Monday, May 15, 2006

Was It Robbery, Murder for Money, or ....

Most of the facts presented here are taken from the extensive trial record discussed in Phillip Finch's Fatal Flaw: The True Story of Murder and Malice in a Small Southern Town.
The state argued that Zeigler killed his wife for the $500,000 insurance policy, and the customer to make it look like a robbery. But why do it in his own store and why kill the inlaws. He didn't need the money. The business was solid. An alternate theory which the state leaked was that Zeigler was homosexual, his wife found out, and she was going to leave him. (I'm not making this up.)

Zeigler claimed that it was apparently a robbery, but he also said that he had been threatened by the Winter Garden police because of Zeigler's efforts to stop the loan sharking racket involving local migrant workers.

The key testimony at trial came from Edward Williams, a black handyman that Zeigler had hired to help him make deliveries on Christmas Eve. If Williams told the truth, Zeigler is guilty. If not, there was a conspiracy that probably involved more than robbery.

Edward Williams came to the sheriffs office early Christmas day with one of the principal murder weapons, a gun that belonged to Zeigler who had kept it in his pick up truck. Williams told police that Zeigler had tried to kill him with the gun, but when he realized it was empty, he gave it to Williams and begged him not to tell anyone. (I'm not making this up.) Williams claimed he then jumped the fence behind the furniture store and ran to the Winter Garden Inn. He then crossed the street in front of the furniture store, went into the Kentucky Fried Chicken restuarant, tried to call police, got a wrong number, and then left and caught a ride home with friends. Williams' truck was left behind the furniture store in front of the loading door.

Another key witness, Felton Thomas, a black fruit picker, testified that he had come to the store with Charlie Mays, the murdered customer, to purchase a console TV which Zeigler had promised earlier that day to sell Mays at a bargain price. For unknown reasons, Mays parked his van in the back parking lot of the Winter Garden Inn in sight of the back of the furniture store, but behind a six foot chain link fence. (I'm not making this up, the van was still there when police found it.) Felton Thomas claimed that Zeigler drove up beside them at 7:30 PM (after the murders of Zeigler's wife and inlaws - a clock had been stopped by an errant bullet at 7:24) and asked them to ride with him to a nearby orange grove to test fire two cheap hand guns. After firing the guns they returned to the fence behind the store. Mays and Zeigler jumped the fence and went to the back of the store but couldn't get in. Thomas claimed he got scared and left, catching a ride home with friends. (I'm not making this up. It's all in the record.)
Later it was discovered that the two cheap hand guns had been purchased several months earlier by Frank Smith, a friend of Edward Williams. Frank Smith claimed that he bought the guns at the request of Zeigler whom he had never met. He said that Zeigler wanted some untraceable guns because of pending legislation that would prevent him from owning an unregistered gun. (Honestly, all this is really in the record used to dispel reasonable doubt. I'm not making this up - INMU.)

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