Thursday, 21 June 2007

A Little Girl Watched Them Put Jimmy in Cement

WHEN HER husband, James F. Stone, didn't come home from his Jacksonville, Florida, furniture store on the Monday night of October 4th, 1976, his anxious wife promptly reported him missing. On Tuesday morning she went to the store. Neither Stone nor his secretary were there and the staff said they hadn't seen the secretary since early Monday afternoon. One employee said he thought the secretary, Mary Potter, had been given a couple of days off.

When Sergeant Miles and Detective D. L. Starling arrived at the furniture store at 1.15pm that Tuesday, Mrs. Stone told them that a considerable amount of money also appeared to be missing. She said she'd been trying all morning to reach Mary Potter by phone, but there'd been no answer. She'd also driven through the apartment complex in which Mrs. Potter lived. She'd seen the company VW that Mrs. Potter had been driving since wrecking her own car, but she hadn't seen her husband's Continental Mark IV and hadn't gone to Mrs. Potter's appartment.

While the detectives were in the store, Mrs. Stone tried once more to call Mrs. Potter. A man, whose voice Mrs. Stone didn't recognise, answered the phone this time. The man said merely that he was helping Mrs. Potter move, then hung up.

Mrs. Stone gave the detectives Mrs. Potter's address. They immediately went to her aprtment, but found no one there. They found the manager of the complex and were told that Mrs. Potter was two months behind with her rent and that he had understood she was moving out. He gave them a key to the apartment and permission to enter.

They found the apartment empty - and its condition indicated a hasty move. The manager said the woman had given no forwarding address. He knew little about her, except that she had a young daughter and couldn't pay her rent. But he was able to furnish the name of one of Mrs. Potter's friends who lived in a nearby apartment in the same complex.

The friend told the officers that she and Mary Potter had once worked together as cocktail waitresses, but hadn't been close for several months. She di know, however, that 6-year-old Becky Potter attended Love Grove elementary school.

Miles and Starling went to the school and learned hat Becky was absent - and had also been absent on Monday. The detectives then returned to the apartment complex and talked to several neighbours of Mrs. Potter's. Some had seen Mrs. Potter and three or four men loading her furniture into a van, but no one knew her very well or had any idea where she might have gone.

That Tuesday evening, Miles received a phone call from Mrs. Stone, who had been doing some detective work for her own. She'd mentioned earlier that, while driving through the apartment complex, she'd seen the company VW parked there. Now she revealed that she'd also seen Mary Potter's boy friend's tan VW and a U-Haul truck. She hadn't seen anyone around the truck, but she had contacted several U-Haul dealers and learned from one of these that Mrs. Potter's boy friend, Timothy Palmes, had rented a U-Haul truck. She gave Miles the dealer's phone number. Miles promptly phoned the dealer and verified the information.

Next morning, Miles called the dealer again and learned that, during the night, the truck had been returned with a copy of the invoice left on the seat. Miles and Starling went to the dealer's place of business, only to learn that the truck had already been cleaned out by the dealer's employees. Nevertheless, they arranged to have an evidence technician process the truck. Nothing was found.

The detectives then went to Stone's apartment and interviewed Mrs. Stone. They learned from her that Mary Potter had worked for her husband for about two years. Mary's boy friend, Tim Palmes, lived with her and she apparently supported him because he had no job. Mrs. Stone said she knew very little about Palmes, but what little she knew was enough.

Mrs. Stone said that Palmes and Mary Potter had once had supper with the Stones. Palmes was supposed to be skilled with his hands, so Stone was considering hiring him to do some remodelling in their apartment. But during the course of the evening, she said, Palmes had mentioned his prison record and had bragged about having killed someone. Mrs. Stone said she'd been very upset over that - and Stone had promised not to hire the man.

Mrs. Stone supplied the detectives with the name and address of her husband's best friend. When they interviewed him, they learned that he did have an idea of why Stone might have disappeared but no idea where he might have gone.

The friend said Stone had told him that his marriage, which was only about a year old, was in trouble and that divorce had become a possibility. According to the friend, the marriage was being threatened because Jim Stome was a dedicated "swinger" - and Mrs. Stone refused to participate in that sort of thing. Stone also appeared to be having financial difficulties, the friend said. He wouldn't be surprised to learn that Stone had simply got together what cash he could and flown the coop.

And Mary Potter, the friend told the detectives, was not exactly an angel herself. She had frequently fixed Stone up with teenage girls in her apartment. He wouldn't be surprised to learn that Mary had run away with Jim Stone.

BACK AT the furniture store, the detectives learned from a relative of Stone's that a check of the store's records indicated that about $4,100 in cash was missing.

On the face of it, the theory that Stone and Mary Potter had run away together sounded plausible. But it had one serious flaw - Mary Potter's boy friend, Timothy Palmes. A check of Palmes' criminal record cast an even darker cloud over that theory. Palmes had been arrested and tried fo first degree murder. A jury had convicted him of manslaughter and he'd been paroled after serving a mere nine months in prison.

On Monday, October 11th, Detective Starling phoned Mrs. Potter's sister in Georgia. The sister said he had been in Mary's apartment on Sunday night, October 3rd, and had seen some timber stacked in the living-room. Mrs. Potter had told her that the 1 x 10s and 1 x 12s were for shelving that Palmes was going to put up in Becky's bedroom. Palmes, the sister said, was good with his hands and had built several things for Mary's apartment.

The sister also told Starling that another man, Ronald Straight, was living in the apartment with Mary, Palmes and Mary's daughter, Becky. She said she knew nothing about Straight, except that he and Palmes had been in prison together.

While Starling was talking to Mrs. Potter's sister, Sergeant Miles received a phone call from a man who refused to identify himself, but who claimed to have information concerning the possible whereabouts of Jim Stone. After ending his own call, Starling switched lines and listened to the conversation. The man was reluctant to meet the detectives. But, promised anonymity, he finally agreed to meet them in a car park behind a certain Jacksonville tavern.

In the car park, the informant told the detectives that his firl friend had attended a party on Tuesday night, October 5th, in a motel room occupied by Mary Potter, Tim Palmes and Ronald Straight. Also present, he said, had been an acquaintance named Lonnie Blackwell.

Naturally, Miles and Starling wanted to talk to the girl friend. After being promised that she would not have to identify herself, the man left the car park and returned about 10 minutes later with a woman.

She told the detectives that Ronald Straight and Mary Potter had been flashing big money around at the party. In fact, Straight had lent her $100. He'd told her that he was going to California and that she could repay it when he returned.

The woman also mentioned the acquaintance at the party. She said his name was Lonnie Blackwell and that Palmes had given him his tan Volkswagen for helping Mary move out of her apartment. She said Blackwell worked in a snack bar just outside Jacksonville.

The detectives soon found the snack bar, the VW and Lonnie Blackwell, who confirmed that he'd helped Palmes and Straight move Mrs. Potter's furniture out of her apartment - and that Palmes had given him the VW in return for his labour. She said he had intended to buy car from Palmes fo about $300, so he figured he'd got a bargain by getting it for only a few hours' work. He said that Palmes had gone to San Bernardino, California, and was supposed to give him the title to the car when he returned to Jacksonville in about three weeks.

Blackwell said they had taken Mrs. Potter's furniture to a Jacksonville warehouse. When he led the detectives there, they learned from the warehouse manager that Palmes had leased a storage unit on October 4th, paying two months' rent in advance. Since the lease gave the owner right of entry, the manager cut the lock on the unit with a pair of bolt-cutters and allowed the detectives to look around. They found nothing of significance.

Blackwell also told the detectives that, during the party, he had seen Mrs. Potter hand Palmes a little double -barrelled derringer. Palmes had been pretting "uptight", Blackwell recalled, and had fired a shot into the wall of the motel room just above the air-conditioner.

Blackwell next took Miles and Starling to the motel and, with the manager's consent, to the room in which the party had been held. The room had been rented and cleaned several times since the party, so there was no point in having it processed by evidence technicians. Although the detectives found the bullet hole just above the air-conditioner, the bullet had passed through the wall and couldn't be found.

Blackwell said that, while helping to move Mrs. Potter's furniture, he hadn't seen any timber. But he had seen a 4-foot by 3-foot chest that Palmes had just built. He said the chest was about 3 feet deep and had handles on each end.

Under further questioning, Blackwell said that when Palmes and Straight picked him up to help Mary Potter move, they'd been driving a Continental Mark IV. His description of the car fitted the description of Jim Stone's Mark IV. And, Blackwell said, they'd been flashing rolls of 20, 50 and 100 dollar bills. Neither Palmes nor Straight had a job.

When they returned Blackwell to his home, the detectives heard a girl there tell him that Ronald Straight had phoned from California and would call back later. Blackwell promised to notify the detectives immediately if Straight called back.

Meanwhile, Miles announced, he had put a BOLO (Be On Look Out) into the police computer, advising all law enforcement agencies that the suspects and the missing Mark IV were believed to be in California.

It was nearly midnight when Miles and Starling heard from Blackwell. Straight had called back to ask whether the police had been around for any reason - and had told Blackwell that, if he needed to contact him, he would be at the Watergate Motel in Anaheim, California.

Miles promptly called the Anaheim police. It was only about 9.30pm in California when Sergeant Gerald L. Stec received the order to check the Watergate Motel for three possible homicide suspects. Stec went to the motel and checked with the receptionist. Three persons fitting the descriptions of the three suspects had registered under the name of Stone, using a credit card issued to a James F. Stone, of Jacksonville, Florida. The motel manager told the sergeant that a relative of his was at that moment in their room trying to sell them some real estate.

Stec walked to the car park and found a Continental Mark IV matching the description of the missing car. The licence plate number matched, too. He went back into the lobby and learned that the manager's relative was still in the suspect's room.

Stec and another officer parked their cars at the filling station, from where they could watch the Mark IV. The sergeant used his radio to call for two backup units, then settled down to wait.

Soon, a woman and a little girl left a motel room and walked to the parked Mark IV. Stec got out of his car, walked to the Continental and asked the surprised woman: "Are you Mary Potter?"

"Yes," she replied.

"You're are under arrest," Stec said matter-of-factly. He moved the startlet woman to a wall of the motel, out of sight of the room she'd left. He had her put her hands against the wall.

Shortly, a man walked up to Stec and asked casually: "What's going on?"

"Are you Tim Palmes?" the sergeant asked.

"Yes, I am," the man replied.

"You're under arrest," Stec announced. And he had Palmes stand beside Mrs. Potter with his hands on the wall.

So far, it had been a piece of cake. But Stec was still worried about the innocent real estate salesman, who was supposedly still in the suspects' motel room.

Soon afterwards, a man exited the room and started walking towards the lobby. Thinking it must be the salesman, Stec holstered his service revolver ("Dummy" he said of himself later) and watched the man. When the man didn't turn into the motel lobby, Stec decide that this wasn't any innocent salesman.

Stec called a warning to the other officers - whose view of the suspect was blocked by shrubbery - then yelled for the suspect to stop. The man pulled a snub-nosed revolver from his waistband and fired two shots at the sergeant.

Stec ordered his two prisoners to the ground. Then, noting that little Becky Potter had crawled beneath a car, he returned Ronald Straight's fire.

It was over in a matter of seconds. Straight was quickly cornered by a patrol unit and a police helicopter. And he didn't argue with cocked shotguns.

IT WASN'T much of a shootout, but it was enough of one to get Ronald Straight on the Anaheim police charge sheet. Some rather serious complaints were filed against him, in addition to his Florida problems.

Miles and Starling arrived in Anaheim during the early evening of Tuesday, October 12th. After being briefed by Anaheim officers, they questioned Mary Potter for several hours, with negative results. The woman was rather billigerent - and she vehemently denied any knowledge of her employer's whereabouts.

At 2.25am on October 13th, the two detectives began questioning Tim Palmes. Palmes said that, as fas as he knew, Stone was still alive - and his whereabouts was his own business. Stone had given them his car and credit cards, Palmes claimed.

At 3.35am, Miles and Starling confronted Ronald Straight. The latter first asked whether they had an indictment against him or a warrant for his arrest. The detectives explained that they did indeed have a warrant for his arrest on charges of car theft and grand larceny.

Straight then admitted that Mary Potter had some company funds in her possession, but insisted that Stone had given them the car and credit cards. Straight said that Stone had been having marital problems and just wanted to get away and not be found.

Both Palmes and Straight consented to a search of their motel room. That search produced some of Stone's company cheques - and a .38-calibre derringer which proved to be Mary Potter's.

Later that day, Mary Potter finally admitted that she knew Stone was dead, but said she only knew it because Palmes had told her. She had no idea where his body was.

Little Becky also told the detectives that she knew nothing about the disappearance of Jim Stone, although she said she knew him very well. She said he often came to their apartment to visit teenage girls in the back bedroom.

Mrs. Potter and Palmes waived extradition proceedings and were returned to Jacksonville. Straight remained in the California jail.

The group arrived back in Jacksonville at 7.25am on October 15th. Time Palmes was booked into the Duval County jail. After feeding Mrs. Potter breakfast, the detectives took her to the office of Assistant State Attorney Ralph Greene. And there, after being given immunity from prosecution, Mary Potter finally gave a complete statement.

Mrs. Potter said she had worked for Stone for about two years and that they had been "more than just friends". She had, in fact, catered to his promiscuous sexual appetite and had arranged several trysts with young girls for Stone in her appartment.

Stone's funiture business had been steadily sinking into trouble, Mrs. Potter revealed. Most of his customers were welfare recipients who bought on credit - and the store had accumulated between $80,000 and $100,000 in outstanding accounts that were proving very difficult to collect.

Palmes and Straight, she said, had approached Stone with a proposition that they would collect his accounts for 40 per cent of what they collected. Stone had considered the proposition, then decided that he couldn't afford it.

Palmes had also offered to do somee work around the Stones' apartment. But Stone's wife, after learning about Palmes' criminal record, and refused to go along with that.

In the meantime, Mrs. Potter said, she was supporting both Palmes and Straight on the $110 a week she made as Stone's secretary, plus a few extra dollars she make in "tips" for procuring marijuana for Stone. Economically, it was a downhill scene.

Furthermore, Mrs. Stone said, Palmes was becoming more and more violent. She had been in love with him and thought they had a real future together, but as his violent nature came to dominate their relationship, she love had turned to fear. Finally, she had become so afraid of him that she would do anything he said just to avoid being beaten.

Eventually, Mrs. Potter said, Palmes had decided that what they needed to do was to rob and kill Jim Stone.

IT WOULD be easy, Palmes had insisted. All Mary had to do was get Sone to her apartment. That wouldn't be hard after all the good times he'd had there. Then, while Palmes and Straight were taking care of Stone, Mary would be at the store collecting as many accounts as possible and cashing as many welfare cheques as she could get her hands on.

In preparation, Palmes sent Mary to a building supply store, where she bought some timber, some cement mix and a few other odds and ends. From these materials, Palmes built a lidded box with handles on each end.

Mrs. Potter said she'd carried out her part of the plot, although it hadn't gone as simply as they'd expected. She had arranged in advance to have some work done on the company Volkswagen on the morning of October 4th. Stone had agreed to pick her up at the VW dealership on his way to work - and she'd called him at 7.30am to make sure he was up. The plan was that she would suggest that they stop at her apartment for a cup of tea. Palmed and Straight would be waiting there to kill him.

That plan hadn't worked, for Stone had gone to the wrong VW dealership. After realising his mistake, he'd phoned the store and sent an employee to pick Mary Potter up at the other dealership. Then he'd called her and explained why he wasn't there to pick her up. She'd laughed off the mistake and suggested that they meet at her apartment for a cup of tea. He'd declined, saying: "There isn't time."

During a phone conversation with Palmes, Mrs. Potter said, another plan had been hurriedly devised.

At the store, Mrs. Potter told Stone that she'd arranged a rendezvous for him with a 15-year-old girl named Betty Bernard. Betty, she said, was skipping school that day and was waiting for Stone in her apartment. That worked. Stone left the store and headed for Mrs. Potter's appartment.

Later, Mrs. Potter said, Palmes and Straight had dropped the box Plames had built into the St. Johns River. It was her understanding that Stone's body was in the box.

Assured by her mother that it was now O.K. to talk, Becky supplied the detectives with some additional details.

AT PALMES' insistence, Becky said, she'd stayed home from school that Monday. Sometime during the morning, she said, there was a knock on the door. Following instructions, she opened the door and told Jim Stone that Betty was in the back bedroom. Then she'd gone into her own bedroom and closed the door. Later, she said, Palmes opened the door and told her she could come out.

Becky said she fixed herself some breakfast and ate it, then went into the back bedroom, where Palmes and Straight were.

"And what did you see in the back room?" she was asked.

"Jim in the box," she replied.

"What was jim doing in the box?"

"Laying there all scrunched up," the little girl said.

Becky said that Palmes then asked her to bring him a hammer from the kitchen. Later, he made her bring him some water in a milk carton. Then, she said, she sat on a sofa and watched Palmes mix cement in a pail and pour it over Jim Stone's body in the box.

Becky said that her mother came home at a little after 2pm and made them all some sandwiches.

MILES AND Starling next took Mrs. Potter to the building supply store and had her duplicate her earlier purchase as nearly as she could from memory. With the materials thus obtained - and going by her discription of the box Palmes had built - the detectives built what they hoped was a duplicate box. They put two 80-pound bags of cement mix in it and took it to the spot on Buckman Bridge where, as nearly as Mrs. Potter could remember, Palmes and Straight had thrown the box containing Stone's body into the river. With divers standing by to follow it down, they threw the box into the St. Johns River, hoping that it would settle near the spot where the original box had settled.

But when the box hit the water, it shattered immediately! Divers spent the next seven days in a fruitless search of the river bottom for the original box.

Palmes, meanwhile, was growing heartsick over Mary Potter. On Sunday, October 24th, he contacted Miles. He said he was afraid that Mary didn't love him anymore - and that being the case, he wanted to go ahead and talk. But first he had to talk to Mary. He had to hear it from her own lips.

Prosecutor Ralph Greene soon arranged a phone conversation between Palmes and Mrs. Potter. Mary told Palmes that she didn't love him anymore and that she just wanted to forget the whole thing.

That satisfied Palmes - and he simply hung up the phone. But he wasn't in any position to just forget the whole thing.

At 12.40am on October 25th, Palmes showed Miles and Starling the exact spot on Buckman Bridge where the box had been dropped into the river. They marked the spot and returned the next morning with a team of divers. The box was found within 200 feet of the spot Palmes had indicated. Palmes, in a sworn statement, said that he was guilty, that he understood what he had done and what the possible penalties were - and that he didn't want a lawyer.

Dr. Peter Lipkovic, Duval County's chief medical examiner, had the box opened in his office. Inside, drawn into a fetal position and partly covered with cement, was the body of James Stone. Also in the box were a machete, two knives and a screwdriver. Dr. Lipkovic's examination of the moderately decomposed body revealed that Stone had been hit on the head three times with a blunt instrument and had suffered at least 19 stab wounds, nine of them in the chest.

Palmes soon acquired a cout appointed lawyer and decided that he really wasn't guilty after all. But there was no way he could erase the information he'd already given the police. Or that body.

On January 5th, 1977, Ronald Straight finally ran out of red tape and was ready to be brought back from California. At 5.30am on January 6th, Miles and Starling picked up Straight for the flight home.

On the plane, after some general friendly conversation, Starling told Straight that Mary Potter and Palmes had laid it on him pretty heavy. Straight asked: "Did they get any prints off the knife?"

Starling said he wasn't at liberty to answer that question.

Straight then explained that he had helped Mrs. Potter move - and had helped Palmes load a heavy wooden box into the U-Haul truck. Mrs. Potter had said that the box was going to her mother's house. They never took the box off the truck, Straight insisted.

He said that Mrs. Potter had some company funds. And Stone had given them his Mark IV and some credit cards. They'd driven the Mark IV and the company VW to Atlanta, Georgia. There, they'd spent about $1,000 on clothes and paid about $200 to have the VW shipped to California. Then they had driven straight on the California in the Mark IV, except for one night they'd spent in Texas.

Straight insisted that he knew absolutely for him, he wasn't able to convice a capital jury of that, especially after little Becky gave her eyewitness account in court of what she'd observed on the day Jim Stone died.

On April 8th, 1977, Timothy Palmes was convicted of first-degree murder. And the jury that convicted him recommende that he be put to death in the electric chair.

On May 28th, 1977, another jury convicted Straight of first-degree murder - and, three days later, recommede that he be executed.

On August 26th, 1977, Circuit Judge Virginia Q. Beverly sentenced both men to die in Florida's electric chair at Raiford prison.

Editor's Note: Mary Potter and daughter Becky, Lonnie Blackwell and Betty Bernard are not the real names of the persons so named in the following story.

Taken from a magazine entitled 'Master Detective (February 1980)'.

Reported by Terry Ecker

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