by Jared Keever
Those who live in Florida know that many people move to the state to escape. Lured in by the warm climate, the miles of beaches, and the relatively low cost of living, many find the state an opportunity to start anew. Sometimes the people who move to state just want to disappear from a harsh uncomfortable past.
Daytona Beach is no exception to that rule. As a popular tourist destination, the city seems to attract a certain type of outsider — one not necessarily on the run, but close — a chance for a fresh start. The city was a favorite stomping ground of convicted killer, Aileen Wuornos — a prostitute who plied her trade along the interstate highways of Central Florida. She left Michigan, like so many others, to escape the cold and enjoy the sunshine. People move to Florida to dry out, hide from ex-lovers or escape 9-to-5 jobs and live out their time on the beach.
But over the course of three years in this century’s first decade, four women disappeared completely from the lives of their loved ones. Their bodies were found but their killer, who came to be known as the Daytona Beach Killer, was never caught.
Whether the four deaths were an isolated spasm of violence or just items from a more prolific killer’s grisly portfolio remains to be seen.
News reports at the time — back in 2005 through 2008 — portrayed the killings as events that rocked a beachside paradise. But anyone who has spent any time in Daytona knows that the city is far from a paradise, and in many ways is a prime hunting ground for a killer.
For that reason the story of the four victims is as much about the killer as it is about the city itself.
As a college student in Indiana, Daytona Beach was a top spring break destination for my friends. I never went, but I recall friends returning home from a week of debauchery — some sporting their first tattoo — telling stories of hotel bathtubs filled with ice and beer and recounting tales of casual sex.
That’s the kind of place it is. It’s seedy. But it’s rough edges are softened just enough by decent looking brick sidewalks and semi-impressive facades on beachfront hotels.
From the air — the postcard shot — the town looks like any other tourist mecca with blue water, sandy beaches and tall hotels. But on the ground one gets the sense there is more going on in Daytona than in other tourist traps. There’s an uneasiness in the air, a tension.
Just a block off the beach, the storefront restaurants and surf shops turn to tattoo parlors, arcades, and worthless t-shirt shops.
Some call it an oasis, but I wonder if they really mean that. I’d call it an island, maybe. Daytona seems like a world unto itself.
Perhaps that has to do with the approach.
Years after college, I found myself living just an hour up the coast from Daytona. I wanted to see it — I’d heard those stories after all. It was 2008. I hopped in my car and barreled down State Road A1A. It’s a fairly desolate drive. Those who don’t live in Florida, and know it only from the postcards, are often surprised by just how open Florida is. Apart from the tourist towns that pepper the coast, much of Florida is uninhabited. An hour-long drive down the coast affords views of little more than sand dunes and never-completed housing projects. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, spring high-rise condos, and, if one is traveling by night, a glowing dome over the city — the product of miles of neon tubing in those storefront windows.
The approaches from the two interstate highways, I-95 and I-4, offer little more.
All of those approaches are also routes out of town: quick, single-direction shots out of the heart of the neon city into the wilderness that is the rest of Florida. Guarantees, really, that it is just as easy to disappear from Daytona as it is to disappear into it.
Police discovered the first body in 2005, the day after Christmas.
Less than month later, police discovered the body Julie Green, 34, on January 14, 2006, lying facedown in a ditch off LPGA Boulevard. She was partially clothed. She had been shot in the head.
Then on February 24, 2006, Daytona police got a an anonymous call from a payphone telling them they would find another body on a dirt road off Williamson Boulevard. They did. It belonged to 35-year-old Iwana Patton. She too had been shot. Her body was naked.
By that time police were pretty convinced they had a serial killer on the loose in the city. NBC News ran a March article, speculating the killer may take another life as the end of the fourth month approached. That would have been bad for business. March is spring break season.
Police never found a March body, but they kept working the case.
Subsequent news reports claimed all the women had been prostitutes.
This was true to varying degrees. Only Gunther had a Florida record for prostitution. Family and friends said Green may have occasionally worked the streets. And Patton had been arrested once in New York for loitering for the purpose of prostitution.
All three women had arrest records, mostly for drug-related offenses.
It appeared they were all struggling to build a life, to shake off demons in a place with a nice climate, only to be swallowed up by Daytona’s dark side. In trying to slip the clutches of their pasts, they disappeared altogether.
Police followed leads. They found the person who made the anonymous tip and determined he wasn’t a suspect.
Then the case went cold. The killer, too, had disappeared.
For almost two years nothing happened. Then, in January 2008, Daytona Police Officer Chris Reeder parked his patrol car on a dead-end street near an abandoned church within earshot of the cars roaring along Interstate 4.
He rolled down his window preparing to do some paperwork and “smelled something bad,” he would later say.
Fifteen yards away he found the decomposed body of a young woman.
Gage was shot in the head. News reports later revealed that the same gun was used in all four murders — a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber Sigma Series VE.
It seemed the killer had reappeared.
“It’s eerily similar and has all the earmarks of the other cases,” Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood said at the time. “I hope to God he’s not back. But I’m afraid that’s what we’re looking at.”
All but one one of the women were shot in the back of the head. Iwana Patton was shot in the face. Police figured that meant she realized what was happening and put up a fight.
“It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Chitwood said in another interview. “When you look at the victimology, at Stacey’s past, the topography of where the bodies were found and obviously other signs and clues at crimes scene, you begin to think, ‘Wow, are we heading down this road again?'”
Gage was also reported to be a prostitute, but her grandmother, with whom she lived along with her two young children, disputed that.
The grandmother did allow that the young woman had a drug problem and had been arrested a few times for minor offenses. Police and her grandmother both said Gage seemed to be trying to work through her addiction — another Daytona resident hoping to build a new life.
Police sprang into action. They called in profilers. News reports revealed they had the killer’s DNA — matched from two crime scenes, though they wouldn’t say which ones. But the DNA samples didn’t match any records from the national databases.
For a time police asked everyone arrested in the city to surrender a DNA sample. It was a controversial policy, it made headlines. But Chitwood seemed determined to catch the killer.
The chief released details from a profile. He said the killings were obviously “motivated by sexual gratification.” He said the police figured the “person we’re looking for is a clean cut person. He’s somebody who probably has a good job. He’s somebody that you’ll never suspect.”
Tom Davis, a profiler with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told the Orlando Sun-Sentinel in February 2008, the killer was likely personable and had a good job but didn’t feel he had much control.
But serial killer expert Robert Keppel said that profile is so common it is almost a stereotype. He said all serial killers have only two things in common: they have transportation and they kill in areas where they are comfortable.
That seemed to fit with the belief, among investigators, that the killer was local. The areas where the killer left the bodies seemed to suggest that, they said.
Fear of a local killer on the loose, gripped parts of the Daytona Beach community. News reports said Ridgewood Avenue — the strip worked by most of the city’s prostitutes — was empty most nights, and not because police were cracking down on the area.
But the case went cold again. Investigators could offer no explanation as to why. They said the first two-year gap could have been because the killer was afraid they were on his trail, or he could have been killing in other parts of the city, but not following his old modus operandi. They weren’t sure. But the leads dried up.
In 2011 the case went on America’s Most Wanted. It was revealed then that police had tire tracks from one crime scene that matched the factory tires of a 2003 Ford Taurus or Mercury Sable. Some more leads trickled in as a result of the national exposure but nothing came of them.
There was speculation that the four murders were tied to other unsolved crimes throughout Central Florida. At one point the FBI revealed they were tracking at least 28 unsolved murders in the region that they attributed to the work of a serial killer (or killers) suspected to be a long-haul trucker, killing prostitutes along the interstate highways.
Not much has happened since.
I spoke to police spokesman, Jimmie Flynt, on the phone last week. He said the investigation is still very active.
A few years back the city hired a former Daytona Police detective out of retirement. His name is Clem Malek and now he works all of the city’s cold cases.
Flynt said the city still takes some DNA samples from a handful of those they arrest. Results from those samples are forwarded to Malek who checks them against the suspected killer’s samples. But that hasn’t turned up anything, Flynt said.
He also told me Malek travelled out of town — though he wouldn’t say where — about a year ago to follow up on a tip. That was a dead end.
Maybe I am too hard on Daytona Beach. I have always, admittedly, turned up my nose at the city. I never bought into the allure, finding it over commercialized with a cheap veneer pasted over a pretty ugly truth.
So I went back. I still don’t live that far away, and these murders haunt me. They have haunted me since I learned about them over a year ago.
In the interest of time I took I-95, cutting through Jacksonville and down into the long corridor of billboards that leads to the junction with I-4. There you can take a left and head to Daytona or take a right and head to Disney World.
That speedway looms over the western edge of the city like a promise to something. It may bring in a good deal of money to the area but as I headed east to the beach I didn’t find many people that it seemed to be helping.
I had a map. I wanted to drive through the areas mentioned in the news stories.
As I headed towards the water I passed the payday loan centers and the tobacco shops and the liquor stores. I passed a rent-to-own place that dealt only in car wheels and tires.
I passed prostitutes.
I crossed Ridgewood Avenue.
Before I crossed the Intracoastal Waterway, I took a right on Beach Street and headed south along the water that separates the town from the beach. I wanted to see where Stacey Gage’s van was found. I passed a couple sitting in a small pickup truck, in a dirt pull-off, sharing a bottle and staring out at the marina.
The apartment complex, where the van was found, is still there, but the name has changed. I sat in my car and stared at it wondering what could have been going on there the night Stacey Gage disappeared.
I shook off the chill those thoughts bring and headed north to see where police found Laquetta Gunther. I couldn’t find it, exactly, but I saw just how close North Beach Street is to Ridgewood Avenue, where the prostitutes work. I got another chill.
As I drove through Daytona, just a few weeks away from the ninth anniversary of the first murder, I realized not much had changed in the five years since I first visited. And from reading the news stories, it seemed not much had changed since 2006 either.
It’s as if the real city is impervious to the flurry of activity swept in by spring break or the Daytona 500. Those things happen at the edges. The real city is further in, and it isn’t that pretty.
The waterfront areas are nice, sure. But as I sat at a stoplight watching a homeless man in sunglasses and overcoat pull a tattered suitcase through an upscale eating district, it was apparent the darkness Daytona tries to hide spills out into the areas trying to be something the city is not.
The juxtaposition was both sad and beautiful for the way it captured the city.
I crossed the Intracoastal Waterway and headed out to the beach just to see if it was as boring as I remembered it. I drove the strip, got bored, then headed west — out to Williamson and LPGA boulevards.
These types of roads are not unique to Florida, but one sees a good deal of them traveling the state. Big, wide, planned thoroughfares meant to stream people from the interstate highway into the city. The property along them is largely undeveloped, it would have been less developed in 2006. This was where police found Julie Green and Iwana Patton.
Gage was found just off Interstate 4 not far from these spots.
As I drove, I was reminded of my younger days. These large roads, lined with construction sites and wooded areas are the types of places high school students go to make out, or drink. They are easy to get to but fairly remote. The killer knew this too, it seemed.
I drove up and down the two boulevards, pondering the wooded lots, the gated dirt roads, and the small strip malls that, eight or nine years ago, might have been construction sites piled high with lumber and littered with earth-moving equipment. It was a bright afternoon, but, having lived in Florida, I know how dark these roads are in the middle of the night. I know how empty they are. They would have been darker, emptier, nine years ago.
“I-95 North,” with a white arrow.
I was close. Surrounded by relative emptiness I was a only short drive from the bustle of Daytona and was already in the shadow of one of two interstate highways.
Just a short drive and two turns and I was back on the freeway. Getting out was as easy as it was to get in. I got on the ramp and headed north, musing that I was disappearing out of Daytona, again. I wondered who else in the city’s history had had the same thought.
About Jared Keever: Jared is a full-time writer and journalist living in southeast Georgia. He has lived in Indiana, Montana, Washington state, and Florida. His interests include history, literature and true crime. When he isn’t reading or writing he is usually on a bike or spending time with his family.
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