Dead Pool

What made Lionel Sands go off the deep end?

Gail's sister also thought it unusual the way in which Sands claimed his wife perished, drowning in just 30 inches of water. Before returning to St. Louis, Gail's brother-in-law called the medical examiner to inquire about the body. The autopsy findings had yet to be released, and the coroner questioned why he'd called. "Are you suspicious about this?" Gail's sister remembers the coroner asking her husband. When he replied yes, the corner responded matter-of-factly: "I think you have a right to be."

For the next year and a half, Gail's oldest sister in St. Louis was in constant contact with the sheriff's office in Marianna. Frustrated with the pace of the investigation, she put up a $5,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of Gail's killer. When that produced no solid leads, she considered hiring a private detective but says she was rebuffed by the sheriff's office, which told her they would not cooperate with a civilian sleuth.

"It's a small Southern town," says Gail's sister. "I don't think they took too well [to] a woman calling them with suggestions. Every time I asked them if they'd considered this option or that, the response was, 'Ma'am, you've been watching too much television.'"

A dainty Gail Heaps (her maiden name) after earning her  nursing license in St. Louis. Years later Sands would  become obsessed with Gail's bulging waistline.
A dainty Gail Heaps (her maiden name) after earning her nursing license in St. Louis. Years later Sands would become obsessed with Gail's bulging waistline.
Lionel and Gail Sands and her parents, Eloise and Guy  Heaps, at their wedding in 1981. At the time of the  ceremony, Sands was still married and living with another  woman.
Lionel and Gail Sands and her parents, Eloise and Guy Heaps, at their wedding in 1981. At the time of the ceremony, Sands was still married and living with another woman.

While Gail's oldest sister pressed the cops to nail Sands for murder, Ann Mortensen played the role of the sympathetic sister-in-law, accepting Sands' phone calls, many of them ranting about the sheriff's investigation and his own financial straits.

"I kept hoping he'd tell me something I could pass along to the police," remembers Mortensen. "He'd just talk and talk for hours. He thought the sheriff was out to get him and constantly complained how he needed money. Finally I was like, 'Well, Lionel, you could get a job!'"

Nine months after his wife's death, Sands attempted to throw off investigators. At a Republican fundraising event in 2002, he cornered then-Governor Jeb Bush to complain that the sheriff was trying to frame him. The bewildered governor promised to have someone look into it. In April of that year, Sands met with an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

For 70 minutes he spun a tale of conspiracy stemming from the day in 1993 when he was arrested for kidnapping a former coworker. Angered by what he considered to be false charges by the Jackson County sheriff, Sands sought consolation with a local Bible study group. It's there that he met the thrice-convicted felon Dan Brown.

"For the first year, my contempt for the sheriff was so bad they were praying for me ten times a day," Sands told the FDLE agent of his two-year stint in Bible study.

While in jail facing the kidnapping charges, Sands claimed sheriff deputies pulled over and harassed Gail on two separate occasions. According to Sands, his wife had taken an interest in solving an unsolved murder.

In December 1991, 25-year-old Teresa Hall and her infant daughter, Tiffany, were found bludgeoned to death in their home in nearby Cypress, Florida. Sands claimed Gail was dangerously close to solving the case when she died. Time and again, throughout his interview with the FDLE, he suggested that the Halls' and his wife's killer were the same person. All three victims were blond. All three died of head injuries.

Sands ended the interview: "My wife, a perfectly healthy woman, is found dead in my pool. I have one witness and, lo and behold, he is a convicted felon. I couldn't have picked a worse predicament if I tried. What can I do? What can I say? I don't know anyone who had a grudge against Gail. But again, everything gets back to the Halls."

On March 22, 2006, attorney Rich Witzel caught a flight to Florida, the first of a half-dozen sojourns he'd make there on behalf of Gail's family. The next morning Witzel arrived at the Tallahassee headquarters of the FDLE, which in 2002 took over the inquiry into Gail's death.

Although the murder investigation remained an "open case" with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office, FDLE closed its file in late 2003, allowing Witzel to make a Freedom of Information Act request of the state police department's records.

As spring breakers sucked beer bongs and flocked to the MTV tent located across from his Panama City hotel, Witzel spent the weekend picking apart the story Sands and Brown told police. "The day of Gail's death, Sands claimed he opened the gate to their yard and all of a sudden says to Brown: 'Gee, where's that ladder? I hope she didn't try to move it.'

"What are the chances of someone saying something like that?" continues Witzel. "Then he finds the ladder on top of her in the pool? Seems pretty convenient to me."

On Monday morning Witzel piled into his rental car for the hour drive north to Marianna to meet with the sheriff department's homicide unit. It was a regular show-and-tell as the sheriff deputies revealed to him items not included in the FDLE file, including Gail's autopsy report, morgue photos and a video of the crime scene in which Sands explains to the police his theory of how Gail fell into the pool.

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Has Pretty Legs
Has Pretty Legs

Why in the world did Gail marry Sands, and stay with him - clearly she was a million dollar sitting duck? Though I would have given anything to see the deputies faces when Sands walked out of the house in a pink dress. Frankly that would have clenched it for me, but still a tragic story that was a real challenge to sort out and make sense of out of the madness that was Sands entire life.

Kathy Johnson
Kathy Johnson

Forgot to add that the sheriff was awarded the Sands property. His wife's daughter lives there now.

Kathy Johnson
Kathy Johnson

Just found this article on the Web. The writer did a great job, but there is one mistake. On the night of the shootout at the sheriff's home, the sheriff couldn't locate his gun in his vehicle and consequently never fired a shot. The two deputies were the ones with guns and did all the shooting.I am among a group of locals who don't think the ending of this horrible tragedy is what it appears. There's more to it than meets the eye and deals with the sheriff allegedly trying to get the Sands property LONG before the shootout took place.

Gail McCollum
Gail McCollum

Just for fun I typed in the name of a high school friend tonight as I have done many, many times and the first item that came up tonight was this article. I have wondered for years where my friend had gone (I had last talked to her before she left for Colorado). In high school she was Gail I and I was Gail II whenever friends referred to us so they could tell which of us they were talking about. She was a great person...bubbly..smiling all the time and from a great loving family. I had always thought she'd was living in Colorado with a hugh family and tons of grandchildren. Now I'm saddened to find that she is not with us any more and to find under what sickening circumstances we lost her. My heart stopped when I started reading this god-awfull tale. My heart goes out to her family - mother, sisters and even though Mr. Heaps isn't with us, to him also. I hope that her family found peace at last. I will keep them in my prayers.


There should be a movie made about this!