Judge Curtis Chillingsworth

In 1955 West Palm Beach Florida was not what it is today.  Census records show that in 1955 there were only about 150,000 people in the entire county.  In 2004 that number was 1.2 million.  There were only two judges on the bench in the county.  There was Judge Joseph Peel Jr. who handled more of the civil cases and did things such as signed warrants, and his boss, Judge Curtis Chillingsworth who handled all of the criminal cases in the county.  By 1955 Peel and Chillingsworth did not get along very well and while Chillingsworth had recently informed the mayor of his plan to retire soon after nearly three decades on the bench, Peel was apparently on his last career leg.  

Then, on June 15, 1955 both Judge Chillingsworth and his wife, Marjorie disappeared. They had last been seen the night before at a dinner party.  The guests said the Chillingsworth's left the home around 10 pm to head to their home in nearby Manalapan Florida.  The following morning at about 8 am a contractor had come to the home for a scheduled time. The Chillingsworth's were building a play set in their yard for their grandchildren.  The contractor would say when he showed up the front door was open but no one was home. The Judge had an appointment set at the courthouse that morning at 10 am and when he did not show everyone knew something was wrong.

The Chillingsworth home was search but other than the door being open and they not to be found nothing seemed odd.  Their keys were still in their car (something that was apparently the habit of the time), and money and valuables were still in the home.  Investigators ruled out accidental drowning when they discovered the couple's suits.  It seems that the only things missing were the Chillingworth's and their pajamas.

The couple's three daughters would offer a reward for information and even the county would do the same.  In 1957 the couple would be declared officially dead.  In 1959 the county decided that the $100,000 they had offered as a reward in 1955 would still be kept "for eternity" or until the case was solved but there had been no leads what so ever.

Then sometime in 1959 a man by the name of Floyd "Lucky" Holzapfel was intoxicated and told another man he knew what had happened to the Judge and his wife.  James Yenzer, who would also apparently know Judge Peel, contacted an former police officer he knew, Jim Wilber, about Holzapfel sometime later.  They in turn contacted the police and a sting was set up in which Yenzer and Wilber would take Holzapfel to a motel, supply him with alcohol and get him talking while officers in the next room taped what was being said.  This was fairly sophisticated for 1960.  After hearing his story officers would arrest Holzapfel for the murders of the Judge and his wife on October 1, 1960. Judge Joseph Peel, well, now ex-judge, would also be arrested.

To understand why these men were involved in the deaths of Judge Chillingsworth and his wife, and know what happened you need to know a little about Judge Peel.  He had his hands in a few dirty places.  First, gambling and moonshining were not only illegal at the time, but also highly rampant in the area.  There were raids being made all over.  However, in order to conduct a raid the police needed a search warrant and Judge Peel was the man to sign those.  While it apparently would not be learned for several years, when Judge Peel would sign the warrant he would then make a call to the person who would soon be raided and give them a "heads up."  For this protection the judge was getting "kick back" money, or "protection money" as they called it then.  But that was not way in 1955 he was facing disbarment, this is only where he was able to find the people he needed to do his dirty work.

In 1953 Judge Peel, who was still allowed to also work as a private attorney had represented both sides in a divorce proceeding which apparently was not allowed at the time, or at the very least it was discovered his representation had been unfair to at least one of the parties.  Judge Chillingsworth had discovered this and let Peel off with a warning but was warned this was his one and only chance and the next issue would have him removed from the bench.  Peel could not have that because then not only would the criminals he had been "protecting" not have him to help, but he would not be getting all that extra money. Then apparently some time leading up to 1955 Peel had told a woman that she was divorced even though he had not officially finished the paperwork.  The woman would remarry and have a child only to discover that her first marriage had not been dissolved legally and in the eyes of the law she was a bigamist. She apparently, and justifiably, was angry and had reported this.  Some of my research indicated that it was for this reason that Judge Chillingsworth had the appointment the day after he disappeared, but then some indicated it was another reason.  The long and short of it is that Peel knew he would be disbarred under Chillingsworth. In the end he really did not save himself though because he was given a 90 day suspension for the case of the "non-divorce" and quit soon after.  He resigned from the bar in 1959.  

At any rate while he was eventually disbarred anyway it appears that in 1955 Peel thought the answer to all of his problems was to get rid of Judge Chillingsworth.  He had hire Floyd Holzapfel who in turn had recruited a man named Bobby Lincoln.  According to Holzapfel, Judge Peel had showed him around town pointing out Judge Chillingsworth and the couple's home.  In the early morning of June 15, 1955 Holzapfel and Lincoln would take a boat right up near the Chillingsworth home.  It was around 1 in the morning and Holzapfel knocked on the door.  Judge Chillingsworth would answer in his pajamas.  Holzapfel would pull a gun and ask if anyone else was in the home.  The judge told him yes, his wife.  The couple was then taken back to their boat at gunpoint.  The boat was having issues as the engine had sucked up a bunch of sand so at one point the group just drifted for quite some time.  The couple was weighted down and thrown overboard.  Despite the water being searched just after their disappearance their bodies had never been found. Holzapfel would later say that not only had Peel never paid him the money he promised he never paid the expenses.  He would also proclaim in court that Peel had others on a hit list including the prosecutor at the time.

Holzapfel would not tell his story right away though it seems, or at least not to the court. But, upon his arrest now EX-Judge Peel had off on the run.  He would be found a month later in Chattanooga Tennessee proclaiming his innocence.  Authorities would find Bobby Lincoln was in prison in Michigan by then serving a sentence.  They offered him immunity in this case if he testified against Peel and Holzapfel.  Knowing that they now had Lincoln Holzapfel would plead guilty on December 12, 1960.  He was sent to death row but in 1966 his sentenced was commuted to life.  In 1992 Holzapfel would suffer a stroke that would leave him partial paralyzed.  He would die in prison in 1996.

Bobby Lincoln would get his immunity in the case.  He was released from prison in 1962, converted to Islam and changed his name.  He would die in May of 2004 at the age of eighty.  

Peel was not going down without a fight it seems.  It seems that before James Yenzer had gotten Jim Wilber involved he had gone to Peel who he was friends with also and told him Holzapfel was going to talk.  Peel gave Yenzer $8,000 to kill Holzapfel.  He obviously had not done so.  While in jail awaiting his trial Peel continued to attempt to have Holzapfel killed and even planned a failed jail escape.  On March 30, 1961 Peel was convicted as an accessory to murder in the case against Judge Chillingsworth in Fort Pierce Florida.  It was determined, rightfully so that he would not have received a fair trial in West Palm Beach. Not only had Judge Chillingsworth been well respected in his own right, his family had deep roots in the county in politics and the legal system.  Strangely the deaths of Judge Chillingsworth and his wife Marjorie were not tried together and Peel was put on trial again for her murder.  This time he would be tried just outside Tampa but he would decide to plead no contest.  He would receive two life sentences.

In 1979 the state of Florida actually paroled Judge Peel but only because they then sent him to a federal prison.  At some point he had been convicted and sentenced to eighteen years in federal court for mail fraud in another case.  In 1982, due to seriously ill health he was paroled. He did a very quick interview with the press and stated that while he did know about the murders, he had not been in on the planning.  He would die nine days after his release.  

Jim Wilber, the ex police officer that helped James Yenzer get Holzapfel to confess and led to his arrest would apply for the reward money.  It was said that he received $66,000.  He was quoted later as saying he knew six weeks after the couple had disappeared that Peel was involved but I found nothing more than this statement.  


Popular posts from this blog

Matthew Heikkila

The murder of Jarrod Davidson

Rebecca Simpson