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Two charged in ax-handle killing

The body of a 55-year-old man was found in his home Saturday, eight days after he was beaten to death with an ax handle, police said.

Joseph Edward Landers of 527 Ninth Ave. N, Unit 15, had recently broken up with girlfriend Dianne W. Crawford and asked her to start paying rent on her previously rent-free home, police said.

She and another man are now charged with the murder.

Crawford, 52, was arrested about 2 a.m. Sunday on a first-degree murder charge for her role in the crime. William A. Rowe, 41, who police say did the beating, also was charged with first-degree murder. Rowe, of 343 Seventh Ave. N, was already being held without bail at the Pinellas County Jail on an unrelated domestic battery charge.

Crawford lived rent-free in a nearby house owned by Landers at 494 Ninth Ave. N, but after the breakup, Landers began asking her to pay rent.

"Apparently they had some strong disagreement about this because on Nov. 2, Rowe and Crawford went to the (Landers') residence and confronted him," said police spokesman George Kajtsa.

Crawford and Rowe had a plan to beat and rob Landers, police reports say, and Rowe ended up beating Landers to death with the ax handle. Then Rowe and Crawford wrapped, tied up and poured lye over Landers' corpse in an effort to mask the body's smell.

Crawford gave $200 to Rowe, who then left in Landers' truck. Crawford later told neighbors that Landers was in Georgia.

Managers at the Lowe's Home Improvement Store became concerned when Landers was absent from work for several consecutive days and without notice. Landers was an assistant manager in the plumbing department in the store at 2365 25th St. N, off 22nd Avenue. He also owned and rented out three other units in his building.

"Joe never missed work and he was never late," said Al Canales, Lowe's assistant manager. "Here he missed eight or nine days and that just wasn't Joe."

Canales said he sent some employees to Landers' condo, and they asked neighbor Nettie Smith where he was. She said she didn't know.

On the third visit, Smith said when she went to knock on Landers' door, she could smell the odor through his open bedroom window.

"From my experience in medicine, I knew what that smell was," she said. "So I told the man from Lowe's to go and get the police."

When police arrived, Crawford had the key to Landers' unit.

"When they went inside they found the victim on the bed," Kajtsa said. "Apparently he was struck several times in the head with an ax handle."

Smith couldn't believe anyone would kill her neighbor.

"Joe had a good heart," Smith said. "He was the type that when there was a confrontation, he would walk away."

His ex-wife, Grace O'Keefe, also was stunned by the news. Despite their divorce in 1993, the two kept in touch.

"I was very upset to hear it because I had known him and I had been married to him," she said. "He seemed all right when I spoke to him three weeks ago."

The flashing police lights and yellow crime tape was neighbor Bob Babcock's first glimpse into how police say Landers' ex-girlfriend played a role in killing his friend.

"It would not surprise me, only because they didn't seem to have a close relationship," he said. "But the last time I had spoken to him, he said he wanted her out of there."