In March of 2007, a surveyor followed a dirt road down to a brush-covered area a few miles from downtown Fort Myers, Florida. He was supposed to check out the area to assess its suitability for possible development, but those plans were derailed when he stumbled upon a grisly discovery: skeletal remains that looked distinctly human.
The Graveyard Discovery
After the surveyor reported his findings, local authorities searched the area and found a total of eight skeletons scattered throughout a 200-yard radius. At first, detectives floated the theory that the remains were dumped there by a shady nearby crematorium, or even that they came from an old cemetery. However, as they collected evidence about the placement of the bodies and noted the lack of clothing or personal items, the investigation began to take a darker turn.
All eyes were on Fort Myers as the case unfolded. Even John Douglas, a former FBI agent famous for pioneering the field of criminal profiling, weighed in. "To find eight bodies in one place, that's really bizarre," he told NBC News, adding that the circumstances led him to believe that the remote area was a "serial murderer graveyard."
At the mention of a serial killer, local attention swiftly turned to Daniel Conahan, a man on death row. In 1999, Conahan was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder and kidnapping. By that point, he was also suspected of committing what came to be known as the Hog Trail Murders, named for the wooded areas in which the bodies of the victims were found.
Daniel Conahan’s Life and Background
Daniel Conahan was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1954 and was raised in Punta Gorda, Florida. As a teenager, Conahan realized he was gay, a fact that displeased his parents, who sent him to several psychiatrists. A loner in high school, Conahan enlisted in the Navy four years after he graduated, but it was a short-lived career.
In 1978, he was accused of solicitation after attempting to lure fellow soldiers to a motel off base. Conahan was turned in and threatened with a court martial, but nothing came of the case when the district attorney couldn’t find anyone willing to testify against him. A few months later, Conahan made a sexual advance on another soldier, which resulted in a brawl. With a reputation as a troublemaker, the Navy discharged him.
Conahan stayed in Chicago for the next 15 years before moving back to his hometown of Punta Gorda in 1993 to live with his elderly parents. In 1995, he became a licensed practical nurse, having graduated at the top of his class from Charlotte Vocational-Technical Center.
A Serial Killer Emerges
Not long after Conahan’s return to Florida, mutilated male corpses began to turn up. The first was found in Punta Gorda in 1994. The man’s genitals had been removed and there was evidence of rope burns. He was never identified.
Four more male victims were discovered throughout the area in early 1996, each bearing similar injuries. With police fearing that there may be a serial killer on the loose, there was finally a break in the case in April of 1996. A sixth body was identified as 21-year-old Richard Allen Montgomery, a man who had gone missing just the day before he was found. With this tightened timeline, investigators were able to narrow in on a suspect.
Witnesses came forward who indicated Daniel Conahan as a person of interest, including two men who had narrowly escaped him. One fled when Conahan’s car got stuck driving down a dirt road, while the other, a man by the name of Stanley Burden, had barely survived the encounter. He told police that Conahan offered him money to pose for nude photographs. Conahan then drove Burden out to a remote wooded location, tied him to a tree, sexually assaulted him, and nearly strangled him to death.
Conahan’s house was searched, turning up evidence that linked him to both Stanley Burden and Richard Montgomery. Conahan was arrested and tried for the murder of Montgomery. While he awaited trial, yet another victim was found who had been killed in a similar manner.
Daniel Conahan Has His Day in Court
Conahan waived his right to a jury trial, allegedly because he feared that a jury of conservative Floridians would be biased against him as a gay man. His bench trial commenced in August of 1999. The star witness in the trial was Stanley Burden. Though Conahan’s lawyer attacked Burden’s credibility—coincidentally, he himself was a convicted pedophile—the evidence was damning.
After just 25 minutes of deliberation, Judge William Blackwell found Conahan guilty of first-degree premeditated murder and kidnapping. He was sentenced to death.
Recent Developments in the Case
Daniel Conahan is currently housed at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida. He may be locked away, but the Hog Trail Murders still haunt southwestern Florida—especially since clues from the past keep turning up.
Several more bodies matching Conahan's distinctive pattern of attack have been found since his incarceration: one in 2000, two in 2001, and one in 2002. Then in 2007, Floridians were rocked by the discovery of the mass burial site in Fort Myers. Stanley Burden had been attacked within a mile of that location. The timeline of the victims' deaths, the location of their bodies, and the manner of death led police to believe that Conahan was responsible, bringing his suspected number of victims up to 19.
Today, several of the bodies linked to the case of the Hog Trail Murders remain unidentified. In February of 2020, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office released a new rendering of the first known victim, a man who was found in early 1994. The updated rendering of what he would have looked like when he was alive was created with the help of Palm Beach County’s Forensic Imaging Unit and new technology.
Conahan may be behind bars already, but authorities hope they can identify this victim and put the decades-old cold case to rest. If you recognize him, reach out to the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office at 941-639-0013.
Sources: Murderpedia, Crime Library, NBC News: “Eight skeletons found, serial killer feared,” NBC News: “Florida authorities hope to turn up heat on 1994 identity cold case with new artist's rendering of John Doe #1”
Featured photo of unidentified victims' facial reconstruction: Wikipedia