Friday, August 3, 2012

The Santa Claus Murders

Jerry Heidler
High above the gravel road, where migrant workers planted Viidalia sweet onions in rows of plowed furrows, on Dasher Street, lived the Daniels family. The one-story-red-brick house, with a huge oblong chimney protruding from the front, was nestled snuggly at the end of a cul-de-sac, about a half-mile of lonely road from U.S. 1, in the town of Santa Claus. The village of 300 residents, located some 70 miles west of Savannah, Georgia, was named for Father Christmas. A sign at the edge of town hailed Santa Claus as “the city that loves children.”
Seven children lived in the picture-post-card house, including three foster children the Danielses were planning to adopt. Danny, a rural mailman working out of Lyons, met attractive Kim Lampp seven years ago. Despite the fact that she was a drug addict, living out of her car, he helped her fight off her addiction and they were married. They liked it there, were highly religious and well liked throughout the community.
The house was wedged between two catfish ponds and backdropped by tall pine trees and tangling grape vines that helped quell the reverberating booms of the shotgun blast from neighbors on Rudolph Way, Dancer Street and as far away as just after midnight on Thursday, December 3, 1997.
Around four o’clock in the morning, a farmer and his wife were awakened when their dog wouldn’t stop barking. They looked out the window and saw three children walking down the road in their nightgowns. They called police, who arrived within minutes at their Carter Pond House Road.
The three tykes, ages 8 to 10, shivering and abandoned on the side of rural Bacon County Road, some 45 miles from their home on Dasher Street, were in shock but coherent. They said they had been taken from their Santa Claus home earlier that morning. The oldest girl had been raped and sodomized.
The frightened children told the police where they lived and two deputies were dispatched to the ranch-style house, arriving shortly before dawn. The morning’s stillness was made even more eerie by the incessant insect sounds and by an occasional car passing on Highway 1, making the deputies feel even more uneasy, when they called into the house and no one answered. The door was ajar, yet not a creature was stirring in or around the house.
It was pitch dark inside the house. After several fruitless attempts to arouse somebody, the deputies thought they had better go inside and investigate. They switched on lights, using there flashlights, so as not to disturb any fingerprints, as they cautiously went from room to room, guns at-the-ready.
When they reached the master bedroom, the deputies reeled back horror-struck at the atrocity that lay before them. 43-year old Danny Daniels lay sprawled beside his 33-year old wife. They were drenched in blood. The heavy-caliber murder weapon had done its work with shattering effect.
Down the hall, the law officers found Jessica Daniels, a 16-year-old adopted daughter of Danny from a previous marriage. In life, she was quite beautiful, but in death her appearance was grotesque. Still in her nightgown, she was stretched out on the extensively bloodstained hallway carpet, apparently shot at close range.
In the electric atmosphere of an adjoining room, the policemen found 8-year-old Bryant, a natural son of Daniel from a previous marriage. He had been sleeping with his teddy bear in his bedroom when someone shot his face away.
After gaining their composure, the deputies, carefully checked the victims for the faintest sign of life. They found none. After making sure the perpetrator was not on the premises, the deputies searched the house to make sure there were no more bodies. There were.
Huddled in a closet, trembling like abandoned puppies, they found Corey, 4, and Gabe, 10 months, both foster children. Taking the children with them, the deputies cautiously retraced their steps out of the house, not wishing to disturb any crime scene evidence.
The police were extremely shocked about what had happened in their normally peaceful Santa Claus town. Nothing of this magnitude had every occurred before. But because of all the pandemonium and hysteria that would follow, authorities knew it would be a while before they could unsort the melee. It was a wild, chaotic night for police who discovered that the killer gained entrance through an open window at the rear of the house. After killing casually in a way that would defy comprehension, he left without taking any of the Danielses wordily possessions with him. Nor had the tidy house been ransacked.
During that Saturday morning police learned from the surviving children that they were awakened by the bursts of fire, before being taken hostages. He drove them out into the boonies, where he raped the oldest girl, then drove them 45 miles away and turned them loose on Bacon County Road.
The children described the kidnapper’s car as a black van with tinted windows. An all-points bulletin flashed across the airwaves, with a precaution that the suspect was to be considered armed and dangerous.
As the investigators would soon learn, the marriage seemed placid and ordinary enough, and the Danielses were socially popular. Nothing much happened in their lives until an intruder crept into their house and murdered them for no apparent reason.
Toombs County Sheriff Charles Durst was located and notified of the carnage at the Daniels house. In a switch of hurry, he commanded the area sealed off from all unauthorized personal and recognized as an official crime scene. Homicide officers arrived abruptly, accompanied by a medical examiner, a crime scene technician, and a deputy district attorney.
Each of the victims, the coroner observed, had been shot through the head execution-style, and could not have been a threat to the intruder. Danny Daniels appeared to have been shot in the back of the head and probably never knew what hit him. Tissue, blood, bone, and brain matter had been dispersed about the room as a result of the force of the powerful shotgun gust. Red gore splattered the walls and ceiling. His younger wife had been shot in the face, resulting in severe disfigurement. It also appeared that she had been awakened by the blast that killed her husband and might have seen the man who killed her.
Little Bryant, had also been shot point-blank through the head as he slept, clinging to his teddy bear. The female victim in the hallway had her face almost entirely removed by the force of the murderous weapon.
There was so much blood in the bedrooms that authorities couldn’t help but wonder why there weren’t more bloody footprints. They also found several 1100 Remington shotgun shells laying on the floor of each bedroom where the murders occurred. The cartridges laying on the bed beside Daniel and Kim had tissue fragments adhering to them.
After the scene was carefully photographed in both color and black and white, then videotaped, crime lab technicians collected blood and other bodily fluids samples, which they cautiously marked according to source and location. Next, they vacuumed for trace evidence of hair and clothing fiber, using divided filter bags for each location, and searched for identifiable latent fingerprints.
When the criminalists were finished with the bodies at the crime scene, morgue drivers placed the corpses inside body bags and removed them one at a time to a waiting morgue wagon. As a small gathering of disbelieving neighbors looked on from behind yellow-tape barriers, the frightful-looking body haulers left for the morgue where definitive postmortems would be performed.
While sheriff’s investigators and crime lab technicians searched for clues and collected evidence at the crime scene over the next few hours, the sheriff and several Toombs County deputies questioned neighbors in search of the killer’s identity. Unknown to them, the three children had already provided information that ultimately broke the case wide open.
Whereas the identification of the killer had been made in a relatively easy manner, Toombs County prosecutor Rick Malone told a hastily gathered group of reporters that authorities were still investigating the girl’s accounts and released few details. He said they weren’t positive what triggered the vicious midnight attack against the family.
“We do not think it was a random attack. We know that he did know them, said Malone. “It seems he was a friend of the family, or at least knew them.”
Suddenly the little community named by an entrepreneur to attack tourism was on the map. The little town known for its Christmas-season decorations and communitywide display of luminaries, suddenly came alive with out-of-town curiosity-seekers.
Everything pointed to the inconceivable. A man named Jerry Heidler had entered the house and started shooting at random for no apparent reason.
Maybe something else happened. Only the suspect knew at that point what the “something else” was.
Theories and speculation abounded in the once-happy and serene Georgia city, now unbelievably stunned by the shocking mass murder. It was almost too much to believe. Things like that just didn’t fit into the normality of a tranquil town called Santa Claus. Most of the notorious crimes occurred closer to Savannah, 70 miles away, or Charleston, on the coast.
It was a frightening thought, but maybe one person had been the primary target and the others were assassinated because they were potential witnesses. But if this were true, why didn’t the killer get rid of the three children he let go, surely he must have known they could identify him. Several theories were taken into consideration by the lawmen, as happens in every case, and each auspicious idea was pursued to its limits.
During those first critical hours the manhunt for Jerry Scott Heidler shifted into full gear with uniformed patrolmen and plainclothesmen ferreting out across Bacon County, where he was last pinpointed, clear to Alma, where his family lived.
As far as murder chases are concerned, the hunt for Jerry Heidler was not very exciting. Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents Jerry Roe and Bill Butler were dispatched to Alma, where Heidler had roots.
“Behind the house was a street and there the van sat,” said GBI spokesman John Blankhead. Jerry Heidler was walking out the front door as the police car pulled to the front of the house. They made eye contact and Heidler turned and ran back into the house.
Agents Rose and Butler radioed for a backup then ran to the back of the house to prevent a possible escape. At that point, Jerry Heidler’s brother came out and told the officers he was the only one in the house. Bacon County sheriff’s detectives answering the backup call arrived and initiated a search of the house.
They found Heidler huddled in a crawl space beneath the home.
When Heidler refused to come out, two officers with drawn guns crawled in and dragged him out. They arrested him on an outstanding warrant of probation violation. Heidler’s brother was arrested for obstructing justice and lodged without bail in Bacon County Jail along with his brother.
On Tuesday, December 9, 1997, funeral services for the slain family were held at First United Methodist Church of Lyons after the bodies were released for burial by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab in Atlanta.
Danny Daniels, the mailman who taught Sunday school at Mount Vernon Pentecostal Church lay in a brightly varnished wooden casket at the far left of the church surrounded by flowers. To his right, his wife, Kim, lay in a white casket adorned with white and pink carnations. A third casket held Jessica. Herplaymates and school friends passed by solemnly, each in turn placing a kissed red rose on her casket. The tiniest casket at the far end held the body of Bryant.
From the pulpit, the Rev. Ray Wood, who was the Daniel’s pastor at Mount Vernon, described Bryant as a energetic child whose aim in life was to drive the church bus.
“This family invited him to their church and he had lived with them in their home briefly in the past few months,” Wood told the massive congregation that filed into the church to say good-bye to the slaughtered family. “He didn’t have to steal a van, if he had been in need, for the price of a phone call, Brother Danny and Sister Kim would’ve driven to Alma to get him. That’s the kind of people they were.”
Rev. Wood told the teary-eyed and sobbing congregates, “We’ll never again hear Sister Kim sing and play the piano or her family singing in the chorus.” Where the killer was concerned: “You may hate his deed, but you better love his soul.” There were scattered shouts of “amen.”
The five children curiously left behind by the killer, were in the front pews, protected from the media by police bodyguards. 20 pallbearers took up remaining seats beside them. Homicide detectives continued to probe the background of the lives of the killer and his victims, trying to determine if some personal motive existed. One silver streak broke through the dark clouds surrounding the case. It wasn’t much of a lead at the outset. A detective chief in charge of the investigation revealed the motive appeared to be moderately different from the nascent reconstruction of the crime, which had been based on very finite information from the surviving victims.
Now a relative leaked to the detectives that Jessica had broke off a brief romantic affair she was having with Heidler, and that may have triggered the nightmare. Although many in Santa Claus didn’t believe the growing speculation and increasingly wildness of the rumors, it would explain everything. It wouldn’t be the first time a spurned lover vented his anger on an entire family.
“They had a boyfriend-girlfriend affair,” said Sheriff Durst. He refused to elaborate any further. Many of the mourners had come directly to the church from Heidler’s first court appearance before Toombs County Magistrate Ezra Aaron, who asked the snugly handcuffed suspect if he understood the charges of multiple murder, kidnapping and burglary. In the horror-struck courtroom, Heidler kept his eyes downcast as he answered in sullen, dull monotone, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir.”
When Heidler said he didn’t understand what could happen to him, the judge, without lifting his face from the papers before him, said, “You could be executed.”
A statement as recalled by Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents who interrogated Heidler, was a chilling one. Without flinching one iota, Heidler told them, “I killed them all.”
One agent, Lee Sweat, said Heidler was not especially emotional about his confession, nor did he show any signs of remorse. “He was quiet,” Sweat said, “but he was responsive from the very beginning. He told me he killed the Daniels family.”
While Heidler’s attorneys were feverishly trying to get his confession thrown out as evidence, developing information had gleaned from the surviving children who had sat in their nightgowns untangling a web of mystery for Bacon County sheriffs. Otherwise, the whole horrible story might have been lost in the darkness of history.
The children said they were awakened by ear-splitting gunshots. Then a man who had once dated their sister, Jessica, entered the bedroom and took them with him in a strange van. He took them far from home and they were crying. He put them out on a deserted, dark road, and they were frightened. The girls did not know at the time the extreme grossness of the case. They had no idea a portion of their lives were gone forever.
Heidler’s story, as related to GBI agents, was that he used a stepladder in the garden to hoist himself up to the bathroom window and enter the Daniels home.
He shot Bryant first, using a loaded shotgun, then Jessica as she ran towards him, apparently while running to alert her parents. He shot Kim and Danny in quick succession.
Special Agent Dean McManus said it all seemed like a dream to Heidler and he wanted him and agent Sweat to “get into his dream with him.”
Heidler’s accounts of December 3 and 4 were that he attended the funeral of a stillborn baby he had fathered to a woman he never saw before. That night, he walked to the home of a friend, where they played pool and watched men playing dominoes. He had two beers then walked to his mother’s home, where he was staying without paying.
When people in the home began talking about the stillborn baby, Heidler said he ran out of the house, swiped a friend’s van, then drove U.S. 1 to Santa Claus.
After entering the Daniels home, he took a semi-automatic shotgun from a gun cabinet in Kim and Danny’s bedroom then went looking for Jessica, whom he
wanted to kill because she jilted him.
He remembered continuously pulling the trigger. He even recalled having to reload and how the kick of the shotgun hurt his shoulder and the clamorous thwack of the blast hurt his ears. He said he shot Bryant in a trancelike dream and was awakened out of it when Jessica called out his name. After the shootings, he ushered the three kids out of the house and into the stolen van.
Continuing with his story, Heidler told the officers that he remembered driving to the Altamaha River bridge between Appling and Bacon counties, where he took the 10-year-old to a boat ramp, and sexually assaulted her out of sight of the
others in the van.
After the rape, the sobbing little victim asked him to get rid of the gun because he was scaring them. So he tossed it in the Altamaha River where it would never be found.
He abandoned the girls and drove back to his mother’s house. Sweat said although at times Heidler laughed, or cried, he was relatively unaffected by what he had done. “He understood what he was saying,” said Sweat, “We had all range of emotions. But the gravity of what he’d done — he was indifferent to that.”
For the most inept, cruelest massacre that ever happened in Toombs County history, death penalty specialist Mike Garrett, the most brilliant and sought after attorney in Augusta, and public defender Kathy Palmer of Swainsboro, were brought in for the trial. The plan of operation would be for the defense attorneys to file a notice of intent to present evidence on mental health issues. After talking with Heidler, Garrett told reporters, “He’s physically sick and mentally disturbed.”
The defense immediately filed for a change of venue. Garrett said Heidler would be tried far away from the graveyard and the blood-splattered house where people still thought Santa Claus was a symbol of good fellowship and gift sharing.
District Attorney Malone agreed that the gruesome trial should be held somewhere else. He said too many times the Georgia Supreme Court overturned death penalty cases from rural counties where cases were grossly overly publicized.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, July 6, 1999, while awaiting trial, Heidler escaped with tracking dogs and helicopters on his heels. News flashes across Georgia said anyone who crossed paths with the 20-year-old escaped convict were in extreme danger. Jailers searching his cell found 75 homemade weapons he had made from unscrewing wire cages and smoke and fire alarms. They said he routinely threatened to kill jailers and other inmates who preferred to give him a wide berth.
He didn’t get very far. He was quickly captured and returned for trial.
The trial opened before a jury of seven men and five women on August 30, 1999 in Judge Walter McMillan’s Walton County Courthouse. Prosecutor Malone said he would seek the death penalty. Heidler’s defense team chose to seek pity from the jurors by using the mental illness defense.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Malone painted a bizarre picture of the suspect. He said he was arrested in May for breaking into Taylor’s Treasures and stealing porcelain dolls, Nintendo games, knives. A young mother testified she had hired Heidler to baby-sit her three children in exchange for a room in her home. She said he was good with her children and she couldn’t have managed without his help. She described him as a quiet person, a regular couch potato who seldom went anywhere and worked on her car.
As for his mental level, she said he was like a teen-ager in a 20-year-old body. “I’ve seen him go out looking for jobs and no one would hire him,” she said, adding, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
A neighbor who lived next to the Heidlers on 12th Street in Alma, said the family lived there for two months. They moved there from a government housing project on Mills Street and had no money.
In the days that followed jurors heard from one side or the other about Heidler’s tough life, or his refusal to accept authority. Born June 9, 1977, he became a high school drop out in the 10th grade. He never worked because soil rhymes with toil.
He never owned a car and he never lived in a place he could call his own. Any money he ever had was mooched from somebody else.
Despite his unseeming lifestyle, he was never arrested for violent crimes. Aside from burglarizing Taylor Treasures, he stole a Kawasaki four-wheeler from a garage on South Church Street and was currently facing felony counts in Alma.
He was newly on probation in both Toombs and Bacon counties for driving while intoxicated. That was the extent of his criminal record. Several of Daniels’ neighborbors testified about gathering in their yards to watch police cars, media vans with dishes on top, and more strange cars than they had ever seen driving up Dasher Street toward the crime scene. They spoke of the good times they had fishing in Daniels’ fish pond, and picking grapes from his vineyard.
“They were good God-fearing people,” one neighbor told the court. “They were a storybook family. They took children nobody else wanted and gave them a decent home.”
County Sheriff Durst testified that in his talks with Heidler, “his only explanation is that he doesn’t know why he did it. He said a dive team that searched the 29- foot-deep Altamaha River failed to find the murder weapon that Heidler said he tossed off the bridge from U.S. Highway 1.
A defense witness testified that in Heidler’s hometown of Alma, about 30 miles from the crime scene, he had enhanced his reputation as an “odd ball” from a family who moved from one place to another, like gypsies. He said Heidler spent time in foster care homes but eventually had to be placed in a special treatment state school because of his emotional problems.
Garrett, however, was unable to sway the jury, who, after wrestling with indecision for a scant 20 minutes, found the mass murderer guilty on Friday, September 3, 1999.
The penalty phase took less than two hours, and this time they envoked the death penalty.Sickly, scrawny, Heidler sniffled and wiped his nose on his shirt as the four death sentences were pronounced. Judge Walter McMillan handed him an additional two life sentences plus 110 years on three counts of kidnapping the three Daniels children and three counts of sodomy and child molestation and one burglary.
The remaining Daniels children have been placed with relatives. Using methodology almost routine in cases of murder, the Toombs County Sheriff’s Department and the GBI had been able to get to the bottom of the matter — thus insuring that justice was seen to be done.

No comments:

Post a Comment