Unlikely advocate wants to free death row inmate

It was a Sunday, visiting hours in the Death Row Cafe.

Ray McEachern was surrounded by 20 murderers. There was the guy who toppled his victim with a hunk of concrete. A man who slashed two throats. A child predator who killed an 11-year-old girl.

Somehow the danger seemed far away. The men in orange jumpsuits sat at stainless steel tables with relatives, friends, pen pals. They ate microwaved burgers purchased for a dollar at a tiny window. They laughed and played dominoes and Scrabble. They clutched hands with women in dresses and heels.

McEachern, dressed in black Velcro sneakers and a Florida State University ball cap, paid them no heed. He was waiting to see Tommy Zeigler, on death row for the murder of his wife, in-laws and a customer at his Winter Garden furniture store in 1975.

There was Zeigler, 65, coming through the door. He was thinner than McEachern remembered. It had been four months since his last visit.

They got popcorn, threw it in the microwave. They talked about the latest FSU football game. They talked about whether Lee Harvey Oswald actually killed John F. Kennedy. They talked about a paperback Zeigler was reading, Kane and Abel.

McEachern is 72. He's got grandkids. He runs a dog treat bakery with his son in Land O'Lakes. He's a staunch Republican. He's a firm believer in the death penalty.

But he spends his days trying to set Zeigler free.

• • •

Ray McEachern grew up in Plant City and Palm Harbor. He marched against the Vietnam War. He volunteered in the Philippines. He moved to Washington, D.C., and became a budget analyst for the Peace Corps and a program analyst for the Office of Economic Opportunity.

For years, he heard about Zeigler, convicted in one of the most high-profile cases in Central Florida history.

Ray's brother, Leigh, was one of the cops who arrested Zeigler in Orange County back in 1975. But Leigh was never sure the guy in custody had done it. There were just too many unanswered questions. Later, Leigh was disturbed by a meeting between the judge and the state attorney before the trial. He said he heard the judge tell the state attorney that if he got at least one first-degree murder conviction against Zeigler, "I'll fry the son of a b----." Both men later denied this.

But back then, Zeigler was just a family story.

Ray was busy. He and his wife, Pat, raised two kids. He dabbled in business — a RadioShack, a dry cleaners, a vending machine operation.

He fought battles. He successfully sued the University of South Florida College of Medicine for $200,000 after a botched medical procedure left his wife partly paralyzed. He crusaded for 10 years to change state law and give patients access to profiles of their doctors. He went after a veterinarian in court for letting his dog die.

In 2007, Ray and his wife moved to a beige house in a Land O'Lakes gated community with their two Boston terriers, Blossom and Misty. Retired, Ray found himself wandering the house with nothing to do. He watched a lot of Fox News. He cleared the swamp in his back yard and put in a lawn.

He read a book about the Zeigler case called Fatal Flaw. He was struck by author Phillip Finch's conclusion: "What happened to Tommy Zeigler is wrong, by the standards that most of us accept."

Ray couldn't stop thinking about the Zeigler case. He'd done some acting in high school and college, written a skit. He decided to write a play about Zeigler. The audience could vote at the end on whether the man was guilty.

He held a casting call in his gated community. The dozen actors practiced for a couple of months in the community ballroom. Ray played Zeigler.

The production fell apart, but Ray felt an old passion rekindled. It had to do with righting a wrong.

Ray spoke with his brother about the case. Leigh had served time for stealing money from his department, a charge he denied. Now he and his wife were raising eight adopted children, several of them cocaine babies. Leigh was too busy to take on Zeigler's cause full time, but Ray was not.

He started a website called freetommyz.com. He got hold of the trial transcript from 1976 and read all 3,000 pages. He wrote Zeigler a letter and asked to visit him. He organized a rally outside the Supreme Court building in Tallahassee.

Zeigler had a pair of New York lawyers working on his appeals for free, and he has had many other champions during his 35 years on death row. Lots of lawyers. Anti-death penalty advocates. Finch, the author. But causes like this eat people up. Many of them had done what they could and then returned to their lives. Then Ray McEachern came along. He gave himself a fancy title: "citizen advocate."

This was Ray's fight now.

• • •

In late November, Ray and his brother, Leigh, walked up to the former W.T. Zeigler Furniture store in Winter Garden. The sign outside the old square building now says Edgewood Childrens Ranch Thrift Store.

Leigh stood at the entrance, looking in at piles of golf clubs and clumps of fake Christmas trees, racks of clothes and rows of bike helmets.

Back on Christmas Day 1975, he walked past the crime scene tape up to this same store entrance and looked at a clipboard with a list of all the officials who had signed in to the crime scene. There were more than a dozen people on the list.

"There were a lot of things that bothered me that day," he said.

In 1975, Winter Garden was a town of about 6,000. Northwest of Orlando on Lake Apopka, it was surrounded by citrus groves and flush with black migrant workers during the harvest. It was too far from Disney to be a tourist destination.

Tommy Zeigler's parents, Beulah and Tom, had owned the store since 1939. It was one of the few that extended credit to black customers.

In 1975, Zeigler was 29. He helped his parents run the furniture store and several apartment buildings. He carried guns to collect the rent and the store debts. He'd been married for eight years. They were churchgoers.

Zeigler was also active in community affairs. He had helped get the mayor elected. He'd been trying to get authorities to investigate loan sharking at the migrant labor camps. He'd testified as a character witness for a black liquor store owner who was about to lose his liquor license.

On Christmas Eve, Zeigler and his wife were supposed to go to a Christmas party at a municipal judge's house. The police chief and his wife, close friends, were supposed to drive them there. But the Zeiglers weren't home when they came by to pick them up.

Lots of witnesses would come forward with variations of what happened that night. But what is known is that sometime after 9 p.m., Zeigler called the judge's party from the furniture store. He said he'd been hurt.

When police got there, Zeigler opened the front door of the dark store. He had been shot through the stomach. Some 28 shots had been fired throughout the store. Blood was splattered on the floor, the walls, the ceiling.

Police found bodies: Zeigler's wife, Eunice, her parents, Perry and Virginia Edwards, and a customer of the store, Charlie Mays. Mays was a citrus crew foreman; his wife said he had come to the store that night to pick up a TV.

It was a complex murder scene. There were four murders and no eyewitnesses. But almost immediately, detectives focused on Zeigler.

He had gotten life insurance policies for himself and his wife just three months before. A large amount of blood under the arm of his shirt matched the blood type of his father-in-law. But the most damning evidence against him came from a handyman named Edward Williams, who was supposed to make some furniture deliveries with Zeigler that night.

Late Christmas Eve, after police took Zeigler to the hospital, Williams showed up at a police station. He claimed Zeigler tried to kill him earlier that night.

While making deliveries, he said, he entered the back of the store and Zeigler pointed a gun at him and fired. For some reason, no bullets came out.

"I heard the sound pop, pop, pop. Snapped three time. And I hollered, 'For God's sake, Mr. Tommy, don't kill me,' " he told police. "And then when I got out of the building he came behind me. He said, 'Edward, I didn't know that was you.' "

Williams said Zeigler gave him the gun and tried to get him to come back inside. But Williams said he noticed blood on Zeigler's face and clothes, so he ran away with the gun.

At the trial six months later, Zeigler gave his version of events. He said he tussled with two men in the dark store and lost his glasses. He was carrying a gun and he fired it at least once, and then it jammed and he threw it at his attackers. He was shot and lost consciousness. He woke and crawled around the store looking for his glasses. He may have crawled over a body and gotten blood on his shirt.

He said he never shot at Williams, the handyman, and never had an appointment to meet Mays, the fourth victim, to give him a TV.

Zeigler's lawyers suggested that Mays and Williams were perhaps part of a conspiracy to kill Zeigler to stop his advocacy against loan sharking at area labor camps. Mays, they said, likely died in the crossfire.

Jurors believed Williams. But like everything else in the case, the verdict was not clear-cut. One juror said she had been pressured by other jurors to render a guilty verdict.

The verdict stood. The jury recommended life. The judge changed it to death.

Thirty-five years later, Leigh McEachern shook his head once again. "I always knew he didn't get a fair trial," he said, "but now I believe he was also innocent."

He walked around to the back parking lot and pointed to a fence separating the former furniture store and a motel. Mays' van was found on the motel side of the fence.

"I had questions about that," he said. "Why would someone coming to pick up a TV park his car there?"

• • •

At his home office in Land O'Lakes one day recently, Ray prepared to film his latest video for YouTube. He has filmed five of them.

He called this one Theories of the Crime. He set up his videocamera on a piece of plywood. He put on his sunglasses. He said they gave him credibility.

"If this guy had a record prior to this happening, I wouldn't be doing this," he said. "I couldn't be his friend."

Ray tosses around details like birdseed. Why would the cuffs and legs of Charlie Mays' pants be covered in blood unless he'd been involved in the murders? Why was Zeigler's bullet wound dry when police got there if he shot himself after he called police? Would a man really kill his family and a store patron on Christmas Eve — minutes before he and his wife are to be picked up by the police chief for a Christmas party at a judge's house?

"These are the things I lay awake at night thinking about."

During the day, he spends hours dissecting the case. He has written to the governor, the attorney general, numerous judges, the Florida Bar, the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the FBI. He has hired private investigators at his own expense. He sent a petition with 448 signatures to the governor seeking clemency.

"Probably no one has gone to the effort more than Ray has," said Zeigler's cousin, Connie Crawford, who visits him on death row once a month.

Ray set his videocamera on record and picked up a plastic male torso he got online. Using a toy gun, he showed the trajectory of the bullet that struck Zeigler, 2 inches next to his navel. Then he stood and pointed the plastic gun awkwardly at his own abdomen. He looked at the camera.

"According to the prosecution, he took this .357 Magnum and shot himself," Ray said. "How would you do this? It would be absurd."

• • •

Inside the death row visiting room, Ray and Zeigler were still making small talk.

"What would you be doing with your life if you hadn't spent 35 years here?" Ray asked him. "You ever think about that?"

They were sitting on stainless steel stools at a stainless steel table.

"I take it for granted that I would be doing the same thing I was doing when this thing happened," Zeigler said.

Zeigler munched on the burger Ray bought him. It was a treat. He complained that most of his meals have soy now — not meat.

"Nothing against you," Ray said, "but as a taxpayer, I don't object."

Ray doesn't hide his conservative views. He believes that if you kill someone, you deserve to die.

Prosecutors and police in Orange County are still convinced Zeigler is guilty, but Ray has absolutely no doubt that he is innocent.

They have become friends. Ray says he sees a lot of himself in Zeigler. Both are bald, thin and tall, but Ray says it's more than that.

Ray's great-uncle, Jason Kersey, was a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. But Ray's grandfather, George W. Kersey, was a Pinellas County School Board member who prodded him to be judicious and civic minded, to ignore his great-uncle's comments, to see right from wrong. He was likely a guiding force in Ray's decision to join the Peace Corps.

Ray sees in Zeigler someone who worked against the grain — before he ended up in a 9- by 6-foot cell. His efforts on behalf of the black liquor store owner. His political work. If Zeigler were free, Ray envisions he might step up on behalf of someone who he felt was wronged.

The two men don't always agree on what to do, though. Ray wants Zeigler to seek clemency. Zeigler wants to let his lawyers work to clear his name.

At this meeting in mid November, Ray brought it up again. Zeigler shot it down again.

Zeigler's lawyers have gotten him a hearing in February on whether more DNA testing should be done. In 2004, a DNA test showed the blood on Zeigler's shirt belonged to Charlie Mays — not Zeigler's father-in-law, as prosecutors had claimed. Now they want to find out if the father-in-law's blood is anywhere on the shirt. If Zeigler did it, his attorneys say, the father-in-law's blood should be there.

Ray complained that Zeigler's attorneys won't listen to him.

"When I suggested you ought to ask for clemency, he said absolutely not," Ray said. "He doesn't want to know what I'm doing. He doesn't care what I'm doing."

Zeigler nodded. "You can do things he can't do, Ray."

Ray is not a lawyer. His methods and his motivation are different. He considers Zeigler a friend, but he doesn't answer to him.

Ray paused. He took a bite of his burger. He looked around the room.

"Let me tell you what I'm planning to do."

He told him about the YouTube videos and how he's going to have a notice of them placed in the court record. He said his brother was writing to the attorney general.

"I don't seek your approval," Ray said. "I do more or less what I think should be done."

Zeigler nodded. He is thankful for Ray.

He told Ray: "It's up to you."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which also used information from Zeigler's trial transcript and the book "Fatal Flaw." Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Unlikely advocate wants to free death row inmate 01/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 1:16pm]

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