Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

NEIGHBORS

The story so far

The bodies of three tourists from Ohio _ Jo Rogers and her daughters, Michelle and Christe _ are found floating in Tampa Bay on June 4, 1989. Their hands and feet are bound, and cinder blocks are attached to a rope around their necks. Police are left with few clues. Detectives travel to Ohio and rule out as suspects Hal Rogers, Jo's husband, and John Rogers, Hal's brother, who is in prison for rape and who had been accused of sexually assaulting Michelle. The first break comes in October 1989 when a detective notices some similarities between the Rogers case and a rape that occurred off Madeira Beach two weeks before the murders. A Canadian tourist was raped by a man who took her for a sunset cruise in his boat. When a composite drawing of the rapist is published in newspapers, a Tampa woman, Jo Ann Steffey, notices it resembles a man who lives down the street.

Chapter 3

One night, when he could take it no longer, Hal Rogers grabbed a spade and a shovel and drove to the cemetery.

He knew others would not understand. But he did not care.

He wanted to know if it was really Jo and the girls sleeping in the ground.

For months, Hal had been tormented with the notion that the three bodies flown up from Florida the previous summer were not his wife and daughters. After all, the bodies had been identified in Pinellas County, through dental records sent from Ohio, and had been shipped in sealed containers that had never been opened, not even at the funeral home in Van Wert County. There had been no chance for Hal or anyone else who knew Jo and Michelle and Christe to look at the bodies and say, yes, that is them.

The same questions kept running through Hal's mind. What if the authorities in Florida were wrong? What if there had been a terrible mistake, and the bodies were those of three other women, and his own family was alive somewhere?

"It's not them," he told his friends.

The idea plagued him. He could not even bring himself to buy headstones for the three graves. Months after the funeral, they were still distinguished only by copper markers embedded in the ground.

Finally Hal decided he had no choice but to dig them up. No matter how horrible it would be, he had to see for himself.

He drove to Zion Lutheran cemetery in his pickup truck, the spade and shovel in the back. He got out and stepped over the fence surrounding the tiny property and its rows of graves, some of them dating back as far as the 1830s. The place was empty and silent.

Hal found the markers for Jo and the girls and sat in the grass. He stayed there for what seemed like a long time, thinking and wondering and trying to find the strength to do what was in his heart.

Then it hit him. If he carried through on this, people would think he had snapped. He would probably be sent to an institution, taken away from his farm and his home and everything he had shared with Jo and the girls. Plus, the episode would be all over the news, a spectacular display of untrammeled grief, perfect for the front page.

"This is exactly what those bastards at the newspaper really want," Hal said to himself. "This would make a good story here."

He stood up, got his tools and walked back to the truck.

The man was out there.

It was about 10 o'clock on a Saturday evening. Jo Ann Steffey had just gone inside the kitchen of her Tampa home, where the composite drawing still hung on her refrigerator. She was convinced that the face in the drawing belonged to her neighbor two houses down on Dalton Avenue. She had been staring at the composite for weeks; cut out from the newspaper, it was starting to curl and yellow. Now she was debating whether to report her hunch to the police. Trying to decide, she had shown the composite to a friend.

"Look at it," she said. "Doesn't it look just like him?"

Her friend did not think so. At least, he didn't think the composite looked anything more like the neighbor than like 10,000 other people with blond hair. He told her she should be careful making such accusations; she could ruin an innocent man's life.

Her friend's warning held Steffey back. Besides, she wasn't eager to have her name dragged into something so frightening.

Then, that Saturday night, Steffey walked into her kitchen and looked out the window toward the street. Suddenly she caught her breath. There, standing in the grass near the edge of her driveway, was the very neighbor she suspected.

He was maybe 35 feet away. She could see him clearly, because there was a streetlight nearby, illuminating the scene. She could not tell what he was doing, but he was looking in her direction.

Steffey rushed to turn off the lights. She stepped back into the shadows and kept her eyes fixed on the man. He was still standing in the grass, gazing toward her house. For what seemed like a long time, the two of them stood there motionless. Finally the man turned and called out a name. A little, fuzzy, white dog answered the call, and then he and the dog walked away.

When the man was gone, Steffey sat down, terrified. That was it. She could not ignore her feelings about the neighbor any longer.

The notebooks haunted the new sergeant.

There were three of them in all, each a 4-inch black binder, and they sat in Glen Moore's cluttered little office on the second floor of the St. Petersburg police station. The books were filled with reports and photos and notes on tips and leads that had been pursued and eliminated. Taken together, they contained the sum of all that had been learned so far in the Rogers investigation.

Moore, transferred to homicide almost six months after the murders, was troubled by the lack of progress in the case. He didn't like to see the notebooks stuck on a shelf, with no one looking inside them. He wanted updates. He wanted movement.

"What's happening?" he would ask Jim Kappel, the detective who had been lead investigator on the case since it began the previous summer. "What's going on?"

There wasn't much Kappel could say. He was an experienced and respected homicide investigator; several years before, the St. Petersburg Exchange Club had named him the department's officer of the year for his work on another murder case. For months, Kappel had poured himself into the Rogers investigation, sometimes working 14-hour days for weeks straight. And he had made some invaluable contributions, establishing the probable connection between the murders and the Madeira Beach rape. But by the spring of 1990, the tips generated by the composite drawing from the rape had long since stopped. There were no new leads. The case was growing colder by the minute.

"It just kind of died," Kappel would later say.

As far as Moore could tell, Kappel was a good detective. But with all the problems that came with the investigation _ no crime scene, almost no physical evidence, the apparently random selection of the victims _ Kappel and the rest of the investigators had always been fighting against the odds. As the months went by, Kappel's superiors had clearly lost confidence that the murders could ever be solved.

"Our department had never run into a case like this before," says Moore.

Complicating the situation was the fact that the department's two homicide squads were swamped with other murders. In the year that the Rogers women died, there were 45 other homicides in St. Petersburg _ a record for the city. The strain was showing; there were too many killings and too few detectives. A disturbing number of cases were not being solved.

Something had to give. Kappel was still officially assigned to the Rogers case, but for some time now he had also been assigned to other cases that took up most of his time. Unless new information was developed, the Rogers case was going nowhere.

Moore wanted to give it another shot.

A detective who had been with the St. Petersburg police for two decades, Moore had spent years working patrol, vice and narcotics, and burglaries. When he was transferred to homicide in November 1989, he had never investigated a homicide, nor had he ever supervised a homicide investigation. He did not think like other homicide detectives, because he had never been one of them.

"I was dumb and innocent," he says today, looking back.

In retrospect, it's easy to see how these very qualities in Moore _ his inexperience, his willingness to ask questions that others might have thought pointless _ served him so well in his new assignment. But there were other, less obvious qualities that made him particularly well-suited to the difficulties of this case.

For one thing, he was quietly, politely, unbelievably stubborn. For another, he carried himself with the peace of a man who knows that, no matter what, his soul is saved and on its way to heaven.

Moore's faith in God was as robust as the rest of him. He was a big man, imposing, with a thick neck, wide shoulders, hands that looked huge enough to crush boulders into pebbles. He looked just like what he was, a former high school football player and discus thrower who had grown up in Georgia, moved to Florida, joined the police academy, married his high school sweetheart, had three children and devoted himself to a lifetime in law enforcement. Around the department, he was known as "Boomer."

This was a nickname bestowed upon Moore eons ago, when he was a rookie and the department put on a wrestling exhibition for charity. At the last minute, Glen was persuaded to climb into the ring, where he unceremoniously creamed a couple of opponents, including his sergeant at the time, who took the whole thing surprisingly well once he managed to peel himself off the floor. The sergeant dubbed him "Boom-Boom," which had evolved into "Boomer" and stuck ever since.

The cartoonish nickname was a smoke screen. It made it easy to underestimate Moore. Because underneath the hulking exterior was an attentive and complicated person. Moore did not fit any of the usual stereotypes of a cynical, world-weary detective. He rarely swore. He hardly ever drank. After 20 years of marriage, he was still crazy about his wife and spoke about her with unrestrained reverence. He was an involved father who cheered for his children at their school plays and football and baseball games. He loved to read and possessed a roving curiosity about everything from politics to sports to history to science. When he wasn't talking shop, he would engage people in conversations about the nature of time and eternity, the origins of the universe, whether intelligent life truly existed in Washington, D.C.

What defined Glen Moore, more than anything else, was his belief in God. Raised in the Baptist faith, he had been saved at the age of 12. All these years later, he prayed every day and served as a deacon at his church. Though he tried to avoid forcing his views on others, especially at the station, he found it hard to understand why everyone did not believe in God. To him, there was an abundance of undeniable, irrefutable proof of God's existence; God, he believed, was an artist without compare whose works were on display for anyone with eyes to see. It was there in the staggering diversity of creatures multiplying across the planet. It was there in the brilliance of the stars exploding in the sky.

"Who am I to challenge the wonders of this universe?" he would say. "It's all around us . . . God's creation is all around us."

Moore was deeply conservative. He saw the Bible as God's word, meant to be interpreted literally. He thought the theory of evolution was ridiculous. He believed that the country was coming apart and the apocalypse was close at hand. He was not one of these doom-and-gloom types, always waving signs proclaiming that the end was near; he didn't run his life that way and didn't teach his children to do so, either. Still, he believed in God's judgment and did his best to conduct himself accordingly.

He was perfectly capable of getting along with people who did not share his views. He had no trouble surviving in the modern, politically correct working world of the 1990s. In many ways, he was a progressive-minded boss. He was not particularly focused on hierarchy, did not feel the need to wave his rank or his seniority over those he worked with. He was a good listener, and encouraged those who worked for him to speak their minds. Time and again, he insisted that his detectives pull themselves away from their cases and take time for their families.

"Go home," he would tell them. "Get out of here."

Like anyone else, Moore had his flaws. He could be impatient, bullheaded and overbearing; some people in the department saw him as arrogant. He had a tendency, from time to time, to think he was always right. A perfectionist, he sometimes had difficulty letting go when things didn't proceed exactly as he saw fit. That's when other people would give him the speech.

"Glen, go back to your office," they would say. "Sit in that little room and forget about it."

But Moore wasn't good at forgetting. He also struggled sometimes with keeping his temper; during his younger years with the department, he occasionally exploded without warning.

Once, in an almost legendary episode when he was still with vice and narcotics, he lost it with another officer who swiped one of his apples. At the time, Moore was preparing for a body-building competition and was suffering under a Draconian diet that allowed him almost no sweets, no fats, virtually no food at all. He was training at the gym one day, looking forward to eating an apple that awaited him as his reward _ a Red Delicious apple, to be precise _ when he realized that this officer, who worked out at the same gym, had taken the apple and eaten it. Suddenly Moore was lifting the poor guy off his feet and pushing him against the wall.

"Don't you ever touch one of my apples again," he told him.

In retrospect, Moore acknowledges that he came slightly unhinged that day. Later he apologized to the officer, and they remained friends.

Moore didn't like losing his temper and had worked over the years at learning how to stay calm. His belief in God, he said, had helped him with that task.

His faith transformed the way he approached everything. Guided by his belief in the Bible, he was motivated by a strict and unwavering sense of morality. He did not agree with taking the easy way out, was not afraid to take an unpopular stand when he believed it was the correct thing to do.

"What's right is right," he liked to say. "Truth is truth."

Some people might have been surprised to learn that a veteran police officer, having seen so much ambiguity and complexity, would view life in such simple, black and white terms. But these were his beliefs, and Moore made no apologies. His faith was exactly the rudder he needed to navigate his way through the grueling, emotionally draining work in homicide. As he and his detectives sorted through the growing pile of cases before them, Moore was witness to some of the best and much of the worst of human behavior. To him, their job was part of the ongoing war between good and evil.

And when he looked over at the black notebooks from the Rogers case, he was determined to do everything possible to solve the murders and bring the killer to justice. To Moore, it was obvious that he and the other investigators were searching for someone possessed by a darkness beyond understanding. Someone who thought of people as objects to be manipulated and tortured and thrown away. Someone who had no remorse, no guilt, no conscience.

If Moore and his detectives didn't catch this person, who would? If they did not demand that the killer be held responsible for the deaths of three human beings, then who else would do it? Who else was left? Who else could speak for Jo and Michelle and Christe?

No one.

Late that spring, as the one-year anniversary of the murders approached, Moore went to one of his superiors, Maj. Cliff Fouts, and told him he wanted to do a review of the case. He wanted to gather a team of new investigators _ people who would look with fresh eyes _ and have them pore over the case books and talk to the original investigators and then see what shook loose.

Okay, said the major.

That June, Moore put together his team, using several detectives who were new to the case as well as an investigator from the state attorney's office and a former St. Petersburg police detective who was now a special agent for the FBI, assigned to the bureau's Tampa office. They took the notebooks off the shelf and read through them and then sat down in a room with Jim Kappel and Ralph Pflieger, another experienced detective who had worked extensively on the case, and started emptying their brains of everything they had learned and everything they wondered and everything they considered.

Moore and his team had a list of items they wanted to go over with Kappel and Pflieger. It was a long and tough and sobering list, with close to 150 questions in all, and it took several days to go through. The process was not fun. Attempts were made to reassure Kappel and Pflieger, to remind them their efforts had been appreciated, to tell them they were not being criticized or attacked.

These efforts were not entirely successful. No one likes to be second-guessed, especially by a group of inquisitive, intelligent people who are trained in finding holes and who are all now playing devil's advocate as they comb through every step you've taken for the past year. Moore and others who took part in the review all agree that Kappel and Pflieger grew frustrated during the questioning, that they felt as though they were being subjected to a marathon grilling.

For their part, Kappel and Pflieger say today that they understood the reason for the review and tried not to take it personally. Still, they had given the investigation everything they had. Pflieger was so obsessed with the case, he often dreamed about Michelle and Christe; in these dreams, he would see the girls still alive, walking the halls at school and milking cows on the farm.

Looking back on the review, the two investigators acknowledge that the sessions were sometimes difficult and even exasperating. Kappel remembers some verbal sparring. Pflieger says it felt as though the quality of his work was being questioned.

Either way, the two of them told the new team that they had tried everything they could think of, that there was nothing new to be explored.

"We did that," they said repeatedly. "It's already been done."

Moore and the other members of the team did not agree. Two weeks after the review began, Moore's team concluded that many things had not been done. They discovered, says Moore, that the Clearwater Beach brochure recovered from the Rogers car _ the one marked with the handwritten directions showing the family how to reach the motel _ had never been processed for prints. Other items found in the car and in the motel room, Moore reports, had never been processed, either. Many of the hundreds of tips that had come pouring in at various points during the investigation had not been pursued.

Moore had little interest in casting blame or pointing fingers for any oversights. He knew that Kappel and Pflieger and all the other investigators had done their best under extremely difficult circumstances.

But somewhere along the line, Moore believed, too many people had bought into the argument that this case could not be solved. As far as he was concerned, the most devastating error had not come in the handling of evidence or in how many calls were or were not made. It had been in the minds of the investigators and their superiors. The reason they had not gotten anywhere, he thought, was because they had decided there was nowhere to possibly go.

Moore, too stubborn to know better, saw things differently. And now, after typing a 10-page memo detailing the findings of the review, he had the proof to show his commanding officers that there was a great deal of work to be done. He did not have to be particularly blunt about it, either. The bottom line was so obvious:

The Rogers case was not dead unless they killed it themselves.

Faced with Moore's memo, the commanding officers didn't really have much choice. Moore asked for more time. They gave it to him. He asked for two new detectives, both from the team that did the review. They approved it. He requested that these detectives be allowed to work exclusively on the Rogers case. They granted it.

Yes, they said. Do it.

Go.

Jo Ann Steffey had decided.

The deputy in her class. She would tell him about her neighbor.

Steffey had been watching the man down the street closely ever since she first suspected him. She tried to keep an eye on his house, tried to notice everything she could about him. But even though she wanted to tell the police about him, she still did not want her name brought into the case.

That was why she thought of the Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy. They were in an accounting class together at Tampa College _ Steffey was working on a business degree _ and Steffey knew he was a deputy because he often came to class in his uniform. If she told him, maybe he could keep it unofficial.

They were in class a couple of days later. Steffey waited for a break, then followed the deputy out into the hall and into the break room and sat down beside him. She said she had to talk to him.

She told him about her neighbor and the composite drawing and the similarities between him and the man the detectives were looking for. She thought it was important that her information be passed along, but she preferred to be kept out of the investigation.

"I don't want to be involved," she told him.

The deputy nodded.

Sgt. Moore and his team started like this:

Inside the office where they worked, there was a white bulletin board, and they covered it with photos of the Calais at the boat ramp and Room 251 at the Days Inn and what remained of Jo and Michelle and Christe after they were recovered from the water.

Among these photos, they also hung pictures from Ohio, from when the three women were alive. There was one of Jo folding clothes, a school portrait of Michelle and a shot of Christe with her pouffed-up bangs. After a while, the evidence photos were taken down from the bulletin board to be replaced by other photos and maps and reports. But the family pictures stayed up, spurring the team onward.

Not that the new team needed to be pushed. The two detectives that Moore had requested _ Cindy Cummings and J.J. Geoghegan _ were both highly motivated self-starters, full of energy and ideas.

Working with Moore, the two of them began to fill in the gaps left open during the first year of investigation. Jim Kappel worked with them for a while, but soon he and Moore agreed it was best he move on. Kappel, ready for a change, transferred to another division and became a school resource officer.

Moore, Cummings and Geoghegan went back to the beginning and took it step by step. They re-interviewed guests who had been staying at the Days Inn when the Rogers women disappeared. They studied the snapshot of the sunset that the family had taken outside Room 251 and tried to ascertain exactly what time it was shot, so they could pin down more accurately when Jo and the girls left the motel for the last time.

They looked through all the items gathered from the car and the motel room and from the bodies. They sent the Clearwater Beach brochure and other items to be processed for fingerprints. As it happened, there were several unidentified prints on the brochure, possibly left by the person who had written the directions to the Days Inn.

They began investigating the tips that had never been checked out. Some of these tips seemed promising at first, but one by one they all faded into nothing.

What they did not do that summer was pursue the information that Jo Ann Steffey had passed along to the Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy in her accounting class. They didn't pursue it because they did not know about it. Either the deputy did not report it, or his report was disregarded, or the information was somehow lost. For whatever reason, the tip did not reach Moore and his team.

The truth was, they were already overloaded with everything before them. It wasn't just the tips that had never been checked out. It was keeping track of all the tips that had been pursued, and keeping track of all the information from those tips, and keeping track of all the facts from all the interviews and statements and reports in the case. They were flooded with information.

Which is why that fall, the police department sent Moore to England. The British police had a computer system called HOLMES _ the acronym was far more enticing than the full name, Home Office Large Major Enquiry System _ that had been used, two years before, in the bombing of the Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. HOLMES was designed to help investigators organize huge amounts of information. Though it had never been used in the United States, it was perfect for the Rogers case; even better, the company that owned it _ McDonnell Douglas _ was eager to share it with the St. Petersburg police, so other law enforcement agencies would be encouraged to buy it. The company was willing to donate the system and to help pay for the training required to use it.

Moore spent a week in England, studying HOLMES and how it was being used at Scotland Yard. When he returned to St. Petersburg, he was convinced that the system was just what the team working the Rogers case needed. So he asked Larry Heim, another detective with expertise in computers, to join the investigation and serve as the HOLMES administrator, overseeing the use of the new system. Heim was eager to help in any way he could; when he looked at the photos of the two Rogers girls on the bulletin board, he saw his own two children staring back at him.

In the weeks that followed, Heim and the other detectives and the office assistants working with the investigation took classes on how to put the system to work. The computer training was long and dull and mind-numbing. But at last Moore and the investigators had a way to stay on top of the river of information.

HOLMES had arrived just in time. The river of information was about to overflow its banks. Moore and his team were due in several weeks to visit the FBI's behavioral science unit at the bureau's academy in Quantico, Va. This is the unit, popularized in novels and movies such as The Silence of the Lambs, that specializes in developing psychological profiles of killers in unsolved cases. Moore and the team would share everything they had learned about the case, and the FBI profilers would offer advice on what kind of person they were looking for.

Before they headed for Quantico, however, the detectives had another trip before them: They were going to Ohio. Among other tasks, they wanted to talk to Hal Rogers.

Hal had been interviewed before, back at the beginning. Now Moore and the other investigators wanted to question him again.

They doubted that Hal had anything to do with the murders. But as long as they were going over everything in the case, it made sense to give Hal a second look.

They also wanted to talk to as many people as possible who had known Jo and Michelle and Christe. Both for their purposes and the FBI's, they needed to understand the trio's emotional state at the time of the vacation. Would the awful experiences of the past several years _ the allegations Michelle had made against her uncle John, the bitter split in the family over who was telling the truth _ have left Jo and the girls more suspicious of people and therefore more reluctant to get on a boat with a stranger? Or would those experiences have made them more likely to trust a fresh, new face? The more they understood about the Rogers women, the easier it might be to figure exactly how they had died and who had killed them.

Cummings and Geoghegan made the trip late that January, accompanied by Jim Ramey, the FBI agent who had sat in on the review. They flew into Fort Wayne, Ind., just across the state line from Van Wert County. As their plane made its descent, Geoghegan _ a Florida boy, through and through _ looked out the window and asked why there was so much sand on the fields below.

Cummings and Ramey laughed.

"That's snow, dummy."

The three of them had not told Hal they were coming. They wanted to show up unannounced, so he would have no chance to prepare and so they could see the unrehearsed reaction on his face when they arrived. To maximize the possibility of surprise, they decided to fly up on Sunday, Jan. 27, because that was the day the New York Giants were playing the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium. If Hal had anything to do with the murders, and was worried about detectives coming up from Florida, they figured that Super Bowl Sunday _ when half the law enforcement officers in Tampa Bay would be working some sort of detail or watching the game _ would be a day when he would almost certainly not expect any visitors carrying badges.

That Sunday afternoon, when Cummings and Geoghegan and Ramey stepped off the plane in Fort Wayne, they drove straight to the farm. When they got there, Hal was in the house, asleep on the couch. He came to the door, saw them and calmly said hello.

"Come on in," he said, inviting them into the living room as though they were neighbors from down the road.

They interviewed him there in the house. As they asked their questions, they saw, all around them, signs that this was a man paralyzed with grief and denial. Michelle's and Christe's bedrooms were clean and tidy, exactly as they had left them before the trip to Florida; it was as though the girls were going to walk back in at any moment. Eighteen months had passed, but Hal had not been able to bring himself to put away their belongings. The rest of the place was a wreck. Clothes were scattered everywhere, the bathroom was beyond redemption, the litter box for the cats did not appear to have been emptied for weeks. It was not a home anymore, but a place where someone wandered through what was left of his life.

The investigators felt for Hal, but did not hold back. He sat in a recliner, they pulled up chairs and surrounded him. They took turns firing away with their questions. They tried to catch him in contradictions, tried to stump him, did their best to throw him off. They even tried to get a rise out of him.

"Did you kill them?" they asked.

Hal shook his head and said no, he did not. He was not defensive, did not appear nervous, just looked them straight in the eye and answered their questions.

He talked about how much he missed Jo and the girls, especially Christe. His little girl, he called her. He said he appreciated all their efforts to catch the killer, but wasn't sure that knowing who had done this would help him. It was hard enough that they were gone, he said. Wouldn't it just be that much worse if the police caught someone and he was forced to learn all the gruesome details of how it had happened?

Though he did not shirk questions that touched on his feelings, Hal made no attempt to solicit their sympathy. As usual, he underplayed his pain.

"I have good days and bad days," he told them. "I try to keep busy."

Several hours later, when the investigators left the farm, they had learned nothing that would cast suspicion on Hal. To begin with, he didn't appear to have had the opportunity or motive to arrange the murders. Although his wife and daughters had been covered by life insurance policies, the money Hal had received _ Cummings recalls that it was just under $70,000, but Hal believes it was closer to $100,000 _ was hardly enough incentive to kill one's entire family. After their years in law enforcement, the detectives thought they knew enough to tell when someone was lying or putting on a show. Geoghegan said he would have bet a month's salary that Hal was clean.

The three investigators stayed in Ohio for 10 days. They interviewed more than 70 people. They talked to Hal two more times. They talked to Jo's co-workers, to Michelle's and Christe's friends, to their teachers, to the counselors who had worked with Michelle after she told the police about her uncle, to neighbors who knew Hal and the rest of the family. They even drove to the prison in Lima, Ohio, where John Rogers was incarcerated, and interviewed him.

By the time they had packed their bags and were ready to leave, they were convinced that neither Hal nor John was involved in the murders, that the killer, or killers, was not from Van Wert Couty.

Whoever they were after, he was somewhere in Florida.

Before they left, the investigators made a trip to the little cemetery where Jo and Michelle and Christe were buried. They wanted to view the graves themselves, so they could know as much as possible about the Rogers family and so they would remember.

So when they were back at their desks and frustrated and beyond exhaustion and not sure what to do next, they would think of this place and keep going.

They arrived at the cemetery to find it blanketed in a freshly fallen layer of snow. It covered the ground and lay in thin ridges along the tops of the headstones. There were still no stones marking the Rogers graves, but the detectives knew where to look. Hal had told them about the copper markers in the ground. He had also told them that Christe's friends, remembering how much she had loved teddy bears, had left a collection of the stuffed animals on her grave.

The investigators walked down the rows, their breaths forming tiny clouds, the snow crunching under their shoes, until they reached the place where the three women were buried. But they could not see anything. The graves were hidden in the snow.

They got onto their knees and dug through the snow with their bare hands until they uncovered the markers and the bears. Then they stood up and held still for a moment, saying nothing. They looked at the graves and looked at the fields around them and looked at the church across the street where Michelle and Christe had prayed and sung and gone to Sunday school and learned about sin and forgiveness and the glories of eternal life.

When they had seen enough, they drove away.

The rumors about Hal were flourishing.

Ever since the case began, Van Wert County residents had been whispering about him, saying he was strange, noting how he had yet to cry or break down in public, wondering if he might have had something to do with the murders of his wife and daughters. Now, after the visit by the investigators from Florida, the gossip took on new life. People were talking about all the time the detectives had spent in Ohio and all the questions they'd asked about Hal and his family. They had even more to talk about a few weeks later, when a Tampa Tribune reporter came to Van Wert and started making some inquiries of his own.

One day the reporter showed up at Hal's door. He told Hal he had heard about the investigators' visit and was working on a story about what it meant.

Hal talked to the man for only a few moments before he understood what was happening. Then he told him to get out.

"If he walked in today," says Hal, "I'd poke him clear into yesterday. I should have shot the son of a bitch when he was here."

The Tribune printed the reporter's article late that April on the front page. The story was long, brimming with detail and driven by an unmistakable point of view. It said that the police investigation had shifted back to Ohio and the Rogers family. It described Hal as "a hot-tempered, distant man who hid his eyes behind dark glasses." It talked about how Hal had posted his brother John's bond in the rape case and about the questions raised by the bond. It talked about how Hal had failed to put headstones on his family's graves. Over and over, it quoted people who described Hal as cold, bizarre, distant.

"I don't have any idea what goes on behind those eyes," the Rev. Gary Luderman, the pastor who had delivered the eulogy at the funeral, was quoted as saying from his new post at a church in Niagara Falls. "They look dead. Everything about him is so controlled, so withdrawn. I just don't know what goes on inside that man. I've never experienced anyone like him."

The story did not say so out loud, but the point was clear enough:

Hal Rogers was suspect number one.

The word from Quantico was not good.

That spring of 1991, after Sgt. Moore and his team shared everything they knew about the case and everything they had learned in Ohio with the FBI's behavioral science unit, the profilers came back with some disturbing conclusions.

According to the FBI profile, the murderer was probably a serial killer. The profile predicted that the killer would turn out to be a white man, possibly between age 30 and 40, of above average intelligence. He was probably neat and meticulous, with strong social skills, affluent enough to own a boat, well hidden behind a persona of respectability. Given the relative difficulties of controlling three victims, the profile said the killer may have been helped by someone else. But if so, the killer would have psychologically dominated this other person.

The profile laid out a chilling description of how the murders had most likely taken place. It said the killer enjoyed the suffering of others and fantasized about such an attack for a long time before carrying it out. He planned the murders carefully, then chose the Rogers women as his specific targets after meeting them in Tampa.

He charmed them, arranged to meet them at the boat ramp, took them out in his boat, then turned on them with a weapon of some sort. He had used the weapon, along with the women's fear of water and their unfamiliarity with the bay, to isolate them and keep them under control until they were tied and gagged. Though he had covered the women's mouths with duct tape, he had left their eyes uncovered so they could see what was happening and so he could enjoy the fear in their eyes. Once they were tied, he probably raped them, weighted them down and pushed them into the water alive, one by one.

The Rogers attack was probably not his first, the profile said, because such predators usually require experience before they are confident enough to approach more than one victim at a time. And because nearly two years had gone by without his being caught, he probably felt confident enough to kill again. Only this time, the profile said, he was likely to have learned from his mistakes in the Rogers case and be more successful at concealing the bodies. Given his confidence, he would probably keep killing until arrested.

One more thing:

The killer owned a boat and knew the area well, both on land and water. He almost certainly lived somewhere around Tampa Bay.

When they delivered their profile, the FBI agents had a piece of advice for Moore.

Use the media, they said. Tell the newspapers and the TV and radio stations what you know and what you're looking for, and then they will tell the public, and then the public will be on your side, helping you search for this man. Because he won't be easy to find, they said. He doesn't look like a monster. He probably appears harmless, has a job, shows every sign of being a responsible, law-abiding citizen.

Moore was listening. Up to now, he had always seen the news media as a necessary evil. Don't tell them anything, he would instruct detectives, unless absolutely necessary. Now the FBI was suggesting the opposite approach.

As it happened, Moore was already thinking a great deal about the media. Specifically, he was worried about the Tampa Tribune article suggesting that Hal Rogers was the prime suspect in the murders. Normally, Moore didn't waste much time poring over what newspapers wrote. But this article was disastrous. If the Tribune was suggesting to its readers that the killer was probably someone in Ohio, then people who lived in Tampa would not be on the lookout for suspects in their back yard.

If the team was going to get the tip it needed to break open this case, the Tribune story _ and all its damaging points about Hal _ had to be countered.

Moore decided to ask Hal to take a lie detector test.

Like the investigators who had traveled to Ohio, Moore had already concluded that Hal had no connection to the homicides. But the sergeant wanted something to back it up, something tangible that he could wave in front of the media so they would believe it and move on. He asked Hal to submit to a polygraph, knowing full well Hal would pass it.

The polygraph, in other words, was not requested to further the investigation. It was requested to redirect the media's coverage of the investigation.

Hal agreed to the test, took it in mid-May and passed.

A week later, Moore called a press conference _ the first of his career _ to talk about the FBI profile, to ask for the public's help, and to state loudly that Hal Rogers was not a suspect, that in fact Hal had taken a lie detector test.

"Mr. Rogers is a victim in this case," Moore said.

Sitting before a room full of microphones and cameras and reporters, the sergeant laid everything out, step by step. He shared the FBI's chilling conclusions. He said that the killer was not from Ohio, but probably from Florida, living nearby. Again and again, he talked about how much his team needed help from anyone with information about the case.

For all his openness, Moore had a hidden agenda. He was not just talking to the press or the public. He was delivering a personal message to the killer.

As he spoke that day, Moore hoped that the man they were after was watching. Because as the second anniversary of the murders approached, he did not want this person to feel too safe. Moore wanted him to know _ wanted him to look into his face and see for himself _ that he and the other detectives were not discouraged and never giving up. Sooner or later, they would track him down.

Staring straight into the cameras, the sergeant announced that the honeymoon was over for the killer.

"We're going to hunt him down until we find him."

That summer, as she drove down her street, Jo Ann Steffey often thought of her neighbor with the blue and white boat.

It had been so long since she had passed along her suspicions to the deputy in her accounting class. Afterward, she had kept watching the house, waiting for a police cruiser to show up in the man's driveway. More than a year had gone by. But she had seen nothing.

Steffey tried to put it out of her mind. Just because she had not seen any officers at the man's house did not mean they hadn't checked him out, she told herself. They must have done their homework. They must have interviewed him and decided he wasn't the one.

Thinking this way made Steffey feel better. She hoped her neighbor had been investigated. But if he hadn't been, she didn't know what to tell the police anymore.

Because the man was no longer her neighbor.

He and his wife and their little girl had moved out months ago with hardly a word to anyone. Didn't say why they were leaving or where they were going. Just packed up a trailer one day and drove away. No one seemed to know their whereabouts, not even the real estate agent trying to sell their house.

They were gone.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement