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The contract was faxed, along with the check signed by Chandler. The fax was then attached to the investigator's notes on Steffey -- and put in a stack of other potentially promising tips.

Once again, the task force was overwhelmed with information. Sgt. Moore's attempts to generate tips were working almost too well. All the investigators could do was check out the tips, one at a time. They would get to Steffey and her suspicions as soon as they could.

Moore, meanwhile, was preparing for a possible struggle with the new person running the police department. His name was Mack Vines. He had been the chief of the St. Petersburg Police Department in the 1970s, and had gone on to serve as chief of police in Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., before returning to Pinellas County as director of the police academy at St. Petersburg Junior College.

Now Vines was back in charge of the St. Petersburg police, trying to mend a department torn apart by Curtsinger's controversial tenure and firing. Vines wasn't the new chief; he had been hired as an assistant city manager to oversee the police department until another chief was found. It was unclear whether Vines would stay in his new job after a chief was hired, but for now he was sitting in the chief's office on the third floor of the station.

Vines was brought in on May 15, one day after Jo Ann Steffey phoned in her tip. From that day onward, he had his hands full, trying to boost morale and hold the department together in the wake of Curtsinger's firing. He had a host of things to worry about other than the Rogers case. Still, Moore says, Vines soon made it clear that he was debating whether it made sense to continue devoting so many officers to one investigation.

"We're not going to continue this case forever," Moore remembers Vines telling him.

Moore was realistic enough to know that time was limited. But he pointed out to Vines that back in February the task force had been promised at least six more months to work. Those months would be up in mid-August.

All right, said Vines. He agreed to honor the six-month commitment. But in August, he said, the case would be reviewed to see if the task force should be disbanded.

To Moore, the message was obvious enough. Come August, the investigation would be over.

"The guillotine," as Moore later put it, "was coming down."

Years later, Vines would say he doesn't remember specifically telling Moore that the case would not be continued forever. But he might well have said it, he adds, because it was true. No investigation, Vines says, can be allowed to drag on indefinitely. Either way, he says he knew how hard Moore and the task force were working and was hoping they would develop some strong leads by the August deadline.

That summer, the Rogers investigators made the most of the time that remained before the deadline. Amid the hundreds of phone calls and tips, they were still trying to understand exactly how Jo and the girls had spent their last hours. Their latest theory, as it happened, relied heavily on the idea suggested by Moore's wife, who had wondered if the family might have been driving in the far right lane of I-275 South in Tampa, and accidentally gotten off at the Dale Mabry exit and then stopped somewhere for directions.

Cummings and Geoghegan thought this idea had merit. For one thing, when the two detectives looked at the directions on the brochure and the map beside it, it appeared that the point of origin for the directions was in fact on Dale Mabry or nearby. Second, the detectives had driven that stretch of I-275 and seen how suddenly the far right lane turned into an exit and how easy it would be for a driver unfamiliar with the road to suddenly veer off the interstate.

As for where the three women might have gone for directions, the investigators thought the most likely answer was a McDonald's just north of the exit. The fast food restaurant would have been directly in front of them, on the right side of Dale Mabry, making it easy to turn in; it was also a place that would have looked familiar and safe to someone who was lost.

Maybe Moore's wife was right. Maybe they saw the golden arches and stopped there, hoping to find a map or a soft drink or just a place to use the bathroom. And while they were there, they met the person who wrote the directions on their brochure. Once he wrote the directions, he knew they were staying at the Days Inn, which would have made it easy to arrange a boat ride later in the day.

Maybe he knew they were tourists and therefore easy prey. He could have seen their Ohio tag and struck up a conversation with them, just as the man in Madeira Beach had done with the Canadian tourist when he saw her and her friend in the parking lot of the convenience store.

If this theory were true, Jo and Michelle and Christe had died simply because they had wound up in the wrong lane of the interstate.

Time was running out. The August deadline was fast approaching.

The detectives drove up and down Dale Mabry, talking to business owners, talking to waitresses, interviewing anyone who might have seen the Rogers women or might know someone with handwriting like the directions on the brochure. They questioned dancers at the strip joints near Tampa Stadium, showing them the composite from the Madeira Beach case, asking if they knew a man who looked like this.

The first week of June, as the third anniversary of the murders came and went, Cummings and Geoghegan sat in a car near the boat ramp on the causeway, watching for hours in case the killer returned out of some perverse desire to relive the moment when Jo and the girls stepped onto his boat. But they never saw him.

Early that summer, the investigators also were talking about billboards.

It was an unusual idea, suggested by a couple of the detectives, Jim Culberson and Mark Deasaro. What would happen, they said, if the task force placed the faces of the Rogers women on billboards, along with an appeal to the public for help?

Moore, open to anything that might work, thought it sounded good. Even better, it was free. Patrick Media Group Inc.

Culberson's father donated the $1,000 required to produce the signs.

In May, the billboards went up around Tampa Bay. In huge red letters, they shouted the question WHO KILLED THE ROGERS FAMILY? Below the words were giant photos of Jo, Michelle and Christe, a reminder that the reward for an arrest and conviction was $25,000, and the phone number for the task force.

The detectives were not the only ones thinking about new directions for the investigation. Barbara Sheen Todd, a longtime Pinellas County commissioner, had been following the case closely; like so many, she had not been able to forget Jo and her daughters. When Todd heard that the investigators now believed the killer had left his handwriting on the brochure, she called Moore with an idea of her own.

Why not put the handwriting onto billboards?

Initially Moore was not sure where they would get the money for a second round of billboards. But after Todd told him she would make some calls and take care of it, the two of them worked together to get the new billboards up. Moore doubted the billboards would generate that many leads. However, if more billboards went up with the help of a county commissioner and Moore asked her to join him at another press conference, the media would have a good hook to bite on.

The truth was, the press was growing bored with the Rogers case. When the first billboards had appeared, there had been relatively little coverage. But now, with Todd's help, Moore was confident that the second billboards would lead to renewed interest in the case. The billboards would be shown on TV and in the newspapers -- they were a perfect visual, just the sort of thing editors loved -- and the handwriting would be noticed not by a few motorists, but by hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers from all over Tampa Bay.

The strategy went off exactly as planned. With Todd's encouragement, Patrick Media Group agreed to donate the space a second time, and the new billboards, emblazoned with the handwriting samples, went up on Thursday, July 30. That same day, Moore and Todd stood together at a press conference held in Tampa -- this was another strong visual touch -- near one of the billboards, erected on Himes Avenue and Columbus Drive, close to the section of Dale Mabry where the investigators believed the Rogers women had met their killer.

"Normally our policy is not to discuss evidence, or have the public view evidence, in unsolved homicide cases," Moore said about the handwriting. "However, the Rogers case is so unique, and the necessity to capture the killer so compelling, the need to display this evidence overrides normal procedures."

When it was her turn to speak, Todd was sincere and impassioned. She said exactly what was needed.

"The thing to emphasize," she said, "is there is no doubt this person will kill again."

Jo Ann Steffey couldn't believe it.

She and Mozelle Smith and others had been calling the task force, asking if anyone had checked out Oba Chandler and his handwriting sample. Each time, they were told to please be patient, that the investigators were still catching up on the backlog of tips and would get back to them as soon as possible.

Now the task force members were putting up billboards, practically begging for someone to tell them what they already knew. Hadn't they looked at the handwriting on the contract?

Steffey called and talked to Przybysz, the investigator who had taken her original tip.

"What are you people doing over there?" Steffey asked her.

Przybysz said she had the information that Steffey had called in earlier. They were getting to it, she said. Be patient.

***

Mozelle Smith's daughter was calling as well, pressing to know what had happened to the fax of the contract and check signed by Oba Chandler. She also talked to Przybysz. Overwhelmed with phone calls, the investigator told her that she couldn't put her hands on the fax right away and would have to get back to her.

So Smith's daughter faxed the papers again. This time, though, she threw in a cover letter, bristling with frustration.

    Here is another copy of Oba Chandler's handwriting and on the back of his check is his driver's license number. Although I'm sure you received numerous samples of handwriting, many of us are convinced that this handwriting is the same as the one published in the papers. We feel so strongly that they are one and the same that due to your lack of response we were tempted to pursue this with a handwriting expert of our own.
    However, due to Commissioner Todd's new personal interest we have recontacted you. We expect a response to this information as soon as possible.
    Thank you for your assistance.

The letter was difficult to ignore. Przybysz looked at the writing on the contract and on the check. She didn't know what to think. There wasn't enough writing on the check to make any comparison, just a signature. As for the writing on the contract, it was blurry.

Przybysz went to Moore and told him that some people in Tampa kept calling, insisting they had the guy. Looking over the notes and the fax, Moore saw that this particular lead was one of many assigned to Geoghegan. It was in his stack of tips still to be checked out.

Moore called Geoghegan, who was out on the road that day, and asked him to find this woman and get the original.

No problem, said Geoghegan.

The Tin Man continued

 

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