Dead Pool

What made Lionel Sands go off the deep end?

On the afternoon of June 9, 2001, Gail Sands — a native St. Louisan and 1966 graduate of Pattonville High School — was found dead at the bottom of the shallow, rain-filled swimming pool behind her home. Across her back lay a 16-foot aluminum ladder.

When questioned by police, Gail's husband, Lionel Sands, claimed he left his wife early that day to clear brush on the couple's 120-acre farm in the Florida Panhandle. With him was his friend Daniel Brown, a handyman and three-time convicted felon. As the two men returned to the farmhouse for lunch, Sands noticed the ladder missing from its spot next to the lap pool. Moments later he saw the body.

"The water was so dirty with leaves and everything. It took me a second to see her legs," Sands told investigators. "I jumped in as any human would. I threw the ladder off of her. I tried to straddle her and lift her. By then rigor mortis kicked in. I tried CPR but I couldn't save anyone."

Lionel Sands claimed his wife, Gail, accidently drowned in the swimming pool of their north Florida home. Police believe he killed his wife for her insurance money.
Lionel Sands claimed his wife, Gail, accidently drowned in the swimming pool of their north Florida home. Police believe he killed his wife for her insurance money.

The way Sands explained it, his 53-year-old wife must have slipped and fallen into the pool while trying to move the heavy ladder. His story collapsed the next day when the medical examiner noticed a round fracture in the back of Gail's skull that he believed to be caused by a hammer or similar object.

Gail Sands' death, the examiner concluded, was no an accident. It was murder.

In rural Jackson County, an hour's drive due west of Tallahassee in the pine forests of northern Florida, the sheriff's office quickly focused its homicide investigation on Lionel Sands and Daniel Brown. The men were the only people known to be on the farm that day. Both told authorities they'd spent the morning working near the quarter-mile driveway leading to the Sands' farmhouse.

Both of them also said they never saw a car or a person travel down the gravel road toward the house. Further, the Sandses kept five trained attack dogs — rottweilers and bull mastiffs — fenced in the three-acre patch surrounding their home. The dogs were roaming the yard when Sands discovered his wife's body.

Despite strong circumstantial evidence tying Sands and Brown to the crime, prosecutors were never able to build a convincing case against the men. The suspects repeatedly stated that they were within eyesight of each other at all times and were innocent of the crime. Five years later the Jackson County Sheriff had yet to arrest anyone in connection with the murder. Gail's family in St. Louis, meanwhile, had all but given up hope of seeing justice.

Then, in early March of last year, Gail's 85-year-old mother, Eloise Heaps, and two sisters were subpoenaed to appear in a Florida federal court. Unbeknownst to them, Gail Sands held several life-insurance policies that totaled more than $400,000, with her husband named as the primary beneficiary. With the murder still classified as an "open investigation" and Lionel Sands the chief suspect in Gail's killing, none of the insurance companies would pay out. Now, one of the insurers, AXA Equitable Life, was forcing the issue.

On March 7, 2006, AXA filed suit, demanding that the federal court decide whether Sands or his wife's mother and sisters receive the $228,345 in insurance proceeds AXA held in her name. For Gail's family, who had always believed that Sands killed his wife, the possibility that he could now profit from her murder was a final insult.

Upon receiving the subpoena, Gail's oldest sister (who asked that her name not be used for this story) called her attorney in Richmond Heights, who relayed the story to Rich Witzel in the break room of their shared law office.

A civil advocate in private practice, the 60-year-old Witzel favors dark, conservative suits and wears his blondish-gray hair short and parted to the side. In his 35 years of practicing law, the attorney's bread-and-butter has come by way of personal-injury and environmental-liability lawsuits. Never before had he attempted to prove anything as difficult as a murder claim.

"The family didn't know what to do," recalls Witzel, who is licensed to practice law in Florida. "I said, 'Look. We have 30 days to file a response. If you want, I'll go down there for a few days and see what I can find."

Little did Witzel know what strange discoveries he and law partner Jay Kanzler would unearth. Nor could they — or anyone — predict the mayhem that would unfold when a cornered Lionel Sands launched a desperate attempt to clear himself of his wife's murder.

"We're just a normal family," says Gail's oldest sister, still visibly shaken from the events of four months ago. "You don't expect to get caught up in a murder investigation — certainly not one as horrific as this. No one should have to live through something like this."

Gail Sands' sisters recall their younger sister as something of a tomboy who, as a small child, would chase her older siblings with frogs and insects captured outside the family's Bridgeton home. As a teenager the blond and personable Gail Heaps (her maiden name) joined the 4-H Club, Junior Achievement and her school's cheerleading squad. After graduating from high school, Gail spent a few years in St. Louis earning her nursing degree before moving west.

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