On June 4, 1989, the crew of a sailboat passing under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay spotted something floating in the sea. It was the body of a woman, face down in the water and with her hands and feet tied. She was also naked from the waist down, with a rope around her neck. Then a second female body was spotted in exactly the same condition, two miles north of the pier at St. Petersburg. And a third bound female corpse would also be found floating about 600 feet to the east of the pier.
When the three bodies were recovered, however, they were found to have other things in common. The victims all had duct tape covering their mouths, for instance. Furthermore, the rope around each of their necks also turned out to be attached to concrete blocks. It seemed, then, that whoever was responsible for the deaths of the three women had wanted to weigh their corpses down so that they would sink to the seabed. However, as the bodies had decomposed in the warm summer water, they had seemingly bloated with gases and risen to the surface. In addition, autopsies on the corpses revealed seawater in each set of lungs, proving that the women had been thrown into the ocean alive. And the bodies’ partial nakedness suggested a sexual element to the killings.
Unfortunately, though, the ways in which the bodies had decomposed made them difficult to identify. But a breakthrough of sorts came on June 8, when a maid at Tampa’s Days Inn divulged some information. Specifically, she reported that a room at the hotel there had not been occupied for days – despite three women having checked into it a week earlier. The trio’s luggage had also not been unpacked, and nor had the bathroom and beds been used. Police subsequently dusted the motel room and found prints matching those on the unidentified bodies. They belonged to three women from the same family who had been on vacation from the Midwest: Jo, Michelle and Christe Rogers.
Jo was the mother of Michelle and Christe and was married to Hal Rogers, a dairy farmer from Van Wert County in Ohio. According to those who knew her, she was a tough and hardworking woman, independent of spirit and upbeat. It was also revealed, however, that Jo had felt exhausted from years of non-stop chores around the farm, working a separate job and raising a family. Lean and drawn, Jo had the appearance of someone a decade older than her 36 years.
Michelle, meanwhile, was Jo and Hal’s first daughter and a 17-year-old high school student who longed to escape from the farm. She was said to be shy with people she did not know; she was sometimes flirty, though, with boys with whom she was acquainted. This behavior led some of Michelle’s peers at school to gossip about her. And while the confused and contradictory teenager claimed not to care about what was being said about her, she had nevertheless admitted to friends that she felt isolated.
By contrast, Michelle’s sister, Christe, was a bubbly, outgoing girl who played team sports and was a school cheerleader. And the 14-year-old was Hal’s favorite – his “little girl.” Michelle was protective of her younger sister, too – and on the whole, she tried to keep Christe away from their uncle John, Hal’s younger brother and business partner in the farm.
Now Jo, Michelle and Christe had originally set out for the Sunshine State on May 26, 1989. It was the first time the Rogers women had ever taken a vacation together as a trio. But, as it happens, they weren’t just having a break from the drudgery of the farm; they were escaping from an awful situation. In fact, the family had been under serious strain ever since it had emerged that John – who lived next to the Rogers’ house in a trailer – had been sexually abusing Michelle since she was 14.
At first, then, John Rogers may have seemed like a plausible suspect in the murders of his female relatives. He had been safely behind bars at the time that the three women had taken off, however, having pleaded no contest in court to rape charges relating to another woman. And after homicide detectives had interviewed John in prison, they concluded that he was too much of a jailhouse loner to have arranged the crime while locked up.
Hal Rogers had also been in the frame during the early stages of the investigation; his behavior after the murders, some neighbors had thought, had been rather cold and strange. But Hal’s demeanor might have been more influenced by overpowering grief than by a guilty conscience. Plus, after the bereaved husband and father had been interviewed repeatedly by police, law enforcement concluded that he had had nothing to do with the murders. In fact, it was thought more likely that the killer was from Florida rather than Ohio.
Still, for the St. Petersburg police, there were no easy answers to many of the questions thrown up by the case. Indeed, the investigation into the Rogers women’s deaths proved to be a grueling one that lasted years and generated hundreds of leads – almost all of which proved to be dead ends. Forensic analysis did throw up one potential clue, however. Specifically, it suggested that the women had been thrown from a boat – a scenario made more plausible by the discovery of the Rogers family car near a Tampa Bay boat dock.
Then there was a major breakthrough in the case – when investigators were able to link the Rogers murders to the sexual assault of a 24-year-old Canadian tourist. Judy Blair had been on vacation in mid-May 1989 with a friend in Madeira Beach, near St. Petersburg. The pair had subsequently met a man in a local 7-Eleven parking lot, and he had offered to take the women on a boat trip. Blair accepted the offer; her friend declined, however. Then, the next day, the man took Blair out to sea and raped her.
So after St. Petersburg detectives had interviewed Blair in Canada, they became convinced that the same Madeira Beach man had murdered Jo, Michelle and Christe Rogers. In the process, they were also able to glean a lot of useful information about the individual: not only his age, height and build, but also details about his boat and car and even his career in aluminum products. With Blair’s help, the investigators additionally produced a facial composite of the suspect, which they went on to distribute to the media.
After the release of the composite, a slew of new information poured into the St. Petersburg police department from the public; unfortunately, though, most of the tips proved to be useless. Then, in 1991, almost two years after the murders, the homicide cops consulted the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Virginia about the Rogers. To help crack the case, the agency would create a profile of the likely perpetrator. And what it revealed was disturbing. To wit, the FBI determined that the murderer was most likely Caucasian and between 30 and 40 years of age. He was also possibly a serial killer with strong social skills and above-average intelligence. The most chilling aspect of the report, though, was the agency’s theory that the individual would probably continue killing until he was caught.
Then, in May 1992, the St. Petersburg detectives decided to publish a sample of distinctive handwriting that they had found scrawled on a brochure inside the Rogers’ vehicle. The written extract consisted of driving directions that had not been penned by any of the murdered women. But could the author have been the killer? In an unusual move, the sample was enlarged on posters pasted on billboards around the Tampa area, just in case.
And, astonishingly, the cops’ unorthodox tactic worked. A woman contacted the police with a copy of a contract for an aluminum porch – and the writing on it matched the note in the Rogers’ car. The handwriting belonged to one Oba Chandler, a 46-year-old with a long police record. His former convictions included those for burglary, kidnapping, armed robbery, loitering and prowling, to name but a few. Furthermore, Chandler had once owned a boat; and his mugshot also bore a distinct resemblance to the composite.
So, on September 24, 1992, Chandler was arrested for the murders of Jo, Michelle and Christe Rogers. Two years later, he would stand trial for his alleged crimes in Clearwater, Florida. The court was presided over by circuit judge Susan Schaeffer. And, from the outset, the proceedings were characterized by a most striking detail: Chandler’s apparent air of indifference.
Indeed, it seemed as if the accused was attempting to appear unperturbed about the events unfolding around him – as if they didn’t affect him because he was not responsible for the murders. However, Chandler’s performance did not have the desired effect. “He scared some of the jurors when he would sit there and stare at you and have that stupid grin on his face,” one juror, Roseann Welton, recalled to The Tampa Tribune in May 2011. She added, “He would make your skin crawl.”
One of the most important pieces of testimony in court, moreover, was given by the Canadian rape victim Judy Blair. With tear-filled eyes, she described how the accused had befriended her, taken her far out to sea on his boat and then raped her. One damning detail was that Chandler had threatened to gag her with duct tape. And Blair’s testimony was so eloquent and convincing that some of the jurors openly wept.
Chandler himself, meanwhile, was unconvincing on the stand. He admitted to having encountered the Rogers women and providing them with directions – but to nothing else. And while he did claim that he was out on the water in Tampa Bay on the evening of the murders, he asserted that he had been alone. Plus, the reason he had returned home late at night, he contended, was because of engine failure due to a fuel leak, which he had then tried to fix with duct tape. Chandler came unstuck, however, when prosecutor Douglas Crow demonstrated with expert testimony that this supposed leak could never have happened.
In the end, moreover, Chandler was found guilty of all three murders and sentenced to death. “One victim was first; two watched. Imagine the fear,” Judge Schaeffer said. “One victim was second; one watched. Imagine the horror. Finally the last victim, who had seen the other two disappear over the side, was lifted up and thrown overboard. Imagine the terror.”
Oba Chandler was subsequently executed in 2011, seven years after his guilty verdict. Three years after that, however, investigators announced that new DNA tests proved he had also been responsible for the murder of Ivelisse Berrios-Beguerisse in Coral Springs in 1990. The newly married 20-year-old had been raped and strangled, possibly after Chandler had stalked her. Who knows how many others Chandler might have killed were it not for his mistake of leaving an incriminating sample of handwriting in the car that had been ridden by three of his tragic victims.