Dead Pool

What made Lionel Sands go off the deep end?

"I don't think they knew the significance of what they did," recalls Witzel. "The state attorney wasn't going to allow us to enter into evidence any information from the sheriff's investigation because it was still an 'open' case. But since I'd already seen much of it, the judge ruled it public record. It was a huge break for us."

Witzel returned from his five-day visit optimistic that Gail's family could prove in the insurance lawsuit that Lionel Sands murdered his wife. Much like the wrongful-death trial involving O.J. Simpson, the case would not bring criminal charges against Sands, but it would harm him financially — in this case, denying him access to Gail's lucrative life-insurance policies.

From their law office on Big Bend Boulevard, Witzel and Kanzler began a sweeping probe into Lionel Sands' background. Assisted by Kanzler's younger brother and fellow attorney, Chris Kanzler, the lawyers discovered Sands had been married three times. Though he claimed to have no children, the attorneys found he'd fathered a son with his first wife but abandoned the family and never paid child support. The marriage ended after Sands reportedly beat his ex-wife and threatened to harm their son.

Accomplice Dan Brown eventually cracked under the  attorneys' questioning. Later he'd assist Sands in a final,  bloody rampage.
Accomplice Dan Brown eventually cracked under the attorneys' questioning. Later he'd assist Sands in a final, bloody rampage.
Five years after Gail's death, Sands maintained his  innocence and was never charged with the crime.
Five years after Gail's death, Sands maintained his innocence and was never charged with the crime.

Sands' second marriage also ended violently, with his then-wife filing a restraining order against him in October 1981 — months after he'd already married Gail in the fake ceremony. Today, Sands' second wife, Susan Schenk, is remarried and lives in Portland, Oregon. She recalls the final days of their ten-year marriage as "haywire."

In one of her final encounters with her husband, Sands took Schenk deep in the woods. She says he was depressed and was going to kill himself. He pulled out a handgun from his jacket and started counting down slowly from ten to one. He told Schenk he'd make his death look like an accident so she could claim his life insurance. Finally — on the count of three — Schenk convinced him to turn over the gun.

That next day she returned home to find their house cleared of everything but her clothes. Sands, she recalls, was seated in the middle of a darkened, empty room. "He gave me an ultimatum," she says. "I was to leave the house, leave the state and quit my job with the National Guard. If I disobeyed, he said he'd have a member of my family killed. He said he had everything arranged."

Even while married to Gail, Sands was briefly engaged to another woman. He met Deborah Ray Shaw while serving in the National Guard in Oregon — during the time that Gail was building the couple's home in Florida. The former fiancée told Witzel in her deposition that Sands flew her to Florida in 1986 and bought her a $5,000 engagement ring from a Panama City mall. The engagement ended when Sands called Shaw to tell her he was in New York City and going to jail for a DUI arrest. Suspicious, she called his home in Marianna a few days later. Sands answered the phone.

Schenk suspects Sands struggled with his sexuality. She recalls the nightmare he had during one of the last nights they shared a bed together. "He was holding his penis and moaning," she recalls. "He told me he'd been born a twin and his twin sister died after childbirth. He said her spirit had been trying to take over his body for months."

In Florida, Sands kept a curious relationship with a man by the name of Kenneth Swaine. While Gail was away for a nursing conference in March 1993, Swaine came to "baby-sit" Sands for a week. Swaine later told police the house was full of guns. For days the two men never left the property. Then one morning Sands borrowed Swaine's truck and drove to the house of a former coworker.

Earl Pettis replaced Sands when he was fired from the River Junction Work Camp earlier that year. In his court deposition, Pettis tells of arriving to his house to find his former colleague parked in his driveway. He said he wanted to talk and Pettis invited him into his home and offered him a drink. When he turned around Sands had a pistol pointing right at Pettis' nose. He demanded money. When Pettis told him he didn't have any, Sands marched him to Swaine's borrowed truck and set off for the bank. Sands demanded he withdraw $500. But at a stoplight, Pettis jumped out of the car and fled.

An hour later a half dozen sheriff cruisers arrived at Sands' farm with their sirens blazing. The commotion caused such a stir with the attack dogs that the sheriff deputies threatened to shoot them if they weren't put in their pen. Sands came out of the house clad, inexplicably, in a pink dress.

He spent the next 40 days in jail brooding over the charges and developing a seething hatred for Jackson County Sheriff John McDaniel. Eventually the prosecutor declined to press charges for the kidnapping. Sands later told Gail and friends that Pettis made up the entire incident.

"Everything was like that," notes attorney Jay Kanzler. "Each story we unearthed, Sands had a story to explain it. In the end, there were so many lies we didn't have the time or money to track them all down."

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