Dead Pool

What made Lionel Sands go off the deep end?

Based on the vomit he found alongside his mother's corpse, he believes Sands poisoned her. Spink notes that the hidden key — which only he, Sands and one other person knew about — was missing from its secret location, forcing him to break a window the day he discovered his mother's body. In addition, Gail's diaries were nowhere to be found. To this day their location remains a mystery.

The case was finally scheduled for trial in early January. Although Witzel and Kanzler felt confident they'd prevail, it was far from a sure thing. Sands' Tallahassee-based attorney, Sid Matthew, deftly convinced the judge to bar from the jury much of the dirt the attorneys dug up on his client's past. Gone were the statements from ex-wives and lovers and the incredible kidnapping tale that Gail's attorneys believed best demonstrated Sands' violent streak. Banned, too, was any mention of Brown's criminal past.

Instead of trying to disprove that Sands killed his wife, Matthew would argue that no murder ever occurred. He'd do so by picking apart the credibility of the medical examiner who ruled Gail's death a homicide. According to court filings, Dr. Michael Berkland lost his license to practice as a medical examiner in Missouri for "issuing erroneous death certificates certifying 'homicide' in cases where the probable cause of death was not actually homicide." His license was later suspended in Florida as well.

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.

Figuring the trial might last three weeks, Witzel and Kanzler rented a condo near the federal courthouse in Panama City. With computers, fax machines and filing cabinets ferried down from St. Louis, they soon transformed the place into a functioning law office. They were in the process of hiring a temporary legal assistant when, out of the blue, the judge postponed the trial to January 29.

Disheartened, the lawyers packed their bags for St. Louis, but not before launching one final legal volley. In late November the judge dismissed AXA Equitable Life from the lawsuit. With the plaintiff no longer in the picture, Witzel and Kanzler argued the case now fell under Florida's "slayer statute" — which stipulates that a person cannot profit from causing another's death. Such cases, argued the attorneys, do not require a trial by jury. On January 3 the judge agreed.

For Sid Matthew, the news couldn't be worse. "A lot of the evidence was not coming in under a jury trial — the adultery, the other marriages, the kidnapping. The jury wouldn't know about any of it. But the judge had heard it all," explains Matthew. "I'd say at that point, the odds of us winning were not good."

Moreover, Matthew was now concerned that if Sands lost, the state would follow up with criminal charges. "If you have a federal judge ruling that someone killed his wife, you don't think a prosecutor is going to take notice? By trying this case we ran the risk of some pretty far-reaching consequences."

On January 16 Sands filed a motion to dismiss his claims to his wife's life-insurance policy. Nine days later — January 25 — the judge granted Sands' motion to dismiss the case and ordered that Sands pay Gail's family court costs to the tune of $30,000.

Matthew recalls his client conceding defeat with the same "unreasonable optimism" he'd exhibited since beginning their legal battle nine months earlier. "He was not vindictive, vengeful or angry," says Matthew. "I certainly didn't get the impression that he was going to go commando."


On Tuesday, January 30 — the day after his re-scheduled trial was set to begin — Lionel Sands loaded Dan Brown's beige Crown Victoria with latex gloves, bleach, duct tape and plastic handcuffs. He wore an outfit of camouflage fatigues and combat boots and was disguised with a wig, false moustache and cosmetic make-up.

The notoriously sloppy Brown was dressed like a character from the Blues Brothers, in a dark suit, tie and hat. Sands carried on his person a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and another .38-caliber Taurus pistol. Brown held with him a .22-caliber handgun.

At approximately 4:45 p.m. the duo pulled up behind Mellie McDaniel on her way home from the grocery store. Mellie happened to be on her cell phone at the time, talking to her husband, Jackson County Sheriff John McDaniel. She told her husband that the Crown Victoria followed her into the driveway of their home. At first she thought the men were salesmen. Then the sheriff heard his wife scream.

At 4:49 McDaniel radioed all officers in the area to respond to his residence. Deputy Mike Altman arrived two minutes later and called in the stolen license plates on Brown's vehicle. Moments later, the deputy's voice again came on the radio. He could be heard shouting: "Get off me!"

At 4:53 the sheriff and two deputies arrived at the scene to see Sands duck behind the Crown Victoria. Sands drew his guns from behind the car and began firing at the officers. Dozens of shots rang out over the next several minutes.

When the smoke cleared, Sands lay dead with the sheriff's bullets puncturing his neck, underarm, leg and stomach. Brown was shot twice in the gut and died minutes later.

The sheriff found his wife's and deputy's bodies lying side-by-side in front of Mellie's vehicle. Sands had shot the sheriff's wife in the back of the head — execution-style — as she kneeled in the driveway. Deputy Mike Altman was shot in the face. When that failed to kill him, Sands pumped two more slugs in his back.

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