“When you speak of a sex fiend you speak of something beyond a person; something which cautions residents to secure the lock on the front door and keep an extra light burning on the front porch.”
——St. Petersburg Times, August 16th, 1959
As everyone with an internet connection knows, Florida is the land of the bizarre.
The shirtless hijinks of Florida Man are legion, and the Sunshine State teems with alligators, meth labs,
and overly-tanned octogenarians sporting high-caliber firearms and thong bikinis, often simultaneously.
Yet even in a state rife with weird crimes the murder of Chandler Steffens is unique;
even fifty years later no one knows whether he was the victim of a a sex maniac, a robber, or a lunatic.
Of course, knowing Florida, it’s entirely possible the killer was a sun-kissed mélange of all three.
And thus ended a fairytale romance that had blossomed in the hallways of Sarasota High School and endured for four tumultuous years. Chandler Steffens was a football hero and scion of a wealthy family;
Betty Jane Thompson was local royalty, her father one of the area’s pioneer celery barons.
The duo eloped to Brunswick, Georgia on January 27th, 1955,
when Betty was a sophomore and Chan a senior;
after Chan’s graduation the couple moved to Cincinnati so the newly-minted bridegroom could attend the University of Ohio, and the couple eventually had two children—son Michael and daughter Patrice.
Combining parenthood with full-time scholastic obligations can be onerous,
and Chan dropped out of Ohio University after three years; soon, however,
he was ready to give education another old college try—the family returned to its Southern roots
and Chan matriculated at the University of Florida for the February 1959 semester.
It was in Gainesville that the couple’s relationship began to fray—Betty claimed Chan started to treat her as more of a homemaker than a romantic partner, and often stayed out late at night,
refusing to divulge his whereabouts.
On June 1st, midway through the semester, Betty returned to Sarasota with the children
and moved back in with her parents. Chan, then aged twenty-two, remained in Gainesville to finish out the academic year and on July 15th Betty filed for divorce on the grounds of “extreme cruelty.”
The couple’s future may have looked bleak, but even in the bizarro-world of Florida
there’s no love like first love.
Although they both reportedly dated others during their split the couple’s ardor was yet unquenched,
and on August 5th, the day he finished final exams,
Chan made the three hour drive from Gainesville to Sarasota to woo back his bride and reunite his family.
Little did the young husband know his fate had already been sealed—the day before Chan returned to Sarasota
a first-aid kit had been stolen from the Lido Casino Beach Club.
The wheels of murder were already set in motion,
and every mile Chandler Steffens traveled inched him closer to the grave.
By all accounts Chan and Betty’s Sarasota reunion was a joyous one;
as Betty’s father L.T. Thompson told a journalist from The Lakeland Ledger,
“Betty seemed very happy when they got back [together].”
Grievances were aired and hatchets buried,
and Betty pledged to drop the divorce proceedings and return with the children to Gainesville for the fall semester.
That evening Chan settled in at 934 Yale Court, the home he would inhabit during his stay in Sarasota.
The white frame house, valued at 25K,
was owned by his stepmother and used as a rental property—Chan’s parents had divorced and his father was currently residing in Mexico to avoid paying alimony to his mother, who lived in New York.
Chan’s first night at 934 Yale Court was not an uneventful one. In the wee hours of the morning he awoke to find the living room sofa ablaze—he attempted to douse the flames himself but the fire proved stubborn,
and he eventually called the fire department for assistance.
Chan told a patrolman who happened upon the scene that he had no idea how the conflagration started,
but with hindsight the genesis of the blaze is clear—the couch fire was a trial run for murder.
An intruder had crept in and set the couch alight in an attempt to gage whether Chan was a light or heavy sleeper; although Florida Man is generally not known for the sophistication of his criminal endeavors
this killer was a different breed—he left nothing to chance.
Thursday August 6th, Chan’s last day alive.
He and Betty did some light shopping at the Ringling Shopping Center and then dined with Betty’s parents;
the reunited couple spent the remainder of the evening at Smack’s, a popular local hangout,
where they met with several friends. By 10pm Chan was fatigued; the fire which had disturbed his previous evening’s slumber had done its job—tonight, his last night on earth, Chandler Steffens would sleep like the dead.
and no alcohol was found during his autopsy.
Chan was known to be lax about security—ironically, after his death a note from his stepmother was found amongst his belongings reminding him to lock his doors as crime was a growing issue in the area.
Even after the previous evening’s spontaneous combustion incident
there’s no evidence Chan heeded his stepmother’s advice—there were no signs of a break-in, and investigators believe the killer entered the home via an unlocked door.
The coroner estimated Chan’s time of death as sometime between 11pm and 3am.
The husky ex-halfback’s body bore no defensive wounds, so detectives believe he was bludgeoned into submission while he slept; his prey immobilized, the killer then opened the stolen Lido Beach first-aid kit and went to work. Chan’s feet were bound with the kit’s manila tow rope and his hands trussed behind his back, rendering him helpless;
the killer then sliced a cord from an electric fan and fashioned it into a garrote, which was attached via slipknot to the bindings securing Chan’s hands—once he returned to consciousness Chan would choke himself with every movement. The killer then closed the windows and blinds and turned on the lights;
it was a hot night, in the high 80s, and Chan slept only in his briefs—the killer didn’t want to miss a glimpse.
The next items out of the kit were a pair of scissors and four spools of surgical tape.
Snip. Snip. Carefully, with dexterous fingers,
the killer fashioned a perfect mask around Chan’s face, leaving only two small nostril-holes for respiration.
Snip. Snip. This was not a quick crime: “Whoever killed Steffens was in no hurry,” Lieutenant Arthur Johnson later told a reporter from The Ocala Star Banner. “We believe he spent a minimum of forty minutes and probably more in the act.”
Snip. Snip. Snip. Finally the killer was satisfied with his ghastly creation;
every inch of Chan’s face was neatly covered—when he returned to consciousness he could not open his eyes or speak. He may never even have seen the face of his killer.
The last item out of the first-aid kit was a cork-handled knife; manufactured for use by scuba divers, tonight the four-inch blade would be a maestro’s baton in a symphony of death.
It‘s impossible to know which of the wounds came first, but Chan was stabbed three times—once in the abdomen,
once in the right shoulder, and once in the right side between his 6th and 7th rib,
the wound angling upwards and nicking his lung.
Finally, as a coup de grâce, the killer slashed Chan’s throat from ear to ear, severing an artery;
he would’ve bled out in approximately ten minutes.
Chillingly, police later found four separate imprints of the bloody knife on the bed sheets.
After each wound the killer had paused, put down the blade, and admired his handiwork.
The assailant then washed in the bathroom and packed up the first-aid kit and one of Chan’s towels,
presumably the one he’d used to wipe his hands;
he also stole $70 from Chan’s wallet,
but police belief theft was merely an afterthought—a copious amount of change was left behind on the dresser,
and the carefully-crafted mask indicated a motive far afield of simple larceny.
As an investigator told a journalist from The Sarasota Herald Tribune,
“It took time and care to make [the mask]. It’s not the sort of thing an ordinary prowler would do. The tape was wound and cut expertly; it was very cleanly done.”
His mission accomplished, the assailant and his first aid-cum-last rites kit vanished back into the realm of nightmares.
Betty dropped by the rental home for a visit;
by the time the police arrived the young mother was so hysterical she required sedation.
The assailant may have packed up his towel and kill kit but he left the mummy mask on Chan’s corpse—the killer’s desire to shock surpassed his urge to cart away incriminating evidence.
Even by today’s standards the Sarasota Police Department‘s investigation was comprehensive;
after finding the house devoid of usable fingerprints Sarasota PD sent the mask to the FBI to see if prints could be raised from the adhesive;
unfortunately with the technology of the time none could be found.
The police also interrogated Chan’s friends and family, trying to determine if anyone held a grudge against the murdered man.
Detectives eventually questioned four hundred suspects and gave forty-eight lie detector tests—no likely perpetrators or viable motives could be found.
Investigators were quickly able to discount a financial motive for Chan’s death;
although Chan was independently wealthy—he was the beneficiary of trust fund which paid approximately $175 per month and owned $5K worth of Scripps Howard stock—Betty also came from wealth,
and his life was insured for a mere $15K.
Moreover, he was heir to a fortune worth $250K; if Betty coveted his estate she would likely have waited for Chan’s inheritance. Police also discounted the theory that Chan had been dispatched
by an assassin acting on Betty’s behalf—no professional hitman would’ve wasted time and effort crafting the intricate mask. Betty and her family were soon cleared from suspicion.
Although victims are overwhelmingly killed by someone they know, it also seemed unlikely that an enemy from Chan’s past had nursed a long-simmering grievance;
although Chan was known to be pugnacious—he left the football team after leading a rebellion against the coach’s training protocol—he’d only been back in Sarasota for forty-eight hours,
and hadn’t lived in town for nearly four years. Furthermore, he’d never lived at 934 Yale Court,
his stepmother’s rental property; only Betty and a few friends knew where he was staying,
and they had all been eliminated as suspects.
The Lido first-aid kit had been stolen before Chan had even returned to town—investigators deemed it far more likely that Chan had been slain by a stranger, a “sex-perverted prowler,” in the newspaper parlance of the time.
Unfortunately, even in the anodyne 1950s
finding a single maniac amongst Florida’s legions of loonies was no easy task.
As Lieutenant Arthur Johnson told a reporter from The Sarasota Journal, “You’d be surprised at the number of strange people living in Sarasota.” Investigators understood the mask was their best clue,
but no two psychologists they consulted agreed on the mask’s purpose—police Chief Francis Scott, however, told The Sarasota Herald Tribune there was a general consensus that a “sex pervert” was to blame for the “mind-and-body torture slaying.”
Then as now, deviants in the Sunshine State were plentiful as mosquitos; detectives subsequently interrogated all known area sex offenders but were unable to develop any leads.
It seems the local gay population was scrutinized as well; the first person of interest in Chan’s murder was an unnamed “male hairdresser” who left town shortly after the crime—the stylist was eventually tracked down and cleared.
With all the local sex offenders and male beauticians eliminated investigators were back to square one.
The next investigative avenue detectives explored took them half a world away from Florida’s balmy shores.
Upon learning that condemned prisoners in the Far East are masked before execution
investigators began questioning residents who had ties to the Orient—as a detective told The Sarasota Journal, perhaps the mask was part of a “mystic rite.” And as was necessary in the days before VICAP,
investigators began contacting police departments across the country to see if any other jurisdictions had experienced a similar crime. None had—the murder was sui generis, and no tape-wielding Ninjas could be found.
Unable to develop any clues nationally or internationally, the next suspects on detectives’ radar were home-grown;
a deaf-mute serial stabber and a murderous carnie with Sarasota ties were questioned in the case,
but both were subsequently cleared.
The area was experiencing something of an unsolved homicide spurt at the time; four months after
and a mere ten miles distant from Chan’s murder site
four members of the Walker family were shot to death in their Ocala farmhouse.
The premiere suspect in the family’s murder was a utility worker plagued by homicidal impulses—when investigators learned the suspect had been the meter reader at both the Walker home and 934 Yale Court it seemed an unlikely coincidence, but detectives were unable to find any hard evidence tying the meter reader to either crime and he was eventually committed to an insane asylum;
like Chan’s murder, the Walker family slaying remains unsolved.
The most promising suspect in what the media had come to call “The Sarasota Mummy Murder” appeared approximately a year after Chan’s death. On August 13th, 1960,
Tampa department store clerk James Leland Webb sidled up to a sleeping stranger and bound the victim’s hands—he then proceeded to suffocate the man with a plastic bag.
Webb had been spotted in the act but was able to escape,
yet in a classic Florida maneuver he returned to the scene minutes later and attempted to blend in with the crowd ogling the police investigation—he was swiftly apprehended.
When asked why he’d killed the victim Webb stated he got a thrill out of seeing “relaxed flesh,”
and in Webb’s car detectives found “a strange device with a four-inch pencil shaped handle
and a needle about four-inches long.”
Alas, although Webb was clearly a deviant first-class detectives were unable to place him in Sarasota
at the time of Chan’s death. Webb was never tried for his victim’s murder, incidentally; declared unfit to stand trial, he was committed to the local insane asylum, which at that point must’ve been getting crowded.
The last major lead in Chan’s murder occurred in October of 1963, four years after his death.
James F. Robinson, age twenty-three, was found handcuffed and bound in chains in his bedroom in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania; several strips of adhesive tape had been wound around his head.
The similarities were striking: both victims were attractive young men found in unlocked homes in wealthy areas,
and both victims had connections to the world of publishing—Chan was the grandson of the former chairman of Scripps Howard, which owned several newspapers,
and James Robinson was the son of the former vice president of Curtis Publishing.
There were, however, dissimilarities as well:
the tape used in Sarasota was two-inches wide but the Swarthmore tape only one-inch;
James Robinson was found fully clad while Chan was in his scanties;
and James Robinson had not been stabbed—he’d been choked to death by his belt,
which had been wrapped around his neck and secured to a bed post.
Despite the intriguing similarities detectives were never able to develop any information linking the crimes.
Pennsylvania authorities eventually became convinced James Robinson died in a self-inflicted Houdini stunt gone awry, although his family remained skeptical.
More than three decades after Chan’s murder a childhood acquaintance of Betty Steffens attempted to revive media interest in the crime, but no new leads were forthcoming;
the mask was sent to the FBI for testing as recently as 1988 but even with modern technology no fingerprints could be found—the killer had apparently fashioned the mask while wearing gloves.
And thus stands the current status of Chandler Steffen’s murder,
in some ways the most Florida of crimes: random, bizarre, and blood-drenched.
And yet even in the Sunshine State the murder stands alone—despite their dedicated search, investigators have never been able to find another crime like it.
Personally, despite investigators’ failure to uncover any identical crimes I suspect Chandler Steffen’s slayer continued his reign of carnage. The mask was so ornate; he put a lot of time and thought into the specifics of the crime,
and homicidal fantasies are rarely exorcised after a single victim.
I’d also be surprised if Chan was the killer’s first victim;
the assailant was confident enough to attack a strapping ex-football star,
and so jaded he needed props to derive satisfaction from the crime—the victim’s suffering was no longer sufficient.
These are not the fumblings of a novice experiencing his first bronco ride at the murder rodeo.
Again, although it’s pure speculation, I’d also wager the killer’s fastidiousness has kept him out of prison; he was meticulous enough to wear gloves and remove the towel he’d used to wipe his hands—he was taking 21st century countermeasures when the field of forensics was still in its infancy.
Serial killers follow media coverage of their crimes, so the killer would’ve known the mask was sent to the FBI and the police were on the lookout for similar murders—although he enjoyed shocking people with the mask
he enjoyed his freedom even more.
Thus he kept on killing, but he stopped leaving the masks and bindings behind, just as EAR/ONS began removing ligatures to hide his infamous diamond knot.
I have no proof of these theories, of course,
just predictions based on a lifetime steeped in true crime lore and gore.
But next time you’re in Florida take a good long look at the geezers sunning in speedos or
queuing up for the early bird buffet—-mark my words, one of them has a secret.
A bloody, bloody secret. And I’m fairly sure he also has medicine cabinet stocked to the brim with surgical tape.