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Silver Bullet

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. Police are left with few clues. A break comes in October 1989 when a detective notices similarities between the Rogers case and the rape of a Canadian tourist two weeks before the murders. The police also come to believe that the killer is the same unknown person who wrote directions on a brochure found in the Rogers car. But the police overlook a tip that sits among hundreds of other leads yet to be checked. The tip is from a Tampa woman, Jo Ann Steffey, who thinks the killer may be a man who used to live on her street. Frustrated by inaction on the tip, Steffey and some neighbors in mid-1992 push for the police to examine a document showing the man's handwriting. Shortly afterward, investigators conclude that this is indeed the man they are looking for. His name is Oba Chandler. As they close in on him, they assign Chandler a code name to prevent leaks: the Tin Man.

Chapter 5

That summer, three years after the murders, Michelle and Christe were watching the detectives.

Photos of the Rogers girls still hung on a wall of the task force's office on the second floor of the St. Petersburg police station. The most haunting of these pictures, the one that the members of the task force would talk about long after the case was over, was the Christmas shot.

It had been taken in December 1980, when Michelle was 8 and Christe was 6. They are shown standing side by side in front of the Christmas tree. Candy canes and a silver garland and a Santa Claus ornament are hanging off the branches behind them; a small mountain of wrapped presents rises from the floor at their feet. But the most striking aspect of the picture is the girls themselves.

They are dressed up, posing for what was clearly the official holiday portrait. Michelle, chin raised, her long hair held back by white barrettes, is wearing a blue velvet jumper over a long-sleeved white blouse; Christe, her bangs hanging past her eyebrows, is in a rose-colored jumper over a white blouse. Both are wearing white knee socks. Both are standing stiffly, hands behind their backs, neither of them smiling as they stare toward the camera.

The photo had been placed on the wall early in the investigation. Now, as the members of the task force turned their attention toward the new suspect, it stayed up. Day after day, the girls gazed out at them, still alive somehow, standing straight before them, listening, noticing, taking everything in without uttering a word.

Michelle and Christe were waiting.

Sgt. Glen Moore and the other investigators knew that a great deal remained to be done before they could arrest Oba Chandler. They were convinced he was the one; they could feel it. But they did not yet have enough hard evidence to make the case stick in front of a judge. At the moment, about all they had was the similarity between Chandler's handwriting and the writing on the brochure, the proximity of his home to the water and to the boat ramp where Jo and the girls had disappeared, plus Chandler's strong resemblance to the composite drawing provided by the Canadian woman who had been raped in the boat off Madeira Beach two weeks before the murders.

So far, they didn't even have enough to charge him in the rape.

They needed much, much more. They needed to put Chandler under the microscope, to learn whatever they could about him, to track down every possible piece of evidence. And they needed to head across the state of Florida to his new home on the east coast, in Port Orange, and place him under surveillance.

Which meant they needed the approval of Mack Vines.

Vines was the assistant city manager running the St. Petersburg police department. As far as Moore was concerned, Vines had never shown much enthusiasm for the Rogers investigation. If anything, Moore thought, Vines seemed tired of it.

Like so many others in the department, Vines was concerned about the time and money that were being devoted to a case that had stymied all the investigators and had shown no sign of moving toward an arrest. Vines had given Moore and his task force until the end of the summer to produce some results. Otherwise, he had said, he would review the status of the investigation and decide what to do with the task force.

By this point it was mid-August. The deadline was almost up. But now things were different. The detectives on the task force had a strong suspect. They were barreling toward an arrest. Surely Vines would give them more time as well as approval for taking the investigation over to Chandler's home in Port Orange.

Moore and his immediate superiors, Lt. Gary Hitchcox and Maj. Lois Worlds, went together to Vines' office to tell him about Chandler. Moore thought Vines would be excited. At the very least, he expected Vines to congratulate them, to tell them how pleased he was that three years of investigation had finally paid off.

What happened next is the subject of some disagreement. Moore recalls it like this:

Instead of congratulating them, he says, Vines exploded. For the next several minutes, he vented at Moore, telling him he couldn't believe what he was hearing. He said he had thought they were almost done with this case, but no. Here was Moore, saying they had a suspect they wanted to place under surveillance, insisting they needed more time, more money, more support.

"What have you done?" Moore recalls Vines saying. "You've backed me into a corner."

Moore sat there, stunned at what he was hearing. Beside him, he says, Hitchcox and Worlds appeared to be in shock as well. Maybe they had approached Vines the wrong way or had simply wandered into his office on a bad day. But for whatever reason, the assistant city manager was giving Moore the worst chewing out of his 22 years on the police force.

Vines went on and on. Moore just listened, not sure how to respond. What could he possibly say?

"Okay," he told his boss.

When he left Vines' office, Moore's face was bright red and his veins were popping out of his neck. He was so angry he could barely contain himself. He had to get away, had to go someplace where he could let it out. So he went to the stairwell and climbed to the roof of the police station.

Moore stood there, looking out over the city, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Today, Vines says he has only a vague recollection of the meeting with Moore and the others. He doubts that he would have exploded _ it's not his style, he says _ but does recall a disagreement over exactly how the task force should proceed. As much as he respects Moore, he says the sergeant's intensity for the Rogers case sometimes made him a challenge for those above him.

Vines called Moore later that day. Moore says the assistant city manager apologized to him for overreacting at the meeting; Vines says he remembers making no such apology. Either way, Vines told Moore that the investigators on the task force would have his support to pursue the new suspect. They could have their extra time. They could go to the east coast and put the suspect under surveillance.

Whatever they needed to get the job done.

In reality, there was no danger of the investigation suddenly halting that day in Vines' office. From the moment Oba Chandler was identified, there was no turning back.

Suddenly everything in the case accelerated. The task force quickly grew, taking on additional investigators from the St. Petersburg police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In addition, Moore and the others were working closely with prosecutors from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. The state attorney's office had been involved in the Rogers case since the first day of the investigation, when the bodies of Jo and Michelle and Christe were pulled from the water. Now, as the task force zeroed in on Chandler, top assistants from the office were meeting with the task force almost daily. Ultimately, it would be up to them to decide whether there was enough evidence to take the case to trial.

Moore and the rest of the detectives were doing their best to gather that evidence. Investigators were fanning out across Florida and into the Midwest, piecing together as much as they could about Chandler.

What they learned only bolstered their suspicions.

Chandler had been in trouble with the law since he was a boy. He was a con man and a career criminal, with a slew of aliases and fictitious identities, a prison record, and a history of disturbing, sometimes violent behavior with women. He had joined the Marines, but had deserted shortly afterward. He had been married numerous times _ the exact number was difficult to determine _ and had fathered eight children with seven women. Through the years, he had claimed to be an X-ray technician, a mechanical draftsman, an apartment manager, an aluminum contractor.

He seemed to enjoy frightening people. He had repeatedly threatened those around him, put them on edge, hurt them. For a while, as a younger man, he drove a black van decorated with a mural on the side, showing a motorcycle rider speeding through a graveyard.

The basic details of Chandler's history were easy enough to track down. Born on Oct. 11, 1946, in Cincinnati, a hundred miles or so from where the Rogers women grew up, he was the fourth of five children of Oba Chandler Sr. and Margaret Johnson. When Oba Jr. was 10, his father hanged himself in the basement of the family's apartment. One cousin, who attended the funeral, later reported that Oba Jr. jumped into the open grave as the gravediggers were covering the coffin with dirt.

"Every time another shovel of dirt got throwed in," the cousin said, "the boy would jump in and stomp it down."

Others in the family would deny this account. Either way, Oba Jr.'s life soon spun out of control. He was stealing cars by age 14 and was arrested 20 times while he was a juvenile. As an adult, he was charged with a long list of crimes, including possession of counterfeit money, loitering and prowling, burglary, kidnapping and armed robbery. Once he was accused of masturbating while peering inside a woman's window; another time, with receiving 21 wigs stolen from a beauty parlor.

On another occasion, Chandler and an accomplice broke into the home of a Florida couple and held them at gunpoint while robbing them. Chandler told his accomplice to tie up the man with speaker wire and then took the woman into the bedroom, where he made her strip to her underwear and tied her up, too. While she lay on the bed, he rubbed the barrel of his revolver across the woman's stomach.

On May 14, 1988, Chandler had married Debra Ann Whiteman, a Tarpon Springs woman. They were wed just 10 days after she divorced her previous husband. Seven months later, the two of them had bought a three-bedroom home on Dalton Avenue, just down the street from Jo Ann Steffey, the woman who would later report her suspicions about Oba Chandler to the police. In February 1989, Debra Chandler gave birth to a daughter, Whitney.

The Dalton Avenue house was located on a canal with access to Tampa Bay. Behind the house were two davits, which Chandler used to lower his Bayliner powerboat into the water.

A quick check with state records showed that Chandler had owned the Bayliner in 1989, at the time of both the rape of the Canadian tourist and the Rogers murders. He had sold the boat three months after the murders.

Records from the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles also showed that during the same period Chandler had owned a dark blue Jeep Cherokee, strikingly similar to the vehicle driven by the man who had raped the Canadian tourist. He was the registered owner of the Jeep until the following year, when it was repossessed.

In the summer of 1990 _ as new articles about the Rogers investigation appeared in the newspapers, reporting that the case was soon to be featured on Unsolved Mysteries _ Chandler and his wife and young daughter abruptly cleared out of the Dalton Avenue house. They moved away and stopped making house payments. Later that year, after failing to locate the couple, the bank that held the mortgage foreclosed on the house and sold it.

Chandler had moved to the east coast of Florida. The investigators learned that for a brief time he and his family had lived in Broward County. But by October 1991, the Chandlers were leasing a house _ not eager to have their credit problems follow them, the couple put the lease in 3-year-old Whitney's name _ in Port Orange, near Daytona Beach. They still lived there, on the southwest side of town, in a middle-class subdivision known as the Woods.

Chandler's neighbors later would describe him as a normal, friendly man. They didn't know what he did for a living _ as far as they could tell, he was unemployed _ but he seemed nice. He had a new boat, and sometimes he offered rides to neighborhood children, asking them to join him fishing.

The investigators sent Chandler's handwriting to an analyst with the FDLE, who confirmed that it matched the directions written on the Clearwater Beach brochure.

They got his prints from his prison and probation records, then sent them to another analyst, who concluded that one of the prints found on the brochure _ a palm print _ had come from Chandler's right hand.

They sent law enforcement officers to Volusia County to begin the surveillance of Chandler's home.

They had a device placed on Chandler's phone line, keeping a record of every call into or out of the house.

Early in September, as all these other assignments were being carried out, two investigators _ Katy Connor-Dubina, a St. Petersburg police detective, and John Halliday, an FDLE agent who had worked with the task force for more than a year _ flew to Toronto to interview the Canadian tourist who had been raped in the waters off Madeira Beach back in May 1989, two weeks before the murders.

They interviewed her one Thursday evening in a hotel room. Knowing how difficult it would be to talk about something so painful, they did their best to make her feel comfortable. Before she arrived, they bought some yellow daisies at a market and placed them in a bottle in the room.

The woman was almost 27 now, recently married, employed as a social worker. More than three years had passed since that day when she had joined the man out on the gulf in his blue and white boat. But she had no trouble recalling details. She explained how she and her girlfriend were on vacation that week in Madeira Beach, how they met the man one night in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, how she wound up talking to him and agreeing to join him the next day on his boat, how he seemed disappointed and even angry when her girlfriend wouldn't join them.

She described the man and said he was wearing faded jeans and a mint green, cotton mesh shirt. She described the boat and its engine, which she remembered was a Volvo engine, painted yellow. She talked about how, just before the man changed, the night grew so still and quiet and how she began to feel so uncomfortable. Through the silence, she said, she heard a bell from a nearby buoy, ringing over and over.

Once again, she recalled the things he had said to her when she tried to get away from him.

"What are you going to do? Jump out of the boat?" he asked her. "Is sex something worth losing your life over?"

The man threatened to cover her mouth with duct tape, she said. He pulled down her shorts and the bottom of her bathing suit. She tried to persuade him to stop, told him she was a virgin, but this only seemed to spur him on.

Connor-Dubina told her they had some photos to show her. The man who had raped her, the detective said, may or may not be in the photos.

The detective asked the woman to look at all the photos before making a decision. Then she opened an envelope and pulled out six photos, each showing a different man.

The Canadian woman held the photos in a stack in her hand, looking at them one by one. When she reached the third photo, she raised it closer to see more clearly. Her face grew flushed.

She looked through the remaining photos, going through them all before she stopped.

"You really want to know?" she said.

She pulled the third photo from the middle of the stack and threw it down in front of the investigators.

"My initial reaction is him."

It was Oba Chandler.

Connor-Dubina asked her to sign the photo and mark it with the time and date. The woman did it, then asked for a favor.

Would it be okay if she turned the photo over, she said, so she didn't have to look at it anymore?

"It's really bothering me."

The detectives had company with them in Toronto.

Joining them on the trip was one of the assistants from the state attorney's office. As Halliday and Connor-Dubina questioned the Canadian woman, this prosecutor sat in a nearby hotel room, waiting.

After the woman had given her statement, the prosecutor carefully questioned her again. He needed to hear her account and study her with his own eyes, so he could evaluate how well her testimony would hold up in court. Now that she had picked out Chandler's photo, was that enough to make an arrest? To win a conviction?

The prosecutor thought so. The Canadian woman, he believed, was an exceptionally strong witness _ articulate and credible, and willing to tell her story in front of a jury.

The time had come to move. The assistant state attorney and his colleagues from the state still wanted more evidence before seeking an indictment against Chandler in the Rogers murders, but there was enough to arrest him for the Madeira Beach rape. It was a serious charge, carrying a possible life sentence. They would use it to get him off the street, then keep strengthening the Rogers case until they had enough to prove those charges as well.

They wrote up an arrest warrant and took it to a judge to be signed. By this point the surveillance units in Volusia County were working around the clock. Keeping track of Chandler's movements had expanded into a huge operation. Now the task force comprised 40 to 50 law enforcement officers, fielded from the St. Petersburg police, the FDLE and the FBI. They worked out of a command post a few miles from Chandler's house, taking over an empty business office. Officers had stationed a video camera near Chandler's house, pointed toward the driveway and front door; a couple of blocks away, they had rented a house and converted it into a small watching post. Members of the task force kept track of a monitor showing them the feed from the video camera. If anyone came out of the Chandler house or pulled up the driveway or ran across the front yard, they would see it immediately.

Whenever Chandler left, he was followed. At any one time, there were as many as six or seven units in unmarked cars assigned to track of his movements. To avoid alerting Chandler to their presence _ getting "burned," the surveillance people called it _ they rotated the ground units so that no one vehicle stayed anywhere near him for long.

The FBI had donated the use of two of the bureau's single-engine Cessnas to assist the ground units. From before dawn till late at night, one of the planes stayed high above Chandler's house, circling endlessly; when that plane had to refuel or the pilot needed a rest, the two-man team in the other Cessna would take over. If Chandler pulled out of the driveway, whichever plane was in the sky _ the air unit was called Eagle _ would follow. A spotter seated next to the pilot would watch Chandler's movements, making sure they stayed with him.

"Okay," they would say, speaking over the radio to the units on the ground, "Eagle has the eyeball."

The surveillance was just beginning to settle into a routine when the prosecutors came to Volusia County with the arrest warrant. The plan was to take Chandler into custody on the rape charge. Glen Moore and a couple of other investigators would then try to question him. Moore and the other investigators had a strategy for how to conduct the interview. They had been rehearsing how it would go. They were going to get him in a room at the FBI's Daytona Beach office and show him photos of Jo and Michelle and Christe, both after they were dead and when they were very much alive. Then, they hoped, he would start to talk.

They were set to go on Thursday, Sept. 17. But that morning, an hour or so before they were to arrest him, something unexpected happened.

Chandler walked out of his house, got into his car, a blue Toyota Corolla, and drove out of town.

"Do you want us to take him down?"

The surveillance teams on the ground were calling the command post on their radios, trying to determine what to do as Chandler got onto Interstate 95 North. Should they arrest him now? Or should they let him drive?

Back at the command post, a debate was under way. Now that the officers had an arrest warrant in hand, some members of the task force thought Chandler should be immediately taken into custody. But others, including Lt. Hitchcox, thought it better to wait. Moore and the other two investigators who would attempt to question Chandler were still preparing for the interview. Besides, none of them could say for sure where Chandler was headed. Maybe he was just making a short trip and would soon be back.

Why not just keep following and see where he goes?

"We're not gonna stop him," Hitchcox told the ground units.

So off they went, trailing the blue Corolla, doing their rotations and keeping their distance to avoid getting burned. Above them, one of the FBI's Cessnas followed overhead, orbiting Chandler's car as it continued northward along the interstate.

A little while later, he turned off I-95 and headed west on State Road 40, cutting through the center of the state until he reached I-75 and turned northward again. He stayed on I-75 for a long time. He was a half-hour or so away from the Georgia border when the officers back at the command post in Volusia County decided that the units had followed him long enough. Once he was within a few miles of the state line, they instructed the teams, Chandler was to be stopped and taken into custody.

Before they had the chance, though, Chandler got off the interstate. This time he headed into Lake City, just south of where I-75 intersects with I-10. The surveillance teams followed him as he drove into town and watched him stop at a car stereo business. Falling back to avoid detection, the ground units waited for the blue Corolla to leave.

Right around this time, two things occurred to complicate the surveillance. First, the Cessna that had followed the Corolla up from Volusia County was low on fuel; the crew members needed to break off and find a nearby airport. The second plane quickly arrived to take its place, but by then a thunderstorm was raging in the skies above Lake City, making it harder to keep track of what was happening below.

The ground units were having trouble seeing, too. The heavy rain was obscuring the officers' view.

Then it happened.

One of the ground units observed Chandler coming out of the car stereo store and driving away.

"We got some movement," someone said over the radio. "Target is mobile."

They tried to follow him away from the store. But they were in an unfamiliar city, making their way through a driving rain.

Suddenly the radio crackled with urgency.

"Who has the eyeball?"

No answer from the other units.

"Who has the eyeball?"

Still no answer.

"Where did he go?"

Silence.

In the sickening moments that followed those transmissions, units scrambled in every direction to find the blue Corolla. They searched north and southward on I-75. They searched east and west on I-10.

No luck.

The news that they had lost Chandler swept through the task force like another thunderstorm. People were yelling. People were swearing. Some were furious that the decision had been made not to arrest Chandler earlier, when they had the chance in Volusia County.

A hundred questions and possibilities dangled before them. Had they been burned? Did Chandler spot the surveillance? Or had he just slipped away without any idea that dozens of law enforcement officers were on his tail?

The worst question, the question that would plague the investigators and keep some of them awake for many nights, was this:

What if their suspect killed someone else?

Glen Moore was frustrated and upset like everyone else. But as far as he could tell, there was no evidence that Chandler had detected the surveillance. Chandler's wife and daughter were still at the house in Port Orange, which suggested that he was probably coming back.

The only thing they could do now was wait for him to show up.

So they returned to their Port Orange command post, watched the monitor showing the video surveillance of Chandler's property, paid close attention to phone calls to the house. As the days passed, a series of calls came in from phone numbers in Cincinnati and from across the Ohio River, in northern Kentucky. The FBI dispatched agents to those locations, but they didn't find Chandler.

Moore and the others assumed Chandler was visiting old haunts up north. To some of the investigators, this suggested that their suspect was not on the run, but was merely on a trip and would soon be back.

They kept on waiting.

That Sunday, as usual, Moore went to church. Since he couldn't go to his own Baptist church back in Pinellas County, he opened the Volusia County phone book and found a Baptist church nearby. Moore asked Cindy Cummings if she wanted to join him. Cindy said yes.

The sermon that particular day at the church was on the subject of forgiveness. The minister talked about how hard it was to forgive, but how crucial, especially when it was hard. He said that even someone who has committed terrible sins _ someone like Ted Bundy, he said _ can be forgiven if he repents and accepts God into his heart.

As they sat in the pew, listening to this message, Moore and Cummings could not help but relate it to Oba Chandler. But their responses were completely different. Moore agreed with the minister. He believed that Chandler should be arrested and convicted. Even so, if he truly faced up to his sins and begged God's forgiveness, Chandler deserved to be saved and spared the torments of hell.

Cummings did not see it that way. Chandler, she believed, had caused too much pain and suffering. Why, there were people out there _ Hal Rogers, to name just one _ who were still being tortured by Chandler's cruelty.

No, Cummings said to herself. No forgiveness. Let him burn.

More days went by. More waiting.

Then, early on a Thursday afternoon, one week after the surveillance units had lost Chandler in the rain, a call was placed to the house in Port Orange from Georgia. The call was traced to a pay phone just off I-75 in Valdosta, not far from the Florida state line.

Chandler was coming home.

They assumed he would cut across again at some point to I-95 and take it back into Volusia County. So they stationed officers in unmarked cars along the interstate exits, waiting for him to appear. They spotted him at a Port Orange exit. He had just pulled off the highway and stopped at an Amoco gas station when several unmarked units arrived and positioned themselves around his Corolla.

"Get him," someone said over the radio. "Take him down."

Chandler was walking toward the rear of the Corolla when John Halliday, the FDLE agent, approached him.

"Mr. Chandler, you're under arrest. Put your hands on the trunk."

Chandler was calm. He did not resist in any way. But he did ask what he was charged with.

"Sexual battery."

He barely blinked. They handcuffed him and took him back to the FBI office in Daytona Beach, where they tried their long-delayed plan to get him to talk.

It didn't work.

Chandler had been arrested too many times. He knew the routine and was not about to get rattled.

He had nothing to say, he told them. He wanted a lawyer.

Sgt. Moore saw him there, at the FBI office, waiting to be driven across the state to the Pinellas County jail. After wondering for so long what it would be like to finally have a suspect in custody, Moore allowed himself a moment or two to study Chandler.

He had short blond hair, blue eyes, the slightly worn face of a longtime smoker. He was a large man, with a barrel-shaped body and huge forearms, but he did not look particularly violent or particularly evil. He didn't stand out at all.

Not a monster. Just another man.

He was taken back to Pinellas County that night.

Halliday drove, while Chandler sat in the back, his hands cuffed behind him. Jim Ramey, the FBI agent who had assisted with the investigation since early 1990, sat on Chandler's left side.

By now it was well past dark, and as the car headed westward on I-4, retracing the route that the Rogers women had taken to their deaths in Tampa Bay, Chandler talked away with Ramey.

It was the longest conversation he would ever have with any member of the task force. He talked about his daughter Whitney and how much he liked taking her to the park. He talked about selling used cars to high school kids, which was how he said he had been earning a living of late. He tried to cut a deal with Ramey, offering to tell authorities about a man whom he claimed was turning back odometers on cars. Ramey was doing his best to give no indication of what they had on Chandler or how much they knew about him. But he could scarcely believe what he was hearing. Here was Chandler, charged with rape and on the verge of being charged with a triple homicide, and yet he expected to make a deal because he had the dirt on some piddling odometer scheme?

Again and again, Chandler complained about the discomfort of having his hands cuffed behind his back. Was that really necessary? Couldn't they at least cuff him in front?

Ramey thought about Jo and Michelle and Christe and how they were found when they came out of the water. He thought about the concrete blocks around their necks, the rope around their feet, their hands tied behind their backs.

He told Chandler the handcuffs would stay just as they were.

Chandler's first hearing was early the next morning, in a little courtroom inside the Pinellas County jail. The presiding judge read the affidavit supporting the arrest and the charge of rape and kept the bail at $1-million, where it had been set at the time the arrest warrant was signed.

That day, reporters converged on the Rogers farm in Ohio and found Hal outside the barn. He had already heard the news; someone had called him the previous evening. Now, standing in his galoshes and with a feed cap pulled low over his eyes, he didn't want to tell these strangers who he was. It was an old trick, learned in the months immediately after the murders. When reporters showed up at the farm, Hal would pretend to be someone else and would say that Hal Rogers wasn't around right now.

But this time the trick didn't work. The reporters knew who he was and had no intention of leaving without a comment about the arrest. So Hal gave it to them. After all this time, he said, it was difficult to feel overly optimistic.

"It sounds good, but they ain't charged him with nothing," Hal said.

Colleen Etzler, Hal's sister-in-law, was equally cautious.

"That's something we've been praying for," she said when a reporter asked about the arrest. "But they have to prove it still. You see, it means nothing if he walks."

Proving the Madeira Beach rape was one thing. The victim in that crime had identified Chandler as her attacker. But the Rogers women were no longer alive to identify the man who had taken them out on the water on that night so long ago.

So far the best evidence the state had for the murders was Chandler's handwriting and palm print on the brochure. But this only proved that Chandler had met Jo and her daughters, not that he had killed them. There were also the directions Jo had scribbled and left in her car before she disappeared at the boat ramp, suggesting that she and the girls were on their way to meet someone with a blue and white boat. This was incriminating, since Chandler had owned such a boat, but hardly conclusive. At the moment, the prosecution couldn't even prove that Chandler had taken his boat out on the night of the murders.

The lawyers for the state were hoping to bring in the evidence tying Chandler to the rape, pointing out the similarities between that attack and the murders. But it was still up in the air whether a judge would allow such testimony in front of a jury.

No, they had to have more. Something that would directly connect Chandler to the murders. Something that would put him out on the water that night.

What they needed, said one of the state attorney's investigators, was a silver bullet.

They tracked down the Bayliner that Chandler had owned and discovered that not only was it indeed blue and white, but it had a yellow Volvo engine.

They searched through Chandler's old house and through his current one. Inside the master bedroom of the home in Port Orange, they found a mint green, cotton mesh shirt.

They flew the Canadian woman and her friend _ the woman who had accompanied her during the vacation in May 1989 _ to Pinellas County, so they could view a lineup inside the jail. Both identified Chandler.

They talked to one of Chandler's many children, a woman named Kristal Mays, who told them that her father had unexpectedly paid her a visit in Cincinnati in late 1989, just after the composite drawing was made public. During his visit, Mays said, Chandler had told her that he was on the run. The police in Florida, she remembered him saying, were looking for him in the rape of a woman and for killing some women. He was not specific, she said, but she distinctly recalled his statements and how much they had shocked her.

Kristal's husband, Rick Mays, said Chandler had made even more incriminating statements to him. According to Rick, his father-in-law had confessed to raping a couple of women in his boat and throwing at least one woman over the side. Furthermore, he said Chandler had told him he had "murdered three women."

In November, after Rick and Kristal Mays shared these recollections with investigators, the state attorney's office decided it had enough to take its case on the Rogers homicide to the grand jury. After hearing the state's evidence, the grand jury indicted Oba Chandler on three counts of first-degree murder.

The trial was still nearly two years away. This was a massive and complex triple homicide case; there were hundreds of motions to be filed, and hundreds of witnesses to be questioned, and thousands of details for both the state and the defense to weigh before taking the case into court.

Through all the long months that followed, the prosecutors kept up their search for more evidence. The confessions related by Chandler's daughter and son-in-law were good but vague. Furthermore, the defense might have some success raising questions about the couple's motives in stepping forward. Both of them had been terribly treated by Chandler; Rick Mays acknowledged that his father-in-law had once set him up in a drug deal and had pointed a gun at his head.

"Family don't mean shit to me," Mays said Chandler had told him.

Still not enough. Still not the silver bullet they were looking for.

"Somewhere along the line," said Steve Porter, one of the state attorney's investigators, "we're missing something that is going to put this guy away."

By now it was the spring of 1994, several months before the trial was scheduled to begin. Porter was studying Chandler's phone bills, sifting through records that had been obtained under subpoena from GTE. But two crucial records _ the bills for phone service to Chandler's house during the months of May and June 1989 _ were missing.

Investigators had already sought those records, but had been told that GTE had purged them. Porter, however, wasn't ready to give up. That April, he called a contact at GTE, a former FBI agent who now worked security for the company and served as a liaison with law enforcement officers. Was it possible, Porter said, that there were copies of the monthly bills, stored away somewhere?

A day or so later, the prosecution got the break for which they had waited so long. The man from GTE called and reported that the company had in fact found backup copies of the bills.

Examining the newly discovered bills, Porter noticed something intriguing:

On May 15, 1989, the day of the Madeira Beach rape, a collect call had been made to Chandler's house at 5:49 p.m.

On June 2, 1989, in the hours after the Rogers women disappeared, five collect calls had been made to the house at 1:12 a.m., 1:30 a.m., 1:38 a.m., 8:11 a.m., and 9:52 a.m.

All of these calls were listed to the same number. A number Porter didn't recognize.

813 223-0000

Porter called his contact back.

"What is this number?"

"It's a special billing number."

The number was fictitious. It was used solely for billing purposes to designate marine phone calls. In other words, these collect calls to the Chandler house _ calls made on the two key nights of the case _ had been placed from someone on a boat, out on the water.

But who had made them?

Porter pushed for answers.

He learned that whoever placed those phone calls would have had to get on the boat's radio and call a special marine phone operator. This operator would have then patched the caller through to the house. Furthermore, there would have been records of the phone calls _ marine phone toll tickets, filled out by the operator, listing not just the times and duration of the calls but also possibly naming the person who had made them.

Obviously, they needed to see those toll tickets. But again GTE said it was too late. Those records, too, had already been destroyed.

Porter persuaded GTE to keep looking. A supervisor from the company went through a storage facility, checking for backup copies.

Late that April, the supervisor reported back. After close to six hours of searching through rolls of microfilm, she had found the tolls.

Porter couldn't believe it. Looking at the toll ticket for the call made on May 15, he saw that the call had been placed from a vessel identified as Gypsy One. The person placing the call had identified himself as "Oba."

Turning to the tickets for the calls placed on June 2, Porter saw again that each call had been made from Gypsy One. But during the first four calls, the tickets did not show a name for the person placing the call.

Finally, on the fifth call, the person aboard the boat had identified himself to the operator.

Obie, he said his name was.

Chandler's lead defense attorney, Fred Zinober, got the news a few days later. He was at the state attorney's office when Glenn Martin, one of the prosecutors working on the Rogers case, told him he had something to share with him.

Martin gave Zinober a copy of the marine phone toll tickets. He explained to Zinober that the records clearly put his client out on the water both on the evening of the rape and shortly after the murders. Then he watched the understanding _ the full weight of what this meant _ wash across the defense attorney's face.

Zinober tried to protest. He said the tolls didn't prove anything, arguing that the calls could have conceivably been placed from anywhere, even far away from Tampa Bay.

"You can't say where these calls are made from," he said.

Martin smiled.

"Yeah," he said. "We can."

SILENT WITNESS: Three years after the murders, this Christmas photo of the Rogers girls _ taken when Michelle was eight and Christe was six _ still hung on the wall of the task force office, spurring on the detectives as they closed in on their new suspect.

ON THE TRAIL: Glen Moore was convinced Oba Chandler was the man he and the task force were looking for, but now they had to prove it.

NEW EVIDENCE: This phone toll ticket documents a collect call Oba Chandler, identified here by his nickname of Obie, made from his boat on the morning after the murders. This toll ticket was one a handful of crucial records discovered after a long search through microfilm.

THE SUSPECT: A snapshot of Oba Chandler, roughly around the time of the murders, at the door of his Jeep Cherokee.

LIFE OF CRIME: These photos of Oba Chandler were taken after arrests on various charges in 1964, 1971, 1972, 1979, 1981 and 1982.

ON HIS BOAT: Oba Chandler on the Bayliner he owned at the time of the murders and of the rape of the Canadian tourist.

BRIDE AND GROOM: Oba Chandler and his wife, Debra, pose for photographs on their wedding day, May 14, 1988, 10 days after Debra divorced.

THE ARREST: Oba Chandler, led by FDLE agent John Halliday, is escorted into the Pinellas County jail several hours after he was taken into custody on the east coast of Florida. Just before he was brought into the jail, his hands were cuffed in front of his body.

IN OHIO: Colleen Etzler holds a Boston terrier puppy as Hal Rogers, her brother-in-law, looks out Colleen's kitchen window. In the days after the arrest, the family braced themselves for the trial.

PERSISTENCE: Steve Porter, an investigator with the state attorney's office, kept pushing until he finally obtained the phone records the prosecution needed to probe that Chandler had been on the water the night of the murders.

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