Dead Pool

What made Lionel Sands go off the deep end?

For a decade Gail and her middle sibling, Ann, lived as ski bums in Denver and later in Salt Lake City. "We worked four days a week and skied three days," recalls Ann Mortensen, who now resides in Reno. "In the summer we camped, hiked and went rafting. It was quite the life."

The adventurous, five-foot-two Gail later joined the National Guard, where she met Lionel Sands during a weekend training session in California. He presented himself as an orphan who grew up in foster homes throughout the upper Midwest and boasted of earning master's degrees from Pepperdine University and Western Kentucky University. Although employed by the National Guard, he told Gail's family he was an Army Ranger in special operations.

"We thought he was all bull, but Gail seemed happy," says the oldest sister, who, like the rest of Gail's family, didn't meet the groom until the couple's wedding in Salt Lake City in 1981. "Gail was the kind who always brought in strays — be they dogs or people. Sands, I believe, was one of her strays."

Attorneys Jay Kanzler (left) and Rich Witzel in their  Richmond Heights office. The lawyers spent ten months last  year investigating Sands' turbulent past and dismantling his  alibi.
Attorneys Jay Kanzler (left) and Rich Witzel in their Richmond Heights office. The lawyers spent ten months last year investigating Sands' turbulent past and dismantling his alibi.

Beyond his braggadocio, Lionel Sands displayed a darker side. When Gail's sister Ann decorated the newlyweds' car following the wedding, he flew into a rage. "He made us clean it up right away. He was a real jerk about it." The reason for his anger could have been that the wedding was a sham. At the time, Sands was still married to another woman — a fact Gail's family wouldn't discover until Witzel and his law partners began probing his background.

Sands and Gail would marry for real two years later, in March 1983, after the divorce from his previous wife was finalized. Soon after, the couple moved to Marion Military Institute in Alabama, where Sands served briefly as a Reserve Officers' Training Corps instructor.

In 1986 they purchased 120 acres outside the small town of Marianna, Florida. To Gail's sisters, her willingness to settle in the rural flatlands of north Florida seemed out of character. "She'd spent years skiing and playing in the mountains, and all of the sudden she moves to Marianna?" says Ann Mortensen. "It's in the middle-of-nothing country. The ocean is an hour away."

Gail's parents, Guy and Eloise Heaps, traveled the 700 miles from St. Louis to Marianna to help their daughter build a home on the property. (Guy Heaps passed away in November 2001. Eloise now lives in a nursing home in St. Louis County. She has recently been diagnosed with dementia and was not interviewed for this story.)

Lionel Sands was not around to help Gail and her parents build the home. After Sands' brief stint in Alabama, the National Guard transferred him to Oregon. A few months later he claimed to be working at the Pentagon. One time he called Gail to inform her he was "watching them build the house" from the controls of a military satellite.

In 1991 Sands, then 45, retired from the National Guard. For a brief time he worked as a health-service administrator at the River Junction Work Camp, a minimum-security prison in nearby Chattahoochee, Florida. After he lost that job, Sands worked as a "farmer," growing pine trees that he'd later harvest for telephone poles. Gail — the breadwinner — worked full-time as a nurse for a prison connected to the River Junction facility.

With plenty of idle time, Sands grew ever more erratic, according to Gail's family. Her oldest sister recalls the casual manner in which Gail mentioned that Sands was thrown in jail in the early 1990s. "I think she brought it up only because she thought we'd find out about it," offers the sister. "She made light of it and wouldn't go into details." (Later they'd discover Sands spent 40 days in jail for kidnapping an acquaintance at gunpoint.)

In the last years of Gail's life, Sands became obsessed with his wife's weight. When she tried to diet, she complained to her sisters that Sands would show up at work to offer her pizzas and Snickers bars. Often he'd bring up her weight in public. "We had a party for her in St. Louis and he wouldn't stop raging about how fat she was," recalls Ann Mortensen. "She was 'too fat for this' and 'too fat for that.' They were just nasty comments."

Then there was the strange manner in which he broke the news of his wife's death — calling a niece in St. Louis and leaving the message: "Your Aunt Gail got herself killed today."

That same night Gail's oldest sister and her husband caught a flight to Florida. A female companion of Sands' greeted them at the home. Gail's sister remembers the woman offering her a Coke and something to eat. "She seemed to really know her way around my sister's house."

Again Sands harped about his wife's weight, telling Gail's sister that his wife was so heavy he dropped her three times while hauling her body from the pool. Gail's sister was shocked later that day when the funeral director asked how many death certificates the family would need. She had no idea how to respond. "I don't know," she recalls saying. "Three, four?" Sands answered the question for her: "We'll need twenty," he said. (Gail's family now believes Sands wanted the surplus death certificates to cash in on his wife's assets of more than $1 million, including her work pension, property and life-insurance policies.)

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