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DeSantis orders execution for Bobby Joe Long, who killed at least eight women in the 1980s

Convicted serial killer Robert Joe Long, left, speaks to attorney William K. Eble before he is sentenced to death in a Pasco County murder. His sentence in that case was later overturned. [Times (1989)]
Published Apr. 25

TAMPA — A year ago, Cher Lowther typed a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, beseeching him to follow through on a promise the state made more than 30 years earlier to put Bobby Joe Long to death.

Long, a notorious serial killer, murdered at least eight women in the Tampa Bay area in the early 1980s, including Karen Dinsfriend, Lowther's step-sister. He was first sentenced to die in 1985, yet he remains on death row.

Speaking of the death sentence, Lowther wrote, "It is right and just and it cannot be more horrifying and painful for him than it was for Karen and the eight other women who were brutalized and murdered at his hands."

She never got a reply. But on Wednesday, she was dumbstruck when she learned new governor Ron DeSantis had signed Long's death warrant.

DeSantis set Long's execution for 6 p.m. May 23 at Florida State Prison, near Starke. It is the first death sentence DeSantis has authorized since taking office in January. Scott, his predecessor, ordered 28 executions, more than any other Florida governor.

"Both my mother and I had given up," Lowther said Wednesday. "This man is older than my sister ever got to be. If she had gotten to live, who knows what she would have become in life."

The death warrant and accompanying documents also bear the signatures of Attorney General Ashley Moody and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, both of whom were Hillsborough circuit judges before their recent ascent to state office.

Long, 65, has spent 34 years on death row, among the longest of any inmate.

He is scheduled for execution in the May 27, 1984, murder of Michelle Denise Simms, a former beauty contestant from California.

Her nude body was found in a wooded area that day near Plant City. She had been bound with rope and her throat was cut.

Several other women, some of whom worked as prostitutes or exotic dancers, also disappeared from Tampa that year, their bodies found near rural roadsides.

Dinsfriend grew up in St. Petersburg. She was 28 when she died. Lowther said her younger step-sister had become addicted to drugs. She believes she made money through prostitution.

"None of that negates the fact that she was a beautiful, bright little girl and she was loved by her family," Lowther said. "Everybody has the opportunity to turn their life around and my sister never got that chance."

Dinsfriend was last seen about 3 a.m. Oct. 14, standing near some trees in the 6200 block of N Nebraska Ave. Seven hours later, her body was found in a Thonotosassa orange grove. She had been strangled.

Hillsborough sheriff's detectives led the hunt for a killer. It ended when Long was arrested in November 1984 in the kidnapping of 17-year-old Lisa McVey, who was abducted while she was riding a bicycle to her job at a Krispy Kreme donut shop.

McVey was blindfolded, sexually assaulted, and held captive for 26 hours. Although she couldn't see, she managed to glimpse some details about where she was taken and what her abductor looked like. He later let her go.

She recalled the details of her ordeal for investigators, leading them to Long.

Now known as Lisa Noland, she has worked 20 years as a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy. Her story became the subject of books and TV shows.

"I'm going through a roller-coaster of emotions," Noland said Wednesday, declining further comment.

After his arrest, Long confessed to murdering Simms, Dinsfriend and several others, including Peggy Long, Elizabeth Loudenback, Vicky Elliott, Chanel Williams, Kimberly Hopps, and Kim Marie Swan.

He agreed to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences in each case but received the death penalty in the slaying of Simms.

He also was sentenced to death for the murder of Virginia Johnson in Pasco County, but the Florida Supreme Court later overturned the conviction and ordered his acquittal in the case. His trial, the court said, was tainted by the mention of the Hillsborough cases.

Laurie Chane, a Dade City lawyer who as a young public defender represented Long, said Wednesday the defense employed some novel techniques in the Pasco County trial, including the use of brain scans. While the acquittal was a win, they knew Long's many life sentences would ensure he would never leave prison.

Chane questioned the value in the decades-long process of seeing Long executed.

"While I do not have doubts about his guilt," she said, "a life sentence on the remaining Hillsborough case would have brought closure many, many years ago and many millions of dollars ago."

Long once boasted that he "probably destroyed about a hundred people."

Before the Tampa Bay killings, he committed a series of rapes in south Florida. The victims were women who had advertised used furniture for sale. Their attacker was given the nickname "the classified ad rapist."

In a TV interview soon after he was sent to prison, Long struggled to explain the reasons for his crimes.

"I'm not proud of anything I've done," he said. "And the worst thing is I don't understand why."

His lengthy stay on death row is partly due to challenges he raised on appeal concerning his guilty plea. He claimed he would not have pleaded guilty if he had known about problems with the testing of hair and fiber evidence in his case by a former FBI analyst. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the argument.

Other delays resulted from the overturning of his death sentence in 1988 and Long's repeated attempts to argue for a life sentence.

Lowther said she wasn't sure if she would attend Long's execution. It was something her father never got to see, she said. He was never the same after his daughter's murder.

"I don't personally know how I feel about the death penalty," Lowther said. "I do think if the state has the law it should be enforced and it should be enforced a lot sooner than 34 years."

The death warrant for Long comes as capital punishment is on the decline, in Florida and nationwide.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court forced Florida to change its capital sentencing laws to require a unanimous jury verdict for death sentences.

In October, the Supreme Court in Washington struck down that state's death penalty, citing concerns about racial bias and arbitrariness. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in California, which has the nation's largest death row population.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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