Oba Chandler's execution stirs emotions for those who sought justice

In 1992, as authorities searched for the killer of the Rogers family, they put a sample of the suspect’s handwriting on billboards in the Tampa Bay area. Some of Oba Chandler’s neighbors said they recognized the handwriting as his. 

Times (1992)

In 1992, as authorities searched for the killer of the Rogers family, they put a sample of the suspect’s handwriting on billboards in the Tampa Bay area. Some of Oba Chandler’s neighbors said they recognized the handwriting as his. 

Oba Chandler killed Joan Rogers and her daughters, Michelle and Christe. It was 22 years ago, and that was not all he did to them. Their final hours still horrify the Tampa Bay area and all who knew the family. Today, Chandler will finally pay for his crimes. He is set to be executed at 4 p.m. at Florida State Prison in Starke. When he takes his last breath, it will be because more than 200 people sought justice for the Rogers family. The investigators who worked relentlessly for three years. The prosecutors who laid out the terrible facts. The jurors still haunted by what they learned. And the woman who set it all in motion. An alert citizen who knew she had found the killer, who wouldn't give up until the police knew it, too.

The neighbor

Jo Ann Steffey still remembers the day in 1988 that she met her new neighbor: "The hair on the back of my neck stood up."

It was Oba Chandler. She always had a bad feeling about him and steered clear.

Then came June 4, 1989. The bodies of three women were pulled from Tampa Bay. They had been bound, stripped from the waist down, tied to concrete blocks. One had managed to free a hand. They had probably been alive when they hit the water.

Then the bay area learned the horrible truth: They were a family. Mother Joan "Jo" Rogers, 36, and daughters Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, had been visiting from Ohio. They had been kidnapped and probably raped and drowned. Each might have watched as the others were assaulted, then thrown overboard. Their mouths had been duct-taped, but not their eyes.

A massive investigation began. The murders were linked to a Madeira Beach rape that occurred May, 15, 1989. A 24-year-old Canadian tourist was raped on a sunset cruise by a man she had just met.

A year later, Steffey was the first to realize that her scary neighbor fit the sketch of a man linked to the rape and the murders. Chandler had the same boat, the same SUV, the same leathery, pockmarked face.

"It was like being hit by a 2 by 4," she said.

But it took years for Steffey's many tips to reach investigators. The task force looking into the murders was swamped with leads. When police put a sample of the suspect's handwriting on billboards, Steffey couldn't believe it. Weeks before, she and neighbor Mozelle Smith had faxed the task force samples of Chandler's handwriting from documents he had signed while doing work in the neighborhood, and they knew it was a match.

It wasn't until July 31, 1992, that an investigator spoke to Smith. Dominos quickly fell. Chandler was arrested Sept. 24.

Steffey, 69, still lives in Tampa. Cancer has left her barely able to speak. But she still remembers her frightening neighbor.

"Can you imagine living next door to this guy who can do something like that?" Steffey asked. "And then spending all that time trying to get the police to listen? Meanwhile, he's still a free man. What if he gets wind that you're trying to point the police at him?"

Steffey recalled how Chandler declared his innocence in a 1995 prison interview. "They're going to be killing an old man," he said then. He is 65 now.

"Well, he was right," Steffey said, "and the world will be a better place."

The detectives

St. Petersburg police Sgt. Glen Moore was put in charge of the task force in 1990. He had little experience with homicides. It was Moore who would plead for more manpower, more resources.

The retired officer, 62, recalls why he fought to keep the investigation going. The FBI profile said whoever killed the Rogers family had probably killed before — and would probably kill again.

"If we didn't stop him," Moore asked, "who was going to stop him?"

Chandler was never charged in any other murder. But retired St. Petersburg police Detective Cindy "Cindra" Leedy, 58, remembered how well Chandler fit everything else about that FBI profile: His age, his job, his past crimes, the way he planned and carried out the rape and the murders.

"They said he would enjoy the fantasy of having multiple victims," Leedy said. "He would get satisfaction out of putting them through the terror of what they went through."

And he would make them watch. "Some killers actually cover their victims' eyes. They don't want to be seen," Leedy said. "This was a different type of killer. "

Moore still thinks of the victims, and the husband and father they left behind: Hal Rogers. He is 59 now, still a farmer in Ohio. He remarried and has a family again, and grandkids. Moore is happy for him but knows a new family can never ease the pain.

"You never get closure," he said. "That's just a word people came up with in the '90s, and it doesn't mean anything. How do you close the book, how do you end the story, when your family has been destroyed and killed this way?"

The prosecutors

Doug Crow was the prosecutor on duty when the first body was brought ashore at the Coast Guard station in St. Petersburg.

Then another body was found. Then a third.

"It began to dawn on everybody just how horrific this series of crimes were," said Crow, 62, now retired.

Five years later, Crow would face the killer in a courtroom as a member of the prosecution team. Witnesses had heard Chandler boast of the crime and radio calls from his boat that put him in the bay when the women died.

The Canadian victim also testified to show the jury how Chandler could charm complete strangers into taking a nighttime cruise on his boat.

Chandler, however, swore he was innocent. Crow cross-examine him, going one-on-one with him in front of the jury.

"You can't rebut generalities," Crow said. "You have to make people be specific."

Crow did that. Chandler testified that his boat had broken down that night but that he used duct tape to fix a leaking fuel line.

The next day, prosecutor Bob Lewis called boat mechanic James Hensley as an expert witness. Fuel dissolves the tape, Hensley told the jury.

"He was the best witness I've ever put on the stand," said Lewis, 63, who is also retired.

It took the jury 90 minutes to convict Chandler. The next day, it took them just 30 minutes to recommend three death sentences.

The jurors

For Roseanne Welton, what has stuck with her all these years later are Chandler's eyes.

"The way he sat and stared at you," she said. "And the way he smiled, the way he grinned."

She was among the jurors who convicted Chandler and unanimously recommended that he die. Welton, 68, a grandmother, felt unsettled long afterward.

"I've never owned a gun before," she said. "I made my husband get me one after the trial."

Juror James Casey, 67, said jurors couldn't read the newspaper coverage during the trial. Afterward, they were given a manila envelope with all of the stories inside. Casey put his in a scrapbook and would reread them once a year and then check the Florida prison website for Chandler. He watched him age.

Sitting on that jury, hearing what Chandler did "opened my eyes," Casey said. "It made me look at people differently."

Juror Norma Schultz, 68, remembers how bailiffs kept jurors tucked in a local hotel with no access to anyone who might spoil the trial. "That's the safest I ever felt in my life," she said.

But then she heard the details of Chandler's crimes: "As soon as we got free from that, I felt scared. I didn't feel safe anymore."

She's haunted by the pictures she saw of the victims — crime scene photos the judge didn't let jurors see until after the trial. "It showed how they actually looked," said Schultz. She did not want to say more.

For juror Don Fontaine, the experience taught him that the legal system could work, but at a cost: "I believe everybody who was in that jury room will go on with a piece of them missing."

The jurors saw firsthand that evil exists, that life is perilous, and precious things are easily lost. That knowledge made Fontaine hold off for a while on getting married and having kids.

But now Fontaine, 43, is a father, a Scoutmaster. He wonders how he would handle it if his family died the way Hal Rogers' family did.

"We just clutch our kids really tight," he said. "There are other Oba Chandlers out there."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Oba Chandler is set to be executed by lethal injection at 4 p.m. at Florida State Prison in Starke for murdering Joan Rogers and her daughters, Michelle and Christie, whose bodies were found floating in Tampa Bay 22 years ago.

Oba Chandler's execution stirs emotions for those who sought justice 11/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 11:52am]

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