Police, with the help of a key piece of evidence posted on five area billboards, have arrested an escaped convict who they believe is responsible for what may be the most heinous crime in Tampa Bay history--the 1989 drowning murders of a vacationing Ohio farm wife and her two teen-age daughters.
Oba Chandler, 45, was taken into custody Thursday, two months after police took the unusual step of making public via the billboards a handwritten note and map that the killer is believed to have used to lure the women to their deaths. A day after the billboards went up in July, police received several samples of Chandler's handwriting that matched the note, police said.
"The link is the handwriting," said Sgt. Glen Moore, who headed the investigation. "That's his handwriting."
Chandler was arrested at his home in Port Orange, near Daytona Beach on Florida's east coast, and brought to St. Petersburg to face charges that he raped a woman in May, 1989, aboard his boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
Police describe Chandler, a former Tampa resident, as the prime suspect in the killings of Joan Rogers, 36, and her daughters, Michelle, 17, and Christie, 14. Seventeen days after the alleged rape of the Canadian woman, the bodies of Rogers and her daughters were found in Tampa Bay, weighted down with cement blocks. They were naked from the waist down, and police believe that they had been sexually assaulted.
"They were alive when they hit the water," said St. Petersburg detective Mark Franzman, one of nine area investigators who has been working the case almost full time. "They suffered."
The case has received widespread media coverage in the Tampa Bay area, as well as on the television show "Unsolved Mysteries." Not only were the deaths particularly torturous, but also the mother and daughters were seen as innocents who may have been too trusting. The three had driven south from their family dairy farm in Willshire, Ohio, had stopped at Disney World and were planning a visit to Busch Gardens when they apparently met someone who offered them an evening boat ride, police said. They never returned.
Hal Rogers, the husband and father of the victims, was quoted last week as saying: "I don't get too excited because I've gotten my hopes up too many times before. I just wait until there is something factual."
Police expressed confidence, however. "We feel without a doubt he's the man," Franzman said. Police offered no explanation for the reason they waited two months to arrest Chandler or why he has not yet been charged with the Rogers' murders. "I imagine he'll be charged in days," Franzman said. "We're getting our ducks in a row. The main thing was to get him off the street."
Chandler is being held under $1-million bond, a figure that his public defender, Ronald Eide, called excessive.
"The publicity is at the point of a feeding frenzy," Eide said. A bond reduction hearing is set for Friday.
Chandler was serving a sentence in Florida State Prison for kidnaping and armed robbery when he escaped six years ago, a police spokesman said. He had also been arrested in Texas on counterfeiting charges, the spokesman said.
Last year police released an FBI-composed profile of what the killer would be like. It described a serial slayer who was neat, meticulous and lived quietly in the community behind a shield of respectability.
Chandler lived in Tampa and operated an aluminum siding business at the time of the killings, police said, but a year ago moved with his wife, Debra, and 3-year-old daughter to Port Orange. While in Tampa, he also owned a boat, they said.
On Monday Debra Chandler was arrested on a warrant for grand theft, reportedly related to her husband's aluminum siding business. She was released on her own recognizance.