Was it Murder or Suicide?

This is a story about my uncle, Leon Rightnour, my mother’s younger brother. He was 45 years old when they found his body hanging from an Australian pine tree, in a wooded, desolate area of SR 836 and the Florida Turnpike on Tuesday, June 3, 1986 at apprx. 3:45 pm. He had been missing since April 24, 1986. His then wife, Peggy, 27, didn’t bother to formally report him missing until May 15, 1986, because she claims he had a habit of disappearing. And that wasn’t his only habit. According to her, he would regularly freebase cocaine and go out drinking with his friends.

Permanently on probation for murdering his first wife, Leon, worked for a painting company, C&M Painting, doing odd jobs. And even though he was an ex felon, the companies owners trusted him with a company van. The same company van that had been abandoned on the Florida Turnpike and was towed on May 2, 1986, almost a month before his body was found. I wasn’t able to find, in the police report, the exact location of where the van was towed and where it was relative to where my uncle’s body was found.

There were two newspaper articles written prior to the cause of death. One mentions how the police identified the body, hanging from a tree, with his hands tied behind his back and a few days later, another article stating the same and the cause of death was still undetermined. Since the case is over 33 years old, I’m sure the investigators as well as the coroner are well into their retirement. And with my uncle being a known murderer, felon, drunk, and drug user, I’m sure they didn’t want to spin their wheels to find out if the cause of death was a homicide or a suicide. So ultimately, his death was ruled a suicide, even though there is no proof as to where the brand new rope came from. Receipts found in the van indicate painting supplies but nothing mentions the purchase of the rope.

He didn’t have the happiest of lives and was a troubled soul, to say the least. Born to Regina and Tom in 1945, he was the youngest of 4 children, 3 boys and one girl. When Leon was 2 years old, him, along with his other siblings were removed from the home and placed into orphanages in the state of PA. My grandmother had married my grandfather when she was 15, he was in his 20’s. Both my grandparents were alcoholics and it just made sense that 2 of the boys became alcoholics and drug addicts like their parents. They were poor and grew up in the Appalachian Mountains. My mother was the only girl and she learned at a young age to shoot and eat squirrels for dinner. Her side of the family was known as the “hillbillies” or “crazy Natives”.

Two of the kids escaped the life of no return. Charlie became a lifer in the Army and my mother met and married my father when she was 16, escaping to NY and entering into an Italian, stable family. By that time, she had been taken out of the orphanage and was living in NM with her aunt and uncle. Having to drop out of school in order to start making money, she met my dad when she was a soda jerk. He was in the Air Force and took a liking to the girl who made his milkshakes. Though my mother’s family did not approve of her marrying an Italian, back then, prejudice went beyond Hispanics and Blacks, she wanted out so badly, she threatened to run away and marry him anyway. They finally relented.

I don’t know the entire story of my uncle’s life. I don’t know if he ever got adopted out or if he had to endure the life of a foster child. Being taken away from his parents at the age of 2 was pretty traumatic for him. He suffered from abandonment issues. He was in his early 20’s when his first wife left him taking their 2 daughters. She couldn’t handle his drinking. One day she called him up asking for a favor. She had just moved into a new apartment and needed him to haul some furniture. She promised him a home cooked meal. After working all afternoon trying to please her, they sat down to dinner.

She allegedly laughed in his face about what a push over he was (I guess they were both drinking at this time). She allegedly continued to berate him and because of his drunken state, the fact she had abandoned him and was now using him, he completely blacked out. During his blackout, he picked up a steak knife next to his plate, and repeatedly stabbed her to death. The next thing he remembers is “waking up” standing outside his friends house, covered in blood. The police were called, and he was arrested. The two girls were put into foster care and were adopted out to different families. He was convicted of murder (no idea if it was manslaughter or 1st degree) and sentenced to 17 years in federal penitentiary.

When I think back at how young all the players are in this story, it’s rather sad. I looked at some of the facts in this case. My uncle was 45 when he died, his wife was 27. She said they had been married for 7 years, that means she was 20 when she married my uncle, who was just fresh out of prison for murdering his first wife, and yes, she knew about it. They lived with her mother. She constantly nagged him over his drinking and cocaine use (like she didn’t know this prior to marrying him). Their relationship was extremely volatile, constant fighting, each one disappearing for days on end. Thank God they had no children. They were poor and uneducated.

And even though I know all this about my uncle and his life, I do know he wasn’t suicidal. Several of his friends told the cops this during the investigation. But, Peggy, well, little Peggy mentioned she thought he was depressed and therefore, suicidal. I disagree with her on several aspects:

1. My uncle was in prison for 17 years. Why would he commit suicide after regaining his freedom?

2. Several witnesses heard his late wife’s father threaten him. He was purported to tell my uncle, if he ever got out of prison, he would put a hit on him, have him killed.

3. Some of his friends said he didn’t owe a lot of people a lot of money, but how would they know? They were drunks just like my uncle. They would sit in a dark bar, drink alcohol, and shoot the shit, telling their tall tales to each other. Not a very reliable source if you ask me.

4. During the time of my uncles demise, there was a cult like group in Florida, the Yahweh’s, who were killing white people randomly as their initiation into the cult between April, 1986 and October, 1986. Their leader, sent people out into the Miami metro area and selected people randomly to kill. Many of these murders where made to look like suicide and/or they have never been solved.

Miami’s Yahweh Ben Yahweh cult, the most notorious sect of the Black Hebrew Israelites, was implicated in a reign of terror in the 1980s, and has now all but disappeared. But at its height, it controlled an $8 million empire of properties, including a Miami headquarters known as the ”Temple of Love” and temples in 22 states. It left a track record of horrific violence, including the murders of 14 people.Its doomsday leader, Oklahoma native Hulon Mitchell Jr. (known as Yahweh Ben Yahweh, Hebrew for ”God, son of God”), is in prison with six other sect members for conspiracy in connection with the murders. Mitchell ordered the slayings of black cult defectors to keep others in line, and the random murders of whites as part of an initiation to a secret ”Brotherhood” within the temple. The killers, as proof of their deeds, often brought back severed heads and ears to Mitchell.” (Update: He was released in September, 2011.)

Rough Waters, ‘Stream of Knowledge’ Probed by OfficialsSouthern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report, Fall 1997.

5. My uncle was murdered not far from where he lived with his wife and mother in law. His wife, Peggy, had a brother. One of my suspicions is his wife and mother in law had him killed and I believe her brother did it. Why did she not report him missing until almost a month of not hearing from him? Why didn’t the company who owned the van he was driving not report the van stolen or missing? Her excuse of him habitually taking off for days at a time is not a viable excuse. Days does not amount to months. True, there were no cell phones back then, at least affordable ones, however, for someone who has a cocaine habit and disappearing from work, leaves him with no money for his habit.

6. The property found on him, his wallet which contained $11.00 and a $1.00 in his pocket doesn’t account for the almost $2,000 in cash he had on him once he cashed two checks from 2 painting jobs. Did he purchase more cocaine with them? Or did his wife/brother in law take the money prior to hanging him?

7. If he indeed hung himself, how was he able to climb the Australian Pine which was over 123 ft high and whose branches wouldn’t even hold up a swing? below is a picture of Australian Pine trees which surround the Miami area’s wetlands.

8. Some of his friends reported he was talking about getting away and getting help with his addiction. FACT: He had called my mother, his sister, and asked her how the painting business was in California. She told him it was booming. She told him to send out his resume (I was working in Customer Service for a new residential builder) and maybe I could help him get a job. My mother also had a friend of hers whose husband did painting jobs on the side and she told him maybe he could help him as well. If this was how he was going to break his addiction, why would he commit suicide?

9. Autopsy report stated the injury to the neck caused by the knot was cause of death. This is what the coroner wrote in his report: “The victim suffered a fracture to the third cervical vertebra on the left posterior side of the neck, which was consistent with the victim falling or jumping from the tree branch. The vertebra is located on the left front neck area, which is also consistent with the knot on the rope, which was tied to the right rear of the victims’s neck directly across from the force of the rope, which pulled upward when the victim jumped from the tree…the rope was tied in a hangman’s noose consisting of a five-loop hangman and four overhand knots behind the neck slightly to the right side. The noose measured 8.5 inches around the victim’s neck, which, according to Dr. Grey, was consistent with the victim’s decomposition….the white cloth used to tie the victim’s hands was looped two times around the right wrist and then placed in a slip knot on the left wrist. The coroner advised that the victim’s probably cause of death was due to hanging and the manner of death would be classified as a suicide. The rope and white cloth were transported to the MDPD property room.

10. Of the three receipts found in his van, none had items on there which included the rope that was used in the hanging. One salesperson told detectives my uncle had purchased 3′ of chain, and their store did not sell rope. Also, when they spoke with the owner of the painting company, she told detectives there would be no need for rope in their business. So where did the brand spanking new rope come from?

11. One of my uncles best friends told detectives because the victim had spent so many years in prison he had a poor attitude and outlook on life but did not perceive him to be suicidal. He did report he snorted too much cocaine and was having marital problems (everyone of my uncles friends reported the marital problems, which makes me wonder if she committed murder and has gotten away with it, her and her brother.) The last time his friend saw him, they had dinner at my uncles house a few weeks prior to him disappearing, and they had gone out drinking to the El Toro Bar (my uncles hangout). My uncles friend also stated the victim was seriously considering getting treatments or assistance in getting off his cocaine dependency and told him that he was going to go away in order to do so.

12. Another friend interviewed by detectives also stated the victim was depressed over his marital problems, which was his main problem, and stated the victim was constantly being nagged by his wife and causing him severe depression. His friend did state the victim had a cocaine problem and was usually drunk. He stated the victim was not suicidal because although he loved his wife and she would leave him on occasion, he did not believe the victim would kill himself over her leaving him.

13. My uncles boss had left him in charge of the company after he left the area sometime in April to restore a home in NY which his parents left him. He stated the victim was extremely depressed usually because he was always fighting with his wife. He also stated the victim received a $600 or $700 check as a partial payment for a job he was working on in Kendall and that he told the victim to take out his portion and give the rest to his nephew who lived in Miami. The nephew never heard from the victim. According the victims wife, he also had a check for $1,100 which he cashed and did not give the money to the nephew. The money was never found.

14. The crime scene: Located 220 feet from the west of the southbound lane of the Florida Turnpike. the Australian pine tree was 125 feet high. A 1 inch thick manila hemp three strand rope was tied at a branch which extended to the east and measured approximately 14 feet up from the ground. The rope was noted to be tied in three loops around the branch and then had two square knots below the branch with the rope extending downward.The rope hangs downward from the tree, had been tied around the victims neck approximately 8 feet down from the branch from which it was tied. A torn white knit pullover shirt was observed on the ground apprx. 3 feet southwest of the Australian pine tree. The pullover is observed to be torn at the midsection.

Now, seriously, for a man who is always drunk and high, how was he able to accomplish this? How was he able to get his drunk ass up the trunk of a tree, in the dark (my uncle was over 6′ tall) in order to jump to his death in a suicide? I find it shameful that no one in his family ever asked for the police report on his death. His reputation with his family was the same as it was with his friends. He was a murderer, a felon, a drunk and a drug addict. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to kill him and get away with it. And, even though I never really knew my uncle, I was still very curious about what happened to him. Why wasn’t anyone else curious as to what happened to him?

15. The body was in a state of decomposition so advanced, the victims body was hanging from the pine tree with the neck hanging by a small piece of skin. The victim’s hands were tied behind his back at the wrists. The body was in advanced decomposition with the skeletal structure of the head visible. The chest and upper torso was leathered. The right leg was dangling with the foot bones missing. The left leg was missing at the hip. The body was viewed as naked. The pants were on the ground with the victims wallet and ID in the rear pocket. The left leg bones were inside the left pants leg. The victim’s shoes were on the ground under the pants. The right foot was in the right shoe and left foot was in the left shoe.

Nowhere in this report is the finding of my uncles teeth. He had false teeth, most likely from all the “cocaine or meth use”. Nothing in any of the reports I have received mentions his teeth. Where did his teeth go? He was identified by finger prints, not sure how they were able to get fingerprints from a badly decomposed body, but the report states they were able to identify his body via fingerprints obtained by the FBI.

16. Another friend of my uncles, Mr. Charles Surridge, the son of my uncles employer, contacted the lead detective of the case when he read about the body being found. On June 4th he called the detective stating he had been “good friends” with the victim. I have two newspaper clippings on the finding of my uncles body but neither one of them has a date as to when it appeared in the paper. This young kid stated he was shocked to read about the death in the newspaper and wished to know more about the circumstances. Because the case was still under investigation, the detective asked the kid to provide any information he may have. Charlie told the detective last time he saw the victim was later part of April but could not recall the exact date. He claims he and his mother (my uncles employer) were concerned because the victim had disappeared and taken the company van. He said he didn’t know much about his personal life except he had a drinking and drug problem. He said he was the type of person that owed everybody a little bit of money but no one a great deal of money. He couldn’t think of any one who would want to harm him but that if the victim did indeed kill himself, it was because of his wife. He said the victims wife was constantly messing with his head which caused the victim to be depressed. (The depression wasn’t caused from his alcohol addiction? Duh, of course it was!) When he was asked to describe the victim as to what type of person he was he stated, “he was the type of person that always had a beer in his hand and his favorite drinking place was the El Toro.”

Another one of my uncle’s friends, Bart, who was contact by Peggy during the time my uncle was no where to be found, advised Peggy that he had heard conversation on the street that the victim was deep into drugs and got bumped off, and indicated that the victim was probably dead somewhere in the everglades. Bart never disclosed his source and from the police report, the detective never pursued talking to Bart themselves. Again, I feel they felt he wasn’t worth the effort or the money. He was dead. Another dirtbag off the streets.

It is also believed my uncles drug connect was Mr. Moore, his boss, who conveniently moved out of state and up to New York in April, supposedly prior to my uncle’s “suicide.” The detective never questioned Mr. Moore except over the telephone.

I have so many unanswered questions but numerous emails back to Miami Dade police were never answered once they sent me the report. I never received the crime scene pictures and whether they still have them, who knows. I’m sure the only way for me to get them would be for me to actually go there and ask for them. They were reluctant to send me the police report to begin with because it was an old case and they didn’t know who I was…

My biggest problem with this case is this: If my uncle was always drunk or high on cocaine, how the hell was he able to climb up an Australian Pine tree that stood 123 ft high, to a 14 ft branch, knot all the knots found in the rope, do a hangman’s noose, all in the dark, and then climb the tree again, wrap the rope around the tree branch, put the noose around his neck, tie his hands behind his back, and jump to his death? No note was left behind, his teeth were missing, I just can not accept the fact this was a suicide.

My investigation will not end here. I will continue to ask people I know who may be able to give me some answers. I probably will go into the Miami Dade Police Department and request the crime scene photos. I also want to speak to his wife, Peggy. I feel she left out key pieces of information and wasn’t the victim she made herself out to be.

Side note: My uncles birthday was August 24th. My email to the MDPD was dated August 23rd. I did not know my uncles birthday was the 24th of August when I petitioned the police for his file. Was this a coincidence or was my uncles spirit egging me on to do this investigation? Something else I will never know for sure. Suicide is a horrible death, not just for the victim but the one’s they leave behind.

If you or someone you know needs help please reach out and call the suicide hotline at: 1-800-273-8255

And if you know someone who may be fighting an addiction to alcohol or drugs, please visit http://www.nowaddictiontreatment.com. You or your loved one does not need insurance to get help.