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One-way ticket to terror.

Life was hard for farmer Hal Rogers and for his family, too. His dairy farm in the little agricultural community of Van Wert on the Ohio-Indiana border was viable only because of the unremitting toil of 40-year-old Rogers, his wife Jo and his teenage daughters Michelle and Christie, and he couldn't remember when they had last had a family holiday. So when in the late spring of 1989 Hal saw Jo looking at a brochure for Florida he told her to go ahead and book a week's holiday for herself and the girls. He would stay behind and look after the farm.

Jo Rogers didn't take much persuading. One of her dreams had been to take a Florida sunset cruise, and the girls had talked wistfully of friends who had been to Disney World.

"You really deserve a break," Hal told his family. "Have a great time and come back safely and tell me all about it."

How could Hal Rogers know that for the rest of his life he would blame himself for suggesting a holiday. Jo, Michelle and Christie drove away in the family's brown Oldsmobile, bound for Florida, in the last week of May and in the following days, postcards and phone calls to Van Wert confirmed they were having the holiday of a lifetime. On the evening of Thursday, June 1, Jo made her last call home. They were staying in a motel in Tampa and planned to leave Florida on Saturday, arriving home the following day.

Sunday evening came and went with no sign of the Oldsmobile and no message from his family. On Monday Hal Rogers began to get alarmed and on Midday evening he called the local police and reported that his family were overdue. Had there been reports of any accidents between Florida and Ohio Police checks revealed nothing and although Jo, Michelle and Christie were posted as missing persons, Hal was told this was only a formality. The threesome had probably had a breakdown or had made a sightseeing detour. There was really nothing to worry about - yet. Three days after Jo, Michelle and Christie were due home, Hal Rogers' worst fears were realised. A yachtsman sailing off Piney Point in Tampa Bay reported two bodies in the water. A few hours later a ferry found another.

They were female and it was instantly apparent that this was no tragic accident. All three had duct tape wrapped around their mouths and yellow nylon ropes knotted around their necks. Heavy concrete blocks had been tied to the end of all three ropes. Whoever had done this had been determined that the three victims would not live to tell the tale.

Deeply shocked, hardened rescue crew said they hoped the victims weren't alive when put into the water but evidence that the victims had torn desperately at the tape and ropes made it hard to believe otherwise. "Whoever did this is sub-human," one Coastguard said. It took less than an hour to equate the three missing Ohio holiday-makers with the bodies lying in the Florida state mortuary. After a visit from police, Hal Rogers, arranged for neighbours to milk his cows, put the $5,000 in his pocket, climbed into his pick-up truck and headed south to identify his family.

Florida police mounted a full scale murder hunt, but with very little to go on - until Hal Rogers told them that his wife had said she was taking a trip on a boat. A TV appeal brought over 500 possible tips from the public but none of them led anywhere. But then police turned up a complaint made two years earlier by a Canadian student who claimed she had been attacked by a man who took her out on his boat. Gayle Arquette, holidaymaking in Florida with a friend after graduating from college had struck up a conversation on a beach with a man in his 30s who introduced himself as Dave Posner. He was polite and pleasant and when he invited the two girls to take a trip on his motorboat the following day they accepted.

Then she was aware that what had been a relaxed and friendly trip was taking a sinister turn. The powerful Posner put his arms around her and tried to rip off her shirt. They struggled and Gale managed to jump over the side and wade ashore. She didn't see Dave Posner again. At least not for another five years until Hal Rogers' family was murdered. An identikit picture of Gayle Arquette's attacker appeared in the press and on TV where it was spotted by mature student Jo Ann Steffey who was convinced that it exactly fitted the description of her next door neighbour, an aluminium salesman named Oba Chandler.

But when police visited the shabby rented apartment, Oba Chandler, his wife and small daughter were gone. For the next three years Chandler disappeared. Then police received underworld intelligence that he was behind some of Florida's most audacious jewellery robberies - and that he had boasted to associates that he had got away with murder.

In March 1993, four years after the Rogers death cruise, police were tailing Oba Chandler through the Miami suburbs and arrested him when he pulled in for fuel. Over $50,000 of stolen jewellery was found in the back of his station wagon, but police had more important charges to press. An hour later, Chandler was charged with the murder of Jo, Michelle and Christie Rogers. He appeared before Judge Susan Schaeffer in Pinellas County courtroom, Florida in June 1993 on three charges, two of which carried the death penalty. But it wasn't until November 1994 that Judge Schaeffer received a guilty verdict from the jury and sentenced Chandler to death in the electric chair.

She told Chandler, who had steadfastly denied any implication in the crime: You murdered them in cold blood, pushing their bound and weighted bodies into the water while they were still alive and watching their anguish as they died. "You have not only forfeited your right to live among us, you have forfeited your right to live at all." When Oba Chandler died by lethal injection in November 2011, in Florida's Raiford Penitentiary it was little consolation to Hal Reynolds, who was still trying to rebuild his life. He still runs his farm and has been dating a widowed friend he has known since childhood. Every Sunday he puts flowers on three graves in a tiny churchyard. "It does give me a little comfort," he says, "to know that at least we have brought them home."

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Publication:Times of Oman (Muscat, Oman)
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jul 1, 2012
Words:1130
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