Sunday, June 13 of last year was the last time we talked to our youngest son, Mike, who lived in Panama City Beach, FL. It was his 22nd birthday, and he was excited about going out to dinner at Mikado's for sushi, with his brother, sister-in-law, and 2-week-old nephew. His brother and family had returned to Panama City Beach only 3 days earlier, and had just moved into The Paddock Club apartments that weekend. Mike had been working at U2/Mango Beachwear since before Spring Break, having made his annual "move" from Alamogordo, NM, where he'd spent the past three winters with his mother and me. After that night, our lives would never be the same, although we didn't know it until around noon, the following Tuesday, June 15.
A city policeman visited our house sometime that morning, but found it unoccupied, as we both work at Holloman AFB. A neighbor told him this, although our work phone numbers were unknown to her. Around 10 o'clock, my wife got a cryptic message from a co-worker-something about the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) trying to get in contact with her, something about Florida-Panama City? She called me to pass this on, and to see if I had any idea what it was all about. She finally made contact with some one at the local OSI office who knew something about this. They hadn't any information that it concerned Florida, but gave her the phone number to the local Alamogordo Police-the agency actually trying to contact us. When she called the local police, she was told to bring me with her, and to come down to the police department-they couldn't talk to her over the phone. The 25 minute drive was spent speculating which of our children was hurt, or worse, or could it possibly be my wife's mother (in ill health) that we were being contacted about, especially since she had been sought out instead of me. Knowing that something terrible had happened, fearing the worst, hoping for something recoverable-this was a situation no one should have to be in. Those who have faced similar circumstances can empathize with us. Those who haven't: we hope you never will.
Mike had his share of traffic tickets, and he "partied" a bit too hard and too often, in my opinion. I feared he had been injured or killed in a traffic accident, and hoped he hadn't caused any one else to be injured-but he didn't own a vehicle. He had been saving his money to get a car. It was amazing all the "what ifs" that went through our heads, but we had no inclination as to what actually had happened. When the police Sergeant asked "are you the parents of Michael Sawyer?" our hearts stopped, one last silent plea to God that he'd be OK. "There's no easy way, but I regret to inform you that your son was killed during an attempted ATM robbery." Disbelief. Tears. But it got worse, much worse.
While trying to comfort my wife, I tried to think of questions to ask. When? Where? Do they have any idea who did it? WHY? The Sergeant said he'd let me talk to the investigating officer, and dialed the Bay County Sheriff's department. After a couple minutes he handed me the phone. Torture, brutality, death, as his assailants tried to get Mike to give them his PIN so they could rob his bank account with his ATM card.
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The three "men" who killed our son are currently serving life sentences in North Florida prisons. They were offered "Life" in prison for their "guilty" plea, in return for the State not seeking the death sentence. In my opinion, the Electric Chair was the correct and just punishment in this case (although a "humane" death unlike that which they caused Mike.) We were allowed to review any evidence we felt up to seeing. Having read 3 confessions and seen a video tape of one, having read the autopsy report of Mike's injuries, having visited the crime scene, and having viewed the medical examiner's and crime scene photographs, I was an advocate of capital punishment in this case. Why did we settle on "life?" Read on, of the murder, and the considerations. Young people, take note and be critical of who you befriend.
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Michael's brother went back to work that evening after having dinner-declining the invitation to have a few "birthday beers." Mike's sister-in-law dropped him off at his motel around 8pm. Having acquired a case (or some quantity) of beer, Mike was planning on "celebrating" his 22nd birthday with his 3 murderers and some other locals. Mike had met one of them on the beach a few days earlier. Herbert Langford, age 32, had recently been released from prison (through an "early release program.") Langford had no place to stay, but had a job starting Monday, June 14. Mike offered his room for Langford to crash in until he got money and a room of his own. The other 2, both 18 years old, were acquaintances of Langford, Tommy Turner and John Duffield.
The "plan" to rob Michael's bank account using his ATM card began on Friday, June 11, when Duffield, using Langford's truck, took Mike to the bank to deposit his paycheck. Duffield noted Mike's receipt, showing a balance of around $1,000, information which Duffield shared with Langford.
Mike had extended an open invitation to "come over for a few beers" and celebrate his birthday Sunday night, but the turn-out was low. As people started to leave for other places, Langford managed to get Mike's wallet and take all the cash and the ATM card ($40 was claimed in Langford’s confession, although Mike had withdrawn $120 from an ATM that morning). He passed the ATM card and $20 to Duffield. Duffield, Turner, and two others were photographed by the ATM machine trying to access Mike's account that night-but they didn't have the correct PIN. After stopping at a Waffle House, the two "others" were dropped off somewhere, and Duffield and Turner returned to rendezvous with Langford.
Mike discovered his cash was missing after all his "friends" had gone, and he started accusing Langford. After a heated discussion, Langford convinces Mike that one of the female guests had taken the cash. Still angry, Mike falls asleep around midnight, having had a couple too many beers. Duffield and Turner return to the motel and tell Langford that they needed a different PIN. Langford was still angry with Mike over the argument, when Mike's fate becomes sealed as the three decide to take him to a rural area to "make him talk." They wake Mike up-"we're going to go find the girl and get your money back. Come on."
Finding a somewhat uninhabited area northeast of Panama City, the vehicle stops under pretense of the driver relieving himself. Mike had nodded off, under the influence of too many beers. Langford grabs Mike by the hair and pulls him out of the truck, demanding his PIN. When he refuses, Turner and Duffield restrain him as Langford punches him. When Mike continues to refuse telling them the PIN, Langford proceeds, one at a time, to bend his fingers back until they dislocate. When Mike screams out, Duffield and Turner take turns punching and kicking him, telling him to shut up. Turner kicks Mike in the face so hard, his ankle still hurt the next day. After 8 fingers are dislocated, and Mike gives conflicting responses about his PIN, Langford pulls Mike's right arm up behind him until the shoulder dislocates. Still dissatisfied with Mike's responses, knives come out. Duffield has emptied Mike's wallet, looking for a possible clue to the PIN. Langford stabs Mike in the side of his throat, then in the opposite side, then cuts across the two stab wounds-none immediately fatal. Langford goes to Duffield and says he'd just cut Mike's throat. With throat stabbed and cut, 8 broken fingers, a dislocated shoulder, and multiple bruises and abrasions, Mike attempted to crawl away. "all you could hear was his gargling on his blood, he was trying to breathe and kept tying to get on his hands and knees and just try to get away," said Duffield. The three begin to stab Mike in the back and thigh, when Turner kicks him in the ribs, which flips him on his back. It was unclear who made the final 3 stab wounds to the heart. They dragged his body about 60 yards into the woods, and proceed to several ATM machines around town. Their pictures are taken by the machines, attempting to withdraw funds-but with the wrong PIN. Frustrated, they return to Mike's apartment for some sleep before having to go to work the next morning. They never did come up with the correct PIN, nor withdraw any of Mike's money.
By fate, the next day, Turner tells a friend who happens to be on parole. This friend is arrested that night, June 14. In a plea bargain attempt to avoid going back to prison, the murder is exposed to the police. Turner is arrested early June 15, still living in Mike's motel room. He confesses, takes the investigators to the murder site and shows them the body around dawn. Langford and Duffield are implicated, and they are arrested, still asleep in a friend's house. Duffield confesses and leads Sheriff's investigators from the murder scene to where the knives (murder weapons) were disposed-one of which was recovered. Langford eventually confesses, his truck impounded with blood splatters still visible on it. Case solved, murderers in custody.
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When the State's Attorneys discussed the death sentence with us, they felt Langford would be the prime candidate-oldest and an ex-con. They felt that it would be more difficult with the two 18 year-olds, as no 18 year-old's death sentence had ever been carried out. No matter, even if all 3 got "the chair" an "appeal" was automatic, and would probably come up again in about 15 years. If the death penalty was still in force then, it had a possibility of being overturned, especially in the case of the younger "men." Likewise, there would have to be 3 trials-each tried separately. To attend would cost my family dearly in time and money. The costs to the state of Florida would also have been astronomical, with 3 trials and appeals-although these were not really of our concern. On the other hand, we could make a deal to save time and money, and have "closure." The deal was for the state's dropping the capital punishment option if the 3 would plead guilty to 1st degree murder. If only one or two would plead guilty, their testimony(s) could be used in a capital trail against the one (or two) who did not accept the "deal." The 1st degree murder plea was important, as it brought "life in prison, without possibility of parole or appeal." A lesser murder charge/conviction could have resulted in eventual release and/or parole. My wife and I felt that "life without hope," carried out in one swift "sentencing" appearance was far better than 3 trials with any chance of finding a legal loophole. Even being convicted and sentenced to death row would've given the murderers some hope of the conviction being overturned, even if 15 years down the road. The way things worked out, they have many hopeless years-hopefully enduring much physical pain and mental anguish at the hands of the other inmates. I will be thinking of them on the anniversary of Mike's death, as I have been every day since then.