Tommy Zeigler

Orange County, Florida
Date of Crime:  December 24, 1975

William Thomas Zeigler Jr. was sentenced to death for the Christmas Eve murders of four people in his furniture store. The store was located at 1010 S. Dillard St. in Winter Garden, FL. The victims were Zeigler's wife, Eunice, her parents, Perry and Virginia Edwards, and a black customer, Charlie Mays. Zeigler, himself, was critically shot.

The murders could have been the result of a robbery attempt gone awry. However, robbery might not have been the prime reason for the murders. Zeigler had made enemies while trying to expose an alleged loan-sharking ring that preyed upon the poor black migrant workers in the Winter Garden area. Zeigler said that some elements of the local police in west Orange County were connected with the operation, working as collectors and enforcers; he claimed that he had seen policemen assault debtors for having failed to make their payments. Evidence suggests that Oakland Police chief Robert Thompson and Winter Garden patrolman Jimmy Yawn were overseeing the furniture store break-in. On the night of the murders they were eating together at a KFC restaurant directly across from the furniture store from 8:20 to 8:50 pm and were first on the scene after the murders were reported at 9:21 pm. Oakland was the center of the alleged loan-sharking ring.

According to Zeigler, he had sold some linoleum to Mays hours before the murders. Mays had asked about buying a used TV. Zeigler showed him one he had on consignment for $350, but he doubted Mays would buy it, and made no appointment with him to pick it up later. At 7:30 pm that night, Zeigler planned to meet his wife and in-laws at the store, so his in-laws could pick out a La-Z-Boy recliner that Zeigler and his wife were giving them as a Christmas present. Thieves that included Mays had apparently entered the store prior to Zeigler's arrival and killed his wife and in-laws. Gunpowder tests suggest Perry Edwards had fired a gun. An earwitness, Barbara Tinsley, heard three or four shots fired between 7:20 and 7:25 pm.

When Zeigler arrived at the store he noticed all the lights were off. The power to the store had been shut off. Upon entering the store Zeigler said he was hit over the head by at least two men. He says he may have fired his .22 gun in self-defense, but the gun jammed. He threw the gun at his assailants and after he was thrown against a desk, he grabbed a .357 pistol that he kept in a drawer of the desk. He may have fired shots from this gun, but he was unclear on how many before he was shot and knocked to the floor unconscious. He remembered hearing a man, he presumed to be white, say, “Mays has been hit; we'll have to get rid of him.” Tinsley, the earwitness, heard six or seven more shots that came 15 to 20 minutes after the first series of shots. When Zeigler regained consciousness his assailants had left.

At trial, the prosecution argued that Zeigler committed the murders to collect on $500,000 in life insurance he had on his wife. In addition, the prosecution was prepared to argue that Eunice had found him in bed with another man who was a prominent local figure. It was alleged that Eunice planned to expose this homosexual affair, ruining Zeigler's reputation in conservative Winter Garden. According to witness Cheryl Clafler, Eunice had told her parents of Zeigler's affair, and that after Eunice's parents came down from Moultrie, Georgia on Christmas Eve (the day of the murders), Eunice planned to leave Zeigler and return with her parents to their home.

Following the murders, two black witnesses came forward with stories that suggested there was a plot by Zeigler to murder his wife and in-laws and blame it on impoverished blacks. Felton Thomas, an itinerant fruit-picker, said he accompanied Mays (one of the victims) to the Zeigler furniture store to pick up a color TV that Zeigler had allegedly sold Mays. Mays was a credit customer of the store, and Mays' wife said her husband had arranged with Zeigler to pick up the TV that night after closing time. Nobody was at the store when Mays and Thomas arrived. According to the prosecution, Zeigler had already murdered his wife and in-laws in the store and had temporarily gone to his home.

Thomas testified that a white man later pulled up in a car at the furniture store. The man told Mays that “nobody was here yet” and asked Mays to accompany him in his car. Mays and Thomas then accompanied the man, whom Thomas did not know, but whom police claimed was Zeigler. This man, presumed to be Zeigler, then drove to an orange grove, said he had bought three guns and wanted Mays and Thomas to test them. Both Mays and Thomas test fired them. The prosecution argued that Zeigler wanted them to get gunpowder residue on their hands to implicate them in the murders.

The three then went back to the furniture store where Zeigler, citing the person with the store key was 15 miles away and wanting to get Mays' TV, tried to break in by swinging a pipe against a back window of the store. The attempt scared Mays, and Zeigler decided he thought he had an extra key at his house. The three went to Zeigler's house where Zeigler got the key. He also got a box of bullets and asked Mays to reload the gun he had fired, which Mays did. When the three got back to the furniture store, Zeigler and Mays entered the darkened store. Thomas, however, claiming he had seen enough, remained in the car, and ran away after the two entered the store. The prosecution argued that Zeigler subsequently murdered Mays, then went to his home to meet a part-time black employee of the store named Edward Williams.

Williams testified that Zeigler then brought him to the store, got him to enter a rear hallway before dry firing a gun at him three times. Because it was dark, Zeigler claimed he thought Williams was somebody else, gave Williams the gun to gain his trust, and tried unsuccessfully to get him to enter the store again. Williams, using a ruse, then managed to run away, believing that Zeigler tried to kill him. He gave the gun to the police. Zeigler supposedly wanted to implicate Williams in the murders by placing his dead body in the store. After Williams ran away, the prosecution argued that Zeigler called the police to report the murders and shot himself prior to their arrival to cover up his involvement in them.

With its witnesses the state had a complete scenario of guilt. However, other evidence indicated that the state's case was too unlikely to be regarded even as a plausible possibility: (1) Clafler's testimony, while not allowed at trial because it was hearsay, included statements incriminating Zeigler that were provably false. (2) Zeigler's finances were solid, his business prosperous, and he had no pressing need for life insurance proceeds.

(3) The testimony of Thomas was inaccurate in his description of Zeigler. Thomas described Zeigler as wearing light clothes, when his clothes were dark. He also described Zeigler's car as dark when it was unmistakably two-toned, both light and dark. Thomas was never asked by police to give a detailed description of Zeigler or to view a photo lineup. When Thomas came to court, prosecutors had to point Zeigler out to him so he would know who Zeigler was. Thomas may well have went with Mays and another person to an orange grove to test guns and may have went to Zeigler's house. One surmises that Thomas went along with the presumption that Zeigler accompanied him because of police insistence. When Thomas drew the route that he and Mays took in driving to the back of Zeigler's store, he drew an impossible route that passed through a three-foot high wall.

(4) The testimony of Williams conflicted with other witnesses in regard to timing of events and the presence of vehicles at Zeigler's home and store. The conflicts were numerous and significant enough to render his testimony wholly unreliable. Had Zeigler died, Williams probably would have been convicted of the murders. He was in possession of the principal murder weapon and the ownership of the other two major weapons had been traced to Williams' friend, Frank Smith. Also, Williams' truck had been found at the murder scene. Williams had to leave his truck at the furniture store as it would not start.

(5) The case against Zeigler contained multiple improbabilities: (A) The prosecution argued Zeigler shot himself to cover up the crime. Had Zeigler been shot in an arm or leg with a .22, the prosecution's argument might hold some plausibility, but Zeigler was shot with a .38 in the abdomen with a trajectory that barely missed vital organs. Even without striking vital organs, such a shot carries a mortality rate of 5 to 20 percent. (B) The plot ascribed to Zeigler was so complicated that it had him leaving the store with dead bodies inside three times to go to his home. (C) The plot featured the unlikelihood of Zeigler planning to murder six individuals in order to arguably collect on one person's life insurance.

(6) A significant amount of blood had soaked into the cuff of one of the legs of Mays' pants. This blood indicated that he had been standing near a victim after the victim's blood began to pool. The area where Mays' body was found was largely spotless, indicating that the cuff blood had time to dry and was not dripping from him as he moved around. Such evidence is inconsistent with Mays' innocence. Mays also had been found with cash and store receipts on him, though the prosecution alleged these were planted on him. Mays' van was parked outside the furniture store lot in a position that suggested surreptitious purposes.

(7) There was evidence that at least one other person had been in the furniture store during the shootings. A tooth that appeared in evidence photos, but was not recovered by police, could not have come from Zeigler or any of the victims. (Mays had also lost a tooth, but it was recovered.) The tooth was presumably knocked out of an assailant's mouth. Also a shell casing was found in the furniture store for which the corresponding bullet could not be located. The bullet plausibly could have entered an assailant who walked out or was carried out of the store. Other witnesses had seen unaccountable vehicles at the store, particularly one described as a dark-colored Mustang. One witness had even seen a police car behind the store prior to the sounds of the second series of gunshots coming from the store.

In 1992, a book was published about the case entitled Fatal Flaw: A True Story of Malice and Murder in a Small Southern Town by Phillip Finch. In 2002, DNA tests were performed which showed that the fresh blood which soaked into Mays' pants was that of Perry Edwards. This result contradicts the state's theory that Mays did not arrive at the store until after Edwards was dead and Zeigler had initially left the store. The result also highly suggests that Mays had killed Edwards. In June 2007, the Florida Supreme Court denied an appeal by Zeigler that was based on the new DNA evidence. Another book was published in 2006 about the case entitled The Appearance of Justice by Leigh McEachern.  [11/08]


References:  Fatal Flaw,, JD#1JD#2

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