A TORTURED TRAIL // How police think Cheryl Ann Commesso wound up in muck along I-275

Published June 7, 1997|Updated July 6, 2006

The remains of a young woman are found alongside Interstate 275 in Pinellas County. The bones have sunk into the marsh, her clothes ragged from years of mud and rain.

Identifying her would seem impossible. But in the two years since the discovery, the investigation has gone from complex to bizarre.

It is a story of a high school dropout who made friends, and a living, in nude bars between Tampa and Orlando.

One of those "friends," it turns out, was a federal fugitive named Franklin Delano Floyd, a man who has been suspected of murder, kidnapping, stalking and numerous other charges.

"Without a doubt, Franklin Floyd is one of the most evil people I've ever met in my life," Oklahoma prosecutor Lisa Hammond said Friday.

In the end, police say, Cheryl Ann Commesso may wind up being a bit player in a tragedy spanning several years, several states and several lives.

She may have died simply because of a friendship.

A father and "daughter'

Franklin Delano Floyd grew up in Georgia with three sisters and a brother. The children were raised in an orphanage in Hapeville when the father died and the mother ran off.

At 19, Floyd kidnapped a 4-year-old girl from a Hapeville bowling alley. He was arrested but escaped a year later. He was arrested again after robbing a bank in Macon, Ga.

He served 10 years in prison, was released on parole and disappeared in 1973, the same year investigators say they think he abducted another 4-year-old girl.

Floyd has said he did not kidnap her. The girl, he said, was abandoned by her mother, a "drunk and drug addict" whose name he had forgotten.

The two moved about several states but by 1984 had settled in Atlanta. Floyd was going by the name Warren Marshall. His "daughter," Sharon was enrolled at Forest Park High School in Clayton County.

Teachers remember Sharon as a popular teenager who excelled in school. She ran for junior class office and had glamour shots made for her poster.

Jennifer Tanner met Sharon at a camp for student council members in the Atlanta area. She still remembers calling Sharon at home after the camp, and a man who said he was Sharon's father answered the phone. He was irate that someone had their home number.

"I just thought her Dad was just strict," Tanner said.

He eventually allowed their friendship to grow, even though he discouraged boyfriends.

Once, Sharon called Tanner into her bedroom and showed her lingerie that she said her father had bought her. He was obsessed with Sharon, often taking photographs and talking about her beauty.

Though Sharon had won a scholarship to Georgia Tech, she became pregnant and ran off to Alabama to be with a boyfriend. The boyfriend woke up one morning to find a note from Sharon, saying her father had taken her away.

An abandoned Corvette

By April 1988, the Marshalls had moved to the Tampa area.

Sharon gave birth to a son, Michael. To support the family, she began working in adult clubs such as the Mons Venus in Tampa.

It was there she met Cheryl Ann Commesso. They were instant friends.

Commesso had moved to Brandon with her family when she was 8. At Brandon High School, she sang in the chorus and danced. In 1987, Commesso competed in the Miss Brandon Pageant.

A videotape shows her in a white swimsuit, walking almost hesitantly down the stage and staring blankly into the audience. During her senior year, relatives say, she dropped out and began to run away.

"She was a smart child," said her aunt, Joyce Haughom of Tampa. "But you know kids get into things. . . . She wanted to grow up fast."

She worked at the World Famous Doll House in Orlando, and her father helped her get a loan to buy a red Corvette. She made enough money working nude bars between Orlando and Tampa to pay for breast implants. She no longer was the shy teenager.

She wanted to pose for Playboy and other magazines, her mother, Lois Commesso, has said.

Her parents were estranged, but Commesso came back to Tampa to live with her father. One night in April 1989, she left his house, planning to spend the night with a friend. She promised to call in the morning.

The phone never rang.

Her Corvette was found abandoned, and her family reported her missing. Her mother called the Mons Venus, only to be told that her daughter may have gone to dance in Miami. The family did not believe it. She would never leave her Corvette, they said.

Marriage, new identities

Within weeks of the disappearance, the Marshalls moved first to New Orleans, where they were married, and later to Tulsa.

He became Clarence Marcus Hughes. She was Tonya Dawn Tadlock.

Again, she worked as a dancer in adult clubs. She was always very secretive about her background, saying nothing except all of her relatives were dead.

In April 1990, she was walking to a motel outside Oklahoma City when she was struck by a hit-and-run driver. She never regained consciousness and died five days later. Her new husband was considered a suspect, but he had an alibi:

He had been back at the motel, waiting for her.

Her co-workers were concerned because she had told them she wanted to leave the man named Clarence Hughes. She had met a new boyfriend in the club, but she was afraid.

Investigators, still looking at the new husband as a suspect in the hit-and-run, discovered through fingerprint analysis that he actually was named Floyd _ and had been a federal fugitive for 17 years.

Not long after Sharon's death, Floyd was placed back on parole from 1973 federal charges. He gave Sharon's young son, Michael, to state welfare officials. Blood tests later showed that Floyd was not the biological father.

Floyd began working as a maintenance man at an apartment complex. A woman who lived there returned home to find Floyd in the bushes. He emerged with a knife, cutting her as she tried to defend herself.

He was arrested. But a week before he was scheduled to appear in court for attacking the woman, Floyd had more important matters on his mind. One Monday afternoon in September 1994, he went to an elementary school in Choctaw, Okla., where young Michael was in first grade.

Pieces to strange puzzle

Wearing a rumpled suit, Floyd walked into the office of principal James Davis and announced he needed help getting his son.

"I think I'd better tell you I've got a gun in my pocket, and I'd better show it to you. . . . I'm ready to die, and if you don't help me, you won't live."

Floyd left the school with the boy and the principal. He drove the principal's pickup to woods, then cuffed the principal to a tree, not far from where Michael lived with his new foster parents.

In the nationwide search for Michael, investigators pieced together details of the strange life between Floyd and the boy's mother. The FBI traced him to Texas and to Kansas, where the principal's pickup broke down.

The mechanic repairing the truck later found a package taped to the gas tank. Inside were more than three dozen photos of a scantily clad girls. Several other photos showed a different young woman, who had been beaten, with parts of her body exposed.

Investigators were puzzled.

In November, Floyd got a job as a used car salesman in Louisville, Ky. For weeks, he lived in a Victorian house. Neighbors noticed he always seemed to wear clothes from thrift stores. He could be heard walking in his apartment all night long.

He never mentioned a son. Instead, he talked incessantly about a daughter, who he said was a prostitute. He showed photos of her. Neighbor Terry Evans said he befriended Floyd until one night when Floyd wanted to stay in Evans' apartment to watch a movie and refused to leave.

"He wanted to watch The Fugitive on TV," Evans said. "It turns out he was a fugitive."

He finally was arrested at the used car lot for kidnapping young Michael and his principal. The boy never has been found.

The next spring, in March 1995, Floyd had been returned to Oklahoma to stand trial.

Several thousands miles away in Florida, a landscaper was taking a break from clearing brush near Interstate 275 when he saw a skull near the fence, close to the Gandy Boulevard exit.

Sculpting a face

A team of detectives and forensic experts spent four days digging in thick roots and muck before finding 90 percent of a skeleton. They also found clothing, jewelry and a breast implant.

Detectives reviewed five years of missing person reports but found no leads. A forensic sculptor from Oklahoma used the skull to create a likeness of the victim. Nobody recognized her.

Then in 1996, the FBI had determined Floyd had been in the Tampa Bay area. They also realized the significance of the photos of the beaten woman. Investigators in St. Petersburg searched back yet another year and found Commesso had been reported missing. She had been a dancer.

Dental records confirmed the remains were Commesso's.

Detectives went to Oklahoma to question Floyd, where he was sentenced to 52 yeas in federal prison on kidnapping charges, but still awaits trial on state charges. Floyd has denied being involved in the Commesso slaying.

Detectives aren't so sure: Her bones were found at the freeway's exit to Pinellas Park. She had been shot, and Floyd was known to use guns. Floyd likely was the last to see Commesso alive.

Commesso's remains were returned late last year to her family in New York. Relatives in Tampa had a quiet memorial service.

"The family has put this to rest," said her uncle, John Haughom. "We have closure."

_ Information for this story comes from court files, police interviews and articles published in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and the Courier-Journal in Kentucky.

WHO WAS SHE? In March 1995, a team of detectives and forensic experts spent four days digging amid thick cypress roots and sifting mucky soil beside Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg before finding 90 percent of a woman's skeleton. A forensic sculptor later attached erasers and clay to the skull to recreate the likeness at left of the slain woman. A tip more than a year later help police finally identify the dead woman as Cheryl Ann Commesso.

CHERYL ANN COMMESSO, had been missing for six years when her skeleton was found. She had lived in Brandon and was 18 when she became friends with Sharon Marshall. They worked together at an adult club in Tampa. She disappeared in April 1989.

SHARON MARSHALL likely was kidnapped as a young girl. She lived with Franklin Delano Floyd in Tampa Bay, working as an exotic dancer when she was a teenager. She later married Floyd, but was killed mysteriously by a hit-and-run driver in Oklahoma.

FRANKLIN DELANO FLOYD is accused of kidnapping a girl in the 1970s and living with her as father and daughter in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. IN 1988-89, he went by the name of Warren Marshall. He is now in prison in Oklahoma.

Key events

+ 1973: After his release from prison, Franklin Floyd kidnapped a young girl, police believe. They don't know where she was taken from or who she is.

+ 1975: Two years later, Floyd enrolled the girl in elementary school in Oklahoma, saying she was his daughter. He was using the name Trenton B. Davis. She was called Suzanne.

+ 1984: Nine years later, he went by the name Warren Marshall when enrolling her as his daughter, Sharon, at Forest Park High School in Clayton County, Ga. The girl went on to graduate with honors. But she became pregnant _ and she and her father soon disappeared.

+ 1988: In Hillsborough County, they lived in a mobile home park on 28th Street near Cockroach Bay and at the Town & Country park in Valrico. She gave birth to a boy named Michael on April 21, 1988.

+ 1989: They all were living at the Golden Lantern trailer park at 7950 Park Blvd. near Pinellas Park. Sharon worked as an exotic dancer at Mons Venus in Tampa and met a teenager named Cheryl Ann Commesso. The two became friends. Commesso disappeared in April 1989.

+ Two months later, Sharon and her "father" were married in New Orleans. He used the name Clarence Marcus Hughes. She was Tonya Dawn Tadlock.

+ 1990: In April, the woman known as Tonya Dawn, still working as a dancer, was walking along a busy Oklahoma highway when she was struck by a hit-and-run driver. Her son, Michael, was placed in foster care.

+ 1994: Floyd tried to get legal custody of the boy but failed. In September 1994, Floyd kidnapped Michael and his school principal. The principal was found, alive, in a woods in Oklahoma. The boy is still missing.

+ Floyd was arrested in November 1994 in Louisville, Ky. He since has been convicted on kidnapping charges. Jailed in Oklahoma, he remains a suspect in the hit-and-run death. Police also consider him a possible suspect in the death of Cheryl Ann Commesso.

+ 1995: Skeletal remains were found along Interestate 275 in March. Police identify the remains as Commesso in summer 1996.

+ 1997: On Friday, investigators released new details about the Commesso slaying. They are looking for anybody who may have seen Commesso with a man and woman who called themselves Warren and Sharon Marshall in 1989. To reach detectives, call the homicide hot line at 892-5461.