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7/3/2008

Crime

WHODUNIT
Is a confessed serial killer behind the murder that landed Bill Dillon in prison 27 years ago?
Investigators think Ottis Toole (above) may be to blame for putting Bill Dillon behind bars 27 years ago

 

Nearly 27 years ago, Bill Dillon was convicted of a crime he quite possibly didn’t commit. Today, as he has for nearly three decades, he sits in a Florida prison, professing his innocence to anyone who will listen. He’s awaiting the results of a DNA test that Dillon believes could clear him – a process that has dragged on for two years – and there’s reason to think he’s right.

As this newspaper first reported [see “26 years,” Oct. 11], the problems associated with the Brevard County Sheriff’s Department investigation that nailed Dillon were so numerous that they’d be laughable had they not cost a man three decades of his life. A police-trained canine and its (retired) handler who supposedly linked Dillon to the murder of James Dvorak were frauds. The lead investigator had sex with Dillon’s then-girlfriend, who changed her story several times before implicating Dillon in the crime, then later recanting. An eyewitness had severely impaired vision. A T-shirt prosecution called the “smoking gun” contained blood that matched neither Dillon’s nor Dvorak’s type, though prosecutors alleged at trial that it was Dvorak’s blood on the shirt. And to top it off, Dillon’s lawyer was later disbarred for incompetence.

Sparked by this newspaper’s report, two Casselberry private investigators are trying to reopen the case. Convinced that the evidence against Dillon doesn’t add up, Dwayne Powell and Michael Beltz started trying to answer the case’s key question: If Dillon didn’t kill Dvorak, who did?

They came up with one name: Ottis Toole, the Florida serial killer most famous for confessing to killing Adam Walsh, son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh in 1981, only to later withdraw his confession.

Of course, the state thinks it already has its guy, and isn’t particularly interested in looking at the case anew. “If we can gift-wrap it for them, maybe there will be an interest,” Powell says. “A first-year law student could win this case.”

Toole grew up with his mother, a religious fanatic who dressed him in girl’s clothing. He claimed his grandmother was a Satanist and exposed him to various rituals, including raiding graves for body parts, during his youth. He said he knew he was gay by age 11 – a key fact, since Dvorak’s murder seemed to be a gay-bashing hate crime.

An occasional accomplice and possible lover of notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Toole confessed to numerous gruesome murders, rapes and arson cases, and admitted to engaging in cannibalism with some victims. He was convicted of two murders in 1984 and pleaded guilty to an additional four in 1991. He confessed to two dozen murders with Lucas, but was never convicted in those cases.

In May 1981 Toole’s mother died, leaving him depressed and wandering Florida. Two months later, on July 27, 1981, Adam Walsh disappeared from a Hollywood shopping mall. Adam’s severed head was found slightly farther north, in Vero Beach, on Aug. 10, as Toole was traveling northward toward his home in Jacksonville, Powell says.

A week after that, Dvorak was found dead in Canova Beach in Melbourne – a spot where gay men often met for sex, just 40 miles from Vero Beach – with a 6-foot radius of blood spray surrounding his body, his skull exposed and his lips peeled off. Toole was arrested in Jacksonville during the summer of 1983 and told cops he had killed at least nine people during the previous year.

By then, though, the police weren’t interested in linking Toole to Dvorak’s murder. They’d already won a conviction. “Dillon had already been convicted by that point. They weren’t looking to solve a case,” Beltz says. “They might have actually related the cases if Dvorak’s murder hadn’t been solved.”

Toole was known to be a hitchhiker, and Powell thinks that the man a half-blind witness picked up on the evening of the crime, who later left the bloody T-shirt in his car, was Toole, not Dillon. The physical description is a better fit for Toole – hair parted in the middle, facial hair and average height – as is the gruesome manner of killing in an area known to
be frequented by gays. The timing of his depression and travels also are incriminating, Beltz says.

“What would it hurt to test? If it’s negative, it’s just back to where we were, but if it’s a match it’s all over,” Beltz says. “[The state attorney’s office] is just following the views of their predecessors. But you don’t conduct an investigation to confirm your own theories. It seems like that was what was done here. It was conducted as if he was the only guy it could be, and the evidence had so many holes in it.”

Though Toole recanted his testimony, John Walsh has always believed that Toole was responsible for his son’s death. Toole confessed to killing Adam on Oct. 21, 1983, telling police that he ate part of the child’s body before feeding the remainder to alligators. He was investigated for the crime and cops said he mentioned unreleased “grisly” details, but the police lost evidence, including DNA. Although Toole confessed several times, he always recanted. Toole died in prison in 1996.

(Beltz says the duo have been working to get in touch with John Walsh because they think his involvement could catapult the state’s interest. Walsh didn’t return calls for comment.)

The state doesn’t buy the investigators’ story. After all, that would require prosecutors to believe that they convicted the wrong man – and that’s something to which prosecutors aren’t willing to cop.

“I can’t imagine [Toole] was looked at,” says assistant state attorney Wayne Holmes of Florida’s 18th Circuit, which prosecuted Dillon. “But people can look at whatever theory they want.”

Despite a shoddy investigation, inconsistencies and a host of problems along the way that should have raised red flags, Holmes says the state had enough evidence to prove Dillon is a killer. He says that at least five people made incriminating statements about Dillon after the crime, including his ex-girlfriend and a 16-year-old who said Dillon spoke of his hatred for gays and said he hoped to rob one at the beach. He also points out that Dillon’s alibi was full of holes and that he lied to cops about his whereabouts during two polygraph tests.

“It’s a case where, when you review it, you see why a jury convicted [Dillon],” Holmes says. “The burden’s on them to come up with evidence that might allow him to have a new trial.”

Dillon’s best hope is that DNA currently in a Texas lab points to his innocence and convinces a judge to order a new trial.

“With older samples, it just takes longer because you have to run it multiple times,” says Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida, a group that provides legal resources and funding for post-conviction DNA testing in cases such as Dillon’s. “We’re hoping it will be sooner rather than later.”

dmorey@orlandoweekly.com
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