Local investigator hopes withheld evidence will help death row inmate

Letters from Tommy Zeigler to Lynn-Marie Carty line the shelves of her living room. A glass angel sits on the shelf in front of the Easter card he sent.
Letters from Tommy Zeigler to Lynn-Marie Carty line the shelves of her living room. A glass angel sits on the shelf in front of the Easter card he sent.
Published Feb. 23, 2014

Giant poster boards covered with mug shots, crime scene photos and yellowed newspaper articles overwhelm private investigator Lynn-Marie Carty's tiny living room in Treasure Island.

Carty, a one-time Mrs. Florida contestant, has spent the past three years trying to figure out what happened one Christmas Eve 39 years ago when four people were murdered inside a furniture store in Central Florida. Tommy Zeigler, now 68, was convicted of killing his wife, his in-laws and a citrus crew foreman.

Zeigler's case has always attracted skeptics: a former Orlando Sentinel newspaper editor; civil rights activist Bianca Jagger; a former chief deputy who worked on the original case and his brother. The case was the subject of a 1992 book called Fatal Flaw. None of their efforts resulted in a new trial for Zeigler.

Zeigler's New York attorneys hope that Carty's work is different. This past week, they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The motion relies heavily on Carty's assertion that Orange County sheriff's detectives and prosecutors not only withheld evidence when they tried Zeigler back in 1976, but they also lied about key details.

Each year, the U.S. Supreme Court takes up fewer than 1 percent of the 10,000 cases submitted. But Zeigler's attorneys hope the justices will pay attention to a recent movement to end prosecutors' failure to share evidence, known as Brady violations. The problem is considered widespread enough that a federal appeals court judge in Pasadena, Calif., urged his colleagues to act. "Only judges can put a stop to it," wrote Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On this day, one of Carty's neighbors, former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, watched a recent interview of the lead detective on Zeigler's case.

When Rice, 69, who has no connection to the Zeigler case, was done listening, he clenched his hands together and frowned.

"If they execute Tommy Zeigler for this case," he said, "I'll have to be against the death penalty."

• • •

Christmas Eve 1975. Zeigler and his wife had been married for eight years and lived next door to his parents in Winter Garden, a bedroom community of 6,000 northwest of Orlando.

The Zeiglers operated a furniture store, which Tommy's parents, Beulah and Tom, had opened in 1939. Tommy and his wife, Eunice, had no children but bred and exhibited Persian cats. They were churchgoers. They hobnobbed with the town's elite. Zeigler, then 30, was good friends with the Winter Garden police chief, Don Ficke.

That night, Eunice's parents, who were visiting for the holidays from Moultrie, Ga., were supposed to stop by the store to pick out a recliner for Eunice's father for Christmas. After that, the Fickes were supposed to pick up the Zeiglers at their home for a party at a judge's house.

But at 9:20 p.m., Zeigler called the party. He said he'd been shot.

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When police got to the store, Zeigler opened the front door and collapsed with a bullet wound in his stomach. Eunice, Zeigler's 32-year-old wife, was on the kitchen floor with a shot to the back of the head. Her mother, Virginia, 52, had been shot in the front of the store. Eunice's father, retired minister Perry Edwards Sr., 72, had struggled with his attacker. He'd been beaten and shot multiple times. Nearby, citrus crew foreman Charlie Mays, 35, lay on his back, bludgeoned and shot. He had $400 and some furniture store receipts in his pocket.

Zeigler's own gunshot wound missed major organs. At the hospital, he told detectives he'd gone to the furniture store with his handyman to make some final deliveries. Once inside the dark store, he was attacked and lost his glasses. He shot at blurry figures with one of the guns he kept at the store. Someone shot him. He heard one of his attackers say: "Mays has been hit. Kill him."

Zeigler said he blacked out. When he came to, he crawled around looking for his glasses. He may have crawled over a body; he wasn't sure.

• • •

Soon after the murders, Zeigler's handyman and a fruit picker contacted police independently. The handyman, Edward Williams, said Zeigler had tried to shoot him as he entered the store. The fruit picker, Felton Thomas, said Zeigler had asked him to shoot guns with Mays, the dead citrus foreman, in a grove the evening of the murders, then later tried to get both men to come to the store. Only Mays had gone inside.

Donald Frye, the 29-year-old detective who got the case, had just gone for blood spatter training the year before. He noticed that some of the blood near Zeigler's father-in-law and the citrus foreman had dried at different times. He surmised that Zeigler killed his wife and in-laws first, then tried to lure Mays, Thomas and Williams there to kill and frame them for the murders.

Zeigler had shot himself to make it look like he'd been robbed, Frye decided. He was convinced Zeigler planned to collect on $520,000 in life insurance policies he'd taken out on his wife months before.

On Dec. 29, 1975, Frye came to Zeigler's hospital bed and charged him with murder. He was convicted in 1976. The jury recommended life in prison, but the judge sentenced him to the electric chair.

• • •

In 2011, Carty read an article about Zeigler in the Tampa Bay Times. The article mentioned efforts to seek more DNA testing of blood on Zeigler's shirt.

Prosecutors had argued at the trial that Zeigler's shirt was covered with his father-in-law's blood. In 2001, sections of the shirt were submitted for DNA testing, which had been unavailable at the time of the trial. No trace of the father-in-law's blood was found. Only Mays' blood was detected. Zeigler's attorneys asked to test the whole shirt; that request was denied.

Carty was outraged. Why would the prosecution thwart attempts to figure out the truth?

A private investigator of 13 years, Carty specializes in reuniting long-lost relatives. She approaches each case with an almost fanatical obsession. She quickly compiled a list of other facts that pointed to his innocence: a key witness' story didn't add up, Zeigler passed lie detector tests and was even interviewed under the influence of truth serum.

In 2012, she went to meet Zeigler in prison. She told him she wanted to be his private investigator. She would work for free.

• • •

One of the first incongruous details that Carty noticed was a name in the arrest report. It said a black man named Robert Foster had been hiding and sought protection from police because of what he'd seen at the Zeigler furniture store. Foster's name was featured in a handful of early news stories. Then, just like that, his name disappeared, and the same story was attributed to Felton Thomas, the fruit picker who claimed he'd gone with Mays and Zeigler to an orange grove to shoot guns.

Who was Robert Foster? Carty wondered.

Frye, the lead detective on the case, had told Zeigler's lawyers in a 1976 deposition it was a typographical error. Carty didn't believe it.

Later, while looking through the files, she found an interview with a woman named Mary Beach, who was handyman Ed Williams' landlady. She had mentioned a tall man, over 6 feet tall, with a big belly named Robert Foster who played softball with her husband and murder victim Charlie Mays.

Then, another break. In the spring of 2011, a woman named Susan Ambler-Graden called Carty and said a tall, black man with a gun attempted to rob her mother at the Gulf gas station she managed, diagonally across the street from the Zeigler furniture store, around 6 p.m. the night of the killings. Ambler-Graden, 10 at the time, had watched the whole thing. Her mother had reported the attempted robbery to police. But Carty could find no record of it in defense exhibits.

Ambler-Graden told Carty that their attacker looked exactly like Michael Clarke Duncan, an actor in the 1999 film, The Green Mile. Carty wondered if the robber was Robert Foster. With a picture of Duncan taped to her computer, Carty searched the Department of Corrections website for tall men named Robert Foster.

She found him quickly. He had been released from prison in North Carolina six months before the murders. He had a criminal history that included armed robbery. He was working as a fruit picker in Orange County at the time of the murders.

Carty sent Foster's mug shot to Beach, Williams' former landlady and a retired jail clerk. That was the Foster who played softball with Mays, Beach recalled. Ambler-Graden also identified him.

Carty had Zeigler's lawyers hire retired Pinellas County sheriff's Capt. Calvin Dennie Jr., 65, to track down Foster, who is now living in Tallahassee. Foster admitted nothing except that he had been in Orange County around the time of the murders and that he was a fruit picker.

"His answers were too short and quick," Dennie said. "Based on his body language and his expression, I thought he was lying myself."

• • •

In April 2012, Zeigler's lawyers drafted an appeal based on the new information. Orange County police had not only hidden the existence of Foster and the robbery at the gas station, the appeal said, but Frye had lied about it. They argued that criminal activity across the street involving someone who knew one of the murder victims raised doubts about the prosecution's version of events.

Circuit Judge Reginald Whitehead rejected the appeal. The Florida Supreme Court also refused to hear the case, stating the new evidence did not warrant a new trial, given the other evidence against Zeigler.

A growing number of high courts have rejected claims of prosecutorial misconduct as long as other evidence exists. Judge Kozinski, a dissenter in an appeal based on withheld evidence involving a man from Washington who was convicted of possessing ricin for use as a weapon, argues that standard "will almost never be met."

"The trend has led, in the words of the New York Times editorial board, to 'rampant prosecutorial misconduct,' " Zeigler's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court noted, "and 'a serious moral hazard for prosecutors who are more interested in winning a conviction than serving justice.' "

"It ties into a national trend to begin to question why all these cheating claims are falling on deaf ears and what this means for the justice system," said Dennis Tracey III, one of Zeigler's New York attorneys who has worked on the case for free for almost 30 years.

Tracey said there is other evidence, including a report of another averted armed robbery across the street at a department store about a half hour before Zeigler called police to report he'd been shot. Carty has also collected evidence that points to a different suspect altogether. That information is not part of the current motion before the U.S. Supreme Court, but the attorneys would hope to introduce it at a new trial.

• • •

Two weeks ago, Carty, 57, and a documentary producer headed to Clermont to interview Frye, the detective. Carty did not conduct the interview but she has a copy of it. Carty said Frye became angry once he knew Zeigler's supporters were involved in the interview. He could not be reached for this story. Jeff Ashton, the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, did not return phone calls. But in a 2003 interview, he was asked: "Will Zeigler ever get a new trial?"

"Not in a million years," he responded.

Frye is adamant they have the right killer behind bars. Now 68, the same age as Zeigler, Frye said the blood evidence was one of the most telling aspects of the crime. Zeigler's father-in-law's blood spilled first and dried. Fifteen to 30 minutes later, Mays blood splattered and dried. Sometime after that, a shoulder holster that belonged to Zeigler was dropped atop the dried blood.

"To make the crime scene look good, he went and fetched it and threw it down in the blood," Frye said. "It's a very significant factor. It really solidifies, if you will, our whole understanding of what happened that night."

It shows, Frye said, that Zeigler lured each victim, one by one.

"We tried to make some connection between Felton Thomas, Ed Williams and Charlie Mays," he said. "They didn't know each other. And all the handguns used in this crime were traced back to Tommy Zeigler."

He reiterated that Robert Foster had nothing to do with the case. The attempted robbery across the street on the evening of the murders was not relevant.

"My understanding is there was a single black male who tried it and he didn't get anything," he said, "and the Winter Garden police did a report on it."

• • •

When Carty saw the video of Frye acknowledging a police report existed for the nearby gas station robbery, she screamed. To her, it was another report withheld from the defense.

The same day as Frye's interview, she travelled to Leesburg to interview Beach, 69, the handyman's landlord. Beach tied Foster to Mays, the citrus crew chief, and Williams, the handyman. She said Foster and Mays played on the same softball team. She was an umpire.

"Williams, Foster and Mays all knew each other, you know," she said.

"With your own eyes, you saw these people together?" Carty asked.

"With my own eyes," she responded.

She said she may have even seen Foster in Williams' truck the day of the murders.

Zeigler's attorneys have always argued that Mays was part of a robbery at the furniture store and not just a customer coming to pick up a TV, as prosecutors claim. To Carty, the connections between Mays and the other men suggest a possible conspiracy.

• • •

Back in Carty's living room, Rice, the former sheriff, acknowledged the complexity of the case.

"But you have a lead detective who admits that an armed robbery occurred across the street about the same time and there's a police report about it and the defense knew nothing about it, but he says it has nothing to do with the case?" Rice says. "That's a jury question. If that had been known at the time, the case might have had a different result."

With so many victims and so much blood, Rice said, the case cries out for a fresh DNA analysis. "With what we know today," Rice said, "there's a huge amount of reasonable doubt."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.