William Thomas "Tommy" Zeigler

I belong to a few true crime groups on the Internet and not long ago someone mentioned this story so per my usual routine it went on my list of cases to research.  By the time I was done I have to be honest in saying I am not sure what my feelings are about the case.  There are multiple sites on the web proclaiming that Tommy Zeigler was wrongfully convicted for the murders of his wife, Eunice, her parents, Perry and Virginia Edwards, and Charlie Mays, a customer at the store Tommy ran with his parents. The fact of the matter is that no matter the case it is not unusual to find website pertaining to someone's innocence.  One of the differences in this one is that Tommy Zeigler has been on Florida's death row since he was convicted in 1976. Another thing that makes this case a bit different is that today, in 2016, there are still issues involving this case in the courts.  Zeigler has made several attempts to have further DNA testing done, while the state has fought these efforts.  By all accounts a judge one again heard an argument on this issue in March of 2016 but I could find no decision as of yet.  However, the one thing that makes this case stand out from many others is the fact that in 1976 when Zeigler was convicted the jury recommended a life sentence and yet the judge overruled them and sentenced him to death.  That issue was brought up again in the 1980's and a re-sentencing was ordered and on August 17, 1989 he was again sentenced to death.

As I said above this is one of those cases that as I sit here to compile the information I have gathered I am unsure just what my feelings are on this case.  This happens from time to time.  Sometimes as I put all the information together that I have gather I will lean more towards one way than another, sometimes I remain just as perplexed as I was when I started. I suppose we will see which way this one goes.

William Thomas Zeigler, better known as Tommy to all who knew him, helped run W. T. Zeigler Furniture store in Winter Garden Florida, a town northwest of Orlando.  It is what is considered to be a citrus town and in the 1970's it was often filled with immigrants who had come to help with the orchards.  Tommy's parents had opened the store in 1939 and was very well known and respected around town, as was Tommy.  Not only was the Zeigler family known in political circles they were known as fair people.  Tommy's parents, Tom Sr. and Beulah were known for being one of the few businesses that extended credit to black customers when they had opened the store. They also owned some apartment buildings in the area so the Zeigler family was pretty well off.  I did a little digging and I could find nothing indicating that Tommy had any siblings.  I think this is important in a way to establish that Tommy would have been not just the sole heir of his parents' estate but also that he was likely fairly well taken care of.  By the end of 1975 Tom Sr was 70 years old and his wife in her mid 60's so it is also just as likely that while their name was on the company as well as the deeds that Tommy was running most of everything already.  I have found no indication that in anyway that the company was struggling or the Zeigler's in financial (parents, or Tommy) trouble of any sort.  

On the night of December 24, 1975 Eunice Zeigler had gone to the furniture store with her parents, Perry and Virginia Edwards, so her father could pick out a chair for his Christmas gift.  Tommy and Eunice were supposed to be going to a Christmas party that evening at a local judges home.  In fact, the police chief and his wife were to pick them up but when they got to the Zeigler home no one was there (some things seem to indicate that it is possible the chief and his wife were to pick them up at the furniture store).  The next thing that is undisputed in this case is the fact that around 9:20 pm that evening the phone rang at the judges' home.  Tommy Zeigler was on the line and said that he had been attacked and shot at the store. So why did Tommy call the judges' home and not the police? Well for one, I cannot even be certain that 9-1-1 was available at that time in the area.  This was a time period where people were starting to get the three digit code but not everyone seemed to have it just yet, and maybe Tommy did not know the number off the top of his head.  More convincingly the answer lies with the fact that Tommy knew that most, if not all of the officers were gathered at the judges' home that night since that is where he and his wife were supposed to be.  

At any rate officers descended on the Zeigler furniture company (the store is now, in 2016, a thrift store) and found not just Tommy Zeigler shot, but also the bodies of his wife, her parents and a man by the name of Charlie Mays.  All of the victims had been shot and it seems that Perry Edwards and Charlie Mays had also been beaten.  Some agree that along with a gunshot to his abdomen, Tommy also had a head wound.  Tommy was the only survivor and was rushed to the hospital.  It seems officers were suspicious from the start and while they were establishing a story from Tommy a man by the name of Edward Williams was entering the police station.  But, before we go into what he had to contribute, let's go into Tommy's story, which was rather simple actually.  Tommy's story was that he had gone back to the store and noticed the lights were off which was strange since apparently he knew his wife and in laws were to be there.  He claimed that just as he stepped inside a struggle began between himself and two men.  He claimed that in the struggle his glasses had flown off his face and lost.  Tommy says he pulled out his gun (he claimed to have one for protection for the store as well as when he would pick up rent from the apartments his parents owned) and fired at least once.  He then claimed that the gun jammed and he threw it at one of his attackers.  At this point Tommy says he was shot and lost consciousness. When he woke up he had to crawl around to find his glasses and made his way to the phone. 

Edward Williams' story however would be much different.  He had walked into the police station with a gun and told the police that he had met Tommy Zeigler at his home about 8:00 that evening and they had driven over to the furniture company to make some deliveries. Williams would claim that when they got there Zeigler told him to drive around back while he went through the front.  Williams said that while he was coming in the back door Zeigler had come up to him pointing the gun at him and fired three times but that the gun had not gone off.  He claimed that he then took the gun from Tommy and began to flee the area.  He said that Tommy came out claiming he did not know that was Williams and it was then that Williams noticed blood on Tommy and he left the area with the gun.  That gun was the one in which he was now showing the police. 

Within four days of the murders police arrested Tommy Zeigler for the four brutal murders. Prosecutors would claim at his trial that the motive was a life insurance policy that had been obtained just a few months prior for $50,000 on Eunice.  By all accounts it appears that at the time this policy was taken out Tommy had also obtained one for himself for the same amount.  At his trial in June of 1976 prosecutors maintained this theory and that Tommy had shot himself.  They would also have a witness by the name of Felton Thomas who would testify that earlier in the evening of December 24th he and Tommy had gone out to an orange grove with Charlie Mays (the 4th victim in the shootings) and Tommy had wanted the two men to shoot some guns he had brought.  Thomas would claim that he then went back with the two men to the furniture store where he supposedly felt uneasy and decided not to go inside with them and had left.  

At the time of the trial the word DNA was not any where in anyone's vocabulary.  The only way that blood could be identified was by type.  At the trial prosecutors would claim that Perry Edwards blood was on the shirt that Tommy was wearing and by their speculation Edwards had been put in a choke hold by Tommy while he hit him with a mental crank that had been found at the scene with blood on it.  There had also apparently been multiple guns at the scene but by all indication it was the gun that Edward Williams presented to the police that was determined to be the murder weapon.  

The jury then returned with a recommendation that Tommy Zeigler receive a sentence of life in prison.  The judge, Maurice Paul, a judge the defense had asked to remove himself before trial, stunned everyone when instead of going with the jury recommendation he sentenced Tommy to death.  Florida was one of the few states in which this was an option for a judge, and even still it was rarely used.  

So pretty open and shut right?  Well, not so fast. Before I go into what we now know about things, as well as things that have been alleged. Lets first look at the defense.  But, I have to be honest in saying it gets a bit confusing as to what was really known, and by whom, at the time of the trial and what was done about it.  We do know that at the time of the trial the defense had asked Judge Paul, now a District Court Judge, to remove himself from the case due to the fact that a few months prior to the murders it seems that Judge Paul and Tommy Zeigler were on opposite sides of a case.  The specifics are unclear to me and seeing the age of this case it is difficult to sort through.  One thing that I read stated that a friend of Tommy's named Andrew James was on trial and that Judge Paul had opposed Tommy being a character witness. But, in later research I saw something that said a friend of Tommy's was at risk of losing his liquor license for his store and that Tommy had vouched for his character and it seems that the judge may not have actually presided over the case but was on the state's side and testified against the man's character.  The liquor store owner was a black man and while the Zeigler's were known to get along with all races, this was surely not the case with everyone, especially in the south in this time period.  

The defense argued at the trial that despite Charlie Mays' wife saying that he had an appointment to pick up a television, that had not been true and they indicated that Charlie Mays and Edward Williams had been on the plot together.  The claim was that it was done in retaliation because Zeigler was "about to uncover corruption involving high ranking officials" and a loan shark operation that was preying on the immigrants workers in the area. As I read this portion of my research I immediately thought of the case of Robert Peernock that I recently blogged about.  Peernock used, and continues to use, a similar defense. Although admittedly I should not feel this way but because of my feelings on the Peernock case I felt that this defense gave him less credence.  The difference in this case however is that while I may not think that the "motive" given behind it had much leverage, the allegations of perpetrators did have more.  But, I will get to that in a bit.  

There would be allegations made fairly early, not just against the judge but also against the jury.  One of the jurors was later quoted as saying that she had not felt that Tommy was guilty but had been pressured and coerced into voting with the others in order to end the case faster so that people could celebrate the July 4th holiday.  There have been other allegations, although I cannot officially confirm them that this particular juror was given a Valium, as ordered by the judge, to calm her down.

So for the last 40 years Tommy Zeigler has sat on Florida's death row.  My information indicates that in that time only two dates have been set for his execution and once he came within a half a day of it being carried out.  It seems just as one appeal after another is denied everyone expects a new date to be set and yet something else will be filed.  Over the course of the years of course the only mainstay in the case has been Tommy Zeigler.  In the 1980's the prosecutor in charge of the case became Jeff Ashton.  He is best known as the prosecutor in the Casey Anthony case.  He apparently has been very vocal about this case, just as his opponents have been very critical of him and his position.  Many of Tommy's appeals have surrounded around DNA testing of which Ashton has argued, and apparently the courts have agreed some of the time, that DNA results would not matter.  It does seem however that at some point there was some DNA testing done because it was found out at some point that the blood the prosecutors had claimed at trial belonged to Perry Edwards on Tommy's shirt actually belonged to Charlie Mays. Apparently it seems that the defense theory as far as DNA goes is that presumably if Tommy was the killer than all the victims' blood should be on him.  Then again I could totally see if the results came back unfavorable to the defense that they would go back to a statement Tommy made early on that when he woke up and searched for his glasses he may have brushed up on some of the bodies.  In the same respect however I see no harm in having DNA tests, we are talking about a man's life.

Those who adamantly believe in Tommy's guilt has argued that his story has changed over the years.  In essence that is a tricky one for me.  Tommy's initial story was he was attacked by two men in the darkened store, had shot his gun, then threw it and then knocked unconscious after he had been shot.  At trial the theory was given that Edward Williams and Charlie Mays were those "two men" and a theory was given, the one I do not necessarily buy. We also have to keep in mind that most of the time when a theory is given by an attorney it comes from them, and not necessarily their client.  The murders occurred on December 24, 1975, Tommy was arrested four days later and his trial was only six months later.  Today Tommy's team argues that the man behind the killings was actually Perry Edwards Jr, Tommy's brother in law. They argue that Perry Sr. and Virginia Edwards were in the process of changing their will and making Tommy Zeigler the executor of their substantial estate. They also argue that Perry Jr. knew of this and was angered by it.  Supporters and investigators have found what they believe to be proof of the process of the will being changed and argue now that family members of Perry Jr. believe he was involved and that he was abusive to his wife and children.  Those opposed to this theory point out that none of this has come out until after Perry Jr had died while supporters claim the reason is that people were afraid to come forward.  The argument is that Perry Jr. paid someone, probably Williams and Mays I am guessing, to do the job.  Supporters also claim that the perpetrators were promised $1,000 a piece (I cannot say how they know this OR if in fact it is true) and that while I cannot tell you what exact information Perry Jr. supposedly provided they claim he was used as a confidential informant to the prosecutor at the trial.  The biggest clue that those who believe Perry was involved say is that two rings belonging to Eunice Zeigler were found in his possession after his death.  Supporters say that these rings were ones that Eunice always wore but were seemingly taken at the time of the murders.

On the surface it looks like a pretty cut and dry case and the defense theories seem to be stretching.  But, this is where it gets tricky. Since this case has spanned 40 years, and the murders were committed in a time long before scientific breakthroughs or even real crime scene protection things begin to get grainy.  Then you have to sift through the facts from the rumors and then add some common sense.  The problem is where do you begin?

Lets start with a little crime scene analogy.  While apparently the prosecution based their theory on Edward Williams' story it also seems that they said the gun he turned into the police, saying Tommy gave it to him, was the murder weapon.  I will go more into Williams later and what I think of him but for now lets just focus on the gun.  According to my research there were "multiple guns" at the scene and more than one was used, as well as the metal crank.  In general it is believed that when more than one weapon is used, there is more than one perpetrator.  Now, granted, if we believe Williams' story that the gun he turned in was handed to him by Tommy and Tommy already had blood on him but presumably not shot yet, this would require more than one gun, but could be only one perpetrator, Tommy.  

One of the responding officers was Leigh McEachern.  His brother, Raymond has researched the case a lot through the years.  In fact, Raymond has created one of the websites that devote themselves on freeing Tommy Zeigler and he has created several U-Tube videos devoted to the case.  Raymond states that he and his brother visited the scene in recent years and his brother stated that there had been a fence between the store and the nearby motel. According to the brothers Charlie Mays vehicle was near the fence on the side of the motel. This would seem odd considering Charlie Mays' wife claims that he was in the store to pick up a television.  Keep in mind in 1975 televisions were heavy and not small, but regardless, if Mays' purpose was to pick up a television, why would he not park in front of the building by a door? Tommy Zeigler has always maintained that as far as he was concerned there was no plan for Mays to pick up a television. 

Then there is the gunshot wound in which Tommy suffered in his abdomen.  Prosecutors would claim that it was self inflicted.  Sure, we have seen cases like this over and over.  The two most prominent that come to mind for me is the Jeffrey MacDonald case and the Darlie Routier case.  In both of those cases, like this one, they were the only survivor where family members were murdered and they too had injuries and prosecutors would say were self inflicted.  In the MacDonald case he was a doctor so that played a bigger role in whether he had the ability to make an injury look severe enough and yet still miss arteries.  Experts have claimed (although I cannot say if they were at the trial or if they have emerged since) that the angle of the gunshot wound to Tommy, had it been self inflicted, would have had to been done with his non dominant hand and in an awkward angle. It has been argued that, unlike MacDonald, Zeigler did not have medical training and while shooting himself would not be totally out of the realm of possibilities in a situation like this, to do so in this manner would have been reckless and unwarranted.  It was also said that when officers arrived on the scene, just a few minutes after Tommy's call, that the blood around his wound had begun to dry.  Keep that in mind as we'll discuss that in just a bit.

So now let's talk about Edward Williams.  While the jury apparently believed the story that he told, I have several issues with it and because of that it, among other things, it gives me a twinge of doubt as to Tommy Zeigler's guilt.   Williams' story was that he met Tommy at his home around 8 pm because they were going to do some deliveries from the store that night. This part alone seems odd to me.  This was an era where things were not open at this hour, especially on a holiday (and Christmas Eve was considered one). To add to this Tommy and Eunice were expected at a holiday party at a judge's home and although I never got the exact time they were to be picked up, to make deliveries just seems strange to me.  Williams went on to say that when they got to the store (presumably driving separately) Tommy went in the front and told Williams to go in through the back. He then claimed that after entering the store Tommy had put a gun up to him and clicked it 3 times although it did not fire.  He claims to have taken then gun and gone outside where Tommy has now followed him claiming he did not realize it was Williams.  Williams then says that he notices blood on Tommy's clothing and he decided to leave, still having the gun.  Now, we can presume that Tommy had no blood on him when he entered the building.  Williams never claims to have heard any gun shots in the few short minutes between Tommy going in the front and Williams going in the back door, so does that mean the victims were already dead?  If so are we to believe that Tommy had already killed them all... cleaned up...left... went back and attempted to kill Williams then ultimately shot himself.  Ok.  Not absolutely impossible although a bit improbable in my opinion.  But, something else that bothers me is the timing. If things went as Williams claims then why did he not immediately go to the police station with the gun and report what had happened? It seems that by the time Williams made it to the station Tommy had already supposedly shot himself, the wound had been allowed to dry a bit, the police were called at the judges' home and Tommy was being treated at the hospital.  

Then there is the issue of Felton Thomas.  I am not sure what I think of him.  At the trial he claimed that Tommy had taken him and Charlie Mays out to an orange grove to shoot some guns the day of the murders.  The prosecutors said this was in an attempt to frame the two men for the murders by getting their fingerprints on the guns.  In 2013 a private detective working on the case stated that Thomas told him that he told this story because "police told him it had to be Zeigler."  I am not sure I am buying that, I would like to hear more from Thomas and from his mouth and even still I would be leery of what he says.  In the same respect the private detective claims that a couple named Ken and Linda Roach claim they saw and heard things (although I could not determine what exactly those things were) involving this case and the crime and that they had talked to the police but told they were not needed.  It is also claimed that they were given and passed polygraph tests.

I realize that this blog has gone on for quite some time and for that I apologize but it is a very complicated and convoluted case.  With that said I feel like I would be doing a disservice if I failed to mention the name Robert Foster in this case.  This is not someone I have mentioned prior to now but it is someone that supporters of Tommy feel is, or could be important.  Investigators (for Tommy) discovered this name while researching the case.  The name Robert Foster was mentioned as a witness in Tommy's original arrest record.  It has been said that when defense attorney's could not find the said Robert Foster and spoke to the officer who prepared the arrest warrant they were told that it was a typo and that Robert Foster did not exist.  The attorney's took the officer's for their word.  It was this same officer who had supposedly just recently taken training in blood splatter.  He would testify that it was his belief that Perry Edwards and Charlie Mays were killed at different times based on the drying of the blood.  This led to the prosecution theory that Tommy Zeigler had killed his wife and her parents earlier and then had lured Mays, Williams, and attempted to lure Thomas to the store to frame them for the murders.  The investigators also discovered that earlier in the evening on the day the murders occurred a store just across the street had been robbed.  The victim in that case would later finger Robert Foster, a known criminal with convictions for robbery.  The defense contends that this was all hidden from the lawyers at trial.  They have also been able to discover a link between Mays, Williams and Fosters (or so they say as I play devils advocate here).  One of Tommy's appeals centered on Brady violations (things not given to the defense when it was known by the prosecution) but as with the rest of his appeals it also failed.

Can I tell you that Tommy Zeigler is innocent?  No, not at this time due to my limited research and knowledge.  There are those with much more knowledge, who have studied this case but the answer is still not clear.  There are those who stand firmly on both sides of his guilt or innocence.  What I can say is that the State of Florida and their taxpayers have paid an awful lot of money to fight to not just keep Zeigler behind bars to be executed, but also to prevent things that could answer more questions from being tested.  I quite often have said that I am neither an advocate for or against the death penalty.  I do not find it to be a deterrent to future criminals, and the cost to keep someone on death row outweighs the cost of housing a criminal for life, but there are cases in which I think the crime is so severe and evil that it does warrant the death penalty, but ONLY in those cases in which there is absolutely no question as to the guilt of the person.  This is no such case. 

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