Anticipating little more than spending a few hours on his ladder stand, 63-year-old Don Hill probably really didn’t count on weighing-in an eight-point buck on the afternoon of November 19, 1993. Aloft and overlooking the acres of palmetto and scrub brush of northern Florida, listening to the wind whisper through the pines and feeling the autumn nip in the late-afternoon air, Hill could have watched a pair of jays on the wing, fox squirrels darting across a moss-laden limb or maybe a woodpecker rotating around the nearby tree tapping the bark for a meal. The forest rewards you one way or another, Hill would have thought.
His new .30/30 Winchester rifle resting across his upper legs, the retired Navy Chief Petty Officer from Orange Park, Fla., would likely have scanned the vast green-brown landscape of vegetation that surrounded him, perhaps suppressing a wide smile as his mind drifted to the realization of how fast his grandchildren were growing.
The Hill family will never know what Don’s thoughts were on that late afternoon, even as another hunter, a hunter of men, walked toward the ladder stand.
In the captive golden rays of the setting sun breaking through the pine boughs, the man appeared. He looked like any other hunter–dressed in camouflage, a few days’ growth of beard, carrying a shotgun–and his smile and greeting were not off-putting. “Hey, how are you? I’m real sorry to disturb you like this but I need some help toting a downed buck to my truck. Would you mind?”
According to Don Hill’s son Joe, his dad was not the kind of man to turn down anyone in need of assistance. It was a quality that proved fatal for the unsuspecting sportsman.
Arriving at Cobb Camp Grounds, located within Osceola National Forest, about 30 miles west of Jacksonville, later that night, Joe Hill intended to relax with a cup of hot coffee. Perhaps he could strike a bet with his father as to which one of them would bring down the largest buck before the next few days of their planned hunt was over. Upon arriving at Cobb, Joe found his dad’s small camper trailer to be set up but locked. The senior Hill should have been there. Maybe he had driven 15 miles into Lake City for supplies. But as hours passed, Joe became increasingly concerned. He went to a camp pay phone to call his mother back in Orange Park. She had not heard from her husband since earlier in the day. Joe told his mother not to be worried, even though by now he was. At sunrise, with still no sign of Don, Joe set out to find his father’s maroon-and-silver 1989 Chevrolet S-10 pickup. After searching several likely locations within Osceola Forest, Joe drove across the overpass of Interstate 10, the main east-west thoroughfare between Jacksonville and Tallahassee and beyond. He went just a short distance, passing Forest Road 257, and saw the familiar truck parked at the side of Dobson Grade Road. Exiting his own pickup and fighting growing tension and nervous fear, Joe called his father’s name as he moved at a steady pace down the firebreak extending toward a ladder stand supported by a large pine.
At the base of the tree, Don Hill lay on his right side, his newly purchased .30/30 extended across his body, the sling still wrapped around his right arm. Joe could not the obvious trauma that masked the familiar features of the man who raised him and whom he had loved all his life. Joe backed away and ran toward the road, his silent disbelief and non-acceptance now shattered by his own scream for “Help!”
Lt. Charlie Sharman of the Baker County Sheriffs Office was summoned to the scene by responding deputy sheriffs and state troopers who had been first to arrive and were charged with protecting the scene of a shooting incident involving a hunter. Lt. Sharman, off-duty but on-call, had been at home with his wife and children on Saturday morning when the call was made. Wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt and ankle-high boots, Sharman stepped from his white Blazer expecting to investigate another tragic incident of carelessness with a firearm. He hung his badge on a chain around his neck and walked toward the assembly of officers awaiting his arrival.
Charlie Sharman quickly recognized that this was no innocent accident, but the experienced homicide investigator found few clues to the seemingly motiveless crime. Who would outright murder a hunter in the woods? What possible motive could there be? Don Hill had been shot multiple times at close range with what appeared to be a shotgun, It was apparent that the killer had tried to clean up the evidence.
In coming days, Lt. Sharman and his team of investigators continued to scrutinize every possible lead and angle into the mysterious shooting death of Don Hill. But as days passed, there was apprehension growing in the minds of hunters in northeast Florida. They could not know that their fears would be compounded with the approaching Thanksgiving holiday.
On the day of Hill’s murder, Greg Wood, also of Orange Park, was on a golf course in Lake City with friends. Hill and Wood lived only four miles apart, yet they were not acquainted nor did they have any apparent connection other than residing in the same general area.
Tall and handsome, Wood lived with his girlfriend, Mary Marzola, and her daughter, Victoria. He worked for Sun Golf in Jacksonville doing every thing from sales to giving lessons. His passion was golf and, although he was 35, he still aspired to turn pro and play in the major tournaments. He shared his dream with his father, Don Wood, also an accomplished golfer.
Five days after Don Hill’s murder, November 24, Mary Marzola readied her daughter for school and left for work that Wednesday morning. She asked Greg Wood what he intended to do on his day off. Wood said he might go duck hunting in St. Augustine–he would leave a note for Mary if he did.
Mary found no note from Greg when she returned home. She looked in a closet and found his .308 rifle there and, knowing little about hunting, reasoned he must have decided to spend his day at something other than duck hunting. Mary never thought to check for Greg’s shotgun. She later learned from her mother, Ginger Havens, that Greg had called at about 3:30 in the afternoon to say that Victoria was coming to her grandmother’s house after school. He told Mary’s mother only that he was going out for a while.
When the hours drew long into the night, and Mary’s concern turned to worry, she began calling Greg’s family and friends. No one had heard from the aspiring golf pro. It was not at all like him to leave Mary uninformed of his whereabouts, Don Wood and an other son, Vigo, were as bewildered as Mary. Vigo knew his brother liked to hunt a specific area of Camp Blanding, the 63,000-acre Florida National Guard base located in southern Clay County. He suspected Greg may have gone there for an afternoon hunt on the state-owned property, which is open to sportsmen during hunting season.
Mary called the check-in gate at Camp Blanding and gave a description of Greg and his Mazda to check-station operator Mary Wainwright, a part-time employee of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. The following day, Thanksgiving, still with no word, Don and Vigo Wood began to search for Greg. By late afternoon there was no sign, but the two men were now at Camp Blanding and headed for the spot Vigo knew Greg favored. There they found Greg’s gray Mazda parked off Woodbury Road, a paved connecting roadway in the north-range area, but they were unable to locate the hunter, even in his favorite blind.
Don Wood went to the check-in station at State Road 16 and told the operator that he had found his son’s car. The father was soon joined by GFC Officer Steve Chance, a lawman with over 20 years experience in tracking and finding lost hunters. Don and Chance started back to the site where Vigo was waiting. Chance put in a call for a helicopter from the Jacksonville Sheriffs Office for assistance in locating a lost hunter. He feared Greg Wood may have been the victim of an accident–but in the back of his mind was the murder in the Osceola Forest only five days earlier. Officer Chance did not suspect he would be canceling the helicopter before it got off the ground.
When Don and Officer Chance returned, Vigo had found his brother. Greg Wood’s body was lying on a footpath a few hundred meters west of the hunting spot Vigo had recalled, A massive head wound by gunshot had ended his young and promising life.
By 1993, over the course of nine years as a homicide investigator with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, I had investigated and reported on many deaths. My partner, Lt. Tom Waugh, and I responded to them all–murders, suicides, accidental and industrial deaths, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)–anything other than death by natural causes. On Thanksgiving Day 1993, my family and I were 15 minutes from sitting down to dinner at my in-laws’ house. Just then my pager sounded–a sure sign of late-night leftovers for me, but little indication that I would be setting off on an investigation that would last four and a half years.
Leaving dinner and heading toward Camp Blanding in my Chevrolet Caprice, I called Tom on the car phone. He was a little bit ahead of me and would meet me there. It looked like a Signal 7–dead body, hunting accident. I wondered how he could be steering, talking on the car phone and maneuvering a turkey leg all at the same time. When I arrived, I was met by Steve Chance and Deputy Don Cox.
I had worked a half-dozen hunter-related deaths with Chance over the years. They all had been cases of accidental discharges because of carelessness or failure to recognize a target.
“Jimm, this is no accident,” Chance said to me. “The man was murdered.” Chance also informed me of a man murdered in Baker County five days earlier, under what appeared to be similar circumstances.
I introduced myself to Don and Vigo Wood before proceeding to the crime scene and gave Don a business card. Rather than confuse them with questions, I just left them alone to grieve in dignity.
At the immediate scene of the murder, Lt. Waugh was in the process of photographing Greg Wood and the surrounding area. I bent down beside the young victim and asked myself, “What happened here?” The man had been executed by a single shotgun wound to the back of his head. Questions surged through my mind: Did he know his killer? Was it a robbery? How much money would someone expect to get from a man in the woods? Am I looking at the onset of a serial murder by a sociopath hunting the ultimate game… a killer who hunts other hunters?
The answers would be the prelude to another death.
From my examination of the blood spatter on vegetation close to Wood’s body, I was able to form an opinion as to the proximity of the shooter and the angle of the weapon when fired. Everything made me suspect that Greg Wood was probably in prayer in the last moments of his life, as he sat upon a fallen tree across the path. Crime Scene Technicians from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrived on location as well as Division Chief Tim Collins from the State Attorney’s Office.
I left the scene and made an immediate telephone call to Lt. Charlie Sharman of Baker County. When Charlie told me details of the homicide scene in Osceola Forest, I knew that the killer of Hill and Wood was one and the same. A key feature was the manner in which the belts of the victims were cut by the murderer. Both men had items taken from their belts–Hill a knife and sheath; Wood a .357 revolver and holster. Additionally, both men’s wallets were missing, and Greg Wood’s Remington 12-gauge shotgun was also gone. Sharman and I determined that there was a uniqueness to the cut of the men’s belts. We chose to keep this factor to ourselves until the end–a decision that would eventually pay off.
Two murders of hunters in five days prompted aggressive measures on the part of former Baker County Sheriff Murray Richardson and Clay County Sheriff L. Scott Lancaster. It was decided that a task force would be formed immediately to spearhead a drive against the killer.
Detectives and special agents from both Sheriffs’ Offices, plus the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Game an4 Fresh Water Fish Commission, U.S. Forestry Service and Camp Blanding Military Police combined to saturate northeast Florida hunting areas, seeking witnesses and information. The task force came to be known as “Task Force Orion,” after the constellation Orion–“The Hunter.” Media throughout the U.S. picked up on the fact that two sportsmen had been murdered within days in northern Florida, and a nationwide chill fell on the hunting community.
Members of Task Force Orion would meet every Wednesday to review incoming leads and receive new assignments. A nationwide 800 telephone number was set up to receive tips and information. Within six months of the murders a reward totaling $45,500 was posted for the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the murders. Safari Club International put up nearly half the amount; law enforcement sources accounted for the remainder.
Hundreds of telephone calls came into the Clay County Sheriff’s Office on the 800 number. Each lead, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was followed. During the first year, Orion identified some promising leads, and there was particular optimism concerning a select few.
I was able to identify a number of similar murders across the United States and traveled to 11 states following up on these. I met with detectives and case agents, reviewed crime scene photos and autopsy protocols, interviewed suspects and arrested persons and would generally spend an average of three days in each jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the result in every, instance was negative–I was able to rule out possibilities by one means or another.
After the first year, Task Force Orion disbanded, as only occasional tips were still coming in. Lt. Sharman left Baker County and joined the patrol division of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. Lt. Chuck Brannon of Baker County assumed Charlie’s case and was always available, as were the other detectives. But it seemed like the bottom fell out, and as tips dwindled, fresher cases took precedence. Officer Steve Chance stuck with me throughout. I also continued to maintain close contact with Greg Wood’s father, assuring him each time we met that we would eventually find the killer of his son. Don Wood motivated me to a great extent with his confidence in me and the other fine officers and detectives. For the next three years I would dedicate some portion of each week to the murders, even as an increasing number of death investigations came along. I continued to travel and scrutinize other cases of hunters, fishermen and campers who had been killed, as well as to interview and reinterview.
In the summer of 1996, I received a telephone call from Detective Jon Perkins of the Glendale, Calif., Police Department’s homicide unit. Jon was a “scout” of high-profile murder investigations across the United States for Tim Johnson, creator of the television series Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and developer of a television program to be called Cold Case. He was interested in using the “Hunter Homicides” in the pilot program to sell the series. A unique feature of Cold Case was to tie the show into the Internet. Anyone could watch the program and go to a Web site (www. coldcase.com) and contact the detective working the case to offer tips, clues and information. I thought it was a great concept that could provide us with new leads. Filming was completed later in the fall, and the show aired in April 1997. New tips immediately poured in. I was back on track, following leads at almost the same rate as I had three years earlier.
In August 1997, I was contacted by the Putnam County, Fla., Sheriffs Office, just south of Clay County, and told that its pawnshop detail had located a .357 revolver that the computer tagged as being sought in a Clay County murder investigation. When I heard the serial number I immediately knew which case it was and met with Detective Scott Simmons, who would prove to be one of the most professional and dedicated investigators I have ever worked with.
We went to the pawnshop in Palatka, Fla., which is about 35 miles south of Orange Park, and paid cash for Greg Wood’s .357. Detective Simmons and I spent days tracking the gun back through persons who had had it in their possession over the past three and a half years. The trail led me through 14 sets of hands–from Palatka to Kitty Hawk, N.C., and back to Florida again.
I was finally able to track the gun to an individual who I found had also sold Greg Wood’s Remington shotgun to a relative at the same time he sold the .357. His name was Jimmy Ray Beagle, and he was from Jacksonville.
After almost four years, I finally had a viable suspect in the murder of Hill and Wood. With the assistance of the Northeast Florida Investigative Support Unit, I was able to accumulate a considerable amount of information about Beagle, and utilizing an under cover informant, we learned enough to strongly suspect him of the murder.
Beagle, a 39-year-old security guard weighing more than 300 pounds, was also an accomplished liar. Each time my informant met with Beagle he wore a wire and the conversations were taped. Beagle never gave the same story–at least not without a twist.
I did a background check of Beagle and considered what made him tick, and I personally conducted three interviews with him, in February and March of this year. I attempted to make him believe I had no interest in this old case, other than as a pretty theft. If he only knew how much I wanted to bring the “Hunter Homicides” to a close!
In conjunction with Lt. Derry Dedmon of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, one of the most experienced interrogators and polygraph operators in North Florida, I began to formulate a strategy that I thought would result in Beagle confessing to the murders. I then met with Special Agents Dale Hinman and Wayne Porter of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Violent Crime Information System (VICIS). I’ve worked with both Dale and Wayne for many years and they are tops in providing criminal personality profiles and in interview and interrogation techniques.
I laid out my plan to the profilers. Because Beagle repeatedly claimed to have recently “found religion” which I believed to be convenient to him only under certain circumstances–I decided–I would conduct the crucial interview wearing ersatz clerical garb (a black sport coat and a white collarless shirt, buttoned at the top). Expecting only that I would take him to my office to clear up some inconsistencies in his prior statements, Beagle would be confused and dumb-founded when I directed him to another office in which every graph, photograph and piece of paper generated in the “Hunter Homicides” was on display. I figured he would react in my favor because, until this point, he had been under the impression I had no real interest in the case and was going through the motions just trying to backtrack the guns. Dale and Wayne were in full agreement with the plan and when I laid it out for my boss, Capt. Allen Trew, he simply said, “Let’s do it.”
On March 24, 1998, Beagle was scheduled to come to my office at one o’clock. He arrived 35 minutes early–which told me he had prepped himself for more lying.
The other officers and I saw no firearms on Beagle, although as a security guard he did have a valid concealed. weapons permit and a lawful right to carry one. And because Beagle had presented himself for a voluntary interview and was not in custody, we had no justification to pat him down. In fact, I suspected that if we did so he would never confess because I had concluded that Beagle was the epitome of a “wannabe cop.” He would have considered the act humiliating and would have likely walked out and never confessed.
When I brought Beagle into the “staged room,” the expression on his face was memorable. Over the course of the next hour and 45 minutes Beagle did, in fact, confess to the murder and robber3, of Don Hill in Osceola State Forest and of “stumbling” upon the body of Greg Wood in Camp Blanding five days later and stealing his guns.
I decided I would have Derry Dedmon come in to the interview room to fine-rune some information and then turn it back over to me. Beagle agreed (he had already been given his Miranda rights) and continued to talk. Then he asked to use the bathroom. As I consulted with Capt. Trew and Intelligence Officer Lee Harris, Beagle was directed to the restroom across the hall from my office. After a few minutes, I asked where Beagle was and was told he was still in the bathroom.
Knocking, I asked Beagle to open the door, but he declined to do so. I asked him again, and again. All told. I asked him to open the door four times. But even after telling him I would be forced to open the door by kicking it in, Beagle did not comply.
We had to act quickly. The fourth kick forced the door inward, my momentum carrying me onto the threshold. I found myself staring down the barrel of a .357 revolver Beagle was holding to my face in a combat stance. Until then I had never known that anyone even–a 300-pounder–could conceal something the size of a small culvert pipe on their person.
I said, almost to myself, “Man, I don’t need this [stuff]!” I told Beagle to relax and lower the gun. Meanwhile Harris and Dedmon were scrambling for protective vests and evacuating our secretary, Sherry Futch. As I talked to Beagle in a reassuring voice, I jerked back from the threshold around the corner and Lee slid me a vest. I half-whispered orders to call out the Hostage Negotiation Team and SWAT.
Lt. Harris, a negotiations supervisor, took over the dialogue with Beagle, and I left the building to meet the support units. Over the next nine hours Beagle “fine-rimed” the circumstances of the murders of both Hill and Woods to negotiators, claiming his motive was “pure and simple robbery.” He also sent notes under the door giving us written confessions to the murders and other crimes (he described in exact detail how he had cut the belts).
Eventually, Sheriff Lancaster agreed with his negotiators that Beagle had no intention of coming out. He authorized the use of chemical gas.
Beagle endured the gas for nearly 10 minutes before firing through the door at SWAT members. Officers returned fire as Beagle continued to shoot. An autopsy determined that Beagle died as the result of a self-inflicted contact wound to the chest by a .357 bullet. Beagle gained a total of $95 in the “Hunter Homicide” robberies–that’s $20 in cash plus what he got for the guns he sold. But on March 24, 1998, the families of hunters Don Hill and Greg Wood gained closure, and the hunters of north Florida regained their right to pursue their sport without fear of themselves being hunted.