When questioned by police, Gail's husband, Lionel Sands, claimed he left his wife early that day to clear brush on the couple's 120-acre farm in the Florida Panhandle. With him was his friend Daniel Brown, a handyman and three-time convicted felon. As the two men returned to the farmhouse for lunch, Sands noticed the ladder missing from its spot next to the lap pool. Moments later he saw the body.
"The water was so dirty with leaves and everything. It took me a second to see her legs," Sands told investigators. "I jumped in as any human would. I threw the ladder off of her. I tried to straddle her and lift her. By then rigor mortis kicked in. I tried CPR but I couldn't save anyone."
The way Sands explained it, his 53-year-old wife must have slipped and fallen into the pool while trying to move the heavy ladder. His story collapsed the next day when the medical examiner noticed a round fracture in the back of Gail's skull that he believed to be caused by a hammer or similar object.
Gail Sands' death, the examiner concluded, was no an accident. It was murder.
In rural Jackson County, an hour's drive due west of Tallahassee in the pine forests of northern Florida, the sheriff's office quickly focused its homicide investigation on Lionel Sands and Daniel Brown. The men were the only people known to be on the farm that day. Both told authorities they'd spent the morning working near the quarter-mile driveway leading to the Sands' farmhouse.
Both of them also said they never saw a car or a person travel down the gravel road toward the house. Further, the Sandses kept five trained attack dogs rottweilers and bull mastiffs fenced in the three-acre patch surrounding their home. The dogs were roaming the yard when Sands discovered his wife's body.
Despite strong circumstantial evidence tying Sands and Brown to the crime, prosecutors were never able to build a convincing case against the men. The suspects repeatedly stated that they were within eyesight of each other at all times and were innocent of the crime. Five years later the Jackson County Sheriff had yet to arrest anyone in connection with the murder. Gail's family in St. Louis, meanwhile, had all but given up hope of seeing justice.
Then, in early March of last year, Gail's 85-year-old mother, Eloise Heaps, and two sisters were subpoenaed to appear in a Florida federal court. Unbeknownst to them, Gail Sands held several life-insurance policies that totaled more than $400,000, with her husband named as the primary beneficiary. With the murder still classified as an "open investigation" and Lionel Sands the chief suspect in Gail's killing, none of the insurance companies would pay out. Now, one of the insurers, AXA Equitable Life, was forcing the issue.
On March 7, 2006, AXA filed suit, demanding that the federal court decide whether Sands or his wife's mother and sisters receive the $228,345 in insurance proceeds AXA held in her name. For Gail's family, who had always believed that Sands killed his wife, the possibility that he could now profit from her murder was a final insult.
Upon receiving the subpoena, Gail's oldest sister (who asked that her name not be used for this story) called her attorney in Richmond Heights, who relayed the story to Rich Witzel in the break room of their shared law office.
A civil advocate in private practice, the 60-year-old Witzel favors dark, conservative suits and wears his blondish-gray hair short and parted to the side. In his 35 years of practicing law, the attorney's bread-and-butter has come by way of personal-injury and environmental-liability lawsuits. Never before had he attempted to prove anything as difficult as a murder claim.
"The family didn't know what to do," recalls Witzel, who is licensed to practice law in Florida. "I said, 'Look. We have 30 days to file a response. If you want, I'll go down there for a few days and see what I can find."
Little did Witzel know what strange discoveries he and law partner Jay Kanzler would unearth. Nor could they or anyone predict the mayhem that would unfold when a cornered Lionel Sands launched a desperate attempt to clear himself of his wife's murder.
"We're just a normal family," says Gail's oldest sister, still visibly shaken from the events of four months ago. "You don't expect to get caught up in a murder investigation certainly not one as horrific as this. No one should have to live through something like this."
Gail Sands' sisters recall their younger sister as something of a tomboy who, as a small child, would chase her older siblings with frogs and insects captured outside the family's Bridgeton home. As a teenager the blond and personable Gail Heaps (her maiden name) joined the 4-H Club, Junior Achievement and her school's cheerleading squad. After graduating from high school, Gail spent a few years in St. Louis earning her nursing degree before moving west.
For a decade Gail and her middle sibling, Ann, lived as ski bums in Denver and later in Salt Lake City. "We worked four days a week and skied three days," recalls Ann Mortensen, who now resides in Reno. "In the summer we camped, hiked and went rafting. It was quite the life."
The adventurous, five-foot-two Gail later joined the National Guard, where she met Lionel Sands during a weekend training session in California. He presented himself as an orphan who grew up in foster homes throughout the upper Midwest and boasted of earning master's degrees from Pepperdine University and Western Kentucky University. Although employed by the National Guard, he told Gail's family he was an Army Ranger in special operations.
"We thought he was all bull, but Gail seemed happy," says the oldest sister, who, like the rest of Gail's family, didn't meet the groom until the couple's wedding in Salt Lake City in 1981. "Gail was the kind who always brought in strays be they dogs or people. Sands, I believe, was one of her strays."
Beyond his braggadocio, Lionel Sands displayed a darker side. When Gail's sister Ann decorated the newlyweds' car following the wedding, he flew into a rage. "He made us clean it up right away. He was a real jerk about it." The reason for his anger could have been that the wedding was a sham. At the time, Sands was still married to another woman a fact Gail's family wouldn't discover until Witzel and his law partners began probing his background.
Sands and Gail would marry for real two years later, in March 1983, after the divorce from his previous wife was finalized. Soon after, the couple moved to Marion Military Institute in Alabama, where Sands served briefly as a Reserve Officers' Training Corps instructor.
In 1986 they purchased 120 acres outside the small town of Marianna, Florida. To Gail's sisters, her willingness to settle in the rural flatlands of north Florida seemed out of character. "She'd spent years skiing and playing in the mountains, and all of the sudden she moves to Marianna?" says Ann Mortensen. "It's in the middle-of-nothing country. The ocean is an hour away."
Gail's parents, Guy and Eloise Heaps, traveled the 700 miles from St. Louis to Marianna to help their daughter build a home on the property. (Guy Heaps passed away in November 2001. Eloise now lives in a nursing home in St. Louis County. She has recently been diagnosed with dementia and was not interviewed for this story.)
Lionel Sands was not around to help Gail and her parents build the home. After Sands' brief stint in Alabama, the National Guard transferred him to Oregon. A few months later he claimed to be working at the Pentagon. One time he called Gail to inform her he was "watching them build the house" from the controls of a military satellite.
In 1991 Sands, then 45, retired from the National Guard. For a brief time he worked as a health-service administrator at the River Junction Work Camp, a minimum-security prison in nearby Chattahoochee, Florida. After he lost that job, Sands worked as a "farmer," growing pine trees that he'd later harvest for telephone poles. Gail the breadwinner worked full-time as a nurse for a prison connected to the River Junction facility.
With plenty of idle time, Sands grew ever more erratic, according to Gail's family. Her oldest sister recalls the casual manner in which Gail mentioned that Sands was thrown in jail in the early 1990s. "I think she brought it up only because she thought we'd find out about it," offers the sister. "She made light of it and wouldn't go into details." (Later they'd discover Sands spent 40 days in jail for kidnapping an acquaintance at gunpoint.)
In the last years of Gail's life, Sands became obsessed with his wife's weight. When she tried to diet, she complained to her sisters that Sands would show up at work to offer her pizzas and Snickers bars. Often he'd bring up her weight in public. "We had a party for her in St. Louis and he wouldn't stop raging about how fat she was," recalls Ann Mortensen. "She was 'too fat for this' and 'too fat for that.' They were just nasty comments."
Then there was the strange manner in which he broke the news of his wife's death calling a niece in St. Louis and leaving the message: "Your Aunt Gail got herself killed today."
That same night Gail's oldest sister and her husband caught a flight to Florida. A female companion of Sands' greeted them at the home. Gail's sister remembers the woman offering her a Coke and something to eat. "She seemed to really know her way around my sister's house."
Again Sands harped about his wife's weight, telling Gail's sister that his wife was so heavy he dropped her three times while hauling her body from the pool. Gail's sister was shocked later that day when the funeral director asked how many death certificates the family would need. She had no idea how to respond. "I don't know," she recalls saying. "Three, four?" Sands answered the question for her: "We'll need twenty," he said. (Gail's family now believes Sands wanted the surplus death certificates to cash in on his wife's assets of more than $1 million, including her work pension, property and life-insurance policies.)
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.'"
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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