Tommy Zeigler

Photo by Gail Anderson

THE CASE OF FLORIDA DEATHROW INMATE WILLIAM THOMAS ZEIGLER, JR.

By Gail Anderson

The case of William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler is a complex one. In 1975, at age 30, Zeigler was a successful businessman, a leader in his community and, by all appearances, a dedicated husband and son. All that was to change on Christmas Eve, when tragedy struck at the W. T. Zeigler Furniture Store.

The Murders

On Christmas Eve 1975, a party was in progress in Winter Garden, Florida. Two of the invited guests, Tommy and Eunice Zeigler, were not present. Don Ficke, the Winter Garden chief of police and his wife, Rita, had arranged to drive to the party with Tommy and Eunice that night, but when the meeting time came the Fickes could not find their friends. Don and Rita attended the party anyway.

Around 9:18 p.m., Zeigler phoned and asked to speak to Don Ficke. There had been a robbery at his store, Zeigler said, and he had been shot and was badly wounded. He needed help.

By 9:21, Zeigler was helped out of the store, shirt covered in dried blood. By 9:23, he was checked into the hospital. Later, surgery revealed that a bullet had passed within a centimeter of his liver.

Det. Donald Frye of the Orange County Sheriffs Office (OCSO) lost no time in examining his first major crime scene. Inside the store there were four bodies later identified as Eunice Zeigler, Perry and Virginia Edwards (Eunice's parents) and Charlie Mays, an African-American orange picker who ran a team of migrant workers and was known to the Zeiglers as a credit customer. All four had been shot, some with more than one gun, and the two men had been beaten.

There was a jumble of complicated evidence -- pools of blood in various locations around the store, bloody footprints, many discarded guns and a separate location for each body. It was clear to Frye that the spray patterns suggested two separate lettings of blood, with Charlie Mays' fatal injury occurring at least 15 minutes after the first violent incident took place on that spot. In addition, a gun holster lay on top of some dried blood. Frye concluded that whatever happened had not been a mere robbery, but had involved a number of distinct and complicated episodes.

Observing a trail of blood leading from the telephone Zeigler had used to call for help to the chair where he sat when help arrived, Frye also concluded that Zeigler must be considered a prime suspect. He believed that Zeigler shot himself in the abdomen after placing the call.

Frye developed a single theory to explain the visible evidence and promptly set out to "prove" his theory. However, he neglected to examine and cross-reference all the available evidence. Some experts say it was neither handled properly nor thoroughly processed. According to a 1989 statement made by the chief deputy for Orange County during 1976, Leigh MacEachern, much evidence was not processed because the OCSO felt they knew Zeigler was guilty. Based on new evidence that has surfaced over the years since the trial, MacEachern now feels that Zeigler is "not guilty."

It is probably reasonable to assume that a key factor to this extraordinary neglect may have been the two witnesses who came forward a few hours after the murders. The testimonies of Felton Thomas and Edward Williams directly implicated Zeigler as the murderer.

Donald Frye's Account

Frye based his account of the night's events almost exclusively on the combined testimonies of these two men. He theorized that Zeigler had planned to kill Eunice for pecuniary gain (she had $500,000 worth of life insurance), and that her murder necessitated the deaths of Perry and Virginia Edwards. He believed Zeigler killed Mays and attempted to kill Thomas and Williams to implicate them with robbery, while allowing himself to escape detection. (Zeigler's family business was solid and he was able to produce approximately half a million dollars for his defense.)

What follows is Frye's assumed sequence of the night's events. Please note that the specified times are not all as originally stated by both witnesses -- Frye altered them to successfully combine the two accounts.

According to Felton Thomas, that day Zeigler had arranged for Charlie Mays to pick up a used television from the store at 7:30 p.m.

Zeigler had also asked Edward Williams to help him deliver some Christmas presents that night. Williams testified that Zeigler had arranged to meet him at 7:30 at the Zeigler home.

Frye believed that some time between 7:00 and 7:24, Zeigler killed first Eunice, then Perry and Virginia Edwards. A lodged bullet stopped the clock on the store's wall at 7:24. At 7:30, according to Felton Thomas, he and Mays arrived at the store to pick up the television. A white man Thomas named as "Tommy Zeigler" approached him and Mays. "Zeigler" suggested they all go for a drive together. The three drove to an orange grove, where Zeigler presented three guns to Mays and Thomas, asking them to try them out by firing into the earth. Frye assumed that this bizarre request, with which Thomas and Mays apparently complied happily, was a thinly veiled ploy to get their fingerprints on the murder weapons. However, when found, the weapons had been wiped clean.

Felton Thomas claimed that when they returned to the store to pick up the television, Zeigler found he did not have his keys and tried to break in. Mays, he claimed, was nervous and asked Zeigler to drive home to collect the missing keys. Zeigler agreed to do so, and Mays and Thomas accompanied him.

Williams, meanwhile, claimed he was sitting in his truck in Zeigler's driveway waiting for Zeigler who was by now, according to Frye's estimation, 20 minutes late for the agreed meeting. Williams claims he saw him arrive with two men (Charlie Mays and Felton Thomas), enter his garage and retrieve a box of ammunition. Williams testified that Zeigler approached and asked him to wait a few more minutes.

According to Thomas, all three men returned to the store then. Zeigler coaxed Mays inside, but Thomas grew nervous and left. Frye believed Zeigler killed Mays at that point.

Frye assumed that Zeigler then went back to his house, where Williams picks up the story. Zeigler wiped down the car and drove with Williams back to the store. Once there, Zeigler went in first. Edward Williams testified that, despite the darkened condition of the store, when he followed he saw Zeigler approach him holding a gun. Williams said he was terrified and claims that Zeigler pointed the gun and pulled the trigger three times before realizing it was empty. Williams claimed Zeigler gave him the gun, trying to alleviate his fright. Then Williams managed to flee, seeking refuge in a restaurant opposite the store. According to Frye, the time was about 8:50 p.m. Williams made a failed attempt to contact the police on the restaurant phone, then fled to Orlando.

About half an hour later, Zeigler called Don Ficke at the party, asking for help.

Williams later surrendered the gun that he claimed Zeigler had given him. It was subsequently identified as the murder weapon that killed Perry and Virginia Edwards.

This version of events would require an hours-long, complex stratagem, planned down to the last minute. For instance, the whole plan would have fallen apart if Mays had arrived six minutes earlier. It is difficult to believe that such a crime, which Frye would later claim had been plotted for many months, would be attempted so haphazardly.

Tommy Zeigler's Account

There is a much simpler explanation, which fits the evidence. This explanation has never been altered nor contradicted -- and was never looked into by Donald Frye. This is Zeigler's own account -- his recollections of that night as told to his defense attorney, Terry Hadley, a few days after the murders, when he had recovered sufficiently.

Zeigler says that he and Eunice were planning to give her parents a reclining chair for Christmas. She and the Edwardses had gone to the store to pick out the chair that evening. Meanwhile, Zeigler waited for Edward Williams to arrive and help him with his deliveries. Zeigler had arranged to meet Williams at 7:00 at Zeigler's house. Williams was late; when he arrived, they drove to the store in Williams' truck.

Zeigler entered the darkened store ahead of Williams and tried to turn on the lights. (Later it was discovered that a breaker was shut off.) He was assaulted by at least two men. (The physician's testimony corroborated a lump on the back of his head.) He lost his glasses and was unable to see well in the darkness. (Zeigler's broken pair of glasses was found in the store.)

He says he may have fired one shot in self-defense with his .22 gun that he wore, but this gun jammed. He threw it at his assailants, and retrieved a .357 Colt pistol that he kept in a drawer nearby. He says he may have fired shots with this, though he is unclear on how many, before he was shot and knocked to the floor unconscious. When he regained consciousness his assailants had left. He crawled around the store, eventually found the phone and called Don Ficke at the party.

Before the trial, Zeigler's attorneys wanted to confirm his story in their own minds and hoped to bring out more details of his traumatic encounter. They took him to a psychiatric clinic near Tampa. There, Dr. Theodore Machler conducted an interview with Zeigler while he was under the influence of the drug sodium brevital. The interview supported Zeigler's story, with an addition. In this subconscious state, he remembered hearing a white man's voice say, "Mays has been hit; we'll have to get rid of him." (The cause of Mays' death was not his gunshot wound, but being beaten over the head with a linoleum crank.) Dr. Machler is convinced that Zeigler was telling the truth during the interview.

Zeigler's attorneys had the arduous task of convincing a jury that Tommy Zeigler did not commit these crimes, but was the victim of a robbery -- and perhaps something more sinister. Zeigler was actively involved in trying to clean up corruption in Winter Garden and claimed to have witnessed the operations of a loan-sharking ring that victimized migrant workers. Just six months earlier he had also helped an African-American bar owner retain his valuable liquor license when the owner was being pressured to sell.

There were allegations that the owner, Andrew James, had offered to sell drugs to an undercover agent for the Beverage Commission. Zeigler believed this was only part of an attempt to revoke James' license, and testified as a character witness for James. His testimony seriously challenged the veracity of Baker, the undercover agent. Baker had his own character witness -- Judge Maurice M. Paul, who would six months later preside over the murder trial of Tommy Zeigler.

The Evidence

As discovered in 1987, under the Freedom of Information Act in the Orange County files, some evidence was withheld from the defense. Other items were turned over to the defense too late to be processed for trial, despite repeated requests by the defense. Bullets were not labeled. A lift made from a bloody footprint was lost. The FBI shredded partial prints taken from the store and the weapons -- evidence that might have cleared Zeigler.

Charlie Mays' van, found parked behind the furniture store on the other side of a 6-foot tall fence, was never processed for evidence. Despite the van's curious location, prosecution witness Felton Thomas claimed he had gone with Mays to the store that night to pick up a large console television set. He said that he and Mays were alone in the van. However, after reading an article about the Zeigler case in 1986, a woman named Barbara Skipper came forward with the information that she sold a large gas cylinder to Charlie Mays that evening. She also said there were two other black males with him in his van.

A tooth that was lying on Charlie Mays' parka was lost. At trial, a forensic dentist testified from a photo that this tooth was not from Zeigler or any of the victims. An expended cartridge case was found on the scene, and did not match any of the guns on the scene.

Most devastating to Zeigler's defense was that the blood was not sub-typed. Test results would have proven who did what to whom. For example, Charlie Mays' feet were covered in blood -- knowing whose blood was on his shoes would have been valuable to the defense.

Although there were over sixty pieces of crime evidence stored besides the evidence sent to the FBI, the defense was consistently prevented from timely examination. The state also failed to test the blood-covered clothes and shoes of Charlie Mays, and Perry Edwards' clothes.

Edward Williams' trousers were not tested for gunpowder residue even though he claimed he put a gun in his pocket -- the gun the state claimed Zeigler used to kill two people. The trousers were turned over to the defense just two weeks before trial. Testing showed no residue in the pockets, but the results came in too late for the trial.

A gunshot residue test conducted on Zeigler's trousers produced a negative finding, though the state said he had fired 28 shots from various guns. The state failed to disclose this negative report in its discovery.

Witness Felton Thomas told Frye that he never met Tommy Zeigler before the night of the murders. Zeigler maintains that they never met until his trial. Although Thomas' testimony seriously implicated Zeigler as a murderer, Frye's team never pressed him for a full description of the man he claimed Mays told him was "Zeigler."

When he did provide a threadbare description, he was off on two obvious points -- what Zeigler was wearing and what car he was driving. Thomas' description was wrong, even though he claimed to have spent at least 20 minutes driving around with Zeigler.

Notably, neither Thomas nor Williams reported having seen the large amount of blood that was on Zeigler's shirt when he was found wounded at the store. Yet, by the time Thomas saw him, Zeigler had supposedly murdered three people. By the time Williams drove with Zeigler to the store he would have had to murder all four.

Edward Williams' testimony was contradicted by a number of witnesses. In particular, the clothes he claimed to be wearing and handed in for forensic tests came into question. For example, Williams claims he ran across the street to the restaurant to phone the police immediately after he says Zeigler tried to shoot him. However, witnesses said that after they watched Zeigler taken to the hospital they saw a black man come to the restaurant to use the phone.

According to the state's theory, during that time period Zeigler would have had to attempt to shoot Williams, move Williams' truck (it was not found where Williams claimed he left it), wipe it clean of his fingerprints, and bend a prong on the gate. Then, he would need to go back into the store, call for help, shoot himself in the abdomen, wait for the police to arrive, be examined by Chief Thompson and carried to his car, and be driven away. Indeed, if the witnesses were telling the truth (no one suggested they were anything other than independent witnesses), then the logical conclusion is that Zeigler was shot before Williams left the store.

This testimony, considered with the police log showing the timing of events, proves Zeigler's innocence.

The Jury Deliberations

Even with all the withheld evidence and the judge's obvious support of the prosecution (observed by several people attending the trial and confirmed in four juror interviews), the jurors' first vote was six to convict and six to acquit. Eventually the six who wanted to acquit were swayed toward a guilty vote, except for Irma Brickle. She held out under much persecution from some of the other jurors and passed out twice from the pressure. She sent Judge Paul several notes trying to get his help and to let him know what was going on in the jury room. He would not see her for fear of a mistrial and eventually contacted Mrs. Brickle's doctor, who prescribed Valium for her. After she took the Valium, she could no longer hold out. Though she voted guilty, she has gone on a national television program to say that she still does not believe Zeigler is guilty. Recently, another juror admitted to also taking Valium during deliberations.

New Evidence

Since 1976, startling new evidence has come forth. Ken and Linda Roach say they called the OCSO to tell them what they saw and heard that fateful night, but were told their information wasn't needed. In 1979, still troubled by what they knew, they contacted the defense to say that while driving past the store, they heard sounds of many exploding firecrackers. They also observed a black male walking in front of the store at that time and saw four cars parked in front of the store, instead of the two present after the crime. This testimony corroborates Zeigler's version of events and destroys the prosecution's theory of a lone gunman.

As a result of the 1987 discovery motion by the defense, there surfaced a 15-page report submitted by the police officer first on the scene. In this longer report, the officer states that the blood on Zeigler was dry when he found him. Yet, the state claimed Zeigler had shot himself just a few minutes before.

Next to emerge was a taped interview between the state's investigator and a young man whose family had been staying in the Winter Garden Inn behind the furniture store that night. The young man explained to the investigator that he and his family had observed a police car and an officer with gun drawn leaning over the car's hood before they heard shots. The investigator told the young man that this information would not be helpful to them, but offered the family a "free trip back to Florida" if they decided that they heard the shots before they saw the policeman.

In 1982, grocery manager Ed Rowe signed an affidavit detailing a discussion he had with Charlie Mays' son, Ernie (who denied the conversation ever took place), seven years after the murders. Rowe claimed that Ernie told him his father left the house that night with a pistol in his coat, telling his family there would be money for Christmas. Rowe quotes Ernie Mays as saying, "My father wasn't supposed to die that night. Tommy Zeigler was supposed to die."

Publicity

During a 1989 national television production on the case, Zeigler gained the support of the two producers who researched the case -- Marion Goldin and Gail Freedman -- both with impressive credentials, having worked with such programs as "60 Minutes" and "20/20." Gail Freedman has written a letter to Florida's Governor on Zeigler's behalf.

In 1991, the book "Fatal Flaw" by Phillip Finch (online at /homepagehttp://www.geocities.com/fatalflaw01/) was published. During his investigation of the case, Finch concludes that Zeigler is innocent.

In 1997, the television program "Unsolved Mysteries" devoted a segment to the Zeigler case. Before they would do so, however, Mr. Zeigler had to agree to undergo a polygraph examination by world-renowned polygraph expert John Palmatier, Ph.D. of the Michigan State Police Department. The test results showed that Tommy Zeigler was telling the truth about what happened the night of the murders. Dr. Palmatier became a supporter, and appeared on the program to give the favorable results.

Today

Denied any relief by the State of Florida, the Zeigler case is currently before the U.S. District Court under federal appeal.

For more information on the case, or to offer support, contact: The International Bannister Foundation, ibf@brum.net

See Tommy Zeigler's website at: http://www.banfound.u-net.com/camp5attach.htm

(Some of the information for this story was used with permission by Graeme Capes of Friends for Life.)

Justice Denied