Upon discovery of the fourth and fifth victims, residents of Charlotte County were beginning to panic. Was it a neighbor? One of their friends? And worse, no one knew when he might strike again.
In each case, Charlotte County Medical Examiner R.H. Imami arrived, took notes and placed the remains in a body bag. Because of the humidity and weather, a body decomposes quickly in Florida, and the advanced state of decomposition made time of death almost impossible to determine. During interviews with local media, Imami said he believed one man was responsible for all of the murders.
Charlotte County Under Sheriff, Col. John Davenport, arranged a press conference and stated that there was cause for residents to be concerned, but not panicked.
Do you have some mass murderer running around preying on the citizens out here? I don’t think there’s cause for alarm in that way, he said. But we do not have that subject in custody that we know of, so there is cause for concern.
Charlotte County Sheriff’s patch
On April 17, 1996, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office began to share notes with the North Port Police. A task force, comprising representatives from Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, North Port Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and state attorney’s offices of Charlotte and Sarasota Counties were assembled. The group began meeting almost daily to work on the unsolved homicides. Lt. Mike Gandy, head of the major crimes unit for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, stated that, although task force members were not attributing the murders to the work of a serial killer, they also were not ruling out the possibility.
We’re investigating that as we have been right down the line, he said during an interview with the News Coast Herald Tribune. We haven’t gotten to that point yet, but we’re still looking into that possibility.
The following day, television news stations broadcast alerts warning residents that a possible serial killer was on the loose in the area. The reports stated the individual was either homosexual or bisexual and most likely a schizophrenic sociopath, who probably lived in the area. Local newspapers deemed the killings utterly, vile and depraved, and dubbed the incidents, The Hog Trail Killings, as all of the murders occurred in remote areas, which were inhabited by wild boars.
While processing the second body discovered with Montgomery, medical examiners discovered a faintly visible tattoo on the victims shoulder region. Photos were taken and investigators asked the local media to publish them, in hopes it would help them identify the victim.
Theresa Smith, a Naples resident, called after seeing the picture of the tattoo. She told police she had not seen her brother in some time and he had a similar tattoo. Medical examiners obtained her brother’s dental records and within days made a match.
The victim was Theresa’s 25-year-old brother, Kenneth Lee Smith. Kenneth had been a Charlotte County resident, originally from Naples, Florida. Police did not have an address for Smith and did not know how long he had been living in Charlotte County. The only information police could assemble on Smith was that he had been arrested in Collier County in 1991, on charges of grand theft, eluding officers, driving with a suspended license, petty theft, resisting arrest and reckless driving. In addition, Smith had been arrested again in 1992, on a probation violation.
A Suspect Emerges
On May 8, 1996, 34-year-old David Allen Payton, an inmate at Glades Correctional Institute, in Moore Haven, Florida, contacted investigators. Payton told law enforcement officers that he knew who was committing the murders in Charlotte County. State Attorney Investigator Brian Kelly and Lt. John Brock went to the prison to interview Payton.
According to reports in The Sun Herald, Payton informed Kelly and Brock that he had previously told his story to Fort Myers Police in March, but they refused to believe him. He then went on to describe the events that led up to his arrest.
Payton stated that on March 5, 1995, he was on his way home from DJs bar on US Route 41, in Fort Myers, Florida. It was a blistering summer day and he was feeling the effects of the alcohol he had consumed. He made his way to a local bus stop and decided to sit down in the shade and sober up. Shortly after sitting down, a blue Mercury Capri pulled up. The man driving the vehicle asked him if he would like to drink some beer and smoke some pot. Payton said he agreed and got into the mans vehicle.
The man identified himself as Daniel Conahan and gave his new friend beer and a Valium tablet, a prescription tranquilizer. As the two men traveled down Zemel Road, in Charlotte County, Conahan asked him if he would pose for nude photos. Payton replied that he was not interested and turned down a hundred dollar bill Conahan offered him.
Payton stated that Conahans actions were unsettling to him and he started to get anxious when they turned onto an isolated dirt road. As Conahan traveled down the desolate road his vehicle slid off to the side and became stuck in a mud hole. Urgently wanting out of the car, Payton offered to get out and push. Conahan turned down his offer and instructed him to stay in the car and steer, while he pushed. However a four-wheel-drive truck soon appeared and the driver helped Conahan free his vehicle. Payton sat alone in the car as Conahan spoke with the driver of the truck and decided to speed off and leave Conahan behind. The drugs and alcohol made him sleepy, and the next thing he claimed to recall was waking up in Fort Myers, where he was arrested for auto theft. The car he was accused of stealing belonged to Daniel Conahan Sr., who reported it stolen while his son was driving it. Payton was then sent to prison for the theft of the vehicle. The task force wanted to believe Paytons story and requested that he take a lie-detector test. Payton agreed, and on May 9, 1996, he passed the test.
Sketch of suspect by police
Not long after interviewing Payton, two other witnesses, Charles Bateman and Robert Beckwith came forward. Bateman and Beckwith had both been acquainted with Montgomery. They described a man who looked like Conahan as a “dude” who had propositioned them. However, when presented with a three-year-old driver’s license photo of Conahan, the two could not positively identify him. Investigators decided to drive Bateman to a parking lot near Conahan’s home. Once there, the witness spotted Conahan Sr.’s blue Capri and identified it.
The Big Link
On June 7, 1996, investigators received information about a report, which had been filed at the Fort Myers Police Department on August 15, 1994, by 26-year-old Stanley Burden. In this report, Mr. Burden stated he had been taken to a wooded area off Rockfill Road, in Fort Myers, where a white male then assaulted him. He identified the perpetrator as “Dan,” who drove a 1981 to 1985 gray Plymouth station wagon.
Conahan’s Car, impounded by police
In the report, Burden said the perpetrator tied him to a tree, sexually assaulted him and tried to strangle him with a rope. Task force members were quickly located and Burden told them he was offered $120 for nude photos in the woods. Investigators noticed he still had scars around his wrist and neck from the 1994 incident. During a lineup of six photographs, Burden identified Daniel Conahan Jr. as the man who assaulted him. Lee Memorial Hospital records later strengthened Burdens story.
Daniel Conahan’s fingerprints
In checking Conahan’s background, detectives found that he had been discharged from the Navy in 1978, under threat of a court-martial for several counts of sodomy and physical assault. According to Naval records, the offenses were part of a “continuing plan or scheme by Conahan, to lure service men just beyond the limits of the Naval Training Center, in Great Lakes, Ill.”
As the investigation into Conahan intensified, his credit card records were subpoenaed. Purchase receipts showed that Conahan used his card to buy knives, alcohol, leather gloves, rope, plastic tarps, and several dozen roles of Polaroid film.
In July, investigators issued a search warrant at Conahans home and seized anything they deemed suspicious. Days later, they assembled enough evidence to serve an arrest warrant. Fibers from a rope seized during the search of Conahans property matched fibers on the rope used in the attempted strangulation of Stanley Burden. In addition, a paint chip, which was found in Montgomerys pubic hair, matched a paint chip taken from Conahans fathers car. Fibers found on at least one tree were also matched to a pair of Conahans gloves.
Daniel Conahan’s booking sheet
On July 3, 1996, Daniel Conahan Jr. was arrested on one count of attempted first-degree murder, two counts of sexual battery and one count of kidnapping, in connection with Stanley Burden. Conahan was then held without bond in the Lee County Jail.
Daniel Owen Conahan Jr. was born on May 11, 1954, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Shortly after his birth, Daniels parents moved to Punta Gorda, Florida. While Conahan was raised in a middle-class family, he was the product of a troubled childhood, which was intensified by the use of alcohol and drugs.
Friends of Daniel later described him as a loner. He realized he was gay while attending high school and his family was not pleased with his new sexual disposition. In an attempt to help their son with his sexuality, his parents sent him to several psychiatrists. Conahan was irritated at being treated as though he were abnormal and stated many times that his sexuality was not a disease and could not be cured.
It wasn’t the kind of thing you were open about in the 1970s, Conahan later told investigators. But I found a gay bar, and if I got there early, they wouldn’t card me. Being gay is part of God’s plan, too.
In 1973, Conahan graduated from Miamis Norland High School. Classmates described him as a quiet loner, participating in school activities halfheartedly.
Conahan joined the Navy in 1977. Following boot camp, he was stationed at the United States Naval Base in Great Lakes, Ill. Nonetheless, his career as a naval officer was short lived. The following year, Conahan attempted to lure sailors off base for sex in a motel. He was eventually turned in and threatened with a court martial, but the district attorney could not find anyone willing to testify against him. Months later, Conahan attempted to perform oral sex on a sailor, which resulted in a vicious brawl. Fed up with his dishonorable behavior, the Navy immediately discharged him.
After his discharge from the military, Conahan remained in Chicago for 13 years. He worked several different jobs, but never seemed to fit in anywhere. The majority of his free time was spent frequenting gay bars.
“I learned there are a lot of hitchhikers on U.S. 41 from North Port to Fort Myers, and some of them were looking to perform sex acts for money, he told investigators. Yes, I did (proposition people). And I took some pictures of people. I didn’t have a place to take someone to or time to sit in the parks and run into the bushes like some of them do, and I wasn’t into (doing it in) bars.
In 1993, Conahan moved back to Florida, to live with his elderly parents in Punta Gorda. While living with his parents, he took nursing classes at Charlotte Vocational-Technical Center in Port Charlotte. In 1995, he graduated at the top of his class and became a licensed practical nurse. Bill Kelly (The Fifteen Most Horrific Murder Cases Ever to Shock America) provides details, with some from The NaplesDaily News.
On August 2, 1996, Daniel Conahan was arraigned at the Lee County Courthouse on charges of attempted first-degree murder; two counts of sexual battery and one count of kidnapping. He entered pleas of not guilty on all counts. Lee County Assistant State Attorney Robert Lee said the not guilty plea was expected. A lengthy file on Conahan insinuated that he might be the killer of the five Charlotte County unsolved homicides, but the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office would not say if he was the prime suspect.
We’re still investigating the homicides, County Lt. Michael Gandy told reporters during a press conference. I can tell you I believe the homicide cases will conclude satisfactorily.
On May 22, 1997, a county construction worker was clearing brush on a dirt path when he discovered skeletal remains under a pepper tree near Quesada Avenue.
Homicide detectives did not know if the body was linked to the deaths of the five other men. The victim was listed as John Doe #4. Because county workers were excavating at the time, any evidence that might have been left behind was destroyed.
It was beginning to seem that Conahan would never go to trial. With delays, dismissed lawyers and the death of his parents, time seemed to stand still. Conahan requested and received antidepressant medication and constantly accused his accusers of deception, perjury and witness tampering.
Conahan admitted he picked up men on the streets and took them into wooded areas for paid sex. He also admitted to photographing them and discussing bondage, but he claimed to have never tied anyone up.
He’s either an innocent man who’s going to the chair or the most depraved, sick individual you’ll meet, Conahan’s defense attorney, Mark Ahlbrand told reporters from the Associated Press.
On March 16, 1998, investigators identified John Doe #4 as William “Billy” Charles Patten, by comparing the skeletal DNA with that of his parents’ genes. The coroner surmised that Patten had been dead for several years. He had been employed as a landscaper and was reported missing by his family in 1993, nearly three weeks after he was last seen carrying a cooler of beer toward the Barron Collier Bridge. He was 24 years old at the time of his disappearance.
On June 28, 1999, three years after his arrest, Conahan, who was scheduled to go to trial in August, gave a jailhouse interview to reporters. Lounging behind a wall of Plexiglas, in a graffiti-strewn room in the Charlotte County Jail, he maintained his innocence and said he was sure he would be railroaded.
Two days later, investigators identified John Doe #3, as 36-year-old John William Melaragno. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Melaragno moved to North Port in November 1995, with two women police believed to be prostitutes.
On August 9, 1999, Conahan waived his right to a jury trial, citing extensive media coverage and the fear of being convicted by a conservative jury because he was gay. Investigators suspected Conahan was a serial killer, with a fondness for trees, rope, and bondage, but they agreed not to bring up any other cases during the trial.
Conahan, while a suspect in at least five murders, was only charged with killing and raping Richard Montgomery. He was later charged with the attempted murder of Stanley Burden, while investigators were building a case against him in the Montgomery murder. However, after Conahan was indicted in the Montgomery case, the state dropped the attempted murder charges.
Judge Blackwell examines map evidence
On August 10, 1999, opening arguments began. Presenting the states case was prosecutor Robert “Bob” Lee. Conahans lead attorney for the defense was Mark Ahlbrand. The presiding judge was 20th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge William Blackwell, known around the corridors as, “Stonewall”.
Citing the barbaric manner in which the victim had been murdered, prosecutors said they would be seeking the death penalty. The evidence will show that the defendant has a very dark fantasy. A dark fantasy that he would act out with very deadly consequences, Lee said during his opening statement. Lee then told the court that Conahan was a lethal phantom and would stalk the streets, soliciting transients to pose for money before assaulting them. He stated the defendant had deviant fantasies and a paranoid personality and it was the combination of the two that led to the death of Montgomery.
Lee described Montgomery as a high school dropout, who abused drugs and alcohol. He was easy prey when he was drunk or when he needed some money. In an effort to show Conahans evil nature, Lee described how Montgomerys body was discovered close to the bludgeoned and sexually assaulted remains of Kenneth Lee Smith. According to Lee, Conahan cut off Montgomerys genitals “with near medical perfection,” skills he would have gained while working as a nurse at Charlotte Regional Medical Center. He did this, Lee said, because he felt that if he left them on the victim, investigators would take saliva samples and his DNA would have linked him to the murder. His terrible lust and passion spent and his dark fantasy fulfilled, he walked away with his gruesome trophy in his hand.
In contrast, Ahlbrand told Judge Blackwell that the defendant did have an interest in sex with men, but was not known to be aggressive in his relations with them. This man is on trial not because he is guilty of the offense, but because he has adopted a lifestyle, which is similar to their scenario as to who killed Richard Montgomery. He matched their little profile,” Ahlbrand said. Ahlbrand also claimed that Conahans bad back made him incapable of committing the crimes for which he was accused. They’re describing this as a very brutal, physically demanding thing and he was on his butt for about two, three weeks, and he was bed-ridden for a couple months, Ahlbrand said.
Following opening statements, Montgomerys roommate was one of the first summoned to testify. He stated that, on the day of his disappearance, Montgomery told him he was going to make $100 for posing nude. He then left and walked toward Cox Lumber Yard, where Conahan presumably picked him up.
When I asked him about it, the witness said, he just said hed be safe, not to worry.
Did you ever see him again?” prosecutor Lee asked.
“No, replied the witness.
“No, replied the witness.
Under cross-examination by the defense, the witness admitted that Montgomery did not specify it was Conahan he was going to meet with when he left.
The states star witness, 29-year-old Stanley Burden, provided chilling insights into how six men may have died at the hands of Conahan.
I live the attack every night, he told the court. You dont forget nothing. It just beats at you and beats at you and tears you apart. Burden stated that he had been down on his luck in 1994, when Conahan offered him $150 to go with him and pose for photographs. Burden was flat broke and reluctantly agreed. The two men then got into Conahans car and drove to an isolated and wooded area. As they walked down a hog trail, Conahan asked Burden if he ever had pictures taken in bondage. I told him no. Then he said hed show me how to do it, Burden testified. Conahan began by tying his hands around a tree and taking pictures of him in various explicit positions. Burden said he felt awkward and alarmed when Conahan tied a rope around his neck. He said Here, Im going to drape this just around your shoulders and take some pictures. Then he yanked straight back into the tree, Burden continued. He said Conahan was covered with sweat, breathing heavy and cursing, Why wont you die you son-of-a-bitch?
He tried with everything he could to kill me Burden said. You got your foot on the back of the tree and youre pulling with everything youve got and it dont work. What would you do? It was like he gave up. If he didnt have somewhere to go that day, I believe he would have tried to stand there and keep going.
According to articles published by the Naples Daily News, Ahlbrand rebutted and said his client admitted to being with Burden in August of 1994, but Burden had refused to be photographed in the nude and they had consensual sex instead. Ahlbrand also reminded the court that Conahan was held a year under those charges, while investigators tried to build a case against him and that the state had dropped the Burden charges when they decided to indict Conahan in Montgomerys murder.
Ahlbrand further stated that the states star witness was a convicted pedophile, who admitted to having used cocaine, alcohol and various other drugs. He also pointed out that Burden was currently serving 10 to 25 years, in the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old boy.
Burden then claimed that Conahans attack led him to assault the boy. How do you know that I would ever have did that? he asked the judge directly. The kid asked me for sex. He said he was starting his puberty or whatever. Thats what he wanted, so thats what he got.
The most important witness called upon by the prosecutors before resting their case was Paula Sauer, a microanalyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Sauer testified she found 15 types of fibers taken from Conahans home, his fathers 1984 Mercury Capri, which he sometimes drove and his Plymouth station wagon. Sauer told the court a 16th type fiber, found on Conahans property, matched fibers on a rope police alleged was used in the attempted strangulation of Stanley Burden. Sauer used a film screen to explain her findings to the court. According to Sauer, an uncommon pink fiber, called polypropylene, was lifted from Montgomerys body, and later matched to a length of rope found in Conahans father’s car.
Rope introduced as evidence during the trial
Janice Taylor, a senior crime lab analyst, enforced Sauer’s testimony. Taylor testified that a paint chip in Montgomerys pubic hair, matched a paint chip sample taken from the Capri. These two paint chips were indistinguishable from each other, Taylor said.
On August 16, 1999, the sexual battery charge against Conahan was dismissed, after a medical examiner testified there were no signs of semen on Montgomery and there was no trauma to his anus.
On August 17, 1999, after just 25 minutes of deliberation, Judge William Blackwell found Daniel Conahan Jr. guilty of first-degree premeditated murder and kidnapping. Conahan stood silently as the verdict was read aloud.
Outside the courtroom, Ahlbrand told reporters, Im never surprised with a verdict. Im always disappointed with an adverse verdict. Im convinced Judge Blackwell began deliberating to some extent throughout the trial, which is what Id expect a judge to do.
Conahans other attorney, Paul Sullivan, said it was up to Conahan to choose whether the penalty phase of the trial would go before a jury or if he would let Judge Blackwell decide his fate. Conahan later chose a penalty trial by jury.
On August 24, 1999, pointing to extensive newspaper and television coverage of his murder trial, Conahan asked Judge Blackwell for a change of venue due to intense media coverage of the case. The following month, his request was granted and Judge Blackwell ruled that Conahans penalty hearing would be postponed and moved to the Collier County Courthouse, approximately 60 miles to the south in Naples, Florida. Conahan’s penalty hearing was then set for November 1, 1999.
In mid-October, Conahan argued that lawyers Paul Sullivan and Mark Ahlbrand failed to give him an adequate defense in his murder trial. He said they did not argue that a sheriff’s investigator altered witness statements and they did not point out that one of the states witnesses committed perjury. Nonetheless, Judge Blackwell found that Ahlbrand and Sullivan provided an adequate defense and informed Conahan that if he chose to fire them he was on his own. Conahan, after a brief meeting with his attorneys, informed the judge that he would continue to retain his lawyers.
On November 1, 1999, the penalty phase began. According to court records, the jury spent the majority of the first day examining photographs of Conahan’s handiwork. Jurors looked at pictures of Richard Montgomery’s corpse, as it appeared at the crime scene and during the autopsy. Wearing stern faces, the panel members examined the rope grooves on Montgomery’s wrists and neck. They were also shown photographs of Montgomery’s back, which was scraped in a criss-cross pattern, presumably caused from shifting back and forth against the tree while attempting escape. One juror stared long and hard at the picture of Montgomery’s groin, which was missing its genitals.
Later that day, jurors listened to Conahans 80-year-old aunt describe him as friendly, jovial and honest. She testified that Conahan was dedicated to his parents, moving from Chicago to Punta Gorda to care for them.
Prosecutors rested their case after Lee County medical examiner, Dr. Carol Huser, testified Montgomery was likely conscious long enough to realize what was happening, as Conahan strangled him. Deputy State Attorney Marshall King Hall then asked, Dr. Huser, would that be a terrifying death?
It sure would terrify me, she responded.
During cross-examination of Huser, defense attorney Paul Sullivan asked questions about erotic asphyxiation — cutting off breathing to heighten sexual arousal. However, Hall was quick to point out, the implication that Montgomery died this way begs the question of why Montgomery’s genitals were missing.
During closing arguments, prosecutor Bob Lee told jurors Conahan murdered the victim for twisted sexual gratification. Afterwards, Conahan stood and shouted to the jury, I do not know Mr. Montgomery, nor did I ever! Blackwell had bailiffs rush the jury out of the courtroom and told Conahan he could behave himself, be bound and gagged, or leave. Conahan replied he wanted to leave, but on the advise of his attorneys he decided to stay.
On November 3, 1999, after deliberating for just 22 minutes, the jury recommended that Judge Blackwell execute Daniel Conahan Jr. for the murder of Richard Montgomery. The following month, on December 10, 1999, Judge William Blackwell announced his decision. It is obvious that during this ordeal, Montgomery was confined or imprisoned against his will, Blackwell read from a document. Such confinement against his will was for the obvious purpose of inflicting bodily harm upon the victim or terrorizing him. The crime was especially heinous, atrocious and cruel. Two medical examiners testified that many of Montgomery’s wounds were inflicted before he died. May God have mercy on his soul, Judge Blackwell said as he sentenced Daniel Owen Conahan Jr. to death.
The Florida Hog Trail victims were all found within a ten-mile radius of one another, all were transients, four were posed on their backs, three had missing genitals and one was dismembered and scattered. All the bodies were found within 10 miles of Conahan’s home and police suspect Conahan may have gotten rid of body parts in hospital biohazard containers, while working as a nurse.
No charges have ever been filed in connection with the other murders, although Conahan is labeled as the prime suspect in those cases. An officer close to the investigation, has anonymously stated that he has no doubt that Conahan is responsible for the murders, further stating that the murders were committed in such a unique and distinctive way, that it is extremely unlikely another perpetrator committed the murders.
On October 19, 2000, two transients stumbled upon the skeletal remains of a human body in Murdock. The gruesome discovery immediately stirred up images of the six other bodies found years earlier. The remains were found in a wooded clearing south of Peachland Boulevard. The remains of Billy Patten, believed to be one of the Conahan victims, were found in a wooded area, which was visible from this latest crime scene. Police have yet to comment on whether this latest skeleton may be linked to the other murders.
Cpl. Rick Hobbs from the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit was the Case Agent on the Conahan Case. Investigators are still attempting to identify the remaining unidentified victims.
Daniel Conahan, prison ID photo
During September 2001, Conahan appealed his death sentence before the Florida Supreme Court. According to records held by the Florida Clerk of Courts, Paul Helm, assistant public defender of the 10th Circuit in Bartow, represented the 46-year-old Conahan before the seven justices of the Florida Supreme Court. Robert J. Landry, assistant attorney general of Tampa, represented the state.
Conahans attorney argued that the state did not prove premeditation and that Montgomery’s killing occurred when a sex game went awry. Regardless, the state pointed out that purchasing ropes and a knife and withdrawing money from an ATM showed premeditation.
Helm then tried to get the kidnapping charge dismissed, arguing that there was no way to determine when the victim withdrew consent to be with Conahan.
It took nearly two years for the Florida Supreme Court to finally reach a decision. On January 16, 2003, they rejected Conahans appeal, affirming the convictions and sentences, including the sentence of death.
As of this writing, Daniel Conahan Jr. continues to declare his innocence.
As Daniel Conahan sits on death row awaiting his fate, many wonder if there are more victims yet to be found. In addition, some investigators suspect that several recent discoveries may be tied to Conahan, including:
Jan. 6, 2002 - County employees discover human remains near a landfill, off Zemel Road. The body remains unidentified and the case is still being investigated as a homicide.
January 2001 – Landscapers unearth human bones on Grouper Hole Drive in Boca Grande.
Nov. 28, 2001 - During construction near U.S. 41 in Charlotte Harbor, construction crews discover human remains, later determined to be male.
Oct. 19, 2000 Skeletal remains are found in some woods west of Toledo Blade Boulevard.
Cpl. Rick Hobbs from the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit asks that anyone with information contact him at 941-575-5351.