It was September. I was walking back to my room, in the parking lot of a motel in Milton, Florida. It’s a small town across the bay from Pensacola, in the panhandle. Because it’s on the Gulf of Mexico, some like to call the area the Redneck Riviera.
The wind was blowing hard, the rain coming down in sheets. And then the tree came down right in my path. It was a few feet in front of me. Despite the weather raging around me, I stood rooted to the spot, in shock. Had I been a few paces ahead, I would have been dead.
When I got into the motel, my room was on the second floor. The power was out, so I walked up the one flight. Of course there were no flights taking off from Pensacola Airport. Not until the weather abated. I wound up being stuck in that room for two days, while the hurricane lost strength and the airlines did their re-bookings.
I shouldn’t have been in Milton to begin with. Not then. And I knew better. I’d already written three books about Florida homicides. I had told my editor in New York there was a hurricane moving around in the Gulf of Mexico.
“September is hurricane season,” I advised her.
It wasn’t a good time to go down. If it hit, it could be dangerous. She didn’t care about my life. She cared about the deadline, the date I had to turn the book in. She made it clear she wouldn’t extend it. Since I got paid when I finished, and she knew that, I didn’t have a choice.
Jeremiah Rodgers and Jonathan Lawrence were the killers in the case. They had met in the bedbug factory, Florida’s hospital for the criminally insane. Young, low level felons, they were just waiting for a chance to get out and start preying on people again. They got that chance. Released, they moved to Lawrence’s hometown of Milton, where things got really bad.
Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Robinson was just a few months away from graduating high school. When Rodgers picked her up for a date at her mother’s house, he wore long sleeves to cover his prison tattoos. Neither Jennifer or her mother knew nothing of his background and he didn’t talk about it.
Jeremiah Rodgers is a sociopath, a conman, and he talked a good game. He had his friend Jon Lawrence waiting at home, getting everything ready for their night out. Jennifer would become victim number two.
Jennifer reminded me of someone close to me. What Rodgers and Lawrence did to her after Jennifer was dead was about as depraved as you can get. As a human being, I was crying inside. I was identifying, which would only make my job as a reporter that much more difficult.
After the hurricane left Milton and headed north where it eventually dissipated, I went back to see John Molchan in beautiful downtown Milton. John was the assistant state’s attorney who prosecuted Rodgers and Lawrence, which is how they happen to currently reside on Florida’s Death Row in Starke.
I found John in his office.
“I don’t think I can write another true crime book,” I told him. “This one just struck too close to home. I feel so badly about Jennifer Robertson. Her whole life in front of her and at eighteen, these creeps take it away from her.”
Molchan thought for a few moments.
“We speak for the dead Fred. It’s our job,” he said softly. “I hope you keep writing.”
His words echoing in my ears, I went back home after the hurricane. As I expected, I had trouble writing the book, because I kept identifying with Jennifer. When I missed the copy deadline, my editor didn’t ask why. Instead, she lambasted me and complained to my then agent.
By the time I had finished the book a short time later, the editor had probably made the decision to dump me. Made no difference it was a good book that people bought. After writing eight books for that publisher, I was through there.
For the next four years, I didn’t write another true crime book. I turned to my first love, history and wrote history books. I had a blast But what John Molchan said, kept gnawing at me. A few years later, my agent finally sold a new true crime book of mine to another publishing house. The publisher there was Jane Friedman. Now I am back with her at Open Road Media. [Editor’s Note: The Lineup is owned by Open Road Media.]
I speak for the dead.
Read on for an excerpt from Flesh Collectors, and then download the book.
Jenny was all ready to go out when the phone rang. She picked it up. It was Rodgers, calling from his friend Jon Lawrence’s house.
“Man, I’m a little confused about how to get to your house,” said Rodgers. “How ’bout we meet up at the convenience store? I promise to drive back to your house to meet your mom.”
Jenny agreed and drove up to the store. Rodgers, driving his white Chevy Chevette, pulled in at 7:30 P.M.
“Come on,” he urged her.
He wanted to leave without seeing her mother first.
“No,” Jenny said firmly.
Diane Robinson was looking out the front window of the house when they pulled up. She noticed that one of the headlamps on Rodgers’s white Chevy Chevette, crystal clear in the light of the full moon, was dimmed. The bulb was running down.
“Mom, I want you to meet Jeremiah,” said Jenny as she walked in.
For a moment, Rodgers just looked at Diane Robinson. Then he turned on the charm and the smile.
“He looked at me smiling and said, ‘Nice to meet you.’ He was very pleasant.”
For his date with Jenny, Rodgers was wearing a baseball cap, a button-down long-sleeved brown shirt, jogging pants and steel-toed black boots. “The shirt was long-sleeved. Even though he was covered up, I could see through the fabric that he had three tattoos showing. He had dark hair and eyes that were very attractive. He seemed normal.”
Rodgers shook her hand and looked her right in the eye.
“Now, Jeremiah, I got some rules I got to tell you about. No drinking and driving with Jenny. She’s not old enough to drink.”
Diane Robinson had never seen Jenny drink alcohol; she had never seen her drunk. Besides, Jennifer was three years shy of Florida’s drinking age of twenty-one. Like most states, it suffered from too many underage drinkers who decided to drink and drive and get into accidents.
“You’re over twenty-one, so you can drink,” Diane continued, “but I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
“I have no problem not drinking,” Rodgers answered easily.
“Her curfew is one o’clock. If anything happens, call home.”
“I have no problem with that either.” Rodgers smiled.
Thus reassured, Diane went back to her baked beans. Jenny ran to her room to get her brush.
“Mom, we’re going.”
Diane Robinson came in, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Where’re you going?” she asked.
“We’re going to ride around with a few friends,” said Jenny.
“Jenny, don’t be late.”
“Momma, tomorrow is Senior Skip Day.”
“I don’t care, you come home on time.”
“Okay,” Jenny answered, disappointed that her mother wouldn’t budge on the curfew.
“Do you need any money?”
Jenny looked at Rodgers.
“I got three dollars if I want to buy a drink,” he answered. “We’re just gonna see some friends.”
“I love you,” Diane said to her daughter.
“I love you, Mom.”
“You have a dim headlight, Jeremiah,” Diane Robinson cautioned. “You better be careful or the cops’ll stop you.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know. We’re just gonna see friends.”
Rodgers shook hands with Diane Robinson politely, and then she watched them drive away and went back to her beans.
“She was feeling like a woman for one of the first times in her life,” Diane would later say about her daughter.
Back in his trailer, Jon Lawrence was writing out a list:
Coolers of ice for her meat
Resharpen main blade/clean the saw and tomahawk
Film for Polaroid cam.
Galloon size siplock bags, big ones [sic]
Jug of water
Extra round post shovel
The mention of Everclear was of particular interest. At 190 proof, Everclear is 95 percent pure grain alcohol, odorless, tasteless and very potent. Among its other uses, it’s utilized by cooks, employed for medicinal purposes and added as an ingredient in other alcoholic beverages. But on every bottle is written this caution: “Because Grain Alcohol is clear, tasteless and very potent, it could be very dangerous. Use it carefully for legitimate purposes only.”
Lawrence got all the stuff ready, including the Everclear, and put it in his truck. He began chugging back some Bacardi rum, waiting for his partner to show up. “Jeremiah wanted to go pick up his girlfriend first and show her off. He wanted to bring her by the house and let me and Ricky meet her,” remembered Jon Lawrence. “Jeremiah didn’t really brag about her, but he said she was ‘all right.’”
Rodgers finally arrived with his “all right” date. Lawrence looked at her, the diagram from The Incredible Machine fresh in the synapses of his brain. The three of them hopped into Lawrence’s Ford Ranger for a night out in the dark recesses of the county. It would turn out to be the most successful night in the lives of the “flesh collectors.”
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