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Unsolved crime pierces calm

A bloodbath erupts in a small town, leaving the sheriff’s wife and a deputy dead.

By ALEX LEARY, LUCY MORGAN and CRAIG PITTMAN
Published January 31, 2007


MARIANNA — Mellie McDaniel noticed a mysterious tan car follow her into her driveway as she returned home from buying groceries.


Chatting on the phone with her husband, Jackson County Sheriff John “Johnny Mac” McDaniel, she screamed for help.

The sheriff dispatched a deputy patrolling nearby.

By the time the sheriff arrived with two more squad cars, his wife and his deputy both had been gunned down. After a wild shootout, the two men who had followed his wife home lay dead as well.

As dusk settled over the crime scene Tuesday evening, investigators peeled off the dead men’s disguises and recognized who they were.

That’s when they realized that the chain of events that led to the bloodbath began six years earlier, with a woman who somehow drowned in a nearly empty swimming pool.

***

Jackson County is generally a quiet place, where most of the local economy is supported by peanut farming and the nearby Jackson Correctional Institution. It’s 70 miles northwest of Tallahassee, near the Alabama line, more a part of the Old South than the semitropical Sun Belt.

The county seat, Marianna, is “a small country town where everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everybody’s business,” said Teen Tindel, 66, who was part of the jam-packed lunch crowd Wednesday at Jim’s Buffet and Grill, the town’s most popular restaurant.

Violent crime is not unheard of here, but it’s infrequent, and homicides are fairly rare. One of the stranger ones involved 53-year-old Gail Sands, a nurse at the prison.

Officially the case remains unsolved — or at least, it was until Tuesday.

On June 9, 2001, Sands’ husband, Lionel, reported finding her dead in their swimming pool. Lionel Sands told investigators he and his handyman, Daniel Brown, had been cutting grass a half-mile away. They took a lunch break and discovered her body.

The 5-foot-2 nurse was lying in about 21/2 feet of water, a 16-foot ladder across her back, apparently pinning her down. Brown backed up his employer’s story.

Mrs. Sands’ death appeared to be an accident — until the medical examiner discovered that before she drowned, Mrs. Sands had suffered a skull fracture. It was the result of a blow from something like a hammer, directly behind her ear.“Decedent was struck in head by another,” her death certificate said.

It turns out Mrs. Sands was carrying three life insurance policies, one of them purchased just months before her death. The beneficiary: Lionel, her unemployed husband. The total payday: more than $500,000.

The handyman who was Sands’ alibi, Brown, wasn’t the cleanest character in the world either. He had a lengthy criminal record for aggravated assault and drugs. Sands hired him shortly after he got out of prison. He told detectives they met at church.

“Gail Sands’ family put up a reward,” said Jay Kanzler, a St. Louis attorney representing Mrs. Sands’ mother, Eloise Heaps. “They never believed it was an accident. … There was no reason to have a ladder there. There was nothing to put a ladder against anywhere near the pool.”

The reward went unclaimed, and no charges were filed. Investigators struggled Wednesday to explain why.

“Did we believe Mr. Brown? No,” State Attorney Steve Meadows said. “Did we have enough evidence … to take to a jury that the alibi was not valid, at this time? No.”

Last spring, one of the companies that insured Mrs. Sands filed a lawsuit. The company asked a federal judge to decide who should get the insurance money, because “the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office named Lionel Sands … as the primary suspect in the insured’s death.”

Florida law says “you can’t collect on an insurance policy if you participate in the killing,” Kanzler said.

Sands stuck to his story that his wife’s death was an accident and that he was due the money. He countersued. The case was supposed to go to trial this week, on Monday.

But two weeks ago, Sands abruptly filed a motion dropping the case. He didn’t say why. Kanzler has a theory: “My belief is he did that because he knew that, come Monday, the court would likely find him liable in the death of his wife.”

Instead of facing a judge over the 2001 killing, Sands and Brown donned disguises, tailed the sheriff’s wife and killed her. They ambushed Deputy Michael Altman, 42, before he could even fire his pistol.

Then they were dead too.

***

In seven minutes, it was all over — from Mellie McDaniels’ first scream to the last shot the deputies fired. Bullets flew everywhere, some piercing the sheriff’s car.

The mystery remains: What did Sands and Brown plan to do?

Their disguises aren’t much of a clue. Sands, 60, who was bald, wore a dark wig, a fake moustache and camouflage clothing. His face was covered with light makeup. The bearded Brown, 54, was dressed like one of the Blues

Brothers, Meadows said, with a dark suit, glasses and a fedora.

Sands was carrying two .38-caliber pistols. Brown was armed with a .22-caliber pistol.

After the gun battle ended, investigators searched the tan Ford Crown Victoria that Sands and Brown had been driving, the one with the phony license plate.

They found latex gloves, bleach, gallons of vinegar, three sets of metal handcuffs, flexible plastic handcuffs, duct tape, trash bags and what authorities called a “great amount of ammunition.”

Was it a kidnapping gone awry? Was it a revenge plot? Why kill the sheriff’s 51-year-old wife, who had worked as a victim’s advocate? Why not go after McDaniel himself?

This wasn’t McDaniel’s first brush with personal violence in his 26 years as sheriff. In 1980 his father was killed during what appeared to be a gas-station robbery. McDaniel was the first officer on the scene. The case remained unsolved until after the 1983 arrest in Texas of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to that crime and hundreds more.

“We never quit working a murder case,” McDaniel said back then.

McDaniel was in seclusion Wednesday, grieving. His son-in-law, Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, said that before Tuesday’s shootout, McDaniel didn’t regard Sands and Brown as a threat “anymore than anyone else he did business with. He thought (Sands) was a bad person, but he had no indication of anything that might happen.”

Meadows, the prosecutor, said investigators just don’t know what the dead men had in mind. “You are asking me to make sense out of a senseless crime,’’ he said. “What their ultimate plan was died with these two men.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.