“He who fights monsters should take care that he too does not become a monster—for when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
I ended a recent blog post with a snarky reference to this quote,
but as it turns out there’s nothing humorous about Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning at all.
If I may set the scene, last weekend I was scheduled to catch a 7am train out of the city to attend a friend’s nuptials in DC. I got into bed with my laptop around midnight,
intending to spend a few minutes online before lights out;
with five hours sleep I might not lead the Macarena at the reception but at least I wouldn’t pass out face-first into a plateful of wedding cake.
There are a spate of 1960s-era unsolved family murders with which I have an abiding fascination:
The Boles Family in Crestline, California (1965)
The Bricca Family in Cincinnati, Ohio (1966)
The Sims Family in Tallahassee, Florida (1966)
The Robinson Family in Good Hart, Michigan (1968)
The Arellano Family in Loma Alta, Texas (1968)
The Dumler Family in Cincinnati, Ohio (1969)
Although I’m always interested in new developments in these cases I disabled my Google alert for the Sims murders—the erroneous notifications about the Sims computer game cluttered my inbox.
Instead I periodically check the web for updates,
and with a few minutes to kill decided to conduct another quick search before drifting off to sleep.
The facts of the crime, which occurred in Tallahassee on October 22nd, 1966, are as follows:
his wife, often described in newspaper accounts as “attractive, auburn-haired Helen Sims,”
age thirty-four, was a former
secretary at Tallahassee’s First Baptist Church.
On this quiet Saturday evening the couple
and their youngest daughter Joy Lynn,
age twelve, were home in their modest brick ranch house
at 641 Muriel Court Drive; their two older daughters Virginia
and Judith Ann were babysitting nearby.
The Sims were a close-knit, religious family;
even under the microscope of a homicide investigation
detectives never unearth any improprieties in the Sims’ lives or background.
“These are highly respected people. There are just not any finer folks in town.” Leon County Deputy William P. Smith, The Chicago Tribune, October 25th, 1966
At approximately 11:15pm the Sims’ seventeen-year-old daughter Virginia (misidentified in early newspaper articles as Norma Jeanette, shortened in subsequent accounts to Jenny or Jeannie) arrived home to an abattoir;
her parents and little sister had been herded into the master bedroom and slaughtered.
Dr. Sims, attired in trousers, a sport shirt, socks and shoes,
was lying atop a flowered bedspread on the couple’s king-sized bed; he’d been shot once in the head. His wife and daughter lay at an angle on the room’s beige carpet.
Mrs. Sims, barefoot in pink slacks and a blouse,
had been shot three times,
twice in the head and once in the leg;
Joy Lynn, clad in her nightie,
had been shot once in the head and stabbed six times in the torso
with a large hunting or butcher knife.
All three Sims had been trussed and gagged with household items—variously described as neckties, socks, hosiery or lingerie—and both Dr. and Mrs. Sims had been blindfolded. (Some newspaper accounts state Joy Lynn was blindfolded as well, others imply that she was not.)
“Something terrible has happened, please come.” Virginia Sims’ plea to the ambulance service, The Anniston Star, October 24th, 1966
When Virginia entered the master bedroom both Dr. and Mrs. Sims were still alive, although barely. She immediately called the Bevis Funeral Home
for an ambulance, as was the (distinctly odd) custom in
Tallahassee at the time; proprietor Russell Bevis raced
to the scene with his son Rocky, then age sixteen.
Dr. Sims expired shortly after the Bevises’ arrival, but Mrs. Sims was transported to the hospital where she was kept under guard. Little Joy Lynn had been killed instantly.
“There was money in the house. It had not been touched.” Leon County Sheriff William Joyce, The Holland Evening Sentinel, October 24th, 1966
There was no evidence of forced entry at the Sims residence
and nothing of value was missing—small sums of money were visible on the dresser and an expensive coin collection lay intact in a bedroom drawer.
The only neighbor who’d noticed anything amiss was a Muriel Court resident
who’d heard high-pitched screams at 10:45pm—attributing the clamor to frolicking children, the neighbor failed to contact police.
“Not so much as an ashtray had been moved as far as we can tell.” Leon County Sheriff William Joyce, Tucson Daily Citizen, October 24th, 1966
The first lawman on the scene was Larry Campbell, an investigator
whose fifty-year career in Florida law enforcement
would culminate in several terms as Leon County Sheriff;
at the time of the Sims murders
he was the twenty-four year old lead detective on the case. As was par for the course in the 1960s, Campbell failed to secure the crime scene—nearly a thousand people tromped through the Sims home in the hours after the family was slain.
“They went in and made coffee. It was probably textbook ‘what you shouldn’t do.’” Rocky Bevis, first responder at the Sims murder scene. WCTV Tallahassee, April 28th, 2015
At Tallahassee Memorial hospital Mrs. Sims’ prognosis was grim—one of the bullets in her brain was too deeply lodged to be extracted and she was placed on a respirator. As armed guards stood deathwatch local businesses did a brisk business in security accoutrements
and guns of every caliber; the seemingly random slaughter of the respectable,
well-liked family incited a community panic.
Though the sentiment may be trite, the substance is true:
to this day, many natives cite the Sims murders as the moment the city of Tallahassee lost its innocence.
“We woke up one morning and all of the sudden we were in an evil world.” Current Leon County Sheriff Mike Wood, describing the effect of the Sims murders on the community. WCTV Tallahassee, April 28th, 2015
Mrs. Sims lingered for nine days, never regaining consciousness; on October 31st, Halloween, she joined her husband and youngest daughter in death.
Unsettled by the killer in their midst,
city officials took the unprecedented step of canceling
trick-or-treating; in the aftermath of the Sims murders the holiday’s faux-fright was superfluous—genuine terror stalked the streets of Florida’s capital.
“This Halloween 1966, the night of spooks and goblins, will be one which the children and grown people of Tallahassee will not soon forget . . . one when the game of fear became a stark reality.” Reporter James Williams, Tuscaloosa News, October 30th, 1966
The investigation slogged onward. The Sims’ social circle was interviewed,
nearby woodlands searched and a pond behind the home drained—-nothing of evidentiary value was discovered. Grasping at straws,
detectives tracked down patrons
who’d borrowed In Cold Blood from Tallahassee library,
theorizing the crime may have been inspired
by Capote’s masterpiece. All avenues of investigation, both literary and conventional, led nowhere.
“Everyone was identified and checked out including three men from Wyoming who had been here to see Sims, the piano tuner, the Fuller Brush man and the maid.” Leon County Sheriff William Joyce, The Anniston Star, November 12th, 1969
The murders had occurred at a particularly inopportune juncture; an FSU football game and the North Florida Fair had summoned hundreds of strangers into the community in the hours before the crime.
This profusion of potential suspects slowed the investigation but local gossips—untroubled by such technicalities as evidence or probable cause—had already settled on a scapegoat of the homegrown variety:
Helen Sims’ former boss, Pastor Cecil Albert Roberts.
Mrs. Sims had resigned from her job at First Baptist only days before the crime
and C.A., as he was known, had a reputation as a ladies’ man.
To town gossipmongers the Pastor’s roving eye and the timing of Mrs. Sims’ resignation seemed portentous; when Pastor Roberts had the audacity to call Mrs. Sims by her first name while officiating at her memorial service the rumor mill began to churn apace.
as the FSU team chaplain his appearances in the game’s film coverage
were myriad—detectives calculated the Pastor lacked time between cameos to slip away and commit the crime.
Furthermore, investigators were unable to unearth any evidence
of an affair between the Pastor and Mrs. Sims—-by all accounts Dr. and Mrs. Sims were inseparable.
Not so easily cowed by facts and the laws of physics,
local busybodies continued their campaign of slander; Pastor Roberts soon resigned and left town, his career in shambles.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that C.A. had nothing whatsoever to do with (the murders); he was just a victim of circumstances and his own foibles.” Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, The Tallahassee Democrat, October 23rd, 2011
The day after the murders a woman attempting to place a phone call on a party line accidentally heard snippets of a stranger’s conversation.
“Mother, I have just done a horrible thing; I have killed three persons,”
a young man intoned with oddly precise diction.
With the rudimentary technology of the time the telephone company could only ascertain the call had originated
from one of two hundred lines in Brevard County, approximately a five hour drive south of Tallahassee.
Although some media accounts claim the inadvertent eavesdropper also heard information known only to the slayer
this detail is unconfirmed,
and the crossed party line is rarely mentioned in contemporary accounts of the crime.
“We’ve ruled out robbery. I’ve definitely ruled out actual robbery and sexual assault.” Leon County Sheriff William Joyce, St Petersburg Times, October 26th, 1966A schism began to form within the investigation: Sheriff William Joyce was adamant lustmord played no role in the murders, but Ed Yarborough, director of the Florida Sheriff’s Bureau (now the FDLE) disagreed, telling The Palm Beach Post the crime was “the work of a sexually deranged person, a sex maniac.” Interestingly, Leon County investigators maintained the murders lacked a sexual element for decades,
yet a 2006 article in the Ocala Star Banner revealed Joy Lynn’s panties had been pulled down and (unspecified) indicia of molestation were present.
The reason for this discrepancy is unknown.
“There are many types of perverts.” Ed Yarborough, Florida Sheriff’s Bureau, The Palm Beach Post, October 25th, 1966
With financial and romantic entanglements eliminated as motives the investigation into the Sims’ murders stalled. The last investigatory lead of note occurred in 1980, when Leon County Sheriff Ken Katsaris announced he was reopening the case; acting on a tip, Sheriff Katsaris learned a death row convict in another state had Florida ties—the man was known to the Sims and the murder(s) for which he’d been condemned were akin to the Sims murders. “I saw similarities in the crimes, both of them seemingly senseless, without motive,” he told a reporter from The Sarasota Herald Tribune. The Sheriff declined to name the convict in question or give any other identifying information, however, and the lead apparently came to naught.
The Sims’ murders remain unsolved, a blight on the reputation of Tallahassee law enforcement.
“It still kind of depresses me after all these years; I didn’t feel like myself all day.” Tallahassee Police Chief Robert Maige upon revisiting the crime scene. Sarasota Herald Tribune, October 29th, 1973
And here the verifiable history of the Sims murder investigation ends,
yet our blog post is just beginning:
Come, dance with me on the edge of a libel lawsuit; I promise I won’t let you fall.
In many ways the Sims murders are incestuously entwined with the career of Larry Campbell, first detective on the scene and subsequent long-term sheriff of Leon County.
A strident voice in all facets of Sims media coverage during his reign,
Sheriff Campbell claimed to be haunted by the murders and often cited his failure to bring the perpetrator(s) to justice as his greatest regret after five decades in law enforcement.
“I’ve seen some terrible things in 45-plus years of law enforcement, but I can see Joy’s eyes as clear today as I sit here talking to you.” Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, Sarasota Herald Tribune, November 13th, 2006
Though he lacked sufficient evidence for an arrest, over the years Sheriff Campbell made no secret of the fact he’d developed two prime suspects in the crime:
a local teenaged couple I shall not identify for reasons both legal and moral.
The Female Suspect, then nineteen, was the daughter of a janitor at Florida State University.
The then twenty-year old Male Suspect, son of a famous FSU criminology professor, dwelt on the street behind the Sims home.
The placement of Male Suspect’s residence is significant as investigators had long theorized
the assailants approached from the woods behind the Sims house—rear entry would explain why Muriel Court neighbors saw neither visitors nor unfamiliar vehicles the night the Sims were slain.
The existence of two perpetrators also comports with initial theories:
the identical granny knots which bound the victims were tied so tightly
investigators doubted the family had tied each other at gun point.
(Although it’s certainly possible the family was forced to bind each other and a lone assailant then retied the knots à la EAR/ONS.)
“There is no apparent reason why the Simses should have been targeted. It was a very middle-class, church-going family.” Henry Cabbage, Tallahassee author and historian, The Tallahassee Democrat, March 11th, 2015
According to neighborhood scuttlebutt the suspect couple were odd,
although the depth
of this purported
deviance varies upon
The pair reportedly
had an interest
in funeral homes
and Female Suspect
was said to
have closely followed
as he investigated the crime, dogging his every move.
“She had a fascination with death and funeral homes.” First responder Rocky Bevis describing Female Suspect, WCTV Tallahassee, April 28th, 2015
In Sheriff Campbell’s estimation the motive for the Sims murders was paraphilia—Male Suspect was sexually fixated on Joy Lynn, the Sheriff believed.
Several posters on various Tallahassee- and crime-related message boards
have further claimed Male Suspect was on the cusp of being arrested for molesting Joy Lynn shortly before the crime,
but these allegations lack supporting evidence
and no mention of prior sexual abuse is extant in any legitimate news source.
“[The circumstances of the crime] would lead you to believe it was pretty well thought out; it wasn’t something spur of the moment where someone said ‘Let’s go kill three people.'” First responder Rocky Bevis, Tampa Bay Times, November 12th, 2006
A curious state of affairs, certainly;
during the initial investigation Leon County authorities had vehemently denied any implication of sexual deviance,
and then nearly a half-century later we learn Joy Lynn had been assaulted
and a neighbor allegedly harbored a predilection for necrophilia.
To conspiracy-minded armchair sleuths this contradiction can mean only one thing:
possibly at the behest of Male Suspect’s father,
a nationally renowned criminologist and FSU bigwig.
Although I’m generally not a proponent of conspiracy theories
I will say the investigation into the Sims murders was particularly abysmal,
and I’m not solely referring to the horde of looky-loos high-stepping
through the crime scene—as appalling as such gore tourism seems in hindsight, such behavior was common at the time.
“Neurosurgeon Says Attack Victim Has No Chance of Recovery.” Headline, The Palm Beach Post, October 29th, 1966
The nine days Helen Sims lingered on death’s doorstep were a wasted opportunity—from the moment she entered Tallahassee Memorial authorities broadcast the irreversible nature of her vegetative state.
Leaked erroneous reports of Mrs. Sims’ recovery would have furnished an effective pressure tactic
and interrogation tool—the belief Mrs. Sims was up and talking may have caused the assailant(s) to flee town
or confess in a bid for leniency.
Yet if such a strategy was employed I can find no evidence of it.
A mere three years after the crime, in 1969,
then-Leon County Sheriff William Joyce told a reporter from The Panama City News Herald the crime would never be solved unless the perpetrator(s) confessed.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a law enforcement agency give up on solving a major crime so quickly—whether this premature surrender was prompted by incompetence or malfeasance is impossible to say.
I do know the perpetrator(s) had to be sleeping easier knowing the Sheriff’s Office had so readily admitted defeat.
Yet these tactical missteps pale beside the deathblow inflicted on the investigation in 1987; the power to solve the Sims murders was within Sheriff Campbell’s grasp
and he swatted away the opportunity like a Florida mosquito.
Male and Female Suspect married and left Tallahassee after the murders,
but after their subsequent divorce
Female Suspect contacted Sheriff Campbell and requested an interview.
During the interrogation, which was taped,
Female Suspect allegedly admitted visiting the Sims home the night of the murders
but claimed to have no memory of the event—she instead proffered a version of the crime that had come to her “in a dream.”
“He was very, very close to getting her to admit to something.” First Responder Rocky Bevis, speaking of Female Suspect. WCTV Tallahassee, April 28th, 2015
Author and historian Henry Cabbage procured a copy of the interrogation tape from Sheriff Campbell,
and earlier this year played excerpts
during a presentation on the Sims murders at the Tallahassee Historical Society.
On Tallahassee-O, a website dedicated to documenting corruption in Florida’s capital,
an attendee of the Historical Society event claims Female Suspect’s “dream” recollections include the following statements:
“I went in there and looked at that body.”
“My God that kid with her clothes off lying on that floor . . . my God!”
“How could he be turned on by something like that?”
“How could he be interested in that ugly little girl?”
“I was looking at the kid lying on the floor.”
Then, after hours of foreplay, the investigatory version of coitus interruptus:
after the recitation of the “dream,”
Female Suspect asks Sheriff Campbell what will happen if she admits to being in the Sims home
during the commission of the crime
and the Sheriff—a man with more than two decades of law enforcement experience at that point—tells the suspect teetering on the edge of a confession she’ll go to jail.
“You only get one shot in this kind of a case; I’m certain I have talked with the perpetrator many times, and it’s just a case of who gives in first.” Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, The Tallahassee Democrat, November 21st, 1999
In my forty-plus years on this planet,
during my three years of law school,
after reading hundreds of true crime books and watching more episodes of Cops than I care to admit
I have never, ever heard a law enforcement officer so blatantly scuttle an interrogation.
For the uninitiated, although police officers aren’t allowed to lie about offering immunity the constitutionally permissible answers in such situations are:
a) I don’t know what will happen if you admit to being in the house; I’m a cop, not a lawyer. Besides, I don’t even know what you’re going to tell me—I’ll need more information before I can give you advice.
b) I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that whoever participated in the crime needs serious psychological help, and the best way for you to get that help is to tell me everything.
c) Criminal charges are within the purview of the DA’s office, not the police department; but if Male Suspect committed this crime he’s a homicidal maniac and you and your family are in grave danger. The best way for you to get the protection you need is to tell me exactly what happened.
Not only did Larry Campbell act like he’d never conducted an interrogation before,
he acted like he’d never even seen a police procedural on television.
Even if feeblemindedness prevented him from successfully skirting the constitutional issues
he should certainly have contacted the district attorney
and brokered a plea deal for reduced charges in exchange for Female Suspect’s testimony.
Such agreements are commonplace;
for Sheriff Campbell to imply leniency in exchange for cooperation is an impossibility is ludicrous.
If a conspiracy to protect Male Suspect from prosecution exists,
Sheriff Campbell’s inexplicable behavior during Female Suspect’s interrogation is the best supporting evidence.
“I’ve done everything I think I can do; the big frustration is that I feel very confident that I know who did it.” Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, Tampa Bay Times, November 12th, 2006Although the details of the crime and botched investigation have been known to me for some time the cursory search for new information I performed the night before my friend’s wedding
divulged a new fact—two new facts, actually.
For the first time ever certain message boards have published the suspects’ real names, and . . .I . . .was . . .off.
“My attorney said, ‘You gathered all this through public records; (the suspects) are named in public records.'” Author and historian Henry Cabbage on his rationale for publically naming the suspects, The Tallahassee Democrat, March 11th, 2015
My early morning obligations forgotten I began scouring the web,
snatching facts and minutiae like a grocery shopper prepping for a Panhandle hurricane.
I began my research with Male Suspect’s father Famous Criminologist,
curious as to whether an academic could possibly have had sufficient clout to quash a murder investigation.
A brilliant and progressive man,
Famous Criminologist is quoted extensively in mid-century court cases and penal publications;
the textbook he authored was the gold standard for an entire generation of law enforcement professionals.
As I pored over old court decisions and newspaper articles
I gleaned no insight into whether or why his son may have murdered the Sims,
but I did learn Famous Criminologist was a revered figure—having such an esteemed scholar at FSU must’ve been considered quite a coup for the University.
The existence of a conspiracy to shield Male Suspect from prosecution no longer seemed farfetched.
Famous Criminologist died in 2001, and the date of his death holds some significance:
in a 1999 Tallahassee Democrat article journalist Rosanne Dunkelberger
describes Sheriff Campbell as being “coy” about the identity of the suspects,
but in the next chronologically available article—published in 2006—the Sheriff provides enough biographical details to make the suspects’ identities plain to Tallahassee natives.
There was no radical change in libel laws between 1999-2006;
I can’t help but believe this loosening of Sheriff Campbell’s lips was occasioned by Famous Criminologist’s passing.
As the minutes turned to hours I shifted my focus to the suspects themselves.
Both have since remarried and live in Florida, although neither resides in Tallahassee.
I secured Female Suspect’s new married name through Intelius
and then discovered her LinkedIn page and voter registration status.
Property records are public so I found her address and gawked at her home on Trulia.com.
I don’t know what I was looking for—no one confesses to murder on their LinkedIn page—-but by god I was looking.
Both Male and Female Suspect are in their dotage now,
and like many of their ilk their cyber-footprints are faint and far between.
Despite spirited digging I was unable to determine Male Suspect’s profession,
but I ogled his domicile on Trulia and found the obituary of his second wife, a factory worker.
As was the case with Female Suspect
I can find no evidence Male Suspect has ever been arrested;
the sole blot on his record is a $145 speeding ticket from 2004, which he promptly paid.
Further exploration led me to an obituary for his grandson, killed in a vehicular mishap at the age of twenty-two;
the two were apparently close—at the time of Grandson’s death they’re listed as residing at the same address.
According to The Tampa Tribune, Grandson was driving his motorcycle recklessly when he lost control
and crashed into the side of a pick-up truck—a very Florida death,
or so it struck me at the time.
Like Helen Sims, Grandson lingered long in the hospital, two weeks to Mrs. Sims’ nine days.
Unlike Male and Female Suspect information about Grandson is plentiful on the web,
and it’s here my digging took a decidedly unpleasant turn—Florida Sunshine laws are my crack cocaine, apparently.
Grandson, described by friends as a “St. Pete legend,” had an extensive arrest record,
boasting three different mugshots and twenty-seven legal entanglements since 2003, beginning at age twelve.
Although most of the offenses are minor two of the arrests were domestic violence-related,
pertaining to two separate victims,
one nearly twice Grandson’s age.
At this point I have no idea what I was looking for—perhaps an indication Grandson’s criminality could somehow be linked to Male Suspect—but any concrete ties to the Sims murders had evaporated long ago.
And yet still I panned for data in cyberspace,
certain the next link I clicked would harbor the information I so desperately sought,
whatever that information might be.
A Facebook memorial page has been created in Grandson’s memory
and I read each and every comment, mentally correcting the posters’ spelling and grammar as I scanned the page.
I then unearthed a memorial YouTube video:
a fellow biker does nothing but rev his engine until it belches black smoke,
poisoning the ozone layer in Grandson’s memory.
As the video ended and I scrolled down to read the comments I remember thinking to myself,
“That’s the Florida effect for you—in three generations Male Suspect’s lineage went from esteemed Ph.D. to wife-beating hillbilly . . . .”
And as I completed that thought a noise outside my window startled me—it was birdsong, I realized.
Morning had dawned, and my 5am alarm was scheduled to go off any minute.
As I began to scramble out of bed a wave of revulsion washed over me:
what the holy hell had I been doing all night?
“In those days, we didn’t have the scientific capabilities (to examine evidence) we do now. If this happened now we’d have somebody in jail tomorrow.” Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell from a 2011 interview, Tallahassee Democrat, March 11th, 2015
Any big breakthrough in the Sims case will come courtesy of technicians in a forensic lab, not via a blogger gawking at the suspects’ houses on Trulia from a thousand miles away.
A spokesperson for the Leon County Sheriff’s Office claims the crime scene evidence is regularly resubmitted for testing,
and Sheriff Campbell died last year;
if a conspiracy to shield Male Suspect existed—and there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest one did—the Sheriff was the last remaining link.
Perhaps his passing will be the break the investigation needs.
“We’re not giving up on the case.” Sergeant James Tyson, head of the Leon County Sheriff’s Office’s Violent Crime Unit, speaking of the Sims murders. Tallahassee Magazine, May-June 2015 edition
Even if Male and Female Suspect are guilty—even if they went on to become the most prolific serial killer team in Florida history—I’m not going to see bodies buried in their basements on Google street view.
More importantly, regardless of his grandfather’s guilt or innocence
Grandson has no culpability in the Sims case whatsoever—-he was born twenty-six years after the crime.
To snigger at a dead twenty-two year old’s ill-chosen tattoos and extensive arrest record
is crass bordering on sociopathic.
I was horrified;
while I was looking into the Sims murders the abyss was looking into me,
and the elitism and malevolence I saw there appalled me.
“The worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I had a terrible time at my friend’s wedding, incidentally,
too exhausted from my long night violating the Suspects’ privacy to do anything but sit slumped on the sidelines.
Now every time I see a photo of myself at the ceremony
looking like hot buttered death
it will be a reminder of the ugliness I saw peeking back at me from the mirrored abyss.
Solving the Sims murders may be above my paygrade but being respectful of other people isn’t.
The monster I should be hunting is the one that lives in my own psyche.