Across the prism of time, the 36-year-old photo is haunting. A husband paces the roadside, his worst nightmare come true: After three days of frantic searching for his missing wife, her body has been found.
While investigators secured and processed the crime scene, a sheriff’s photographer captured the image of 21-year-old Leo Schofield, his world crashing down on him.
Raging at God, confused and lost, he had no clue that this horrific moment was only the opening scene. As the drama unfolded, he would be convicted of murdering his 18-year-old wife and spend the next 35 years in prison.
His next chance at parole is May 3.
And there’s mounting evidence he didn’t do it.
The version of events that landed Schofield in prison for life — the version that Polk County prosecutors still adamantly maintain is the truth — goes like this:
Michelle Saum Schofield was supposed to pick up her husband from a friend’s house after a waitressing shift on Feb. 24, 1987. But she was late and hadn’t called, which infuriated her volatile husband of six months — a man no one would testify was destined for sainthood. He had previously screamed at her, pulled her by the hair and slapped her.
And now the indignity of being made to wait so enraged Schofield that, when they got back to their trailer, he stabbed her 26 times. He loaded Michelle, wrapped in a sheet, in the cargo area of their Mazda station wagon and, with the help of his father, dumped her body in a remote Lakeland canal obscured by palmetto bushes.
Only after Schofield was convicted were the sole fingerprints in the Mazda matched to another man locked up for other heinous crimes.
And that man has confessed to murdering Michelle Schofield.
So much of the prosecution’s case makes you wonder. Though Michelle lost half the blood in her body, at least 5 pints, the crime scene technicians didn’t find a drop of it in the trailer — nothing on the walls, nothing definitive in the carpet.
A neighbor testified that the next day, through the open door of Schofield’s trailer, she saw him using a carpet cleaner. But a crime scene technician testified he found no evidence the carpet had been freshly cleaned.
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When that neighbor first talked to deputies, she said she saw Schofield carrying a large object in both arms to the Mazda between 2:30 and 3 a.m. — a time when he was miles away with a witness at one location and then with three others at a second location. The state says Schofield had time to murder Michelle and make his way around town setting up a false alibi, an argument that carried the day for the jury that convicted him.
No physical evidence linked Schofield to the crime, not to the trailer, the Mazda or the canal. Crime scene technicians could not even match fingerprints from Schofield or his wife to the Mazda, though they were the ones who drove it. They lifted only two fingerprints — one on the inside of the driver’s side window, the other from a paper receipt in the rear compartment.
Back then, fingerprints were not computerized. Matching an unknown print required comparing it, one by one, against known prints. The prints from the Mazda went unidentified, leaving Schofield’s attorney to ask jurors, “Wouldn’t you like to know whose fingerprints those are?”
Eighteen years later, the St. Petersburg Times published a story called “Doubt,” reported by Meg Laughlin and Don Morris. I was the editor. The story revealed that the fingerprints finally had been identified.
If Schofield’s defense team could have had its pick of any person in the United States as the best suspect in Michelle’s murder, they could not have done better than the man who left both those prints in the Mazda.
Jeremy Scott had a monstrous criminal history. His rap sheet dates to when he was 11 years old, and includes armed robbery, assault and battery, plus murders in Polk County when he was 15 and 19. He was 17 when Michelle was murdered.
He lived just 1.7 miles from the remote area where Michelle’s body was dumped, and he had taken his girlfriend to that location multiple times to have sex. He clubbed that same girlfriend with a baseball bat, deforming her jaw so badly that it was still misshapen 18 years later when Schofield’s attorney Richard Bartmon took her deposition.
“She still had the mark of Jeremy Scott on her,” Bartmon says.
He had no impulse control. He fought repeatedly, losing it if he thought someone so much as looked at him the wrong way. His mother and an uncle physically abused him. He suffered brain damage as a child and can barely read. He cut himself.
Times reporter Laughlin interviewed John Aguero, the prosecutor who would convict both Schofield and Scott of different murders. She concluded her story with this:
Five months after he got a jury to convict Schofield, Aguero got a jury to convict Scott of crushing Donald Moorehead’s skull. Scott was sentenced to death but had it reduced to life after a hearing in 1992.
Aguero argued against commuting the sentence because, he said, Scott was a “cold-blooded criminal … who couldn’t be trusted.”
Yet Aguero says he trusts him about the Schofield case. He interviewed Scott in 2005, after his fingerprints from the Mazda were identified: “I looked Jeremy Scott in the eye and asked him if he killed her, and he looked me in the eye and said he didn’t do it. And I believed him.”
Jurors are instructed to find a defendant not guilty if there is reasonable doubt. We published our story in 2007 and felt certain that the evidence Schofield’s lawyers had found would prompt the courts to grant a new trial.
How naive we were.
Gilbert King, who attended the University of South Florida, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013 for his book “Devil in the Grove,” about four Black men falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl in Lake County in 1949. After the book was published, the state of Florida formally dismissed the charges against the Groveland Four.
King spent more than three years investigating Schofield’s case, narrating a podcast in 2022 called Bone Valley. Downloaded more than 6 million times, it reached No. 4 on the Apple Podcast U.S. charts and has won awards for its reporting.
Across nine hourlong episodes, King and producer Kelsey Decker walk through the evidence. In a prison interview in the final episode, Jeremy Scott narrates how he stumbled upon Michelle at a pay phone, starting the chain of events that led him to stab her in an uncontrolled frenzy. It’s the most detailed and definitive statement he has made about the case.
The state says you cannot believe Scott’s confession because he is unreliable. There is truth in this. After his fingerprints were matched inside the Mazda, Scott denied murdering Michelle and has since gone back and forth. He wanted to be paid $1,000 to confess, he wanted time off his sentence, he even claimed he was responsible for every murder in Polk County committed in 1987 and 1988. The state says he’s just a manipulative con playing games with the system.
Or you can believe that any inmate would try to leverage information of value. And now, 53, with no prospect of ever getting out of prison, a shell of himself, he’s trying to find peace.
In the podcast, Scott describes what it’s been like living with this:
“I dream, I wake up, I turn over, I see — I see a dead body sleeping next to me. I sleep with dead bodies every night when I go to bed. That’s — that’s my punishment. … As far as Michelle, she was just at the wrong time, wrong place. Everything happens when you’re young and you’re not thinking. She deserves better than that. She — she’ll get it. I think that once this gets cleared up, she can rest. But for as far as Leo … Yeah, Leo ain’t — Leo — Leo innocent. Of all — of all things, he’s innocent on this one.”
Scott said Michelle had offered him a ride home, but he directed her to his favorite secluded spot and made a pass. She rejected him. He lost it and stabbed her initially in the car. She fell out of the vehicle trying to escape. He finished stabbing her, then dragged her body to the canal.
Crime scene technicians found two large stains of dried blood in the dirt at the point the drag marks began. The bloodstains were matched to Michelle.
In his taped confession, Scott said that, after murdering Michelle, he drove the Mazda onto I-4, abandoned it along the highway when it stalled, stole some stereo equipment, then used a towel to wipe down the interior so he wouldn’t leave his fingerprints.
He erased any trace of Schofield or Michelle, the two people who drove the car. But he missed two of his own prints.
After Scott’s fingerprints were identified and a circuit judge denied Schofield a new trial, his attorneys appealed.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal unanimously ruled in Schofield’s favor, saying the new evidence was so compelling “it would probably produce an acquittal on retrial.”
The appellate judges ordered the lower court to hold a hearing. A Polk circuit judge did so, but he came to an opposite conclusion. The judge said that even assuming all Schofield’s evidence was true and all the Scott evidence were allowed to go to a new jury, Schofield likely would still be convicted.
The judge said there was ample evidence for a jury to believe what Scott initially told investigators when asked how his fingerprints ended up in the Mazda: He was just a thief who stumbled upon the abandoned Mazda and took the opportunity to steal another stereo.
Schofield’s lawyers went back to the higher court. But a different panel of three judges upheld the lower court. The new Scott evidence did not merit a retrial.
The court went a step further, ruling that even if Schofield were granted a new trial, his defense would not be allowed to introduce most of the Scott evidence. Only the fingerprint match and a bare-bones listing of the violent felonies Scott had been convicted of would be admissible.
That would be the extent of it because Florida generally excludes “bad character” evidence. “Therefore,” the appeal court ruled, “all of the evidence offered by Schofield concerning Scott’s alleged violent acts toward his former girlfriend and others, his alleged reputation for violence, and the details of the crimes underlying his prior felony convictions is simply inadmissible and cannot weaken the case against Schofield so as to give rise to a reasonable doubt as to his guilt.”
Now consider what had happened when the shoe was on the other foot. Schofield had never been accused of a crime, much less convicted of one. But at his trial, the state paraded 21 witnesses to the stand who described him as quick-tempered and abusive. The testimony gave jurors a base from which to conclude he could have stabbed his wife 26 times.
Schofield’s appellate attorneys say his trial attorney should have objected to allowing such testimony. Not only was prejudicial evidence introduced that should have been excluded, the failure to object meant that Schofield would be precluded from raising the issue on appeal.
Jacob Orr, the chief assistant state attorney in Polk County, says the agency convicted the correct murderer, notwithstanding the new evidence, the podcast or any other media “mischaracterizations or opinions.” He notes that at least three Polk prosecutors who were not involved in the trial have examined it. “This case has been reviewed probably more than any case in the history of the 10th Circuit.”
If anybody has come full circle on Schofield, it is Scott Cupp.
In his 35-year legal career, Cupp has worked criminal cases from all sides: 17 years as a prosecutor specializing in child homicides; 10 years of defense work in private practice; eight years as a judge, mostly hearing criminal cases.
Back around 2000, Cupp says, his wife urged him to look at the Schofield case on behalf of her friend, Crissie Carter.
Carter, a social worker, had met Schofield in prison. They fell in love and married in 1995, eight years after Michelle’s death.
Cupp didn’t want to touch the case. He assumed his wife’s friend was a “whack job” lured into romance by yet another inmate looking to take advantage of someone with a kind heart. But to get his wife to stop badgering him, Cupp agreed to read the trial transcript.
And when he did, nothing added up — and that was even before Scott’s fingerprints were linked to the crime scene.
“Had the investigators compared those prints at the time to Jeremy Scott,” Cupp says now, “who do you think would have been indicted? That’s a no-brainer. Jeremy Scott would have been indicted, not Leo Schofield.”
Cupp joined the ranks of Schofield’s unpaid appeal attorneys, but in 2014 he was appointed to the bench and had to leave Schofield behind.
In March, Cupp took the extraordinary step of resigning his judgeship so he could return to Schofield’s defense. That’s how certain he is that he didn’t do it.
“I knew Leo was up for parole in the spring of 2023. I felt more and more that’s what I needed to be doing, that’s where I needed to be,” he says.
State Sen. Jonathan Martin, chairperson of the Criminal Justice Committee, prosecuted cases himself for seven years. The Republican lawmaker was drawn to the Bone Valley podcast. What jumped out at him was that Polk County detectives and prosecutors didn’t compare the unidentified fingerprints from the Mazda against Scott. They knew Scott had committed crimes in the same area, Martin says, so you’d think they would have wanted to check as many nearby violent crimes as possible to see if Scott was involved in those, as well.
“Not having done that stands out in my mind,” Martin says. “Seventeen years later, the prints are brought to someone’s attention, they kind of dig their heels in, that doesn’t bring trust to the system. We need to make sure the guilty people do their time, and those that we learn later on are innocent, we need to do everything we can to get them out as fast as possible to right a wrong.”
Before Schofield’s last parole hearing in 2020, Michelle’s brother Jessie Saum submitted a letter in support of Schofield’s release. He was 16 when his sister was murdered, Saum wrote, and assumed the state had the evidence to properly convict his brother-in-law. But now, having looked at all the evidence, “It just seems likely you got the wrong guy.”
He told Gilbert King what brought him around:
“Fingerprints was a big deal. Jeremy’s history was a big deal. The fact that he had murdered other people, and that he was around that same area frequently was a big deal. …
“And I think that Leo’s been wrongfully in prison this whole time. And, uh … you know, it’s — it, it bothers me. It makes me sad, you know. That they won’t try to pursue the evidence that’s boiled up after all these years, and, at least, process it. You know. And then we’ll all know, you know, if he did or not. I mean, dude, we’re all just searching for the answer. You know, so … why wouldn’t we pursue it?”
Looking back at that photo of himself pacing the roadside, his world crashing down, with no clue to the freight train the coming decades had in store, what would the 57-year-old inmate say to the 21-year-old version of himself?
“It would be to encourage him and let him know that you can’t see the end from here,” Schofield says in a phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “I would tell my younger self that there are many things he would not understand until he gets to the end, other than that you will be up to the challenges you’re going to face, and in the end you’re going to be OK.
“But to be honest, I’m not sure I am OK. I’m functional, but I have my moments.”
Schofield could have gotten out of prison decades ago. On the eve of his trial, the prosecutor offered him a deal: plead guilty to second-degree murder for 12-17 years. Facing the death penalty, he went to trial.
Now he has another chance to get out. An inmate improves his parole odds if he has behaved in prison, has availed himself of opportunities to learn and grow and has a stable environment waiting on the outside. Schofield checks all those boxes. But parole commissioners also want inmates to take ownership of their crimes.
Schofield refused to do that before his trial — as well as the prior three times he faced the parole board. And he won’t do it this time.
“Michelle can’t stand for herself,” he tells the Times. “Just on the principle that Michelle counts, she was somebody, I stand for her, she knows who murdered her, and for me to say I did it instead so I can get out early, it dishonors her memory.”
Richard Bockman is a former investigative editor at the St. Petersburg Times.