Dead Pool

What made Lionel Sands go off the deep end?


Lionel Sands showed up to his court-ordered deposition last August dressed in a polyester navy suit, disco-era dress shirt and a red rayon tie. As was his style, the horseshoe of hair clinging to the sides of his head was dyed jet black, providing a stark contrast to the blinding whiteness of his bald crown. On his cheeks and forehead he had applied a heavy layer of foundation makeup.

Witzel and Kanzler used the deposition to further erode Sands' alibi. As they saw it, the two biggest oddities to Gail's death lay in the ladder found atop her body — that and the bizarre story about Sands and Daniel Brown staying within eyesight of each other the entire morning.

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.

Curiously, Sands could no longer produce the ladder in question. He claimed the sheriff's office hauled it away during a follow-up search of his property — an assertion refuted by law officials. In the meantime, Sands purchased what he said was an identical ladder and hired an expert witnesses to demonstrate how the tool's round legs could cause a hammer-like wound to Gail's skull.

The expert later retracted his testimony when Witzel presented crime-scene photos of the actual ladder — with rectangular legs and sharp, square corners. A ladder with such sharp corners, agreed Sands' expert, would be unlikely to cause a round puncture wound.

Three weeks before Sands' deposition the attorneys tracked down Dan Brown in the northern Louisiana town of Monroe. The weather forecast that day called for squall showers and flash flooding. Brown showed up for the July 25 deposition looking as if he'd fallen into the river, with his dark, stringy hair plastered to his face and a Hawaiian shirt clinging to his bulging torso.

He'd recently earned the latest of several DUIs, and without a driver's license he'd been forced to walk to the interview. "I shook his hand when he arrived, and he left my palm soaking wet," recalls Kanzler. "He looked like a drowned rat. I remember thinking to myself, 'This is Sands' alibi?'"

Beyond the drunk-driving arrests, Brown's rap sheet included convictions for dealing marijuana and LSD, along with assault with a deadly weapon when he caught his "old lady" with another man. Brown pistol-whipped his wife's paramour unconscious.

A few weeks after his wife's death, Lionel Sands gave Brown several hundred dollars and the title to Gail's Geo Metro. Witzel and Kanzler believe Sands wanted Brown out of town for fear he might unwittingly say something to damage their alibi. Until then the two had always parroted the same story. The farthest away from one another they were that morning was the time Sands walked back to the house to refuel his weed-whacker. Brown testified that he took a cigarette break and could see Sands as he journeyed to the house and back.

In re-creating the events of that day, Witzel and Kanzler hired an aerial photographer to shoot photos of the farm and employed a crew to survey the property. From the vantage point where Brown claimed to watch Sands, the attorneys found it impossible to see all the way up the quarter-mile driveway to the house. When presented with the evidence, Brown grew testy, wringing his hands and threatening to walk out of the deposition.

"Listen, I don't appreciate you sitting here trying to trip me up," Brown retorted during the deposition. "I don't — I'm not going through with it any more. That's it. I quit talking."

Only after a recess and a reminder from Witzel that he was under a federal subpoena to testify did Brown finally admit to being separated from Sands for a few minutes that morning. "It was a watershed moment," says Witzel. "It countered everything they'd said until then."

Yet there remained one last piece of the puzzle. For 38 years Gail had kept a diary, and now — like the missing ladder — all seven volumes of the journals had disappeared.

Sands never mentioned the diaries to the police. Witzel and Kanzler only discovered their existence when, out of curiosity, they asked him if his wife kept a journal. Sands at first denied their existence but later acknowledged giving the diaries to Donna Campbell, a friend of Gail's to whom he had grown close in recent years.

Campbell lived in Dothan, Alabama, a half-hour drive from his Florida farm. One of Sands' biggest apologists, she wrote letters to the sheriff's office and others encouraging them to clear him of his wife's murder. So trusting of Sands was Campbell that she shared with him the hiding spot for her house key.

Campbell's son, 30-year-old Brent Spink, says Sands told his mother he was too heartbroken to go through the journals. Campbell, though, planned to read it all and tell Sands what his wife had written. Spink now believes his mother found something in the diaries implicating Sands as Gail's killer. He recalls the phone call he received from his mother the evening of June 17 last year.

"I think she'd put two and two together," says Spink. "She was angry and said she was going to call Sands."

Donna Campbell died a few hours after hanging up the phone with her son that night. After not hearing from his mother for several days, Spink broke into her home to find her naked body lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom. He recalls the room having the strong odor of bleach. The medical examiner ruled that the 55-year-old woman suffered a stroke and hit her head as she fell to the floor. Spink doesn't think so.

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