Editor’s note: The body of murder victim Preston Oliver Talley was discovered July 17, 2016, in the Richloam Wildlife Management Area of Hernando County. This story has been updated to correct the date.
BROOKSVILLE — Four people ganged up on an unsuspecting Preston Oliver Talley after luring him through a dating website to the woods of Hernando County with the promise of sex and drugs.
Talley, 35, of Gainesville, was beaten to death there with a baseball bat and robbed of his clothes, $20 cash and about $200 worth of methamphetamine.
Nearly three years later, on May 16, the last of the four defendants — ringleader Joshua Dewayne Gardner, 27 — was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder and armed robbery.
Two of the four agreed to testify against the other two, resulting in two life sentences for Gardner and a sentence of life plus 30 years for co-defendant Joe Harrelson, 27. Both men are from Dade City.
Kayla Ja’Nae Morrow, 28, also of Dade City, was sentenced to 10 years for robbery and Andrew Christopher Abbott, 22, from Zephyrhills, was sentenced to 15 years for second-degree murder and robbery.
The events leading to Talley’s murder started when he connected on the dating website Plenty of Fish with someone he believed to be Morrow. They traded messages about meeting up for sex and possibly to smoke methamphetamine.
Instead, Talley had been talking to Gardner — Morrow’s friend.
Talley met the real Morrow at the corner of U.S. 301 and State Road 50. They talked briefly and she asked him to follow her in his car, into the secluded Richloam Wildlife Management Area off McKinney Sink Road in Webster.
Gardner was waiting there with Abbott and Harrelson. When Talley got out of his car, Gardner hit him in the head three times with a baseball bat.
On the morning of July 17, 2016, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office received a call from a man who had traveled to the Richloam area to bury a dog. As he walked into the woods, he found Talley’s body.
Three of the four suspects were soon apprehended as they were driving, at a point about 80 miles up Interstate 75 from the crime scene near Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Harrelson was arrested later. He had gotten out of the car and hitchhiked to Pasco County.
A key to Gardner’s conviction, said his attorney Charles Vaughn, was a statement he gave about hitting Talley with the bat. Jurors also heard testimony from Morrow and Abbott describing Gardner as the leader of the group.
Gardner has filed an appeal of his conviction and sentence.
State records show Gardner and Harrelson, both of Dade City, have violent criminal histories.
Gardner has been arrested 19 times on charges including domestic violence and strangulation. He served a year in prison for battery with a deadly weapon.
Harrelson has been arrested 13 times on charges including domestic battery and armed burglary. He served about three years for armed burglary.
Assistant state attorney William Catto, who prosecuted the case, said robbery was the motive in the murder.
“It’s just human tragedy,” Catto said. “It’s a sad commentary on our society that somebody would be killed for that little amount of money and drugs.”
Contact Paige Fry at email@example.com. Follow @paigexfry