FROSTPROOF — It wasn’t until she rounded the bend along the familiar country road that Jessica Steenson saw the reporters, sitting inside a row of white, air-conditioned vans, idling out of view of the cameras pointed towards her friends’ makeshift memorial.
Steenson let out a sigh but didn’t back away. She was bringing her slain boyfriend’s cousin to see the four wooden crosses shoved into the red dirt off Lake Streety Road. They mark the spot where deputies found the bodies of him and two friends, shot to death July 17 while headed out to catch catfish.
The cameras don’t make her nervous or angry any more, like they did when they first appeared in Frostproof — “The Friendly City,” a citrus town off U.S. 27 between Sebring and Legoland.
For five days, Steenson stood beside the parents of her boyfriend, 27-year-old Brandon Rollins, answering questions from reporters covering a gruesome mystery. Then Sheriff Grady Judd announced Wednesday that his detectives had cracked the case and told, in detail, the story of that night.
They arrested Tony “T.J.” Wiggins, 26; his girlfriend Mary Whittemore, 27; and Wiggins’ brother William “Robert” Wiggins, 21. The older brother faces charges of first-degree murder was ordered held without bail Thursday. The others were there, too, Judd said, and face charges of being an accessory after the fact and evidence tampering. Bail was set at $46,000 for Robert Wiggins and $45,000 for Whittemore.
T.J. Wiggins was “wild and ... out of control,” Judd said, a man who had spent the better part of the past six years behind bars when he accused Keven Springfield that night of stealing the engine from Wiggins’ truck. Wiggins struck Springfield first, then opened fire with a handgun, Judd said. Springfield’s friends were next, he said — in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Steenson, 27, threw the truck into park Wednesday and opened the door, motioning for her passenger Jennifer Dennison to do the same.
“I really don’t have anything left to say, and it doesn’t feel right talking without Brandon’s parents here,” she told the reporters as she and Dennison walked toward the memorial.
“His dad said there were a bunch of people out here so that’s why I came, because I thought I should hug some necks while we can. But it’s just the news.”
She had told the story so many times it was starting to sound like a script. But she told it again to Dennison, kneeling to point out a small wire cross at the foot of a bigger, wooden monument to Rollins.
She pointed out where she and Rollins’ mother had to stand the night of the shootings, outside the crime scene tape, crying and screaming.
“It’s like I thought if I screamed loud enough, he would hear me and know that we were there and he wasn’t alone,” Steenson said.
Rollins lived long enough after the shooting spree to make a frantic cell phone call to his father, Cyril. “Help,” he pleaded. Judd won’t release the rest of the conversation, out of respect for the father.
“That’s where his head was when he talked to Cyril for the very last time before he died,” Steenson said. “They found his body right here.”
Steenson moved to Frostproof from her home in Jacksonville about two years ago to live with Rollins and his family. He was a small-town boy with a heart of gold who loved hunting wild hogs and fishing in the cool of the night, she said. His best friends were the men he died with — Keven Springfield, 30, and Damion Tillman, 23. Where one would go, the others were sure to follow, Steenson said.
Rollins loved kids, loved his family, loved his dogs, and he loved her, she said. And even if he didn’t show it as much as he should have, he loved his dad.
“Whenever he was in trouble, Brandon would call his daddy,” Steenson said. “No matter what, he knew his daddy would make it right.”
If Steenson hadn’t been working the night of July 17, she likely would have gone with Rollins and his friends, she said.
The thought sent a shudder through a man standing beside the two women Wednesday, Jack Tillman, uncle of victim Damion Tillman. His brother, Damion’s father, planned to go fishing with his son that night, too. But the engine wouldn’t start on his Mercury Mountaineer.
“It had been running fine all day long,” Tillman said. “Damion just that morning went and got a new tag and insurance on it.”
Why their loved ones are dead, why they were spared, no one really knows.
“There are no answers, there are never gonna be any answers,” Jennifer Dennison said. “But life here has changed forever. I don’t know yet just how it’s changed, but things will never ever be the same in this town.”
For five days, people who had never given a thought to Frostproof were looking for answers to the slaying of the three friends — not just news organizations but a breed of “armchair investigators” using the internet and social media to infiltrate the town.
Few people vacation or move to Frostproof, population 3,200. There’s one place to stay — the cinderblock Sun Ray Motel, where many of the guests are truckers in need of a nap or relatives of inmates housed in Judd’s South County Jail. It’s 19 miles to the nearest Starbucks.
Anyone you talk to in Frostproof was probably born nearby, said Keri Black, a longtime friend of Rollins and Springfield and the mother of five of Springfield’s eight children.
“Everybody knows everything about everybody in Frostproof, and I mean everything,” Black said. “For something like this to happen here, I’m not going to lie to you — it made everyone start to question everything. Everyone was looking at their friends and neighbors trying to figure out who could have done something so awful for no reason.”
On Tuesday, four days after the murder, the divisions deepened when contributions from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Sheriff’s Association boosted from $5,000 to $30,000 the reward money for information leading to an arrest.
That’s about a year’s median annual income for a household in Frostproof, according to the U.S. Census.
Facebook groups like “Polk County Massacre,” “Who killed three friends in Frostproof, Florida?” and “The murders of Damion Tillman Keven Springfield and Brandon Rollins” began to pick apart the men’s social media accounts as well as those of their friends and relatives. Even ex-girlfriends.
Podcasters, tabloid bloggers and YouTube personalities questioned whether Springfield had fought earlier with his father, whether a jealous husband had learned one of them was seeing his wife, and whether Cyril Rollins was telling the truth when he lamented that he raced to his dying son’s side but forgot to bring his cell phone.
He was telling the truth, Judd said.
Even worse, Black said, some internet sleuths pretended they were reporters to get interviews with grieving families.
“You would not believe how awful it’s been — people driving to their homes and knocking on doors, putting pictures of where they live on the internet, dragging innocent peoples’ names through the mud and ruining their lives. Why would somebody do something like that or any of it? How could this be happening here?”
It’s a question Jack Tillman wants answered.
Suspects T.J. Wiggins and his brother Robert grew up with the victims and went to school with them at Frostproof Middle-Senior High School, where the mother of Brandon Rollins works in the lunchroom.
“I’m going to be in that courtroom every day, staring them in the eyes,” Tillman said Wednesday. “They’re going to have nightmares about me.”
Black said Springfield’s children, ages 5 to 11, want answers, too. They ask her why every day.
She changes the subject, telling them about how their father, a mechanic, could take anything apart and put it back together. About how he walked around barefoot all the time and earned the nickname “No Shoes.” About the time he drove a three-wheeler for miles to reach her house even though the vehicle didn’t have a seat.
For Steenson, the question is what could have been. What would she and Rollins have named their child? What would have been her wedding colors?
“It’s not just that Brandon was the love of my life,” she said. “Brandon is the love of my life, and Keven and Damion were like my brothers.”
She’s not sure where she’ll turn next.
“I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I shared a room with the boy every night for the past two years, and now every 30 minutes I’m waking up thinking I hear him or see him walking in the door. But he’s not.”