From the Magazine: Murder Most Foul

These three historic homicide cases will haunt Palm Beach County forever

A couple is gunned down in their living room. Another couple vanishes. And a man is shot answering his door. Three particular Palm Beach County murders are notable for the unusual circumstances, but also because the victims already were notables. All three cases inspired books. And all three are juicy tales. But they also were tragedies for the families and friends of the victims, as well as relatives of the alleged killers.

Leno and Louise Lazzari, 1948. Curtis Eugene and Marjorie Chillingworth, 1955. And Richard Kreusler, 1976.

Their whodunits are part of Florida’s tapestry.

Leno and Louise

Leno Lazzari had been a Grand Prix racer, a professional boxer and a soldier for his native Italy in World War I.

He became a sculptor and, like many, came to Palm Beach for its lucrative customer base. He set up a studio right on the island’s tony Worth Avenue.

The distraction of World War II had ended, and Palm Beach society was back in full swing. Lazzari’s clients included the wife of former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge as well as essayist H.L. Mencken and the Duke of Windsor.

In this era before the interstates, Leno would wind his way home down U.S. 1 to Boca Raton, then a settlement of only about 900 people, where he lived with Louise, his second wife.

That’s where a family friend who’d come for lunch on Nov. 14, 1948, found the screen door pried open and discovered the couple on the floor. She ran, screaming, out to U.S. 1 and flagged down a state trooper.

Leno was 48, Louise, 40.

The previous evening, the couple had visited friends in West Palm Beach for dinner and some bridge. Police said they got home just after midnight. As Louise switched on the bedroom light, she was shot three times. Leno grabbed his 12-gauge shotgun, firing a wild blast that tore into the refrigerator, before he was shot twice.

The killer stole Louise’s purse and rifled the dead Leno’s pants pockets before fleeing north in the couple’s Jeep. He stopped in Delray Beach, long enough to throw five .38-caliber cartridges onto the shoulder of the highway. His gun never was recovered.

Authorities began a national manhunt. They had plenty of potential motives with which to work, some more believable than others.

Lazzari had fled Italy in 1927 amid death threats by Mussolini fascists. Had they killed him in revenge?

Perhaps the Lazzaris were drug dealers and this had been a hit. Lazzari was a notorious womanizer. Perhaps a boyfriend or husband of one of his lovers had ended his streak of good luck.

Perhaps the couple were just victims of a random robbery and murder. If so, why were so many items, including Louise’s jewelry, left behind?

Franco Lazzari, Leno’s son from a previous marriage, who himself briefly was a suspect, argued his father was murdered for potentially valuable land he owned near the Boca Raton Hotel and Club.

Franco Lazzari later complained the estate’s appointed curator, the husband of the neighbor who’d found the bodies, had removed several items from the house.

Boca Raton police remained convinced the motive was money. Suspicion fell on Edmund Duane Phillips, a petty thief from the coal mining town of Washington, Pa., who carried a fight scar on his left cheek and had a criminal record dating to 1935.

In May 1949, police charged Phillips with stealing a Buick, $375 and some luggage down in Key West the day before the slayings.

Phillips told police he’d come to Key West and obtained a construction job but had been fired. He said he’d decided to head back north and stole the Buick and cash, but ditched the car in Boca Raton after it got stuck in sand. He denied killing the Lazzaris.

Phillips was sentenced to one year in prison on the car theft.

Fourteen years later, Boca Raton Police Detective Charles McCutcheon reviewed the case and concluded Phillips was the killer. Police hooked up the convict to a lie detector. It was inconclusive, and Phillips never was charged. He’d die in 1981.

In 2015, Sally Ling, a local author and an alumnus of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, penned Who Killed Leno and Louise? Her book, described as a mix of fact and fiction, points to the husband of the neighbor who said she’d found the bodies. Detectives had suspected she and Leno had been in an affair.

In the book, a letter is discovered in 2013 that’s from a Boca Raton police officer in which he admits to killing the Lazzaris. He says he’d lost big in gambling and was heavily in debt to mobsters, and the neighbor husband gave him $3,000—more than $32,000 in 2021 dollars—to perform the hit.

Ling doesn’t say in her book how much of that is fact or fiction. She didn’t respond to inquiries for this article.

The Motor is Fixed

Sometime in the early hours of June 15, 1955, Joe Peel’s phone rang. A man said, “The motor is fixed.”

Renowned judge Curtis Eugene Chillingworth and his wife Marjorie lay at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Their murders later would be called Palm Beach County’s crime of the century.

Peel relaxed, confident his criminal enterprise now was safe. And it was, for several years. Until someone ratted him out.

Chillingworth first was elected a county judge in 1920; at just 24, he was Florida’s youngest judge ever. Three years later, he became a circuit judge.

The judge and his wife bought a small getaway cottage down the coast from Palm Beach in a village called Manalapan that had all of 27 registered voters. The bungalow was steps from the beach.

In June 1955, Chillingworth had held the post for three decades. He had written the governor, saying he planned to retire. Chillingworth was 59, his wife 47.

At the time, Palm Beach County also had a municipal judge who handled small cases. He was Joseph Peel, Jr.

Peel’s primary job was as a lawyer. But he had his fingers in other enterprises, not so lawful. And as a judge, he had a sweet gig going.

Peel was being paid $500 by people who ran Bolita, an illegal lottery, as well as moonshine. Police would take warrants to Peel to sign so they could raid gambling dens. As soon as they’d left, Peel would call the crooks and tip them off.

It was Peel’s legal work that got him in trouble. In 1953, he represented both sides in a divorce and drew a warning from Chillingworth: two strikes and you’re out. Two years later, he handled a woman’s divorce, and told her it was final when it wasn’t. She remarried and had a baby, then learned Peel’s misconduct made her a bigamist.

Judge Chillingworth was about to drop the hammer on Joe Peel. He had to do something.

On the evening of June 14, the Chillingworths had dinner with friends in Palm Beach. They left about 10 p.m. for Manalapan.

At 8 the next morning, a carpenter the judge had engaged to build a playground for the Chillingworths’ grandchildren arrived at the Manalapan cottage. He found the front door open and the home empty.

At the courthouse in West Palm Beach, the judge, a paragon of punctuality, failed to take the bench for a 10 a.m. hearing. By noon, police were swarming the cottage.

They found a shattered porch light, drops of blood on the walkway to the beach, and two empty adhesive tape spools.

Also found: dry swimsuits, indicating no one had taken a morning swim. The judge had left the keys to his Plymouth in the ignition. His wallet contained money, and Marjorie’s pocketbook had $40 inside. This wasn’t a robbery. What was missing was a pair of men’s pajamas, a nightgown and two pairs of slippers.

The sea keeps her secrets, and exhaustive searches by boat, divers and even a helicopter proved fruitless. So did numerous rewards, including a state-legislated one for $100,000—nearly $1 million in 2021 dollars.

The case remained a mystery. Until, suddenly, it didn’t.

Floyd Holzapfel was a bookmaker’s son who’d served time for armed robbery in Oklahoma, then came to West Palm Beach. His nickname: Lucky.

In 1959, Lucky told a friend, a local insurance agent, he knew who had killed the Chillingworths. He said, “Man, there’s a hole out there in that ocean nobody’s found the bottom of.”

The agent also was a pal of Peel, and alerted him that Lucky might be preparing to rat him out. Peel gave the man more than $8,000 to kill Lucky. Instead, the insurance agent went to the cops.

In September 1960, the agent and a friend lured Lucky to a Holiday Inn in Melbourne. Inside the room: a hidden microphone. Over three days in the hotel, the three men emptied five bottles of liquor. Lucky’s lips got more and more loose. In an adjacent room, an officer got it all down on 30 reels of tape.

Peel later quit the Florida Bar and fled South Florida, but a friend betrayed him, and he was nabbed in Tennessee a month after Lucky’s arrest.

In the Melbourne hotel room, Lucky had mentioned Bobby Lincoln, a Riviera Beach moonshiner who ran two poolrooms, two taxicabs, and a numbers operation. Lincoln already was in prison on a 1958 moonshine-related federal conviction. The state attorney came to him with an immunity deal.

In 1960, offering up a Black man as a star witness in the middle of the South still was a dicey thing. But while prosecutors had a strong circumstantial case, they had no bodies. Bobby Lincoln would have to do.

The trial was moved some 60 miles up the road to Fort Pierce in an effort to seat a jury that hadn’t heard all about the case. It could have been held in Mars. The murders had become a national sensation.

When Lucky got word Bobby would be ratting him out, he buckled. And told all.

Peel had paid him and Bobby $2,500 and given them their assignment. He’d figured that, with no body, he’d never be convicted. But to give himself an alibi, he’d stay home and watch the TV game show “The $64,000 Question.” Afterward, the henchmen would call him with a code phrase to let him know the deed was done.

Lucky and Bobby shoved off from a marina in Riviera Beach. When they knocked on the door of the bungalow at about 1 a.m., Lucky told the judge it was a stickup. But there was one thing they hadn’t counted on: The judge wasn’t alone. His wife was there.

Bobby smashed the porch light. The men bound the Chillingworths’ hands with tape and walked them to the beach. On the way, Marjorie screamed, and Lucky opened a gash in her head with the butt of his pistol.

The men rowed two miles out. The judge offered them $200,000 to call off the murder. But they were determined. They strapped lead weights to the two.

“Ladies first,” Lucky said, pushing Marjorie overboard.

“Honey, remember, I love you,” the judge told his wife. She said, “I love you too.”

In the water, Chillingworth struggled to stay afloat, even after he was hit in the head with a shotgun butt. Finally, the men pulled him back aboard, tied a 25-pound anchor to his neck, and tried again. This time they watched him vanish into the dark water.

Joe Peel would claim Lucky and Bobby had acted alone. But on March 30, 1961, jurors took just five and a half hours to convict the former judge.

The Chillingworth case inspired two books: The Murder Trial of Judge Peel, by national columnist Jim Bishop, and The Chillingworth Murder Case, by former Palm Beach Post staffer Ernie Hutter.

Lucky went to death row, but his sentence was commuted. He would be up for parole in 2009. But he had a stroke in 1992 and died four years later.

Bobby Lincoln finished his federal sentence and moved to Chicago, and converted to Islam. He later returned to Palm Beach County. He died in 2004 at age 80.

Joe Peel would spend 21 years in prison. He would say to the end that he didn’t plan the murders and was guilty only of knowing about them and not stopping them. In 1982, riddled with cancer, he was paroled. He died nine days later.

Death in Palm Beach

For nine days in 1978, in what was the first trial in Palm Beach County history to be televised gavel-to-gavel, jurors and the public heard scandalous details surrounding the death of a wealthy and influential Palm Beacher.

But each day, more and more people came to believe the law was prosecuting the wrong guy.

At 47, oil executive Richard Kreusler was on top of the world. He was involved in President Gerald Ford’s reelection campaign. He hobnobbed with business leaders such as U.S. Sugar chief Alfonso Fanjul. And, with election day a month away, he was unopposed for a seat on the Palm Beach Town Council.

On Jan. 16, 1976, Kreusler had attended an evening reception for Gov. Reubin Askew. Later, back home, he heard his doorbell, walked to the front door, and asked who it was. Three shotgun blasts ripped through the door and a nearby window.

Kreusler lingered in a hospital for two weeks before he died.

An informant steered authorities to Mark Herman, a West Palm Beach karate instructor and a low-level drug dealer with a reputation as a street tough. His rap sheet had no fewer than 48 felony charges and 14 convictions. He would be indicted in 1977, 16 months after the slaying.

Herman insisted on his innocence. He came to one 1977 court appearance holding a sign reading, “I Am Being Framed. Perjury, Politics, Forgery.”

The prosecution had four key witnesses who said Herman had confessed in jail. But they had a credibility problem. They’d been in jail as well.

One of the four was Dexter Coffin III, whose family had grown wealthy by, among other things, inventing the flow-through tea bag. Coffin had what he said was a handwritten confession from Herman. He claimed Herman had been ripped off in a drug deal by a man whose parents lived next door to the Kreuslers. He said Herman was high and went to the wrong house.

Coffin and two other cellmates later would admit Coffin authored the “confession.” They said they’d lied in a bid for leniency.

One of the four cellmates was Gerry Denono, a self-proclaimed hit man who’d been convicted in two South Florida slayings and a third in Nevada. He later turned federal snitch and would vanish into the witness protection program.

Jurors, after nine hours of deliberation, convicted Herman. The judge, openly skeptical of the prosecution witnesses, refused to send him to death row, instead sentencing him to life in prison.

Prosecutor Jack Scarola, who went on to become a big-time West Palm Beach area lawyer, was accused of fabricating evidence. He’s vehemently denied the charge over the years, and said he and his team had a strong case against Herman that had convinced not just a jury, but several appeals judges.

Defense attorney Alfonso Sepe also was criticized for his work, which included calling not one witness. He later became a Miami-Dade County circuit judge but left after he was charged with bribery.

In 1985, it was revealed that, in 1979, as questions about Herman’s guilt had grown, then-Palm Beach County State Attorney David Bludworth had set up a new investigation that had concluded Herman didn’t do it.

Instead, it named another man, John Crotty, also known as Richard Cooper. Witnesses said Crotty borrowed shotgun shells on the night of Kreusler’s murder and had a lot of money the next day.

Bludworth never charged Crotty, or the cellmates who admitted fabricating Herman’s confession. Crotty later vanished. He never publicly said why.

A lawyer who later worked to exonerate Herman said he believed hit men had silenced Kreusler because he’d learned dirt about people in the local oil business. Another theory was that Kreusler had been murdered by the mobster boyfriend of a stripper with whom Kreusler was having an affair.

In 1992, a state clemency board commuted Herman’s sentence. He had spent 15 of his 46 years—a third of his life—in prison.

Herman moved in with relatives in Arizona. He married his high school sweetheart. The two built a life with their combined five children and several grandchildren. He worked for his brother’s computer business, then later was a bookkeeper.

He didn’t want to go through the heartache of seeking a pardon. But in early 2020, an unlikely group did it for him. They were the six grown children of Kreusler.

The six, one of them a lawyer, wrote Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying they’d become convinced Herman, now 74, was in no way responsible for their father’s death.

“We have spent a great deal of time analyzing the case against Mr. Herman,” prominent West Palm Beach appellate lawyer Jane Kreusler-Walsh wrote in the letter, also signed by her brother and four sisters, that was cited in the Palm Beach Post. “We do not believe he was responsible in any way. It is time we addressed the injustice visited on Mr. Herman.”

In 2015, former Palm Beach Post staffer Bob Brink wrote Murder in Palm Beach, described as a novelized version of the Kreusler murder case. Brink said a fellow reporter at the Post had uncovered information that could have exonerated Herman but didn’t have enough to publish. Brink said the findings were turned over to investigators, but nothing ever happened.


Eliot Kleinberg retired in December 2020 after nearly a half-century in journalism, including more than three decades at the Palm Beach Post. Parts of this article originally appeared in the Post.—Ed.

SOURCES:

  • “New book details unsolved 1948 double-murder,” Palm Beach Post, Nov. 12, 2015
  • “Who killed Leno and Louise Lazzari,” Palm Beach Post, Jan. 19, 1992
  • “Death in the Sculptor’s Studio,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Dec. 7, 2014
  • “Chillingworth murders our Crime of the Century”, Palm Beach Post, June 15, 2005
  • “Palm Beach murder victim’s children back clemency effort,” Palm Beach Post, February 16, 2020
  • “Novel revisits the 1976 Kreusler murder,” Palm Beach Post, March 16, 2015
  • “Mark Herman to be Freed,” Palm Beach Post, Feb. 1, 1992
  • Murder in Palm Beach: The Homicide that Never Died, by Bob Brink. 2014, Pegasus Books
  • Who Killed Leno and Louise, by Sally Ling. 2014, CreateSpace Publishing

This story is from the May/June 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.