A new look at a 18-year-old murder conviction plants seeds of doubt
By MEG LAUGHLIN and DON MORRIS, Times Staff Writers
Published August 26, 2007
The prosecutor ate Leo Schofield alive. Friends and neighbors testified that they had seen Leo slap his wife, pull her hair and break furniture in the months before her murder.
The parade of witnesses masked the state's utter lack of physical evidence -- blood, fingerprints, hair -- connecting Leo to the murder of Michelle Saum Schofield.
The state did have a crucial witness, a neighbor. Alice Scott testified that she heard bumping in the Schofield trailer and heard Michelle yell, "No, Leo, don't. ..."
Peering out her bathroom window, she said, she watched Leo emerge carrying "a heavy object ... like a sleeping child ... wrapped in something." He dumped it in the back of their Mazda and drove off.
The car was found abandoned on an exit ramp of Interstate 4. After three days searching with friends and family, Leo's father found Michelle's body in a canal.
Leo's alibi depended on his parents, who were with him the night Michelle disappeared. But his father told stupid lies and lost all credibility.
Police said he told them Michelle was floating on her back, smiling; she was on her stomach and definitely not smiling. Police said he told them he searched ditches and turned over refrigerators, but they said no ditches or refrigerators were in the area.
He testified that a premonition led him to Michelle's body, but jurors believed the prosecutor instead -- that Leo Sr. knew exactly where to look because he had helped Leo dispose of the body.
Police found fingerprints inside Michelle's Mazda that didn't match anybody who used the car. Leo's attorney said the prints belonged to the unknown murderer and asked jurors: "Wouldn't you like to know whose fingerprints those are in the Mazda?"
Unimpressed, the jury took just two hours to pronounce Leo Schofield guilty of murder one.
He was packed off to prison for the rest of his life. The unmatched fingerprint cards were packed off to storage.
* * *
High school dropouts, they met in 1986, less than a year before her murder. Michelle Saum was 17 and into Cyndi Lauper. Leo Schofield was 20 and into Ozzy Osbourne. She drank Boone's Strawberry Hill Wine from a screw-top bottle. He drank Busch in the can.
He painted houses and played lead guitar in a band called RYNO, for Rock Your Nuts Off. She worked at Burger King and hoped to get free of the deep fryer when he hit it big.
He grew up in Massachusetts and didn't move to Lakeland until he was 15. She was local; to her crowd, he was "a fast-talking outsider from up North."
Leo and Michelle moved in together and attended the Southside Assembly of God Church in Lakeland. To get them to "quit living in sin," church members offered to pay for a wedding and to provide them a free, freshly painted efficiency. The young couple took them up on it.
They fought over who would use the Mazda. They fought over money. They fought over Michelle's tendency to show up late and over Leo's possessiveness. They fought over fighting.
Michelle scratched and slapped Leo a few times, and he slapped her and pulled her hair.
Six months into the marriage, Michelle walked more than 2 miles and showed up after midnight at her friend Lee Underwood's home. "She said she wanted the party life with the old gang back," he says. Then, she went home to Leo.
Two weeks later, Feb. 24, 1987, she clocked out of her waitress job at Tom's, a burger drive-in. She left about 30 minutes later in the Mazda with a soda and $3 worth of gas. She called Leo an hour later, told him she had made $13 in tips and was on her way to pick him up at band practice.
She never made it.
Two days later, on the exit ramp of I-4 at State Road 559, police found her abandoned Mazda, the boosters for the stereo speakers missing. The next day, Leo's father found Michelle in a canal, 7 miles from the car. She had been stabbed 26 times, her wedding ring still on her index finger, her tip money gone.
* * *
In the early 1990s, Crissie Carter taught high school students in Immokalee and prisoners at Hendry Correctional Institution.
Teaching inmates resume writing and checkbook balancing, she had as one of her aides Leo Schofield, who told everyone he met that he was innocent.
Crissie looked into the case and was intrigued. She thought the prosecution's time line didn't add up. Police had Leo in his trailer killing Michelle at the same time Michelle's father, David Saum, said Leo was at his house.
Crissie wrote to Schofield that she believed him. He wrote back that he thought that improved computer technology might identify the fingerprints and the real killer.
She called the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Polk County Sheriff's Office. Couldn't they try to match the prints?
She didn't get anywhere. "I got put on hold a lot."
Leo transferred to DeSoto Correctional Institution. In 1995, six years into his life sentence, he and Crissie married in the prison chapel.
Marry a man doing life for murdering his wife? Crissie worried about the stigma, but ... "I believe he is innocent and I love him."
She hired a lawyer, thinking a professional would have better luck getting the fingerprints run. But he came up empty-handed, trapped in a Catch-22: To persuade a judge to order the old fingerprint evidence reviewed, the lawyer had to come up with some other, new evidence.
In 2004, Crissie vented her frustration to an old friend, Capt. Synda Williams of the Hendry County Sheriff's Office. Williams investigated cases involving abused children; Crissie used to help prosecutors prepare the kids to testify.
Williams was shocked to learn whom Crissie had chosen for a spouse. "I'd known Crissie to be a smart person with excellent judgment," Williams says. "I was worried."
Looking into the prints not only might help Crissie, Williams figured, it might ease her concerns about her old colleague.
But protocol says police in one county can't run fingerprints from a case in another county. All Williams could do was ask a detective how to get the fingerprints run. She says the detective misunderstood and went ahead and ran the prints. And got a match.
"I practically passed out when I found out who they belonged to," says Williams.
Crissie visited Leo in prison. "His body convulsed with sobs when he got the news," she says. And he told her: "At last, someone might listen to me."
* * *
If Leo wanted to invent an alternate suspect for who might have murdered his wife, he could not have concocted a better choice than Jeremy Scott.
His rap sheet dates to when he was 11. It includes armed robbery, assault and battery, plus two murders. He was acquitted of one murder charge, from when he was 15 - his ex-girlfriend says he bragged that he got away with it -- and the other murder charge brought a conviction and life sentence.
In February 1987, when Michelle was murdered, Scott was 18. He lived with his grandmother in a trailer 1.7 miles from the canal where Michelle's body was dumped. The trailer park was on the road Michelle would have taken to pick up Leo at band practice. Scott frequently hitchhiked.
"He was into drugs and would do anything to get money, even a small amount," says his grandmother, Earline Sandage. "What could you expect from a kid whose mother ran over him on purpose when he was a toddler?"
An ex-girlfriend, Jami Nelams, said Jeremy called the canal where Michelle was found "his hangout." Nelams said he liked to take her to the canal for sex and would choke her into unconsciousness.
"Jeremy was an extremely violent person," Nelams told investigators. "He struck me too many times to count -- with his hands, a belt, my boots, a baseball bat. He was going to kill me. I was going to end up dead."
Wendy Zieman, 35 and living in Nebraska, says she'll never forget when she was 14, the night at her Lakeland house that she says Scott sexually assaulted her. She didn't fight back because he said he'd kill her if she screamed, and she believed him.
"He was a friend and he turned on me," says Zieman, who did not call police.
Her best friend was Robert Morales. Now a sergeant in Iraq, Morales says she told him of the sexual attack right after.
"I believed Wendy because I knew how violent Jeremy Scott could be," Morales says. "He couldn't stand it when he didn't get his way, especially with a girl."
Jeremy Scott left fingerprints at the murder he was convicted of, and he left prints at the murder he was acquitted of. He left prints at two robberies he was convicted of.
And the prints in Michelle's Mazda? The ones that Leo's attorney asked the jury: "Wouldn't you like to know whose fingerprints those are?"
Jeremy Scott left those prints, as well.
* * *
Not only did the defense not know to name Jeremy Scott as an alternate suspect, but defense attorney Jack Edmund was also in the dark about the mental health issues of the state's star witness, Alice Scott.
Family and friends say she had been involuntarily committed and spent time in mental institutions for being delusional.
Alice Scott no relation to Jeremy Scott lived in a trailer 50 yards from the Schofields. She testified that seated on her bathroom counter, she looked out a narrow window, saw Leo arrive home with Michelle, heard yelling, then saw him carry out "a heavy object" wrapped in cloth and drive away.
Her husband, Ricky Scott, repeatedly told police he didn't want Alice to get involved as a witness. But he didn't say why, until now.
"I was with her in our trailer when she said she saw Leo arrive home with Michelle then carry something out to the car that was supposed to be her body, and I didn't believe Alice," he says. "I knew how she twisted the truth."
He and Alice are divorced with two grown daughters, but they "get along," says Ricky, and he wants that to continue for their children's sake. Besides, he says, he once saw Leo pull Michelle's hair and never liked him.
"But I have to tell the truth: No way Alice could've seen and heard from that little bathroom window what she said she heard and saw at the Schofields' that night. She took a little something and exaggerated like she always did," he says.
Ricky's sister, Linda Sells, was Alice's friend and neighbor. At the trial, she testified that she had come from work late at night and seen Leo carry something "wrapped in a sheet" from the trailer. She and Alice talked about it over the fence.
But Sells testified that Alice may have had the wrong night: Sells didn't think it was the night Michelle disappeared because Sells had not worked that night. In other words, Michelle was alive after the time Sells and Alice saw Leo carry something in the sheet.
"Alice's version of what happened that night is not completely reliable because she'll say anything to be the center of attention," says Sells.
Yes, Alice Scott says it's true: She has had her "share of nervous and emotional problems over the years," which caused her to be hospitalized.
Told that her ex-husband detailed how it would have been impossible for her to see from the bathroom window, she changed her story: "When I couldn't see and hear from the bathroom window that good, I walked to the screened porch where I could."
She had never said that before, not to police, not at the trial. She was always sitting on a counter looking out a narrow bathroom window.
Her explanation for changing her story: "Maybe I didn't say it right back then, but I am now."
Prosecutor John Aguero says he doesn't remember if he was aware of Alice Scott's mental problems at the time of the trial. "But even if I was, it wouldn't necessarily mean that Alice Scott's mental issues kept her from being a credible witness."
Besides the mental issues, there is a question about her motives. She was a confidential informant for the police agency investigating the murder, according to police documents and her former police supervisor. But her status did not come out at trial.
She denies she was a confidential informant: "I think I'd remember that."
Alice says the prosecutor should have gotten Leo Schofield sentenced to death. "If Aguero had done what he was supposed to and executed Leo Schofield," she says, "we wouldn't have to be dealing with this mess now."
* * *
Put a microscope to the case and problems crop up, one after another.
The medical examiner said Michelle was stabbed 26 times and bled five pints of blood, and the prosecutor said she was killed in the couple's trailer. But there was no blood in the trailer. Nor was any blood on Leo, who wore the same clothes until the next day.
The medical examiner said Michelle was "certainly" killed no more than a day or two before the autopsy and dragged to the canal five to 10 minutes after she died. But the state said she was killed three and a half days before and was dead more than an hour when dragged to the canal.
Time and again, witnesses say they did not tell police what police put in their reports. Some examples:
Michelle worked at Tom's Restaurant. A police report said Tom's owner saw Michelle drive away in the Mazda right after 8:15 p.m., then he went to his apartment over the restaurant. But the owner, a Thai man named Aumnuay Artyamosoal, said through a translator that he told police no such thing.
He said that when Michelle got off work, she didn't drive away, she was "waiting for someone" at a table behind the restaurant. And he said he could not have gone to an apartment over the restaurant because it's a single-story building.
Police wrote that a waitress at Tom's, Marin Suparatana, said she saw Michelle drive away in her car right after she got off work. But she says she told police no such thing. She only worked the morning shift and wasn't there in the evening.
Police said they talked to the Roach boys, who, they said, saw Michelle in the restaurant parking lot about 7 p.m. the night she was killed. Police said that they went to the Roach home and talked to them with their parents.
But the four people in the Roach family say police never came to their home. They say the police phoned, and spoke only with the mother of Steven and Phillip Roach. Steven says that he and his brother talked to Michelle outside the restaurant close to 9 p.m., not around 7 p.m., as police said.
Beyond those discrepancies is a whopper: Trying to make the case that the real killer left the mysterious fingerprints in the Mazda, the defense attorney cross-examined the senior investigator on the case, Polk sheriff's Detective Richard Putnel.
Edmund: "To your knowledge were there any other cases in Polk County at that time that involved stab wounds of the nature of Michelle Schofield's?"
Putnel: "No, sir."
Edmund: "How about subsequent to that time, did you ever work any cases or become aware of any cases around that time frame that were similar to Michelle Schofield's?"
Putnel: "No, sir."
At the time, there were unsolved murders of three other young women in the area. Like Michelle, all died of multiple stab wounds to the upper body. Like Michelle, all had rings on and $5 to $20 missing. Like Michelle, none was sexually assaulted.
Michelle disappeared on Feb. 24, 1987.
Four months earlier, Oct. 26, 1986: Teresa Scalf was stabbed in her home, 4 miles south of Michelle and Leo's trailer.
Five weeks before Michelle's murder, Jan. 16, 1987: Catherine Rodgers was stabbed in her home, 25 miles away in northeast Hillsborough County. Detectives in the Polk Sheriff's Office knew about the case because Hillsborough detectives contacted them to compare similarities.
One month after Michelle's murder, March 24, 1987: Karen Ann Watson was stabbed in her home, 2 miles east of where Michelle's car was found.
Unlike Michelle, huge amounts of blood were found in the homes of the other three victims.
"If there hadn't been blood in the house from the murderer that didn't match mine, they might have sent me away for life," said Watson's widower, Chuck Watson, who was a suspect until 2002.
Nobody was ever charged in Watson's or the other cases.
Why did Putnel testify that there were no other stabbing murders of women in the area? Putnel said he doesn't remember what he testified.
"That was a long time ago -- too long to remember," he says. "Don't call me again."
* * *
John Aguero has tallied convictions in over 50 murder cases. What does he say about the fingerprints and the contradictions?
"The issue we're looking at now is reasonable doubt," he says. "Would what we know now have produced an acquittal, if we had known it then?"
He says no. After the fingerprint match was made to Jeremy Scott, a detective was assigned to review the case. He and Aguero interviewed Scott more than a year ago, and they're certain he didn't commit the murder. The prosecutor says two points are key.
"Michelle Schofield had her rings on when her body was found, which isn't Jeremy Scott's style. He would've stolen them," Aguero says. "Also, there is no connection, no nexus, between Michelle Schofield and Jeremy Scott. He didn't know her and had no reason to kill her."
But the evidence and witnesses contradict Aguero on both points. Stealing a small amount of cash but leaving jewelry behind is actually Scott's style. And multiple witnesses say Michelle and Jeremy Scott knew each other.
On the jewelry: When Scott was 15, his fingerprints were in the Winter Haven home and on the broken eyeglasses of 78-year-old Jewel Johnson, who was shot, hit over the head and strangled. According to the medical examiner's report, police found her diamond ring on her finger and a gold necklace around her neck. Missing was $42 in coins, which police found in Scott's possession. His defense suggested an alternate suspect, and Scott was acquitted of all charges.
When Scott was 18, again in Winter Haven, he clubbed 37-year-old Donald Moorehead over the head with a grape juice bottle while he slept in a lounge chair. Scott finished him off by dragging him with a telephone cord wrapped around his neck. He stole about $20 from Moorehead and his Chevrolet sedan.
Scott left Moorehead's jewelry behind, according to Bruce Tipton, the neighbor who discovered the body. "Besides the watch he wore, Don's bracelet and ring were on the counter in plain view," Tipton says.
Larry Hall, who is serving a life sentence for helping Scott cover up Moorehead's murder, agrees with Tipton: "Jeremy didn't steal his jewelry."
On Aguero's second point, that Scott didn't know Michelle: Several mutual friends say they ran in the same crowd before Michelle Saum married Leo Schofield.
It was a wild group of more than a dozen Lakeland kids, most high school dropouts. They hung out around the public boat ramps, a Circle K and the homes of the more permissive parents. Most of them drank; some smoked marijuana. A few, like Jeremy Scott, smoked crystal meth and stole to support their habits.
Many of the old gang placed Jeremy and Michelle together.
Wendy Zieman and Tammy Erickson each remember parties at their homes that Jeremy and Michelle both attended. Says Tammy: "I was friends with both of them, and they knew each other."
Dawn Browning, 37, was close friends with Tammy and lived behind a homeless shelter called the Talbot House. Browning remembers Jeremy Scott, who frequently stayed there, and she remembers Michelle Saum. "We all knew each other," she says.
Says Larry Hall, Scott's murder accomplice: "Jeremy used to talk about liking a girl named Dawn who lived behind the Talbot House and her friend Michelle."
And there's the state's key witness, Alice Scott: "I knew Jeremy Scott. So did Michelle. I saw him over at Leo and Michelle's trailer at parties before Michelle was killed."
Aguero says he was not aware that Jeremy Scott and Michelle Schofield probably knew each other: "That's information I don't have," he says.
Regarding the jewelry, Aguero says that when he said it was Scott's style to steal jewelry, he was unaware of evidence to the contrary. "At this point I don't have much to say on the topic."
Jeremy Scott said he had plenty to say about the Schofield murder but would talk only if he were paid.
In a recorded prison phone call to his grandmother in 2005, Scott said detectives told him they didn't think he killed Michelle, but thought he "knew something about it."
He told his grandmother he could have stolen the stereo from Michelle's car and left his fingerprints, but he was innocent of murder. Still, he told her, he wasn't about to talk to the cops.
"Even if I did know something, I wouldn't tell them."
* * *
Before Leo Schofield was charged with murdering his wife, he had never been charged with a crime. On the eve of the trial in 1989, the prosecutor offered a deal: Plead guilty to second-degree murder for a sentence of 12 to 17 years. With time off, it would've been less than 10.
Schofield turned it down and chanced the death penalty. "I couldn't bring myself to say I did something I didn't do."
Now, 19 years later, he is doing life in Hardee Correctional Institution, 35 miles south of Lakeland.
"I was self-centered, possessive and immature," he says. "But I didn't kill Michelle, and I don't know who did."
Prison staff say he is "well-behaved and helpful." Over the years, he has played guitar at prison Mass on Sundays and been an AIDS and peer counselor. He is a certified welder and a paralegal.
"In here," he says, "you can make your life worthwhile as long as you make up your mind not to be bitter."
* * *
His hope for a miracle rests with Polk Circuit Judge Dick Prince. Based on the fingerprints and other new evidence, attorney Richard Bartmon of Boca Raton has asked the judge to grant Schofield a new trial.
"The fingerprints need not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jeremy Scott killed Michelle Schofield," Bartmon wrote. "But they could raise reasonable doubts about Leo's guilt."
The state responded that the defense should have identified Jeremy Scott's fingerprints before the 1989 trial or in the appeals right after, and now it's too late.
The judge is expected to rule in the next few months.
Williams, the sheriff's captain who stuck her neck out to figure out how to identify the fingerprints, says she's not in any hurry to meet Leo Schofield. "But I do know that our justice system should work, and if he has been in prison for 19 years and didn't kill Michelle, that's wrong."
Aguero says the system did work: Both sides presented their cases, the jury spoke, and nothing has convinced him to upend the verdict.
Five months after he got a jury to convict Schofield, Aguero got a jury to convict Jeremy Scott of crushing Donald Moorhead's skull. Scott was sentenced to death but had it reduced to life after a hearing in 1992.
Aguero argued against commuting the sentence because, he said, Scott was a "cold-blooded criminal ... who couldn't be trusted."
Yet Aguero says he trusts him about the Schofield case. He interviewed Scott in 2005, after his fingerprints from the Mazda were identified: "I looked Jeremy Scott in the eye and asked him if he killed her, and he looked me in the eye and said he didn't do it. And I believed him."
About this story
Information came from police reports, court files, court transcripts and depositions, law enforcement agency records, prison and medical examiner records.
Dozens of people were interviewed in person, including many not in the story.
Interviewed by phone were Alice Scott, Leo Schofield Sr. in Idaho, Wendy Zieman in Nebraska, Lee Underwood in Wisconsin and Robert Morales in Ramadi, Iraq.
Leo Schofield and Larry Hall were interviewed in prison.
Jeremy Scott declined to be interviewed. Jami Nelams could not be located. Jack Edmund was killed in a traffic accident in 2002.
In the property room in the basement of the Polk County Courthouse, the Times was given access to all the trial evidence and exhibits.
The maps in the multimedia presentations with this story are the maps the state used at trial. The fingerprints reproduced are the prints lifted from Michelle Schofield's Mazda and Jeremy Scott's known fingerprints.