In this Web Extra from our conversation with Florida paranormal historian and traveler Mark Muncy (available in our September/October issue), Mark shares his favorite spooky story from southern Florida—a tale involving a grisly serial killer, a haunted tree and some unlucky motorists.
Take it away, Mark:
“I think the Devil’s Tree in Port St. Lucie is probably the scariest [southern Florida story], because it’s got some reality, and then the folklore on top of it just makes it incredible. It involves this tree in what is now Oak Hammock State Park, but back in the day there was this old abandoned house next to this big oak tree. There was a man with three names, and doing all this research, I learned that if a man has three names in any newspaper article, he’s either A), a politician, or B), a serial killer. This time it was B.
He was a sheriff’s deputy, Gerard John Schaefer, and he liked to pick up hitchhikers and do what he would call twofers, where he would capture two of them and take them to this old abandoned house, and then chain them to this tree out back. And then he would do terrible things to them. And then he would make them decide which ones dies first, kill the other one, and then still do terrible things to the dead one, so that the other one would see what was going to happen to them after they died. And then he would kill them. He did this for years; we don’t know how many he killed.
Finally, he loses his job and has to move back in with his mom a little further north, and he tries to do it again up there when he gets a new sheriff’s job. Because he’s unfamiliar with the place, [his victims] get away. They turn him in. He gets arrested for false imprisonment, but while he’s out on bail for that, somebody finds two bodies at the old tree. They piece two and two together, go up, search his mother’s house where he’s living, and find his shoebox full of trophies. They match some teeth from the bodies down there, he goes on trial, he’s convicted for two murders.
They are convinced he’s done more, and they start researching it. While he’s on death row for all this, he starts pen-palling Ted Bundy, and saying, ‘I’ve killed more than you.’ But he’s never officially confessing. And he actually writes a book called Serial Fiction, and it’s all about how, if I had done it—if I had killed these 80 people.
And right when they realize they need to talk this guy some more, he gets killed by his roommate, and he’s stabbed 49 times, has his eyes gouged out … couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy! But what’s cool about this story, even though it’s a real, terrible tragedy in the 1970s, is that the tree has this history. People say the reason he did this wasn’t because he was crazy—the tree made him do it. It’s this evil tree, and it drips black sap. And if you collect the black sap and use it for your satanic rituals, it will make your powers grow.
So people would always see these cloaked figures around the tree, collecting sap and doing rituals. So the town’s like, we need to do something about this. Let’s cut this tree down. So they hired two men to go chop down the tree. They go, and their chainsaws break. And they go in their car to go get replacement parts for their chainsaws; they get in a head-on collision and die. So the legend of the tree grows.
And so a couple of years later, it becomes, the reason they died is because they had bits of the tree, from the chainsaws, in their truck. So if you grab bits of the tree, and you put it into the car of somebody you don’t like, they’re going to get into a car accident, and it’s the perfect crime—you get away with it. The reason I know this happened was that a lady went and did that. But she got in a car accident and almost died, because she was going to put [the tree bark] into the car of her husband, who had been cheating on her. But she got in a car accident leaving the park with it. The legend grows even more!
So now, the city buys the land, makes it a park. They steer people away from the tree with the pass to go through the park. They still try to kill the tree; they try to poison it. That didn’t work. The big hole in the side of the tree where it was dripping, they fill it with cement so that people will stop grabbing the sap out of it, and hoping the tree will die from cement. But now it’s grown around it, and it has an invulnerable tree trunk. It’s never going to die; it’s got a cement trunk!
You can still go there, and every time we’ve gone, there’s been candle wax on the roots, where somebody’s done some ritual. People know how to get to it; just don’t take the first turn. Take the second turn: It goes right to it. Now there’s a beautiful housing development right there, and it’s like, please don’t do candles and rituals at the tree. Just don’t burn down the tree! There’s little box turtles and other animals that live there—please don’t burn it down.”