[IMAGE CREDIT: iStock / peder77]
(This Article was First Published in LLN in August, 2015 — Issue No. 23 — Having First Appeared in The Sportsmans’ Gazette.)
There’s a lot of history in the grand two-story house that sits at 804 North Bay Street in downtown Eustis, Florida. Once the childhood home of probate and estate-planning attorney Frank Gaylord, it now houses the office he shares with fellow attorney Michael Rogers. Nearly a century old, the home was built in 1926 by Charles Z. “Zeb” Osborne, then a prominent Lake County Builder. Osborne also built several schools in Eustis.
The home was purchased by Gaylord’s parents in the 1940s—but the sale included a very specific condition. As it tuns out, the home’s seller (named Cole) also owned Lake Region News at the time. He informed Gaylord’s father that he (Cole) had to leave Florida to go to California to tend to business. Cole didn’t want his newspaper to fold, so Gaylord’s father was told he would have to run the paper for two years as a condition of the sale! (The paper was later sold.)
What we know is not always true, and what we believe is not always accurate. That became clear to me one night when I was assigned to investigate a homicide, the murder of a county commissioner’s spouse, when indisputable fact overshadowed accepted belief.
It was a balmy summer’s eve on the midwestern plains in 1981. I had just finished a homicide case and sent it to the prosecutor when a distressed caller phoned into the Sheriff’s Office dispatch a plea for an ambulance at a farm about 10 miles outside the county seat. What made this call most important wasn’t the event, it was the caller, a former commissioner who had returned home to find his wife lying dead in the kitchen of their farm home, situated on a substantial amount of prime acreage he farmed with his son-in-law. It happened that the Sheriff and I were both still in the office, along with a patrol deputy who was preparing for evening watch. We all cursed our luck as dispatch reminded us of our destination and the caller, who had the presence of mind to inform us that his wife appeared dead. County commissioners don’t rate any better service that anyone else, but they are more vocal and influential about responses to their emergencies, and this case would soon become a conundrum.
Arriving at the scene, we found a middle-aged woman lying supine on the floor. There was virtually no sign of a struggle and little evidence of any wound, until a careful examination of the body found two small, precise gunshots to her lower left earlobe, with classic powder burns and stippling indicative of a close contact gunshot wound to the base of the skull. Now we had a gunshot victim—but was it an accident, suicide or homicide? Even more intriguing, was the conspicuous absence of the gun.
We soon learned the husband kept a Beretta 950 Minx .22 short-pistol loaded in a holster atop the refrigerator. It was missing, along with the holster. Nothing else was out of place. No money or valuables were missing, and there was no indication the perpetrator had ransacked, or even searched any rooms of the home. The cars and trucks were still parked in the drive, and there was no evidence of forced entry. It appeared the victim had been working in the kitchen when approached by the suspect—whom she likely recognized and readily allowed into the home without fear or concern. Either she or the suspect could have easily grasped the .22 short-pistol always kept loaded atop the fridge in plain sight.
After a lengthy examination of the home, the Coroner ruled the body “deceased” and ordered an autopsy be performed to determine exact cause of death (as was his statutory obligation in homicides). To avoid any conflict of interest, the Sheriff asked for the assistance of the State Highway Patrol Intelligence and Investigation Section. “I & I” performed a dual role at the time—that of crime scene technicians, and investigators—assisting local agencies when asked (especially in sensitive investigations such as where a commissioner’s wife was the victim). Potentially, a family member could be a suspect, and this was the obvious answer to avoid the appearance of any impropriety or favoritism.
The autopsy was performed within hours. The pathologist ruled the deceased died as a result of two small caliber gunshot wounds to the left side of the head, with both rounds entering the brain, causing sufficient injury and hemorrhaging to result in death within a few moments of the shooting. The attending pathologist also concurred that the rounds were fired at contact-distance to the victim, with no other marks apparent to the body and no indications of sexual assault. Now we had clear evidence of a homicide, when coupled with the absence of the pistol. But, we lacked a clear motive for the killing, which defines and explains the actions of the suspect. Two small slugs were removed from the body, both 29 grain .22 short projectiles. These were spirited to the lab for analysis, as was a gunshot residue collection from the victim’s hands. Both of the forensic examinations proved positive for .22 short projectiles fired from a Beretta .22, with concomitant gunshot residue discovered on the skin of the victim’s hands, as if she was holding the gun, or struggling with someone over the gun when it was fired.
The day following the murder, a Coroner’s Inquest was convened. A ruling was reached that the victim died as a result of at least one gunshot wound to the head, fired by person or persons unknown during a criminal act. Less than four days into the investigation, we found that the prime suspect was indeed a family member—the daughter’s husband, who farmed the property with his father-in-law. I learned early that friends and relatives are often responsible, as they are given access and opportunity to commit murder, where strangers and enemies are not. Interviews with neighbors and family found a long-standing feud had erupted between the son-in-law and the victim, who was uncommonly candid to others before her death about her son-in-laws’ personal life and farming abilities. The husband was ruled out as a suspect, with independent witnesses placing him out of town at the time of the shooting. So too were a number of possible suspects in the vicinity eliminated, who enjoyed opportunity, but lacked motive.
Initially, we began to believe that the suspect entered the home for some legitimate purpose, with an argument escalating into a shooting, which made the suspect panic and flee with the gun, consciously or through simple fear. We would prove ourselves right within the week, when three failed polygraphs brought the son-in-law to tears, admitting in his confession that he had shot his mother-in-law, who drew the gun on him following an argument. He claimed he only pulled the trigger once during the struggle over the tiny automatic and only heard one shot. Panicking, he ran from the home, gun in hand, only to dispose of the lethal and incriminating gun and holster deep in a well where he hoped it would rest forever. I used his confession in my arrest affidavit charging the son-in-law with murder. The prosecutor ruled that if both shots were accidentally discharged, during a struggle, he would review the case with cautious scrutiny and entertain a motion to amend the murder charge.
The defense came up with a seemingly specious argument that inherent to the design, a Beretta 950 Minx was capable of firing multiple rounds from a single pull on the trigger, under the right circumstances. I was unimpressed. I had fired a number of rounds over the years from both the Beretta Minx 950 .22 short, and it’s centerfire sibling, the .25 ACP Jetfire, and never experienced a single slam-fire. Checking the miniature Beretta out of evidence, I headed for the range with five boxes of the same brand ammo as that used in the shooting. The gun had been rinsed off after retrieval from the well, and the lab had only test-fired the gun for functioning and ballistics. They had not conducted a lengthy range test for any operational failure.
Less than 50 rounds later I began to experience defense’s claim. Following a single stroke on the trigger, usually with a full magazine, the gun would slam-fire, or double tap, two quick rounds so fast that one literally could not distinguish the two rounds from one gunshot, other than by tactile recoil feel. This only occurred after sufficient powder and debris had built up to override the sear arrangement of the tiny auto so the hammer followed the slide home at least once every other magazine in a very dirty weapon, and only with the early 950 series pistols in .22 short. I was now convinced. The defendant could be telling the truth, and if his story was accurate, it would likely save him from death row. Without that range test, I would forever believe him to be guilty of Murder 1st, as would most juries.
Homicides were resolved more quickly two decades ago, and this was no exception. The prosecutor amended the murder warrant, and based on the evidence—and the gun’s defective behavior—justice was meted out in lesser terms. I don’t know today if justice was rightfully served, but I did learn a lesson about truth. Sometimes there is more than one accurate interpretation of events. It just has to be proven, beyond and to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt, even to a skeptical homicide detective.
Chuck Nall is a career law enforcement agent and firearms expert, who currently works as an Investigator for the State Attorney’s Office in Lake County, Florida. [PHOTO CREDIT: Provided]