When Murder Came Calling

In 1955, Joseph A. Peel looked to have the world at his feet. Still only 31 years of age, he was already the municipal judge for West Palm Beach, Florida. People liked him, he was very popular – the Junior Chamber of Commerce had picked him as its man of the year – and he did nothing to dissuade rumors that one day he might take a run at the governorship. He sported all the trappings of success, a comfortable home, a Cadillac (his wife drove a Lincoln), and he was an instantly recognizable figure about town in his debonair white suits.

Judge Joseph A. Peel
Judge Joseph A. Peel

There was just one problem: Judge Peel was a fraud. The first cracks in his façade doubts had begun to surface in 1953, when he upset the Florida Bar by representing both sides in a divorce action. Such unethical conduct had brought a severe reprimand from the investigating judge, Curtis E. Chillingworth, who could be a real martinet when it came to slipshod legal work. Two years later, Peel was at again. This time he failed to properly file some divorce papers so that a client inadvertently became a bigamist. Again, this came to the Chillingworth's attention and he exploded, threatening to have the renegade lawyer disbarred.

A Crooked Judge

Peel panicked. Not because he feared losing his lawyering income, which never amounted to much, but more because it threatened something far more important – his sidelines. For, in truth, Peel was more crooked than most of the people he sentenced to jail. Behind the gavel lurked a hoodlum who controlled the lucrative West Palm Beach numbers racket, ran a moonshining operation and sold protection to bookmakers. But it was in court where the judge really profited. Whenever the police planned to close down some illegal underworld activity and they came to Peel for the authorization, after signing the warrant Peel would phone the suspects and tell them to expect a raid. Such service didn't come cheap. Peel was rumored to make in excess of $1,000 a week from kickbacks such as these.

But all that – the money, the prestige and the power – could go up in smoke if Judge Chillingworth kept his word and Peel was disbarred. Something had to give and it did.

Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth
Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth

Mysterious Disappearance

On the evening of June 14, 1955. Judge Chillingworth, 58, and his wife, Marjorie, 56, dined with friends in West Palm Beach. Around 10 p.m. they drove 10 miles south to their beach cottage in Manalapan. The next morning at 8.00 a.m. a carpenter arrived. He had been had hired to build a play area for the Chillingworths' grandchildren, but found the house deserted and a door wide open. Puzzled, he contacted the police. When the judge failed to appear at 10 a.m. for a hearing in West Palm Beach, officers went to the Chillingworths' residence. They found a porch light shattered, a trail of blood on the wooden staircase that led to the beach, and two half-empty spools of adhesive tape, one in the living room and one on the beach. Officers found no evidence of robbery. There was money in the house and the keys to the judge's car were still in the ignition. Ominously, the only items missing were a pair of pajamas, a nightgown, a robe, and two pairs of slippers.

How the press reported the mysterious disappearance
How the press reported the mysterious disappearance

An air and sea search of the ocean around Manalapan failed to reveal any clue as to what had happened to Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth. Although investigators strongly suspected foul play, without any bodies or any suspects, it would be a tough case to make.

The police trawled through Judge Chillingworth's trial record, to see if anyone might bear a grudge, but came up blank. Stern but fair, that was everyone's verdict on the missing man. As the weeks turned into months, and then years, with still no word, it looked very much as if the mystery would never be solved.

Floyd Holzapfel
Floyd Holzapfel

Surprise Breakthrough

And then in 1960 the body of a smalltime bootlegger named Lew Harvey, surfaced in a Palm Beach canal. He had been shot in the head and his body weighted down. Harvey's widow told the police that her husband had disappeared with a man calling himself John Lynch. This was a known alias of Floyd Holzapfel, 36, a local hoodlum with connections to the rackets. The police put Holzapfel under discreet surveillance. Their persistence paid off. Like many criminals, Holzapfel was a hopeless braggart. And when he boasted to a friend, James Yenzer, that he knew who had killed the Chillingworths, Yenzer contacted a police friend and the two men lured Holzapfel to a Titusville hotel room.

Taped Confession

There he was plied with booze in the hope that it would loosen his tongue. It did. Holzapfel began spilling his guts, unaware that every word was being recorded on tape in the adjacent hotel room. He slurred that Judge Peel had masterminded the scheme, paying $2,000 to Holzapfel and a pool room operator named George "Bobby' Lincoln to kill Chillingworth. In the early hours of June 15, the two hitmen had sailed a small boat up to Chillingworth's cottage. Holzapfel had knocked on the door while Lincoln hid in some bushes. When the pajama-clad judge answered the door, Holzapfel had pretended to be a boater in trouble. Chillingworth immediately offered to help. No sooner had he stepped outside than Lincoln sprang out from the bushes and the judge was overpowered. There had been no intention to kill Marjorie, but she became an accidental victim when she got out of bed to investigate the ruckus. The Chillingworths were hustled into the boat, which then sailed two miles out to sea. When the boat halted, they were trussed with weights. "Ladies first," Holzapfel chuckled as he pushed Marjorie overboard. She vanished immediately.

George 'Bobby' Lincoln
George 'Bobby' Lincoln

Chillingworth's instinctive reaction was to save his wife. He threw himself into the water in a vain attempt to find Marjorie. The killers hit him repeatedly over the head with a shotgun; so many times, in fact, that the barrel broke. Still he wouldn't quit. In the end they hauled him back into the boat, tied a 25-pound anchor tied around his neck, and threw him back overboard. Panting from their exertions, the killers watched him sink beneath the water and then headed back to shore. Holzapfel found a phone and dialed a number. When the connection was made, all Holzapfel said was, "The motor is fixed."

Joseph Peel put down the phone, knowing that his greatest enemy was dead.

Sentenced To Death Row

When Holzapfel sobered up and learned that his confession had been captured on tape, he slashed his wrist. But his suicide bid failed and he was arrested and charged with double murder. Lincoln, meanwhile, was already behind bars on federal charges of moonshining, and in return for immunity, he agreed to testify against his collaborators. On December 12, 1960, Holzapfel pleaded guilty to both murders and was sentenced to death.

Judge Peel was luckier. His trial ended on March 30, 1961 with the jury recommending him to mercy. The man who had plotted and paid for two murders was given a life sentence.

In 1966 Holzapfel's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was apparently a model prisoner and died behind bars in 1996. Lincoln outlived him by some time. After being released from federal prison in Michigan in 1962, he moved back to Florida where he changed his name to David A. Karim. He died on May 14, 2004, at the age of eighty. As for Peel, he protested his innocence all the while he was behind bars. In 1982 he contracted a terminal illness and was released. He died nine days later, on July 3, having finally confessed to having ordered the double murder.

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Comments 4 comments

Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

This is a very interesting story. Thanks for a fascinating read. This would make a great movie, wouldn't it?


ccbrookes 5 years ago Author

Thanks for the compliment. I couldn't agree more about the movie!


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. I'm very into all non-fiction and especially true crime, etal. You told this tale so well, I wish it was longer!! Thanks. Voted up and interesting.


ccbrookes 5 years ago Author

Your comments are very much appreciated. Thanks for dropping by.

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