Angels & Demons
IN COURT: Prosecutor Doug Crow was known for his intensity and skill inside the courtroom. "Doug's the crackerjack," says another lawyer with the state. "There's no question about it."
Times file photos (1994)
Oba Chandler's wife was having problems with her memory.
"Did your husband ever call you from the boat?" asked the man seated across the table.
"I cannot recall," said Debra Chandler.
"Do you recall ever accepting a collect call through the marine operator?"
"I cannot recall."
Mrs. Chandler was seated in a little room in the state attorney's office. She did not particularly want to be there. Her husband's attorneys definitely did not want her there. But there she was, summoned by subpoena.
The man wouldn't stop with his questions.
"Do you recall what your phone number was in 1989?"
He read her the seven digits of a phone number. Did she recall having that number in 1989?
It was a Monday evening in early May 1994, and the prosecutors were deep into their trial preparations. Tonight, their goal was to take a sworn statement from the 38-year-old Mrs. Chandler, and to discover what she might have to say when the case went before the jury.
The man across the table -- Doug Crow, an executive assistant state attorney -- wanted to know what Mrs. Chandler could tell him about the night of May 15, 1989, when the Canadian tourist was raped on a boat off Madeira Beach, and the night of June 1, 1989, when the three Rogers women were murdered. In his hands, Crow had the marine phone tolls showing that collect calls had been made on both those nights from Chandler's boat to his house in Tampa. In one of those calls, the marine phone operator had noted that the caller was named Oba.
Crow pushed Mrs. Chandler for details. Had the marine phone calls been made to her? She said she could not recall.
Mrs. Chandler was not revealing anything that would prove her husband guilty. But she wasn't revealing anything that would prove him innocent, either. Her memory loss cut both ways.
"Do you have any idea," said Crow, "where your husband was on May 15th, 1989?"
"No, I do not."
"Do you have any recollection of where your husband was on the morning, afternoon and evening of June 1st, 1989?"
"No, I do not."
"Can you provide him an alibi of any sort as to where he was?"
"I do not recall where he was on that date."
As the trial loomed, members of the state attorney's team were not just building a case against Chandler; they were plugging every possible hole that could sink that case. They had to be ready to counter whatever the defense might put before the jury.
Prosecutors always have to anticipate the defense's next move. But here, the task was especially daunting because of the size of the investigation. All those tips that had come pouring into the police department over the years, sending the detectives in a thousand directions? The defense attorneys could take their pick of any of these leads, and wave them like a flag at trial, constructing their whole case around them.
There was no way to be sure which tips the defense might target, so the prosecution had to be ready to neutralize them all, ready to produce the witnesses and the evidence to prove that these other tips were groundless, that the only trail that mattered was the one that led straight to the defendant.
The hundreds of boat owners and other potential suspects who had been checked out before the detectives zoomed in on Chandler? The defense attorneys could point at any of those people -- John Rogers, Michelle's uncle, was obviously a promising target, given his disturbing history -- and they wouldn't even have to prove that this other person was indeed the killer. All they had to do was raise the possibility.
As spring turned to summer, the prosecutors were shifting into overdrive. They were working nights and weekends, interviewing witnesses, organizing the mountain of files, debating strategy and counter-
Particular attempts were being made to learn as much as possible about the marine phone tolls. Even though Debra Chandler said she did not remember the calls, the prosecution assumed that Chandler had been phoning his wife. Why would he have called her on those nights, once just before allegedly committing the rape, then three times on the night of the murders, then two more times the next morning?
There was no reason to believe that Debra Chandler had known anything about the crimes; it was far more likely that Chandler had called to give some excuse for being out so late.
Had any of the Rogers women still been alive when he made the calls? Had they been lying there in the boat, tied and gagged, forced to listen as he called his wife?
The prosecution could only guess at the answers. There was something else, though. Chandler had returned to land sometime the next morning; at least two witnesses had seen him making stops at an aluminum contracting job around 7:30 a.m. But then, as the phone records proved, he had been back out on the water shortly after 8 and had stayed out for at least a couple of hours.
Why? Why had he taken his boat out again?
The answer seemed obvious to the prosecutors. He had gone back out to make sure that the evidence of his crime stayed submerged. He had met his business appointments, then returned to the scene where he had murdered Jo and Michelle and Christe, just so he could see for himself that their bodies had been properly weighted and were still hidden beneath the surface of Tampa Bay.
Clearly, the marine phone tolls were a critical part of the case against Chandler. Yet even with this evidence, the verdict was far from a foregone conclusion. This was still a case so complicated and constructed out of so many circumstantial pieces that it would be easy to lose.
Around the courthouse, the word had spread that this trial was not a slam dunk. People were talking about it in the crowded halls outside the courtrooms, wondering if the state would be able to prove Chandler's guilt.
"What do you think?" they were saying. "Do you think he'll get off?"
The state attorney's office was doing everything possible to make sure that did not happen. To begin with, the state had assembled a formidable trial team. Most first-degree murder trials are handled by two assistant state attorneys. In recognition of its sprawl and complexity, the Chandler trial would be argued by four seasoned and respected prosecutors -- Bruce Bartlett, Bob Lewis, Jim Hellickson and Doug Crow. Working behind the scenes was yet a fifth assistant state attorney, Glenn Martin. Martin's role was not as glamorous as the others; he had known for some time that during the trial he would not even be sitting in the courtroom. But he had been immersed in the case for a year and a half, and knew the files and the reports and the witnesses better than any of the other lawyers.
The lead prosecutor -- the designated point man in the courtroom -- was Doug Crow. After more than 20 years as a prosecutor, Crow was known as perhaps the most brilliant and tenacious lawyer in the state attorney's office. He would never have said so himself; relentlessly modest, he preferred to keep a low profile. But his colleagues were openly in awe of his mind.
Martin put it best: Some trial lawyers played checkers, and some played chess. "Doug plays three-dimensional chess."
Crow did not cut a particularly imposing figure. He was relatively small, his skin was permanently pale, he looked like he could barely hold his own on a windy day. With his pallor, moustache and melancholy, dark eyes, he bore more than a passing resemblance to a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe.
He excelled at worrying, especially about things that hadn't even occurred to anyone else.
"I always tell him the reason he's so miserable is he knows too much," says Scott Hopkins, the investigator. "Most of us stumble through life half-stupid and happy. He sees all the problems there are and agonizes over them."
Inside the state attorney's office, Crow had become a legend, not just for his skills but for his quirks. He did not appear to require sleep; he was always at his desk, sometimes as late as 2 a.m. He liked to watch old sci-fi shows with his kids. His diet was a nightmare; he seemed to live on beef jerky, potato chips and Gummy Bears, especially during trials. He frequently was observed talking to himself. He was so absent-minded, he was constantly losing his keys, misplacing papers, heading for his home in St. Petersburg but accidentally winding up across the bridge in Tampa. For years, no one had dared trust him with the original of a document.
"You never give Crow an original of anything," Hopkins loved to say. "You give him a copy."
When he stepped inside a courtroom, though, Crow was transformed. In front of a judge and jury, he forgot nothing. He could recall every fact from the file at the bottom of the stack, remember every nuance from an opinion issued years ago from the bowels of some court of appeal.
"You don't know how good he is until you see it running," says Martin. "He gets in the courtroom, and it's unbelievable."
After all these years, Crow could have crossed over to the other side. He could have become a defense attorney and easily doubled his salary. But he burned with the flame of a true believer. He remained a prosecutor because he still thought that human dignity should be respected, that an attack on anyone was an affront to everyone, that justice can only be attainable if someone is willing to fight for it.
Soon he and the rest of the prosecution team would be demanding justice for Jo Rogers and her daughters.
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