ST. PETERSBURG - For the seasoned detectives who investigated the murders of Joan Rogers and her teenage daughters Christe and Michelle in 1989, the case had a profound effect on the rest of their lives.
Cindra Leedy never crosses the bridges spanning Tampa Bay without thinking of the family and how their lives ended in a watery grave. Glen Moore recalls investigating the toughest case of his life, one that tested his patience and his nerves. JJ Geoghegan is haunted by the possibility that Oba Chandler, the man convicted of killing the trio, could have slain others and will be executed Tuesday without ever facing justice for unsolved slayings.
"He's finally going to pay the ultimate price," said Geoghegan, a retired investigator. "I have no pity on him. It's been 18 years since he was convicted, and I've been waiting for this. If they would let me, I'd sit in on the execution."
Chandler is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Florida State Prison on Tuesday afternoon. The 65-year-old has sat on death row for 17 years following his 1994 triple homicide conviction.
Rogers, 36, and her 14 and 17-year-old daughters were from the small farming community of Wilshire, Ohio. They were in Florida on their first vacation a dream vacation and were on their way home from Disney World when they met Chandler.
"He was a real charmer," said Geoghegan, who was a St. Petersburg Police detective at the time. "Back then, he was a good looking man and a slick talker. He was a Ted Bundy, is what he was." Geoghegan was referring to one of the most notorious serial killers in U.S history, who may have murdered 30 or more women in several states before Florida executed him in 1989.
On June 1, 1989, Rogers and her daughters were in the Tampa area and stopped to ask Chandler for directions to their motel. The three disappeared that evening.
Three days later, the Rogers' bodies were found in Tampa Bay. They were stripped from the waist down, bound with duct tape and yellow rope. Concrete blocks were tied to ropes around their necks. Yet the bodies floated to the surface.
The case was a mystery from the beginning: It took police a week to identify the bodies and by then, Rogers' husband (and the girls' father), who had stayed behind in Ohio, had reported them missing.
The motel manager where the Rogers family had been staying contacted police after maids noticed no one had been in the room for a week. Authorities then found Rogers' car abandoned beside a boat ramp on a causeway that connects Tampa and Pinellas County.
It was in Rogers' car that police found the crucial piece of evidence but investigators didn't know that until years later.
By 1990, the case had turned cold. No arrests, no suspects. Then-Detective Moore of the St. Petersburg Police Department was transferred to the homicide squad as one of two supervisors.
"I began to ask questions about the Rogers case," he said. "(Others in the department) really thought there was nothing else to do. I just couldn't believe there was nothing left to do. I asked if I could review it with six people that I hand-picked that were not from within the homicide squad."
The six investigators coming from local, regional and state agencies spent two weeks looking at every piece of evidence. Moore said they would sit at a big table, open the evidence boxes, and pass each piece of paper, each item, around the table.
One of those items was a seemingly innocuous brochure that had been found in Rogers' car. It was the kind of brochure that Florida tourists pick up at rest stops: it touted the beauty of Clearwater Beach and had a map. There was writing on the brochure, the detectives noted.
"As it turned out, that little piece of paper that had some scribbling on it turned out to be extremely important in the whole investigation," Moore said.
The brochure had never been checked for fingerprints. The team sent it off for processing and discovered a partial palm print that didn't belong to Rogers or her daughters.
As months wore on, Moore was under pressure to make an arrest or add the murders, once again, to the cold case file. Someone then suggested an unusual idea: ask the public for help.
"We might as well go for broke," Moore said he thought at the time.
The detectives put the handwriting on a billboard to see if anyone recognized it. In particular, the murderer's "R's" and "Y's" had a distinctive look.
"WHO KILLED THE ROGERS FAMILY?" the billboard read.
One of Chandler's neighbors recognized the writing and called authorities; Chandler, who owned an aluminum company, had done work for the neighbor and had written a contract with her. Another of Chandler's former neighbors and a secretary at the police department also noticed that Chandler looked suspiciously similar to a composite sketch of a suspect wanted in a rape an unsolved assault of a Canadian woman aboard a boat in Tampa Bay.
Chandler was arrested he and his family were living across the state in Daytona Beach, having just moved from Tampa.
At trial, prosecutors used details of the unrelated rape for which he was never tried. That woman testified Chandler took her by boat to see the sunset out on the bay and raped her. She believed the reason she wasn't killed was because a friend was waiting for her at the dock. Based on the similarities of the cases, prosecutors hypothesized that Rogers and her daughters were lured onto his boat with the promise of seeing the sunset and were then sexually assaulted before being murdered.
Chandler took the stand at trial and admitted to giving Rogers directions but denied that he had anything to do with the crime.
Geoghegan said that at trial, it seemed like Chandler was trying to persuade the jury to acquit him.
Chandler said he was fishing on Tampa Bay in his boat on the evening the women disappeared and that he called the Coast Guard for help with engine trouble. There was no evidence of distress calls from Chandler.
The jury convicted him and sent him to death. After the verdict was read, a juror told the local media: "They need to do this swiftly. The man is a mutation of a human being and he needs to be destroyed."
On Oct. 11, Gov. Rick Scott signed Chandler's death warrant. It is unlikely that Tuesday's execution of Oba Chandler will be postponed, because the Florida Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court decision to go ahead with the lethal injection.
The detectives who worked the case have retired from their investigative jobs. They all still carry memories of the case and with the approaching execution date, have been thinking of the murders of the young mother and her two daughters more than ever.
"A family, a whole family, just wiped out, by a monster," said Leedy, a retired St. Petersburg detective who now works as a county bailiff. "I think about them at Christmastime and at their birthdays. I wonder what they would have become."