Joan “Jo” Rogers, 36, and teenagers Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, were on vacation headed from Ohio to sunny Florida. They had been excited about this trip for weeks, planning which theme parks to go to, getting a pre-tan at their local tanning salon.
They had good reason to be excited. This was the first family trip of their lives, the first time they had managed to free themselves from the farm and get away together. It was the afternoon of Friday, May 26, 1989.
“When you run a dairy farm,” explains Colleen Etzler, Jo’s sister-in-law, “you don’t get a vacation.”
They had a week to enjoy their vacation before the unthinkable happened. They had a camera, and as they vacationed their way around FL visiting the zoo, Epcot, Seaworld, they took tons of photos. Not knowing that they were leaving behind a series of snapshots that investigators would eventually pore over and study.
“That Thursday evening, they shot one more photo. It was the last snapshot on the last roll of film discovered in their room. Taken from the balcony outside room 251, with the camera pointed toward the bay, it shows a cluster of palm trees silhouetted against a glowing evening sky.
Sometime after they snapped the picture, the three of them left the Days Inn and got into the car and drove toward the horizon they had just glimpsed from the balcony. They had an appointment to keep. Jo had written the directions on a piece of paper, and now she and the girls were on their way. They would not see the sun again.”
That was a direct quote from Kevin French who wrote a 7 part series on this case that won him the Pulitzer.
3 days later on Sunday, June 4th, The bodies of all three women were found tied and weighted down in Tampa Bay. Each woman was naked from the waist down, arms and legs bound, and a cinder block was tied by a rope around their necks. Medical examiners determined the cause of death of all three women was asphyxiation, but the medical examiner could not determine whether they had drowned or been strangled by the ropes around their necks. The youngest daughter Christe, had managed to work one of her hands out of the rope.
Hal Rogers was worried and had no idea what to do. His wife and girls were supposed to be home by Sun at the latest. He called all his family and friends to see if anyone had her from them. He called the highway patrol to see if they had been in a car accident. He reported them missing and on Wed June 7th he went to try and hire a private plane and pilot to look at the roads from FL to Ohio, determined to find his family.
On Thurs June 8th, Housekeeping staff approached the manager to tell him that room 251 hadn’t been used for days. They still had their suitcases and personal belongings but the beds hadn’t been slept in and the shower hadn’t been used. The manager called the police to report the guests missing. The police were able to match prints from the room with the bodies found in the bay to confirm that they were one and the same.
Upon investigation, Rogers’ car was found abandoned beside a boat ramp a couple of miles down from the bay. Inside the car they found a brochure with directions on it, parts of which were written in the killer’s handwriting. They were also able to get fingerprints off of it.
Investigation revealed similarities between the Rogers’ murders and the rape of a woman in a nearby area. Judy Blair met a man at Tampa Bay and he offered to take her on a sunset cruise, on which he raped her. She thinks she only survived because she had friends waiting for her on the dock. She was able to describe him so a composite drawing was made of the suspect and printed in the local paper, along with the stories of the two crimes.
Tampa resident Jo Ann Steffey realized that the sketch of the rape suspect resembled her neighbor, Oba Chandler.
But the task force investigating the murders was flooded with tips. It took more than a year before they focused on Chandler.
The case became high-profile in 1992 when local police posted billboards bearing enlarged images of the suspect’s handwriting recovered from the pamphlet in the victims’ car. This was the first use of billboards by law enforcement in the US. Billboards then became useful tools in searches for missing people.
After seeing the billboard, his neighbors realized that handwritten directions given to the Rogers family matched Oba Chandler’s handwriting.
Chandler was arrested on September 24, 1992. More than 3 years after the murders.
It took the jury 90 minutes to convict Chandler and 30 minutes to recommend the death penalty. Judge Susan Schaeffer handed out that sentence on Nov. 4, 1994. “Oba Chandler was probably the vilest, most evil defendant I ever handled,” she said.
17 years later on Nov 15, 2011
Chandler’s last meal was two salami sandwiches on white bread with mustard. He also asked for a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich on white bread but ate only half of it. He ordered an iced tea, but drank coffee instead.
Chandler requested no spiritual adviser and had no visitors. He never had a visitor in his 17 years in prison. No one in his family had even filled out the paperwork to come visit him.
Update- Feb 2014
DNA evidence in the killing of Ivelisse Berrios-Beguerisse, who was asphyxiated on November 27, 1990 was recently retested using more sophisticated techniques than were available in the 90s and proved that Chandler had raped and killed her. It is believed his crimes probably began as early as in the 70s.