May 31, 2018

Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth: West Palm Beach's Crime of the Century

In Palm Beach County, Florida in 1955, there was perhaps no greater admired person than Judge Curtis Chillingworth.  His family had transplanted from New York; his father serving as the first city attorney.  With law and justice running in the family, Curtis graduated from the University of Florida, was quickly admitted to the Florida bar and, in 1921, became the youngest person (at 24) to hold the circuit judge position.  It was a title he would hold until his death.

Curtis also joined the United States Naval Academy and served in both World War I and World War II.  Between the two wars, he married and had three daughters.   He was considered local royalty and rightfully so.

He had a solid reputation as a fair and honest judge.  He was also a stickler for punctuality and was known to stand outside the courtroom, watching the hand on the clock, to enter at precisely the exact time.  He was reliable and dependable.

So when he didn't show up for an 8 a.m. appointment at his beachfront cottage in Manalapan on June 15, 1955, nor in his courtroom, there was immediate concern.  The two carpenters that had been hired to build a playground for the Chillingworths' grandchildren, and who had arrived at the Chillingworth residence at the agreed upon time and date, found the door open and the house vacant.  They waited for a period and then decided to take a swim in the ocean, taking the footpath that wound around the home and to the beach.  They spotted what they took to be blood.  Upon close inspection, they also noted that the home's floodlight was shattered.  They immediately contacted the authorities.

At the courthouse in West Palm Beach, Judge Chillingworth's 10 a.m. calendar came and went, with no appearance or word from him.

Police responded quickly, given the missing man's notoriety in the area.  There wasn't a lot to go on.  They had the glass shards from the broken floodlight, two empty spools of tape -- one in the living room and one in the sand, signs of a scuffle in the sand and blood found on the front porch.  No one at the time could know this was the start of West Palm Beach's crime of the century.

In tracing the judge's steps, detectives found out that he and his wife Marjorie attended a dinner the evening of June 14, departing for their home around 10 p.m.  Nothing untoward happened at the dinner.  The couple had arrived home and gone to sleep, as their bed indicated.

Robbery was ruled out as the judge's billfold was found in the residence with cash inside, along with Marjorie's pocketbook which held $40.  Both their vehicles were still in the garage; the judge's Plymouth still had the keys in the ignition.

Accidental drowning during a morning swim was considered but also ruled out as dry swimsuits were located in the home and no bodies had surfaced.

The only items, besides the Chillingworths themselves, that appeared to be missing were a pair of men's pajamas, a ladies' nightgown and two pairs of slippers.

The Palm Beach Air Force Base sent in boats, divers and a helicopter to scan the waters, hoping to find . . . something.  No luck.

The Chillingworth family offered a $25,000 reward for information in solving the disappearances.  The local legislature offered $100,000.

The case quickly went cold, with no leads and no further evidence.

In 1957, Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth were both declared legally dead.
In 1959, the legislature voted to keep the $100,000 reward on the books indefinitely, or until the case was solved.

Authorities continued to work the case, determined to solve the mystery of the missing couple.  Judge Chillingworth's background was considered and investigated, as well as those cases he had presided over.  The brother of one of his friends was considered a potential suspect for a  while -- the judge had presided over the man's murder trial.  That avenue fizzled.

All seemed quiet until 1959 when a man by the name of Floyd Holzapfel bragged to a friend that he knew who had killed the judge.  Holzapfel, known as "Lucky," had earned a Purple Heart as a paratrooper in the Battle of the Bulge.  Following the war, he had become a fingerprint technician for the Oklahoma City police and one of the organizers for the West Palm Beach Young Republican Club, as well as being a Jaycee and Cub Scout leader.  He was also a bootlegger who had served time for bookmaking and armed robbery and had been arrested for attempted rape.  Married three times, one former wife claimed he had beaten her so badly, she had landed in the hospital for five days.

That friend he blabbed to -- James Yenzer -- along with an ex-Palm Beach police officer by the name of Jim Wilber lured "Lucky" Holzapfel to a hotel in Melbourne, Florida and got him good and drunk.  Lucky was then more than willing to discuss the details of what he knew of the Chillingworth disappearances. A member of the Florida Sheriff's Bureau, tipped off by Yenzer and Wilber, the ex-cop, sat in an adjacent room recording the conversation.

According to Lucky, he was hired by Joseph Peel to murder Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth.  On the night of June 14-15, 1955, he took an accomplice and fellow bootlegger named George "Bobby" Lincoln to Manalapan by skiff.  They arrived at the Chillingworth residence around 1 a.m.  Lincoln hid in the bushes while Lucky knocked at the door and pretended to be a stranded boater.  Judge Chillingworth answered the door in his pajamas and was greeted by a pistol.  Lucky and Bobby fastened nooses around the necks of the judge and Marjorie, tied their hands behind their backs and forced them on the sand.  Marjorie screamed and one of the men, likely Lucky, hit her with the pistol, cutting her head and causing blood to spatter on the sand.  Judge Chillingworth offered his abductors $200,000 to let him and his wife go.  The couple were then gagged with adhesive tape and hustled onto the boat and taken out to sea.  The quartet in the skiff drifted for about an hour before lead weights were strapped to the Chillingworths' legs.  With the jaunty comment of "Ladies first!" Lucky picked up Marjorie and threw her overboard.  When he and Bobby went for Judge Chillingworth, he jumped overboard.  Despite his bound wrists and weighted legs, Judge Chillingworth managed to stay afloat until Lincoln hit him over the head with a shotgun.  The blow was so strong, the barrel broke.  Lincoln and Holzapfel then dragged Judge Chillingworth back to the boat, where they fastened an anchor around his neck and then threw him back in the water, watching him sink.

After snuffing out two lives, Lucky placed a phone call to Joseph Peel, uttering only four words:  "The motor is fixed."  With that, Peel knew that his problems with Chillingworth had been taken care of.

Joseph Peel was a well-known name not only to authorities but to the community in general.  Like Curtis Chillingworth, Joseph Peel was a judge and had grown up down the street from Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth and their daughters.

He had become an attorney in 1949 and in 1952, was named the city's only municipal judge.  He was married and had children, like Judge Chillingworth.  Unlike Judge Chillingworth, however, Peel was a dishonest playboy who manipulated the law into his favor.  Rather than seeing the legal field as a calling, he saw it as a means to make money and live a flashy lifestyle.

In 1953, the unethical Peel represented both the husband and wife in a divorce suit.  This clear violation of ethics landed him in front of Judge Chillingworth.  Considering his youth, Judge Chillingworth gave Peel a warning rather than a disbarment but said it would be the only one.

Rather than being scared straight, Peel -- along with Lucky Holzapfel and Bobby Lincoln -- ran a protection racket.  Peel easily played both sides of the law, signing warrants and orders for the police and then giving the criminals a heads-up they were coming.  Criminals paid him big money for this benefit and it wasn't long before Peel was making his annual $3,000 judge's salary in a week.

The racket may never have been discovered if Peel did not once again get caught for unethical behavior while acting as an attorney in a divorce case.  This time, he represented to his client that he had filed all necessary paperwork on her behalf and she was divorced.   She found it was untrue when she remarried and had a baby, finding out instead that she was a bigamist.

Once again, Peel was scheduled to go before Judge Chillingworth.  He knew this time the honest and kind Chillingworth would disbar him.  Disbarment would end his lucrative set-up with the local criminals and put paid to his excessive lifestyle.  It was early June of 1955.  And it was then that Joseph Peel put his murderous plan into action.

Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth would only have days left to live.

On October 1, 1960, Lucky Holzapfel was arrested.  On December 12, 1960, he pleaded guilty to both murders and was sentenced to death.

George "Bobby" Lincoln
Bobby Lincoln, already in prison for a moonshine-related conviction, cut a deal with prosecutors who, with no bodies, needed eyewitness testimony.  Lincoln testified against Holzapfel and Peel in exchange for immunity.  He would finish his federal sentence in Michigan and in 1962, went to Chicago where he converted to Islam and changed his name to David Karrim.   He later returned to Florida and was a free man when he died in 2004, never having served a day for his part in the murders of Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth.

Confronted with Bobby Lincoln's eyewitness testimony, on November 7, 1960, Lucky chose not to fight and admitted his part in the murders.  He also told the courtroom that Joseph Peel had wanted him to commit one more murder to help him out - - that of the prosecutor himself.

Floyd "Lucky" Holzapfel
On December 12, 1960 Floyd "Lucky" Holzapfel plead guilty to the Chillingworth murders and was sentenced to death.  In 1966, his death sentence was commuted and he received a parole date of May 3, 2009.  In 1992, he suffered a stroke that resulted in partial paralysis.  In 1996, he died.  He had never received a penny of the $2,500 he was promised to kill the Chillingworths.

The mastermind of the murder plot, Joseph Peel, was alerted as to Holzapfel's arrest and Lincoln's deal and took off running from the state of Florida.  He was apprehended in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  While awaiting trial, twice he had attempted to have Holzapfel killed.  He also planned a failed attempt at a jail escape.

Joseph Peel
Justice that had long evaded Peel finally caught up with him.  On March 30, 1961, jurors took less than six hours to find him guilty of accessory to murder.  His life was spared only due to two jurors who would not vote guilty unless the death penalty was taken off the table.  He received a life sentence for each of the Chillingworths and was sent to the Florida State Prison in Raiford where, over the next 18 years, he would attend church regularly and work on the prison newspaper.  He was paroled in 1979 to begin serving an 18 year federal charge on mail fraud in Missouri.  He served only three years of that sentence when, suffering from ill health, he was paroled and returned to Florida.  His wife having divorced him while he was incarcerated, at the time he gave an interview in 1982, he was engaged to a woman who had been the flower girl at his first wedding.  During the interview he claimed guilt only in that he knew of the murders, had not planned them, but did nothing to stop them.  Few people believed his statement.  Nine days after he was paroled, Peel died.

The bodies of Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth were never recovered.  Their family installed a double grave in West Palm Beach's Oak Lawn Cemetery.  The graves remain empty.

The house at 211 Dyer Road in Manalapan, where the Chillingworths had gone to sleep that last night of their lives, was sold.  It still stands today.

June 15, 1955, the day that he and his wife were killed, was the 32nd anniversary of his appointment as circuit judge.

I've read a lot of true crime over the years.  All the cases are sad and horrifying in their own ways but this is one of the most gut-wrenching I've researched.  The torture Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth must have gone through, sitting on that boat for well over an hour, with their hands tied and mouths taped up, as they went further out to sea, I can't begin to imagine.  For Judge Chillingworth to fight so valiantly to live, for this Navy veteran to stay afloat even with his hands bound and weights on his ankles and after watching his beloved wife being thrown over the side of the boat . . ,  It's something that pains me to contemplate.  Some of the sources I looked up stated that their killers later reported that the Chillingworths exchanged final words ("I love you") to each other before the end (which would mean that the tape was removed from their mouths, at least briefly, before they were killed.)

All this for a measly $2,500.  The hired killer, Lucky Holzapfel, and his buddy, Bobby Lincoln, didn't know Curtis or Marjorie.  Neither had laid eyes on the Chillingworths before they abducted them and were perfectly okay with murdering them in such an inhumane manner.  What went wrong with Holzapfel and when?  He had served his country, like his victim, and at one point, had gainful employment with a law enforcement agency.  He also gave his time and energy to his  community.  When, and why, did that change?

As far as Bobby Lincoln, he appeared to have no violent offenses on his record before jumping on that skiff to head to Manalapan.  He had run-ins with the law but as a moonshiner, not a cold killer.  Yet, he still struck Judge Chillingworth with the shotgun so fiercely that it resulted in a broken barrel.  And he helped Holzapfel restrain both victims and toss Curtis Chillingworth overboard, watching as he drowned.

Joseph Peel is less of a mystery to me.  His type have been around for years and, sadly, will continue to be.  He seems a classic narcissist, opportunist and sociopath.  No conscience to guide him, only lust and greed.  Given a second chance, he squanders it and then, upon getting caught once again, turns his anger to the person who will be required by law to take it away from him.  The same person who, not coincidentally, showed him compassion and mercy the first time he set foot in Judge Chillingworth's courtroom.  Instead of gratitude, Peel showed Curtis Chillingworth contempt and disdain.  Marjorie Chillingworth was merely collateral damage.  Later in his life, Peel was given more compassion by the judicial system, that paroled him due to his failing health, than he allowed his hitmen to give their victims.

Of the three, only Floyd "Lucky" Holzapfel received the death penalty.  Was it deserved?  In my opinion, yes.  But I also think Joseph Peel was just as deserving.  Without him, the seed to kill the Chillingworths would not have been there.  And while there could be an argument for Bobby Lincoln to be spared, it infuriates me that he did not even spend 24 hours behind bars for his role in the abduction and murders.  I understand the prosecution wanted an eyewitness, especially during a time when convictions without bodies was rare, but complete immunity seemed insane.  Lincoln knew they were going to Manalapan to abduct and murder at least one person.  He should have had to spend at least seven years behind bars for that, if not more.

Do you think justice was done in the Chillingworth case?  Would you have agreed to give Bobby Lincoln complete immunity for his testimony?

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