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Where are 3 missing Tampa Bay women? The answer may rest with ‘the devil.’

Three women vanished between 1974 and 1989 after trying to end affairs with a man named Cleveland Hill. Their families have learned to live without answers.
Donyelle Johnson, Retha Hiers and Margaret Dash, pictured from left to right, all vanished from the Tampa Bay area after trying to end affairs with the same man. Their families have lived without answers for decades.
Donyelle Johnson, Retha Hiers and Margaret Dash, pictured from left to right, all vanished from the Tampa Bay area after trying to end affairs with the same man. Their families have lived without answers for decades. [ Courtesy of Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Times File ]
Published Aug. 16|Updated Aug. 24

The families sat in lawn chairs, watching big yellow machines claw through the earth.

The summer sun bore down on the empty lot in Largo nestled between a Baptist church and the Pinellas Trail. Drivers and pedestrians stopped, curious, as about a dozen forensic investigators continued their rhythm of digging: shovel, sift, discard.

They were searching for the remains of Retha Hiers.

In the 39 years since Hiers went missing, the Berlin Wall fell, the internet was born and America elected its first Black president. But Dana Hiers hasn’t seen her mother since she left their Largo home to buy washing powder on Dec. 28, 1982.

“She needs to be in a proper place,” Hiers said at the excavation site. “In the ground, anywhere, that’s not a proper place.”

But closure didn’t come, not on that June day or the next. As July arrived, it seemed more likely the answers were buried with one man — not in this empty lot.

Pinellas County forensics workers rake through dirt on June 29 in Largo. Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies were excavating a site in search of the remains of Retha Hiers, who went missing in 1982.
Pinellas County forensics workers rake through dirt on June 29 in Largo. Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies were excavating a site in search of the remains of Retha Hiers, who went missing in 1982. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Cleveland Hill Jr. had a sense of mystery about him. Neighbors whispered his name with fear and respect. His daughter made a podcast series dedicated to unraveling his legend: the son of a snake catcher hunting for mistresses at the neighborhood Pentecostal church; a successful businessman and sly drug dealer; and a murderous, devil-worshipping husband who practiced black magic.

Most of all, Hill is the single connection among three missing women, including Hiers, who vanished from the Tampa Bay region between 1974 and 1989. Each tried to end a romantic relationship with him prior to vanishing.

They haven’t been seen — dead or alive — since.

The missing

A photograph of Retha Hiers, taken before her 1982 disappearance, is displayed at her daughter’s home on Aug. 3 in Largo. Dana Hiers’s mother went missing when she was 14 in 1982, along with two other women between 1974-1989 who had relationships with Cleveland Hill Jr. “I don’t want them to be forgotten at all,” said Dana Hiers.
A photograph of Retha Hiers, taken before her 1982 disappearance, is displayed at her daughter’s home on Aug. 3 in Largo. Dana Hiers’s mother went missing when she was 14 in 1982, along with two other women between 1974-1989 who had relationships with Cleveland Hill Jr. “I don’t want them to be forgotten at all,” said Dana Hiers. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

There was a pattern.

She went out, alone. Her car was found in a nearby city. Sometimes, her family received a letter.

Margaret Dash, 38, left her Clearwater home to buy medicine for a sick relative on June 14, 1974. Months later, her 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass was found abandoned in a St. Petersburg parking lot. The mother of four was trying to end an affair with Hill. She told her husband that Hill had threatened to kill her if she didn’t run away with him.

Retha Hiers, 43, vanished three days after Christmas in 1982. Her white, two-door 1976 Ford Elite was deserted at a Clearwater apartment complex. When Retha’s husband caught her having an affair with Hill, she overdosed on drugs but survived, according to a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office report. The Tampa Tribune reported in 1993 that Hiers’ family received a letter the day after her disappearance. Purportedly written by Retha, it said she left her husband and seven children to be with Hill.

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Donyelle Johnson, 21, was on her way to St. Petersburg Junior College on April 4, 1989. She never made it to class; her 1987 Nissan Pulsar was found abandoned behind a Hardee’s restaurant in Largo. According to the Tribune, the Johnson family received a letter that handwriting experts believe was written by Donyelle. It said she was involved with drugs and had moved to Orlando to “straighten out her life.” Johnson was having an affair with Hill at the time of her disappearance. Days before she went missing, she told her father Hill said he “could make people disappear.”

Mack Johnson III, 53, of Tampa, holds up a photograph taken of his sister in 1986. Johnson’s sister, Donyelle, went missing on April 4, 1989. “All of a sudden one day she never came back,” he said.
Mack Johnson III, 53, of Tampa, holds up a photograph taken of his sister in 1986. Johnson’s sister, Donyelle, went missing on April 4, 1989. “All of a sudden one day she never came back,” he said. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Law enforcement suspected Hill in all three cases. He always maintained he was not romantically involved with any of the women and had nothing to do with their disappearances.

“Maybe they just left,” Hill told WTSP-Ch. 10 in 1989.

Hill had a history of violence and refusing to take no for an answer. He married his wife, Betty Jean Hillmon, when she was 15. Their relationship was fraught with abuse.

“He was very mean. He beat me every week about once or twice,” Betty Jean testified in court. “He called me all kinds of names and made me stay in the house and would dare me to come out. He locked me in.”

She filed for divorce and fled to her parents’ house in February 1968. Four days later, Hill showed up with a gun. He shot his mother-in-law, Josephine Hillmon, four times before turning the gun on Betty Jean, shooting her in the mouth and the back of the head.

“I’m going to have to kill you or you’ll talk,” he told Hillmon before the shooting, according to court records.

Somehow, both women survived. Hill was booked on two attempted-murder charges, but a jury found him guilty of assault. He was sentenced to five years of probation and went to prison one year later for violating it. He was paroled in 1971.

Betty Jean remarried Hill about two weeks after his release. The Pentecostal church they attended did not support divorce, her daughter said, and its leaders believed Hill had repented and deserved another chance.

“To my mom, her faith was everything,” Tenesia Mbow explained on her podcast. “She lives to please God.”

Efforts by the Tampa Bay Times to reach Betty Jean at various phone numbers were unsuccessful.

According to the podcast, Betty Jean once dared to ask her husband about the missing women.

“If you keep messing with me,” Hill told her, “I will tell you what happened to those women. I can make people disappear.”

Betty Jean knew what Hill was capable of. The bullet from 1968 was still lodged in the back of her neck.

The families

Mack Johnson III, 53, of Tampa, poses for a portrait on July 31 in Tampa. Johnson’s sister, Donyelle, went missing on April 4, 1989. “
Mack Johnson III, 53, of Tampa, poses for a portrait on July 31 in Tampa. Johnson’s sister, Donyelle, went missing on April 4, 1989. “ [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

A missing person occupies the space between life and death.

There is no body to bury. But there is always the possibility one could be discovered the next day, month or year. Hopelessness shifts to hope, then back again.

Some family members of the missing women declined to be interviewed for this article. They’ve spoken up, decade after decade, laying out their grief and pleading for answers. They don’t want to reopen old wounds that have never fully healed.

“We always love and miss our mom,” Margaret Dash’s daughters, Elaine Wade and Sharon Jones, said in a statement to the Times. “At this time, we do not have any comment.”

Others want to talk about their lost loved ones — and the man they believe took them.

Mack Johnson III still has dreams about his sister’s disappearance. Their life before was simple: school, work, church and a sibling rivalry (Donyelle, who was 10 months older, always won). But at 20 years old, he didn’t pay much attention to his sister’s relationships. Johnson saw Hill only once, when he showed up at the family’s home in Largo days before Donyelle vanished.

“Leave my daughter alone!” Johnson heard his father yell.

He cannot forget Hill’s reply.

”Well, you better enjoy your daughter, because this may be the last time you see her.”

Dana Hiers has been searching for her mother since she was 14. Once, she saw a photo of a woman at the beach in the newspaper. It looked just like her mother, splashing in the waves.

Dana skipped school that week, borrowing her father’s car to drive up and down Clearwater Beach. When she couldn’t find her mother at the end of each day, she sat in the front seat and cried.

“He killed them and disposed of them. All three of them,” she said of Hill. “He is the devil.”

Dana goes back to the beach every December on the anniversary of Retha’s disappearance. She brings a bouquet of red roses and offers them to the Gulf of Mexico.

I miss you, she prays. I wish I could see you.

Dana Hiers, 53, of Largo, shown in a portrait on Aug. 3. Her mother, Retha Heirs, went missing when Dana was 14 in 1982.
Dana Hiers, 53, of Largo, shown in a portrait on Aug. 3. Her mother, Retha Heirs, went missing when Dana was 14 in 1982. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

The investigation

Detectives never had enough evidence to arrest their prime suspect.

“I’d tell him, ‘Cleve, one day someone is going to dig up one of those women and I’m going to nail you,’” retired Pinellas Sheriff’s detective Jerry Harper told the Tribune in 1993. “He would just laugh at me.”

In the summer of 1990, a confidential informant told deputies that a former employee of Hill’s incarcerated at Zephyrhills Correctional Institute could tell them “where the bodies are buried,” records show. Inmate Joseph Crawford said he saw Hill dig a large hole one morning before dawn. He refused to say more about the missing women out of concern for his three children’s safety.

Hill “has the power to get to anyone, any place, at any time,” Crawford told detectives, according to records.

In 1993, detectives received a tip that one of the missing women might be buried in an empty lot near Largo. Pinellas Sheriff’s Lt. Norman Romanosky and his team spent days searching the lot for human remains, but found nothing but trash and chicken bones.

It was difficult to obtain hard evidence against Hill because potential witnesses often were reluctant to talk, Romanosky, who is now retired, told the Times in a recent interview.

“If you knew Cleveland, you knew that you didn’t want to cross him,” he said.

But Hill didn’t evade the law forever. In September 1990, authorities arrested him and nearly two dozen others in a drug bust dubbed “Operation Real Thing.” Undercover FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies traded 5,000 cases of Coca-Cola Classic for 350 pieces of crack cocaine and $13,000. One of Hill’s partners owned a vending company in Tampa and planned to sell the sodas in his machines. Hill was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison for drug trafficking.

The Handy Corner butcher shop, previously owned by Cleveland Hill Jr., pictured on Aug. 3 in Largo. Hill is linked to the disappearances of three missing women.
The Handy Corner butcher shop, previously owned by Cleveland Hill Jr., pictured on Aug. 3 in Largo. Hill is linked to the disappearances of three missing women. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

An FBI agent involved in the sting forwarded a tip to the Sheriff’s Office in 1992. An informant told the agent he overheard Hill tell someone on the phone to “get rid of the bitch, just like before” between December 1988 and January 1989. The informant also saw a “large pool of blood” in the cooler area at Hill’s general store in Largo. Pinellas Sheriff’s Detective Patricia Juhl searched records but didn’t find the informant.

Hill continued to deny involvement with the missing women. When the Tribune tried to interview him at an Atlanta prison in 1993, his lawyer stepped in.

“A fish who doesn’t open his mouth doesn’t get caught,” Broward County attorney Edward Bobick said.

Without any physical evidence or witnesses, the cases grew cold.

Margaret Dash’s family believes police could have done more to find her when she first went missing. The family hired private investigators and later fought to have the case reexamined in 1992, according to the Tribune.

“I just don’t think they tried to find her at the time,” Margaret’s husband, Leon Dash Sr., told the paper in 1993.

“Because so much time has passed since Margaret Dash disappeared, I can’t answer whether they did enough,” Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said in a recent statement to the Times. “We have so many more resources today than they did in 1974.”

A spokesperson for Clearwater police said Dash’s case was never closed and remains open.

Dana Hiers also believes investigators did not do enough to search for her mother when she initially disappeared.

“They didn’t do a damn thing,” Hiers said in a recent interview with the Times.

“We cannot comment on what was or was not done in an investigation of an incident that was 40 years ago,” Sgt. Amanda Sinni from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said in an email to the Times.

Derrica Wilson, the CEO and co-founder of Black and Missing Foundation Inc., said Black women receive less media attention and police resources when they disappear.

“Frankly, there’s no sense of urgency in finding them,” Wilson said. “They’re Black. Nobody’s going to miss them. That’s the perception and it is absolutely incorrect.”

Her nonprofit brings awareness to missing people of color who do not receive the same amount of media coverage as their white counterparts.

The term “missing white woman syndrome” sparked discussions after the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito captivated the nation in 2021. A 2016 study found that missing Black people were “significantly underrepresented” in national and local media coverage.

Wilson says this disparity starts with law enforcement deciding which cases are most important to investigate and publicize to the media. From there, the problem is amplified by a lack of diversity in newsrooms.

At some point, law enforcement pieced together that three local missing women were tied to one man, and the investigation became more aggressive. Tips were followed and potential burial spots were dug up.

When detectives contacted Dana Hiers earlier this summer to tell her they were excavating a lot in search of Retha, she was grateful. The lot was previously owned by Hill and is located just a few minutes from where Dana grew up.

Although deputies didn’t find anything after days of digging, she was moved by their efforts. Whenever Dana drove by the empty lot previously, she was haunted by the thought that her mother could be buried there.

“I got some closure. I can ride by that lot now and not be bothered by it,” Dana said.

The suspect

Cleveland Hill Jr. gazes at the camera in this Tampa Bay Times archive photo from 1986.
Cleveland Hill Jr. gazes at the camera in this Tampa Bay Times archive photo from 1986. [ DAVE PIERSON | St. Petersburg Times ]

Hill was a bundle of contradictions, stitched together by money and power.

“He was a husband, a son, a preacher — but yet practiced black magic — an entrepreneur, millionaire, adulterer, felon, drug trafficker and suspected murderer,” Mbow said on her podcast in 2019. “He was also my father.”

Mbow, who declined to be interviewed for this article, chronicled growing up as Hill’s daughter on the 11-episode podcast series. She remembers her father driving his truck with the words “Black Magic’' engraved on it, the name of his paving and asphalt business. He practiced black magic, Mbow said, once kidnapping his wife and taking her to a cabin in the woods of Georgia where he worshipped the devil.

The family’s home in Largo had a pool, jacuzzi, basketball court and a garage that could hold at least five cars. Despite this display of wealth, Hill was repeatedly arrested for issuing worthless checks, court records show. The house is still there, adjacent to Ulmerton Road, guarded by a white steel gate.

Everybody in the neighborhood knew Hill, Dana Hiers said, and most people feared him. He was able to win women over with his money and charm, and met multiple mistresses at the church where he preached.

“My dad would get up, preach his fiery sermons on Sunday … and go meet up with his mistress in the next few cities over,” Mbow said in one episode.

Cleveland Hill Jr. had many affairs that started at the Lighthouse Church of Jesus Christ, pictured here on Aug. 3, in Largo.
Cleveland Hill Jr. had many affairs that started at the Lighthouse Church of Jesus Christ, pictured here on Aug. 3, in Largo. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Hill had at least seven affairs, including the three missing women. Four women filed paternity cases against him, court records show. Many of his liaisons began at the Lighthouse Church of Jesus Christ in Largo, a Pentecostal congregation in the Rainbow Village neighborhood. (A church leader, Willie Swinton, told the Times he did not know much about Hill except that he “strayed away from God.”)

One woman who filed a paternity case against Hill in 1988 spoke to the Times, but asked that her name not be used because she remains acquainted with Hill’s family. She met Hill at the church and started dating him when she was 17, she said. Court records show that she had a child with Hill in 1986.

“At first I was real scared of him,” the woman told the Times. “He had ladies missing.”

But then, she said, she got to know another side of him. Hill would come up behind her in line at the store and pay for her groceries; if he saw her while sitting at a stoplight, he’d open the car window and wave her over, cash in hand. He also paid for her apartment.

“He said one time that he was gonna buy all the land up in Largo and put a big fence around it and just have him and his women and children in there,” she said.

The woman said Hill was violent with her once — backhanding her in the face while wearing a ring, which gave her a black eye. She recalls threats from Hill. “He told me, ‘I’ll have your mama looking for your last tracks,’” she said.

Felicia Bell, who had two children with Hill in 1983 and 1984 according to court records, also felt unsafe around him. Hill put Bell up in a house for more than a year and discouraged her from contacting her family, according to the 1989 WTSP-Ch. 10 report. Bell said Hill would use manipulative tactics to isolate her from the outside world.

“He would start playing with your mind,” Bell told WTSP-Ch. 10, “and then when he finished, you don’t want to go.”

Bell was having an affair with Hill around the same time Hiers went missing in 1982. The Times was unable to reach her for comment.

“If he can’t control you or you start to pull away,” Bell said in 1989, “he’ll find somebody else he can control.”

The deathbed

Investigators flew to Appomattox, Virginia, in January 2018 to see Hill, who was in at-home hospice care with stage four prostate cancer. He hadn’t returned to Florida after serving his federal prison sentence. The visit was a long-shot, last-chance effort to secure a confession — and the location of the missing women or their remains. To bring peace to families who have lived without it for decades.

“We knew he did it,” Clearwater police Detective Joseph Ruhlin told the Times in a recent interview.

The detectives traded tactics, asking if Hill wanted to meet his maker with three missing women on his conscience. Eventually, they put his son on speaker phone. Even today, Ruhlin can recall the exchange:

“Do you know what happened to those women, pops?” Tony Hill asked.

“No, I don’t,” Hill said, shaking his head. But he was tearing up.

This moment was the closest investigators ever got to answers, Ruhlin said. Hill died two months later.

The initials “CH” remain atop the gates of the former residence of Cleveland Hill Jr., in this photo taken on Aug. 3 in Largo.
The initials “CH” remain atop the gates of the former residence of Cleveland Hill Jr., in this photo taken on Aug. 3 in Largo. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

He never returned to his home in Largo, where he left behind a legacy of pain and unanswered questions.

Two large block letters sit atop the gate outside his old house to this day: his initials, “CH.”

The white letters, once a sign of affluence and power, are now chipped and rusted. They loom over the neighborhood streets, hidden behind vines and overgrown branches, difficult to see but still there.

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