TAMPA — It was 18 years ago this week that two young men vanished on back-to-back nights after visiting the same Tampa nightclub. The disappearances of Jason Galehouse and Michael Wachholtz rattled the local LGBT community and would become the touchstone for one of the most notorious criminal cases in Tampa history.
Today, it is a story that remains unfinished.
Steven Lorenzo, one of two men believed to have drugged, sexually tortured and killed the pair, has yet to go to trial for their slayings. Although he was long ago convicted in federal court of drug-related charges in connection to their deaths, a state murder case has been long in the making.
Now, with a murder trial and a possible death sentence looming, Lorenzo has insisted on representing himself. Four years since his return to jail, he’s kept his case going with a deluge of legal filings he jots in distinct capital letters on jailhouse stationery. He’s argued with prosecutors in regular hearings and complained to judges about his ability to access evidence and legal materials from his jail cell.
For Pam Williams, it is a farce. She is Jason Galehouse’s mother. For close to two decades she has waited for the day that the man she believes killed her son will be held legally responsible for his death.
She’s seen police and prosecutors and judges come and go. She feels forgotten. But she can’t forget.
“I’m disgusted with the justice system,” she said. “I think I have a right to be after 18 years.”
Galehouse was 26. He grew up in the Sarasota area and moved to Tampa in late 2003 to live with friends. He talked to his mother every few days. Outgoing and charismatic, he enjoyed crooning classic songs like I Heard it Through the Grapevine. He’d worked as a florist, and was taking college classes to further a career in interior design.
On the night of Dec. 19, 2003, he went with friends to a Christmas party. They returned home late that night, but then went out again in the early morning to 2606, a now-defunct gay nightclub in West Tampa.
Galehouse told his friends to leave without him, that he was heading out with two men. They became concerned when he didn’t return home. He was reported missing.
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It was the next night that Wachholtz went missing. Fears grew a killer was targeting gay men.
Tampa police and federal agents would eventually question Scott Schweickert. He confessed that he helped lure Galehouse and Wachholtz to Lorenzo’s home in Seminole Heights, where they were given the drug GHB, then sexually tortured and killed.
He said that he helped dismember Galehouse’s body in Lorenzo’s garage and that Lorenzo disposed of it in trash bins throughout the city. Galehouse’s remains were never found. Wachholtz’s body was later found in his Jeep, which was abandoned at an apartment complex.
Police would find Galehouse’s blood in the cobblestone floor of Lorenzo’s garage. In his house, they also found a trove of evidence that included pictures of men — bound, naked and injured. They found transcripts of America Online chats between Lorenzo and Schweickert, in which they fantasized about murdering men.
Several men would come forward with stories about Lorenzo drugging and assaulting them.
Lorenzo and Schweickert were charged in federal court with using drugs to facilitate crimes of violence. In separate trials, both were found guilty. Schweickert would receive 40 years in prison.
Lorenzo got the maximum sentence of 200 years. Although it was a drug case, Judge Richard Lazzara opined that there was strong evidence that murder, sexual battery and other crimes had occurred. He noted that state prosecutors would have a compelling argument for a death sentence if a murder case was brought.
But that took years. In 2012, a state grand jury indicted Schweickert. Four years later came a plea deal: Schweickert agreed to plead guilty and testify against Lorenzo in exchange for a life sentence.
Lorenzo was charged with murder in 2016. The next year, he appeared in a Tampa courtroom and declared that he was a “sovereign man,” calling the venue a “fiction, corporate court.”
In numerous court proceedings, his sovereign citizen posture has become less pronounced. But he has continued to insist on representing himself. Two highly experienced attorneys have stood by, giving limited assistance and ready to step in if he changes his mind.
In one recent court document, he laid bare a detailed theory of defense that centers on the notion that Galehouse wasn’t killed at all. He suggested that Galehouse cut himself accidentally in the garage while joining other men for a dip in a hot tub. He’s also claimed Galehouse left his home with two other men.
The murder case was set for trial in the spring of 2020. But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted trials statewide.
A trial was set once again for this year. But then came Lorenzo’s complaints that he hasn’t been able to sufficiently scrutinize the voluminous evidence. He’s claimed there are other people involved. He says he can prove it with records of online chats. But with limited access to a jailhouse computer, he said it will be a long time before he’s ready.
A trial is now set for April. Will it happen this time?
“I don’t have much hope that this is ever going anywhere,” said Tyler Butler, one of Galehouse’s close friends. He remembers the early days, when he approached local media outlets, frustrated and desperate to find out what happened to his friend. Like Williams, he’s dumbfounded that the case is still pending.
“With all the evidence they have, why has it been 18 years?” he said.
Williams still hopes for a trial, but all of the delays make her doubtful. She’s hopeful for a death sentence, even if lengthy appeals would make an execution far off. She believes it would give her some closure.
“No mother or parent should have to wait this long,” she said.