Dead Pool

What made Lionel Sands go off the deep end?

More than 100 law officers eventually convened at the sheriff's house and combed the nearby forests for what they thought might be a third gunman. No such person was ever found. Police now believe Sands and Brown acted alone.

Inside Brown's Crown Victoria, they discovered several unsigned letters that Sands planned to have the sheriff and his wife sign. One of the letters was addressed to Gail's mother in St. Louis and written to appear as though it came from the sheriff. The note exonerated Sands of any wrongdoing in his wife's death.

Another letter, purportedly written by Mellie McDaniel, alleges that her husband was involved in an outlandish scheme in which federal agents, state attorneys and other government officials were assisting a criminal organization in distributing drugs and stolen goods. The letter states Sands was framed for Gail's death because he had uncovered the conspiracy.

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.

Attorney Rich Witzel found out about the deadly rampage that night. He was with his wife attending a musical at the Fox Theatre when he received a call from Jeff Johnson, a homicide detective for the Jackson County sheriff's office. The law agent wanted to know if Witzel was all right. He next asked about Gail's family. He wanted to know if they were safe as well.

"Finally I was like, 'What gives?'" recalls Witzel. "The detective told me: 'Oh, man. You're not going to believe this.'"

After hanging up the phone, the attorney dialed Gail's mother and sisters. At the time there was still fear of a possible third gunman. He suggested they call the local police and have them watch their homes for the night. Witzel called the police in Glendale, where he resides, and made the same request. So, too, did Kanzler in Clayton.

Privately the attorneys had questioned their safety months before the shootout. Witzel's wife was so alarmed by the case that she'd insisted on setting their home burglar alarm at all times. Still the lawyers never foresaw anything as drastic as the events that ultimately unfolded.

"We started taking precautions, especially during our time in Florida," notes Kanzler. "We'd request interior hotel rooms and tell the desk clerk not to inform anyone we were staying there. Sands drove a red pickup truck, and I was constantly on the lookout for a similar vehicle."

Three days after the shootout, Gail's family issued a public statement, asserting that Sands' rampage confirmed what they'd known all along: Sands killed his wife.

"Our family is deeply saddened at the loss of two more innocent lives in Marianna, Florida," the statement read. "This confirmation, however, is of no comfort having come from the tragic and senseless murders of the sheriff's wife and a deputy sheriff. The thoughts and prayers of our entire family are with each of those who are suffering under the loss of a loved one, colleague or friend."

Weeks prior to the assault, Sands checked out a book from the Marianna library, a novel titled The Hostage. Written by military and detective writer W.E.B. Griffin, the book tells of the kidnapping of a diplomat's wife and the killing of her husband.

To this day a stunned Sid Matthew remains baffled by the senseless actions of his client. "The fact is, Lionel Sands was a master con man — the confines of whose personality we'll never fathom," he says.

Matthew was scheduled to have one last meeting with Lionel Sands the Friday following the shooting spree. Had that meeting occurred, Matthew believes he wouldn't be around to talk about it.

Like Witzel and Kanzler, Matthew says he's heard rumors that the sheriff's office found a hit list in Sands' home. His name was high on the list, as were those of Witzel, Kanzler and members of Gail's family.

"Had the case gone to trial, I have no doubt Sands would take his vengeance out on us," says Kanzler. "It may sound a little self-indulgent, but when you're dealing with someone as crazy as Lionel Sands, it makes all the sense in the world."

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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!

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