the report Boyer later filed in the case.
He asked if the baby was with her. Same answer. He pressed. Then she told a different story.
"Des're died in Michigan two years ago."
He asked if she had reported the death.
"Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't," she told him, according to Boyer's report.
In September, he met Joy at her home in Hudson. The stories just kept coming.
She told him Des're's father was a Canadian she had met in a Walmart while she was living in North Carolina. She said Des're was born in Toronto.
Later she said Quebec.
She then said a midwife named Carol (she couldn't remember the last name), who had an office on U.S. 19, gave her prenatal care and helped her deliver the baby. But Carol might not have been an actual midwife, Joy said. She didn't have to pay Carol.
Joy said Des're weighed 4 pounds 2 ounces.
She said Des're had a bad heart and had been in the hospital her whole life. That's why no one had seen her. There were no hospital bills to account for, she said, because Canada had paid for all of them. She said Des're was at a Shriners Hospital, that she was 4 years old and wasn't walking yet.
Then she said Des're was staying with her friends in the area.
Boyer was taken aback. He had never seen a case like this.
Eventually Joy cleaned the slate, saying she'd lied the whole time. Then came a new story.
"Des're died on my property," she told Boyer.
She said Des're was 3 days old when she died and that a man came in a white Chevy Bronco and took her body away to be cremated.
The detective asked her what would happen if he took cadaver dogs to search the back yard of her old house and they found something.
"I'll be in for murder," she said.
Then she did a U-turn.
"You can take dogs on that property and you ain't going to find nothing," she told Boyer.
Then she claimed the baby was stillborn after she was throttled by Raymond.
• • •
Back at the Sheriff's Office, Boyer worked the phones.
He made a Florida records request for Des're's birth certificate. Nothing. He checked for birth or death records in Michigan and North Carolina — even Canada. Boyer estimates he spent more than 100 hours looking into the case. This was his last resort.
At 9 a.m. Sept. 28, he sent the cadaver dogs to her old back yard.
Venetian blinds parted. Residents of this enclave off U.S. 19, a mix of concrete block houses and permanently parked trailers with threadbare lawns, stared from behind porch screens and sliding glass doors.
Detectives searched the property behind the McDaniels' old house without finding a scent. No hits from the dogs. But in the adjacent lot, Boyer probed the soil "near a noticeable depression, where (neighbors) indicated Joy had placed a cross." Both dogs locked on.
Detectives dug a hole 4 by 6 feet wide and 3 feet deep. But they found only the remains of a Rottweiler that Raymond had buried years before.
The crowd dispersed. Detectives packed up their tools in defeat. If not here, where was the baby girl?
Boyer typed the last lines of his report: "Following this investigation I am unable to verify that Joy McDaniel was pregnant, that she gave birth to a child, or that Des're Michilli McDaniel actually existed. This concludes my investigation at this time."
• • •
This story keeps Raymond awake at night in his homeless encampment somewhere in the woods near U.S. 19.
He has lost track of Joy. All he has left are a few tarps, a fire pit, fuzzy guitar songs on a battery-operated radio. And Boyer's report. It lies beneath him every night, shoved under a tattered mattress, the only tangible proof that he could have been right.
Raymond says he doesn't want compensation or any kind of punishment for Joy. He knows he has done wrong in the past. But he didn't hurt the daughter he never had.
• • •
On a recent afternoon, Joy talked with a Times reporter at the house in Hudson she shares with a new man. In 2011, for reasons that are unclear, she legally changed her first name from Joy to Joyce. Though she and Raymond have been divorced for years, her last name remains McDaniel.
She denounced Raymond as an idiot and a liar. The wedding band he gave her has disappeared from her finger. She said she flushed it.
She leaned back on her living room sofa and pulled her muumuu tight around her large belly, as round as it was in the 2007 photos that deputies took the day Raymond was arrested. Years of working with tile gave her a massive hernia, she said.
Asked about the pregnancy and Des're's whereabouts, Joyce gave no answers.
"It ain't nobody's business," she said. "When it comes to her, it's a dead issue."