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Lobster Boy's wife tells of his rage

Published Oct. 7, 2005

The gorilla lady, sword swallowers, the man with the iron tongue and two-headed raccoons were all part of the caravan of carnival sideshow acts that Grady Stiles Jr. toured with around the country.

When not on the road, Stiles, known as Lobster Boy because of his own genetic defect, settled with his family in Gibsonton in a silver trailer with a tidy yard. A wooden sign hung over the door and cheerfully announced: "The Stiles, Grady and Teresa."

But the family says there was torment and abuse behind that door.

On Tuesday, Mary Teresa Stiles sat in Hillsborough Circuit Judge M. William Graybill's courtroom, accused of arranging her husband's murder.

Stiles, 55, was gunned down on a cold November night in 1992. Mrs. Stiles has confessed to paying $1,500 to have her husband killed, but contends she resorted to violence only after suffering years of physical abuse.

The abuse peaked when Stiles drank whiskey, said defense attorney Arnold Levine, who is setting a national legal precedent by using a battered spouse defense in a murder-for-hire case.

"Because of the cumulative years of abuse," Levine told the jury in his opening statement, "Mary Stiles believed she was in imminent fear of harm or death. She had no alternative but to participate in this unthinkable act."

The prosecution is trying to prove the murder was planned over a period of weeks and involved a number of people, and that it was Mrs. Stiles who hatched the idea.

Tuesday, Mrs. Stiles looked like a grandmother in her white sweater and gold crucifix. During breaks in the testimony, she cuddled with her two children, both of whom were born with lobster syndrome.

With creamy skin and thinly arched eyebrows, the 56-year-old Mrs. Stiles still wears her diamond wedding ring. For years, she was devoted to her husband, but says alcohol transformed him. She has said Stiles used his claw-like pincers to twist her breasts and poke her eyes.

"He'd wake up at 8, he was sweet," Mrs. Stiles said, clutching a tissue outside the courtroom. "He'd start drinking about 10. By the time he came out of his bedroom about 1, he was somebody different."

Mrs. Stiles claims she didn't leave her husband because of the children.

"Where would I go?" she said, tearfully. "Grady was well-known in the business. How do I hide a whole family? It's obvious they are noticeable."

Aside from the criminal proceedings, the trial has pulled back the curtain to reveal the life of carnival sideshow performers.

On Tuesday, the jury heard how Mrs. Stiles left home when she was 19 and joined the carnival, where she met Stiles.

"Grady was a freak in a sideshow," Levine said. "He had no legs. He had stumps. But in spite of these deformities, he was a powerful, powerful person. He would pop off the wheelchair, onto his fingers, scoot across an area, and in a drunken state, beat on someone."

Mrs. Stiles divorced Stiles in 1973. She married a midget she met on the carnival circuit and they had a son, Harry Glenn Newman.

In 1989, Mrs. Stiles re-married Stiles.

Stiles had a flare for violence. He was convicted of killing his daughter's boyfriend in 1979 in Pennsylvania. Authorities found Stiles to have liver cirrhosis from heavy drinking and emphysema from smoking three packs of Pall Malls a day. Partly because of his physical condition, Stiles was sentenced to only 15 years of probation.

In October of 1992, the Stiles family came off the road after months of touring the Northeast and settled in their winter quarters. Stiles often parked his wheelchair in a bar in Gibsonton and drank double shots of Seagram's for hours.

Mrs. Stiles said her husband's violent streak worsened.

She gave her son, Harry Glenn Newman, $1,500 to go out and find someone to kill Grady Stiles. Newman hired the killer, a teenage neighbor named Christopher Wyant.

Wyant slipped through the back door of Stiles' trailer and shot him to death as he watched the video, Monkey Boy.

Wyant has been sentenced to 27 years for his role in the murder.

The defense is making much of the fact that Stiles was a heavy drinker, but two witnesses who examined the murder scene testified that there was nothing stronger than a glass of iced tea next to Stiles' slumped body.

Levine needled a Hillsborough sheriff's homicide detective about the manner in which he took Mrs. Stiles' confession.

Detective Michael Willette testified that Mrs. Stiles admitted to arranging her husband's killing.

"When had she last eaten?" Levine asked. "When had she last slept. Did you ask?"

"No, sir," Willette said.

The state is expected to rest today, and the defense is scheduled to begin introducing its witnesses.