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Old death case comes up again

A murder case from the dark past of a state known for its drug smuggling exploits was back in court Tuesday. It played to a room filled with many spectators born about the time the murders were committed.

The Florida Supreme Court is again considering the plight of Walter Gale Steinhorst, a drug smuggler sentenced to death in 1978 for his role in the fatal shootings of four young people who stumbled on a marijuana unloading operation in the Florida Panhandle in January 1977.

The operation, known in law enforcement circles as "the Sandy Creek drug case" because of the remote Bay County site where the murders were committed, sparked a number of drug prosecutions for years.

The bodies of four people _ Douglas Hood, 21, sisters Sheila McAdams, 16, and Sandy McAdams, 14, and Harold Sims, 39 _ were found in a Taylor County sinkhole 125 miles from where they were murdered eight months earlier.

The Gunsmoke, the boat used to haul marijuana unloaded at Sandy Creek on the night of the murders, was scuttled off Egmont Key and recovered in 1977. The boat went down with part of its marijuana load still stuffed in the holds and provided prosecutors with evidence used in the trials of several Sandy Creek defendants.

Several men from St. Petersburg and Cortez were among those convicted of drug smuggling at Sandy Creek. They included David Capo, David L. Lukefahr and Thomas J. Lukefahr. Several other men were among those convicted of murdering the four people, but only Steinhorst was sentenced to death. He was identified by others as the one who pulled the trigger.

Capo testified in 1979 that he helped scuttle the Gunsmoke after he discovered that some of his fellow smugglers killed someone at Sandy Creek. Capo said the drug deal was bankrolled by Mike Knight, a former St. Petersburg Beach resident who died in the late 1970s.

Steinhorst of Live Oak is 63 and has had several strokes and heart attacks. He awaits execution at Union Correctional Institution near Stark. His attorney, Stephen D. Alexander of Los Angeles, has worked on the case since 1983 without charging a fee. Alexander is one of several out-of-state lawyers who volunteered to help Florida death row inmates in the early 1980s when inmate advocates were seeking help to handle appeals.

Alexander said prison officials recently ignored Steinhorst's living will and used extraordinary efforts to revive him when he had a heart attack. The effort leaves him alive to face eletrocution.

Tuesday, Alexander asked the court to order a new review of the death sentence because the Bay County circuit judge who rejected his last appeal in 1988 failed to disclose an obvious conflict of interest.

Circuit Judge W. Fred Turner once represented the estate of victim Harold Sims and had previously disqualified himself from presiding over the trials of Sandy Creek defendants. That fact was not disclosed to Alexander until 1991.

Alexander told the justices that he discovered the action during repeated attempts to obtain court files that were in disorder at the Bay County Courthouse in Panama City. In September 1991, a lost box of documents found in the courthouse included the old disqualification and led to the new appeal.

Alexander said the facts surrounding Turner's representation of the victim's family were known to prosecutors and others involved in the case, but were not disclosed to him.

"It's so important and so fundamental that we have an unbiased judge," Alexander argued. "And here we have a man whose life is at stake. He's entitled to be heard."

Justice Ben Overton questioned how a judge could proceed in any case after he has once disqualified himself. Several other justices also questioned whether Turner should have considered the case. Assistant Attorney General Mark Menser argued that Turner heard Steinhorst's appeal in 1986, almost 10 years after the murders and beyond the time when a civil suit could have been filed on Sims' behalf.

"We're talking about a judge knowing something that would not have been admissible at trial," said Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett. "It's the appearance of impropriety. That someone sitting in judgment knows something about the case that is outside of what is presented in court."

The judges did not issue an immediate ruling.