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Time and forest swallow traces of 2 from Pinellas

The disappearance of the women on an outing in 1966 haunts their families and a former Lake County deputy.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer
Published March 14, 2005

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
At his Tarpon Springs home, Herman Nater still wonders what became of his daughter, Pamela. "My wife and I feel so strongly that somebody knows something. But we're reaching the end of our time. I'm 87 and she's 85. We're just hoping for closure."

Pam Nater, left, and Nancy Leichner were last seen on a 1966 outing in Ocala National Forest.

What eats at Collis Godwin the most is that they had a chance to find those women. A decent chance. And they let it slip away. If there's one thing he's still sure of after almost 40 years, it's that.

He had tracked down lost hikers and escaped convicts all over Central Florida as part of his job as a deputy with the Lake County Sheriff's Office. And he knew those woods.

But he wasn't called in to look for the two Pinellas County women until well after dark, a good eight or 10 hours after they had been reported missing from the Ocala National Forest. The wind had picked up, and hundreds of people had trampled the area.

It was no surprise that Smokie, Godwin's crack German shepherd tracking dog, couldn't pick up a scent.

Godwin is 88 now. When he's feeling up to it, he still takes his dogs to the site where the women were last seen. One was 21 and from Largo, the other was 20 and from Clearwater. Women he didn't know.

But they remind him of someone. One of his own granddaughters maybe.

"I never have quit looking for them," he said recently from his home in Eustis. "If the case had been handled right, it would've been solved. But too much precious time was wasted."

There have been dozens of high-profile missing-person cases in Florida over the years. Adam Walsh. Tiffany Sessions. Jennifer Marteliz. Carlie Brucia. Late last month, a massive search was launched for 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Citrus County. She has yet to be found.

But long before all of those people were missing, long before Amber Alerts and Internet databases and DNA samples, there were two others.

One was a nurse who was madly in love with the Beatles. The other made her own dresses and planned on becoming a flight attendant.

Pam Nater and Nancy Leichner.

* * *

Sunday, Oct. 2, 1966. About 20 members of the Aquaholics, a Clearwater skin diving club, made the 180-mile trip from Pinellas County to the Alexander Springs recreation area in the Ocala National Forest. They planned to scuba dive, canoe and picnic.

Pam Nater was a 1964 graduate of Clearwater High; Nancy Leichner (pronounced LIKE-ner) was a 1963 graduate of Largo High. Pam was a nurse at Morton Plant Hospital; Nancy worked for Honeywell. They had met each other just once before.

The common thread was their respective boyfriends, Benny Dauterman and Craig Mackie, who were diving buddies.

The young women decided the 72-degree water in the spring was too cold and didn't go in. So as their boyfriends dived and took a canoe ride, the women began packing to go home.

About 4 p.m., as the Aquaholics gathered to leave, Dauterman and Mackie began searching for their girlfriends. They found Nancy's prescription glasses and both women's purses and shoes at a picnic table, but no trace of either woman.

Nancy was last seen on a nearby nature trail, a winding path that follows the Alexander Spring Creek. That was shortly before 12:30 p.m. Pam was last seen about an hour later a short distance from the trail.

Both women were barefoot and wearing two-piece bathing suits covered by blouse tops.

When the women's parents arrived the next morning, Lake County Sheriff Willis "Big Hat" McCall had a theory. The women, he said, had most likely run away. But the parents didn't buy that. Women who run off don't leave their shoes, money and house keys behind and head into the depths of the Ocala National Forest. And they barely knew each other.

But the sheriff wouldn't budge, except to show up on his horse for the benefit of the news photographers.

That's how things worked in Lake County in 1966. A notoriously brutal lawman, McCall kept a bullwhip on the wall in his office, and he wasn't afraid to use it to make a point. Especially if you came snooping around from outside his county.

Despite pleas from relatives and friends, McCall at first refused to ask the governor's office or the Florida National Guard for help. "There's nothing out here they could do," McCall said at the time, "that we haven't already done."

But eventually, hundreds of law enforcement officers, divers, canoe teams and helicopter crews combed the forest.

All they found were beer cans and alligator bones.

After three weeks, the search was called off and everyone went home.

"There is no possibility they were runaways," State Attorney Gordon Oldham Jr. would say a few years later. "It is my personal belief they were abducted and murdered."

But by whom?

Suspects ranged from the boyfriends, to a mentally handicapped young man who lived near the springs. Everyone was cleared. Authorities ran down countless tips, even going to Florida prisons to interview serial killers, but came away with nothing.

Over the years, dozens of unidentified remains have been checked against the women's dental records.

No match has been found.

* * *

The Lake County Sheriff's Office has kept the case open, but no one actively works on it. Everyone connected with the disappearance is now either middle-aged or elderly, which has renewed the sense of urgency.

For years, Herman and Alice Nater have offered a $25,000 reward for information about their daughter.

"We may up that," Herman Nater said recently from his Tarpon Springs home. "My wife and I feel so strongly that somebody knows something. But we're reaching the end of our time. I'm 87 and she's 85. We're just hoping for closure."

Several months ago, technicians from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office took a DNA sample from Mrs. Nater to add to a missing persons database, in case evidence is someday discovered.

But there are no new leads.

The Naters saved the items left on the picnic table. Their daughter's purse, comb and shoes.

And they remain troubled.

"You've got to understand the sheriff (McCall) was a total bum," Herman Nater said. "He put on a good front, but it was all for show. He refused to bring in the National Guard until it was too late."

Susan Leichner-Schonder also kept something. Her maiden name.

"In the hope that if anything came up," she said, "they could find me."

Schonder, who lives in Tampa, was 12 when her big sister, Nancy, left for the picnic. She said she would be home before dark.

Schonder has the same questions today she had 38 years ago. Did something happen in her sister's personal life? Why did McCall say he didn't need help from the FBI?

And she has the same dreams. They happen fairly often. In them, her sister comes home.

Schonder's brother Bob was 14 when Nancy disappeared. Like other relatives and friends of the missing women, each time a new missing person case hits the news, he sympathizes with the families. "And it does reopen old wounds."

But time has chipped away at his memories of his sister. Except for one thing. Her records.

He remembers sneaking into Nancy's room before she vanished and discovering her rhythm and blues collection. He found one 45, a 1957 hit by the Coasters, that he played over and over.

Looking back, Leichner said, it's more than ironic that he picked that record.

The song was Searchin'.

Benny Dauterman could not be reached for comment. But Craig Mackie, Nancy's fiance, is 60 now. He lives in Largo and works for the state as an environmental engineer.

"I was with the other guy (Dauterman) and we went canoeing down the river," Mackie said earlier this week. "When we came back, they were gone."

Mackie said Leichner's disappearance "pretty much destroyed me. I dropped out of college and couldn't even function. We never found anything.

"But I'll never forget the sheriff up there. He came out on his horse and had a whip with him. He said they ran away, but they didn't. ... We should've been out there looking from Day One."

* * *

In the late 1940s, Willis McCall was known in Florida as an iron-fisted sheriff. But in 1951, he expanded that reputation and took it nationwide. McCall killed one handcuffed black prisoner and critically wounded another after he said they attacked him as he transported them from Raiford Prison to Lake County for a new trial on rape charges. The man who survived said McCall gunned them down in cold blood.

Despite the controversy, McCall continued to allow his deputies to fabricate evidence, harass minorities and beat anyone he considered undesirable.

In 1972, after serving 28 years as sheriff, McCall was indicted and suspended from office for kicking to death a retarded black prisoner in his jail cell. McCall was tried and acquitted in 70 minutes by an all-white jury.

But his reign of terror was over. McCall lost his bid for re-election, retired and died in 1994 at age 84.

Through it all, Collis Godwin stayed on the case. He continued to search on his own after he retired in 1980. "One lady called me from New York and said a flying saucer took the girls," he said.

The real answer, he believes, is much closer. In those woods.

"They never went back to their apartments, never touched their back accounts," he said. "No, I'm still looking and hoping. Long as I can walk, I'll try to solve it.

"But that's an awful big woods with a lot of places only snakes could crawl through.

"I would really love to leave this old world knowing this case was solved," he added.

"And I'm not the only one who wants that."

--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 14, 2005, 01:28:20]

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