His nose looked like a flattened potato.
It dominated a face with mottled skin, close-set eyes with no life in them, a mouth that looked like an inverted comma, and a severely receding hairline highlighted by the blotchy skin of a life-long alcoholic. His rather unpleasant visage stared up at me from a mug shot on the pages of an Indiana newspaper: He was the ugliest person I’d ever seen.
I was in a hospital in northern Indiana, about to go upstairs and meet my daughter, who had just been born. But the picture, and the article that followed, transfixed me, as it identified the man as Lawrence Singleton—the killer apprehended in Hillsborough County, Florida for murdering a woman named Roxanne “Roxie” Hayes. The story went on to describe how years earlier he had abducted Mary Vincent, a 15-year-old hitchhiker on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. He’d taken her to a remote area outside Modesto and brutally assaulted her, chopping off her arms with a hatchet.
I had already written Lobster Boy—about the homicide of Grady Stiles, Jr. that took place in the same Florida county as the Hayes murder. I knew the cops there, so the location of the homicide Lawrence Singleton had allegedly committed attracted me. But this guy’s crimes were so awful I thought, “Nah, nah, not for me.”
Before I went upstairs, I called my answering machine. This was before cellphones became common. I had a message from my editor Paul Dinas. “Call me!” he said urgently. I did.
“Just saw this picture on the front page of the Daily News. Guy named Larry Singleton. They’re calling him The Mad Chopper,” Paul began excitedly.
“Yeah, I saw it, I’m out here in Indiana. My daughter was just born.”
“Well, that’s your next book.”
“What?” I said surprisingly. “Even for me Paul, this guy is damn violent.”
“Fred, your child was just born. You need work!”
Of course, Paul was right. I’m a working writer and haven’t hit the jackpot. Yet. So, I agreed to do the story if I could publish it under a pseudonym–Kent Allard. That was one of the secret identities of The Shadow, a legendary pulp magazine, movie, and radio character. Paul agreed and I was off.
This was the first time I was going to have to visit two states on the same story. Even though my advance was not large enough to cover that kind of expense, there was no way I was going to shortchange my readers. To understand a case, I need to see where things happened through the eyes of the killer—to breath the same air, so I can describe it accurately.
My travels first took me to Hillsborough County, Florida, which includes the city of Tampa. It was there in a suburban neighborhood that I pulled up to a small, gated ranch house, inside of which Lawrence Singleton had murdered Roxie Hayes in 1997. Hayes was a sex worker, who had turned to prostitution partially to support her cocaine habit. She also had kids to support.
Tall at six feet and 170 pounds, Hayes was an extremely well built woman. She had been soliciting off a regular bench she occupied on Hillsborough Blvd. It was here that she met Singleton, who picked up Hayes in his van and took her to his house. The pair started drinking and, when things got out of control, Singleton ran into the kitchen and came back with a knife. Soon, Roxie Hayes was dead.
I spoke to the detectives that worked the Hayes homicide, as well as the Florida State Attorney who prosecuted Singleton. Florida has the Sunshine Law, which is an open records law that dates to the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike other states, nothing is secret in Florida; everything is public. So, I was able read about all of Lawrence Singleton’s interactions with local law enforcement—including things that happened prior to the Hayes’ homicide.
Though Singleton had been convicted of and served jail time for theft in Florida, it was his activities in Northern California a decade earlier that made his case unique and garnered salacious headlines. I got on a plane, flew to San Francisco, rented a car, and drove east. Driving through Berkeley’s campus, I stopped for a moment at Hitchhiker’s Corner, where Singleton had picked up 15-year-old Mary Vincent in 1978.
I then passed through Modesto’s streets, the same ones George Lucas had ridden through when he was a young man and he later immortalized in his film American Graffiti, on my way to a remote section outside the San Joaquin valley town—an area of rocks and desert in Stanislaus County. Based on police records, I found the culvert where Singleton stuffed Vincent after cutting off her forearms.
Amazingly, Vincent had survived the attack—walking about a mile in the heat before a Good Samaritan stopped his car to help her. As for her arms, Singleton drove back toward San Francisco, and when he was on the Oakland Bay Bridge he opened the driver’s side window and threw them into the water. One of them was eventually recovered and used as evidence against him at trial.
Driving back the way I had come, I stopped to speak with Captain Richard Breshears, who had personally worked the case. He was extremely forthcoming and, because I had done my homework and visited the crime scene, we were able to have an intelligent, detailed discussion.
Captain Breshears explained that, based on Vincent’s description, the Stanislaus County cops eventually were able to track down and arrest Singleton, the Mad Chopper. Interviewed extensively in an interrogation room, Singleton gave Breshears and other officers chapter and verse on what he had done. That confession eventually led to a trial conviction and a sentence of fourteen years for his crimes. It was a big deal when he was released after only serving eight years of his sentence. None of the local communities would take him; so, after serving out his year of probation living in a trailer on the grounds of San Quentin, a deal was then made to send him back to Tampa—his hometown. Which is how he came to meet Roxie Hayes.
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Tried for her murder, he received the death penalty—in part, due to the testimony of Mary Vincent. But, Singleton ended up dying of cancer in 2001.
And me? I was lucky enough to always be able to go home to my daughter.
As for “Kent Allard,” my editor told me that “Fred Rosen” sold better than The Shadow’s secret identity. So, when the book was republished, I went with the Brooklyn boy’s name.
Read more about how Lawrence Singleton slipped through the cracks of the justice system—and went on to murder—in Fred Rosen’s true crime book The Mad Chopper.
Fred Rosen, a former columnist for the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, is an award-winning author of true crime and history books, including Gold!, Did They Really Do It?, and Lobster Boy. He can frequently be seen on the Investigation Discovery network’s Evil Kin and Evil Twins TV series, where he is a regular on-air commentator.
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Featured photo of Lawrence Singleton, 1986, after his release courtesy of The Modesto Bee