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Gov. Rick Scott signs death warrant for Oba Chandler, killer of Ohio mom, kids

He lured the Ohio mother and her two daughters onto his boat. Then he bound and gagged them. Stripped them below the waist. Sexually assaulted them. Tied concrete blocks to their necks.

Then, one by one, Oba Chandler threw Joan Rogers and her teen daughters Michelle and Christe into Tampa Bay.

It was June 1, 1989, the first chapter in one of the bay area's most horrific crimes. Finally, 22 years later, the last chapter is about to be written: Chandler is to be executed Nov. 15 at 4 p.m. under the death warrant signed by Gov. Rick Scott on Monday. Chandler turned 65 on death row today.

"I'm sorry that it's taken so long," said one of his pursuers, retired St. Petersburg Detective Cindra Leedy, 58, "and I'm sorry he's not going to suffer the way they did."

The Rogers family declined to comment Monday night. But in 1997, Hal Rogers, Joan's husband and Michelle and Christe's father, told a St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer that he wanted to be there to watch as Chandler was put to death — and, if the state let him, he would flip the switch himself.

Hal Rogers had no idea that he was saying goodbye to his wife and daughters for the last time on May 29, 1989, as they headed to Florida.

Joan "Jo" Rogers, 36, and daughters Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, were all found on June 4, 1989, floating in different locations two miles from the Pier. Water was found in their lungs, and Michelle managed to free her left hand before dying. Authorities believe they were strangled or drowned.

Evidence of sexual assault could not be gleaned from the condition of the bodies. But their state of undress suggested the crime was sexual in nature.

It took St. Petersburg police three grueling years to track down a suspect, then another two for prosecutors to see him convicted and sentenced to death.

Their only regret is that death by lethal injection may not hold the same terror for Chandler that he inflicted upon the Rogers family.

"What was so atrocious in this is that, in all likelihood two of the three watched the first one die," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, who prosecuted Chandler. "And one of the three watched the other two die.

"The guy is an animal. If anybody has forfeited his right to live, it's certainly this guy."

Said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe: "All homicides are serious, and there have been other serious ones. But the terror that had to be involved in this one is extraordinary."

Investigators believe the victims died on June 1, 1989, the day Joan Rogers pulled into Tampa. She was a farmer's wife from Willshire, Ohio. They stopped for directions to the Days Inn on the Courtney Campbell Parkway.

That's when they first met Chandler, then 42. He was already a grandfather, an aluminum contractor, a drug dealer and a felon. He wrote down the directions on a brochure. It would be his undoing.

Investigators doggedly worked the Rogers case. For three years the case went cold. The handwritten directions found in the family car had been plastered on billboards. The sketch of a suspect in an unsolved rape that police believed could be linked to the murder was also publicized.

"It took about three years and we were fortunate to be able to work it that long," said retired St. Petersburg Sgt. Glen Moore, 62. "The Police Department dedicated a lot of time and effort to finding the killer of the Rogers family."

It paid off in 1992: Police followed up a tip from Tampa resident Jo Ann Steffey. She recognized an old neighbor from the rape suspect sketch. His handwriting also matched what was on the billboards. So began a meticulous effort to find that neighbor, then arrest and convict Chandler. The case had become so high-profile by then that jurors had to be brought in from Orlando.

The Rogers family hated the water. So how did Chandler coax them onto his boat? He was "a chameleon-like creature" with women, prosecutor Doug Crow told the jury during the September 1994 trial, "who one minute can portray himself as an ingratiating stranger and then, when he has them under his control, becomes a brutal rapist or a conscienceless murderer."

Indeed, authorities said Chandler lured another woman, a 25-year-old Canadian tourist, onto his boat and raped her just 18 days before the Rogers murders. She testified at his murder trial, as did Chandler. "I never killed no one in my whole life," he said. "It's ludicrous. It's ridiculous."

A year later, still defiant, Chandler spoke to a Times reporter from prison. He said his last words would be: "Kiss my rosy red ass!"

Chandler is expected to be the 71st convict executed by Florida since the death penalty was brought back in 1979. South Florida cop killer Manuel Valle, 61, was the last to be executed on Sept. 28.

Bartlett thinks of all that Hal Rogers has suffered since then — and will continue to suffer.

"Hopefully it will create some closure for the father," the prosecutor said. "He suffered a terrible loss. He lost two daughters and a wife.

"He'll never be right again. Nothing will ever, ever change that."

Times staff photographer Cherie Diez and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Gov. Rick Scott signs death warrant for Oba Chandler, killer of Ohio mom, kids 10/10/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 8:00am]
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