Even in Florida, a state that always seems to come up with new ways for people to prey on each other, Oba Chandler was a fresh horror — a helpful stranger, tanned and smiling, who turned into a nightmare.
The world flocks to Florida for its beaches, Disney World, for our seemingly endless summer vacation. But there is an underside to this place, a transience that lets the worst among us come and stay and thrive, just below the radar.
Even then, Chandler was a thing apart. And even people like me who do not much like the death penalty or how lopsidedly we apply it can see: It was made for a man like him.
How do you pick the worst horror to happen to your state? Ted Bundy? Danny Rolling? Oscar Ray Bolin, who murdered three women in Hillsborough and Pasco but won new trials again and again to force three mothers through a nightmare without end?
Twenty-two years ago, a 36-year-old mother named Joan Rogers, Jo to those who knew her, left the family’s dairy farm in Ohio with her daughters, 17 and 14, bound for a sunny Florida vacation.
By now Michelle would have been older than her mother was when they made that last trip together. She and her sister, Christe, would probably have graduated, gotten jobs, fallen in love, survived heartbreak. By now they would have made their paths in the world, maybe married and had kids. They should have at least had the chance.
Fate or bad luck put them in the path of the smiling man in Tampa that June day in 1989, had him helpfully scrawling directions for them on a tourist brochure that became a critical piece of evidence against him. Fate or bad luck got them onto his boat for what they surely thought would be a nice time on the water with a friendly stranger whose face they didn’t really see until it was too late.
When I called Susan Schaeffer, the now-retired judge who sentenced Chandler to death, she knew why: He was back in the headlines all these years later with Gov. Rick Scott signing his death warrant this week and Chandler’s execution set for Nov. 15. She no-commented for a good reason: “This case has been delayed long enough. I don’t want to give Mr. Chandler any further grounds for appeal by anything I say.”
Her sentencing order, praised by the Florida Supreme Court when they upheld the verdict years ago, said plenty, especially the part about how what happened to Jo, Michelle and Christe was, by law, “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.”
They were bound, gagged with duct tape, stripped from the waist down and likely raped. He tied ropes around their necks, weighted them with concrete blocks. He threw a mother and her two girls into Tampa Bay, alive. Michelle managed to work a hand free before she died.
Imagine what it was like, the judge wrote, before “blessed unconsciousness” took over.
In a jail interview, Chandler boasted his conviction would be overturned and called himself a victim of the system. He said he wasn’t afraid of the electric chair, not knowing so much time would pass that we’d move on to a different way of executing people. “If they kill me, they’re going to be killing an old man,” he said, though at a relatively young 65, he’s wrong there, too. And if it happens on schedule, there will be no lesson in it, nothing to learn, just a reminder of what can exist in the world.