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The Autoport

This is an excerpted chapter called "The Autoport." Lehmann, Susan Waller. Echoes from the Mind: The Psychic and the Gainesville Student Murders. Pleasant View, UT: White Rhino Press, 2016. pp. 125-137.


Williamsburg Village Apartments

Wednesday, September 5th, 1990, 9:45 a.m.

Helen and Bernice stood near the stairs to the second floor. The crime scene tape had been removed. The stairs and doorway looked just like the surrounding landings. Someone had cleaned up the fingerprint ink from around the door.

“I can’t believe you picked out the building, just like that,” Helen said, snapping her fingers.

Bernice grinned. “I am psychic, you know.”

Bernice looked around at the apartment building, and then walked the length of it in the parking lot. She returned to the end and wandered around the stairs, and occasionally touched the wood. She had become quiet and seemed to be concentrating fully on examining the area.

Helen stood close to the large oak tree and watched Bernice. She smoked a cigarette and relaxed. She thought about Rachel describing the path as she “followed” the killer from the Williamsburg complex. Helen wrapped her left arm around part of the trunk and stepped slowly around the tree.

Holy shit, there is a path! Rachel was right!

Before she was aware of what she was doing, she headed down the path, toward the woods, thinking it led to the vet school, the proximity of which she had discovered the other day on her drive. For the moment, she had forgotten about Bernice.

Bernice climbed halfway up the first set of stairs but stopped before the landing near the back door. She stood there for what seemed like a long time. Then she turned around and came back down the stairs to ground level. She pulled a small Instamatic camera from the pocket of her shorts and snapped a couple of photographs. She headed toward the woods, like a bloodhound on the trail of a scent. She leaned against the tree, then rubbed her right arm, and then her right leg.

“Helen?” she called.

“I’m here,” Helen said. She came through the brush and touched Bernice on the shoulder. Bernice jumped.

“Oh, sorry,” Helen said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Are you okay?”

Bernice was very agitated. She paced as she smoked a cigarette. She gripped a small jade amulet in her left hand. Bernice was soaked with sweat. Her short red hair was glued to her head. Helen noticed the gray hair that had grown out from under the home dye job.

“Did you pick up anything, sense anything?”

“Oh, this is bad,” Bernice said. She stubbed out the cigarette, then immediately fished another from a pack of Pall Mall Reds in her shirt pocket. She pulled out a lighter. Helen noticed her hand was shaking as she lit the cigarette. “He is pretty dirty. He’s filthy, like a street person.” She exhaled a plume of smoke.

Helen wrote this in a small notebook.

“He’s uncouth and the girls don’t like him. Which is why he’s done this. I think he got hurt, not here, but at the other one, Gatorwood. I think he injured his shoulder, probably fighting with that young man. I think he’s also aggravated an old injury to his leg. Those poor kids, God, what an awful thing. What a terrible, terrible thing.”

“Do you have any sense of which apartment it was?”

“It’s that one right there.” She pointed to the end unit on the second and third floors. “I went up a couple of stairs and I began to feel cold and panicked, like I was in immediate danger. I knew he’d been there.”

“Shall I go back there with you?” Helen asked.

“No, I’m not going back there, but I did take a couple of pictures with my camera. God. I’m ready to go. How about you?”

“Yes. Let’s go.” Helen linked arms with Bernice, and they slowly made their way to the car.

Helen locked the doors. The windows were rolled down, as they were both smoking. Bernice began to relax as soon as Helen drove out of the apartment complex.

“Whew,” Bernice sighed. “Let’s drive down Archer Road for a bit. There’s a place I’d like to check out.”

“Do you want to go to the other apartments?”

“Not yet. I want to see this other place.”

“Okay. Just tell me where to go.”

They drove west on Archer Road, past all the businesses and fast-food restaurants near 34th Street. Just as they drove by a nondescript strip mall, Bernice instructed her to slow down.

“Okay, turn right, right here. This is a trailer park that I keep thinking about.”

Helen drove slowly past a row of run-down trailer homes. All were invisible from the road. She’d never known this place was here. Most of the trailers looked like they were occupied by students. Many displayed neon beer signs, with Gator football flags, pennants, and assorted paraphernalia decorating the exterior walls. Broken-down cars and household appliances rusted in the overgrown yards. She saw more than one refrigerator placed on the front stoop, with electric cords snaked through the nearest window.

“God, Bernice, these trailers are in awful shape. I didn’t even know these were here, and that students live here.”

“These are the end of the line. I’ll bet a lot of these folks are just one step above homeless,” Bernice said. “But this is the type of place the killer would live, if even this good.”

They came to the end of the pavement. The car’s front wheels dropped off the road. Helen stopped, but before she began to turn around, she noticed that tires had worn a path off to her left.

“Okay, turn around and let’s get out of here,” Bernice said.

Helen didn’t say a word, but instead of turning around, she turned and drove the car completely off the pavement and onto the track.

Bernice was alarmed. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Helen said. “Something is drawing me back here. I’m curious about where this goes.”

She maneuvered the car down the now deeply rutted dirt trail. Bernice put her window up quickly and made sure her door was locked. She looked into the back seat and checked the door locks.

“Turn around, Helen, where you can. Just turn around,” Bernice said.

Helen heard her concern but continued to drive very slowly. “Can you hear that sound?” she asked. She winced, as if in pain.

“What sound? You need to get us out of here!” Bernice demanded. She unsnapped her seat belt. Her eyes were wide with fright. It was one of those rare moments when she wasn’t smoking.

“It’s like a high-pitched keening.” Helen glanced at Bernice, who was trying to squeeze herself into the passenger footwell. “Please get up, we’re almost there.”

“Helen, Helen, please get out of here. I’m scared spitless!”

The roadway veered to the left again. Just past the turn, the women saw a white tent set up in a clearing off to the right. There were clothes drying on one of the tent lines. There was a shrieking in Helen’s ears that grew louder and louder. She kept driving until they reached another clearing, and then she drove up onto the edge of a parking lot.

Helen pulled around the lot to the front of an abandoned gas station fronting Archer Road. The gas station had one bay for automotive work. The glass windows for the office were all broken. It looked as though it had been deserted for a long time.

“Let’s get out of here,” Bernice said.

Helen put the car in park but left the motor running. She opened the driver’s side door and got out. Her arms were drawn protectively across her chest. Bernice grabbed her camera and took the lead, much to Helen’s surprise.

The Abandoned Autoport

10:15 a.m.

It was dark and filthy in the Autoport. Helen and Bernice walked inside, but neither said a word. Helen silently pointed to a wooden ledge along the interior wall, where a black plastic comb, several bars of complimentary hotel soap, and small bottles of shampoo sat next to a toothbrush and a small travel-size tube of toothpaste. There was a slowly dripping spigot on the wall. Next to it was a plastic gallon milk jug that held a brownish liquid of some sort. Helen pointed to all the personal items. Bernice took photographs of them.

The floor of the mechanic’s bay was filthy with old oil stains and puddled water and strewn with litter and trash. Some of the trash looked new, like recent newspapers, fast food wrappers, and plastic soda bottles; other stuff, like rusted metal and old wheel rims, looked as if they’d been left on the floor for decades.

Helen walked to the back of the bay and stopped. She pointed to a half-filled pack of generic cigarettes and a lighter, which sat on a round stool. One area of the floor was littered with the butts of recently smoked cigarettes. Bernice took photos of these, too.

The door to the office of the gas station had been broken open and the door hung in pieces from a single hinge. Glass was strewn over the ground. Improbably, there was a brand-new peach-colored towel hanging from the top of the door. Helen saw this and motioned to Bernice.

The towel looked completely wrong amid the dirt and grime of this place. Bernice snapped a photograph of the towel and then stepped through the doorway, into the office. Helen stayed close behind.

There was a large piece of wood propped against the wall at an angle. A pair of wet blue jeans were laid out on the board, presumably to dry. There appeared to be bloodstains on the pant legs. Neither woman spoke, but both were terrified by the discovery.

Bernice stuck her head into the bathroom to look inside. Suddenly, they heard a sound. They froze. Helen held her arms to her chest and had to fight to keep herself from screaming. Quickly, both women stepped through the debris and nearly ran to the car.

“Hurry!” Bernice urged as Helen threw the car into reverse. She was immensely grateful the car was still running. “Get out of here now! We have to call the police!”

Instead of driving out onto Archer Road, Helen drove back over the dirt path. The white tent was still there.

“Get a picture of that,” she told Bernice.

Bernice grabbed her camera. “Just drive.” Helen got onto I-75 North and kept driving.

Helen’s car, parked in front of Bernice’s trailer

11:22 a.m.

“I’m sorry,” Helen said. “I know we should have stopped to call the police, but I just wanted to get as far from there as possible. Once I began driving, I couldn’t stop.”

“I know. Are you going to call them now?”

“Do you want me to call them from your phone?” She already knew the answer to that.

“No. But you can call from a pay phone or something. You probably shouldn’t wait too long.”

“Oh, my God,” Helen said, “that was the scariest place I’ve ever been in my entire life.”

“I think he was there, close by. We were lucky to get out of there.”

“Man, you’re not kidding. I’m still shaking. I’m glad my car was still there.”

Both women were very disturbed by their adventure. Bernice did not invite Helen into her trailer. Helen stayed in the car with the engine running.

“I’ll have the photos developed today,” Bernice said. “I’ll get them to you so that you can turn them over to the police. But don’t use my name. Don’t tell them who I am because I don’t want to get involved in all this. I’m too scared, and I don’t want to do anything that would make my family unhappy or embarrassed.”

Helen hugged Bernice through the window. “It’s okay. I won’t tell the police, or anyone else, about you.”

Helen also knew that Bernice was afraid the killer would find her.

Helen’s house

11:45 a.m.

Helen was on hold with the task force, waiting to speak with Sergeant Cooper, the detective David Lee had recommended to her just two months earlier.

“This is Sergeant Dean,” a voice answered. “Is this Ms. Baxter?”

“Yes,” she said, “I was holding for Sergeant Cooper.”

“He would like to speak with you, but he’s out on a call right now. I’m happy to help you.”

Helen figured she had wasted enough time already without calling the information in, and she didn’t want to wait any longer. Cooper still hadn’t returned her call from last Thursday. She told Sergeant Dean about her experience at the abandoned gas station.

“I know that we’ve had calls about the Autoport,” he replied, “but I’ll bet no one’s followed up. I know exactly the place you’re talking about. Who was the woman you were with?”

“She doesn’t want me to tell you.”

“That’s okay, then. I’ll just put your name and contact information on this sheet if you don’t mind? We’ll follow up with you if needed, okay?”

She agreed.

“Now, Ms. Baxter, you said that your friend took photographs at the gas station, is that correct?”

Helen looked at the clock. “Yes, and I’ll bring them by as soon as they’re developed, but it will probably be tomorrow morning before I can get them to you.”

“We’d like to have the originals and all the negatives too, please.”

Again, Helen agreed.

“Ms. Baxter? Please don’t go back to that area again. Please, for your own safety. We’ve had several calls about that place, and I’ll bet that checking it out has just fallen through the cracks. I’m going to go out there now, but I wish you would have called when this happened.”

“I’m sorry, sergeant, we were just too scared to stop. Believe me, I have no intention of going back there.”

“You women probably came the closest to the killer that anyone has come and lived to talk about it. Call me when you get the pictures. We’ll meet then.”

Task force center, Gainesville Police Department

Thursday, September 6th, 9 a.m.

Helen had picked up the photographs from Bernice the evening before, and after she got the kids off to school, she drove to the command center for the task force at the Gainesville Police Department. She asked to see Sergeant John Dean. Within minutes, two men in suits approached. Both were smiling and friendly.

The taller man spoke first. “Ms. Baxter? I’m Bob Cooper, I believe you’ve been trying to reach me?”

She shook his hand. “Yes, it’s nice to meet you. I was beginning to think you didn’t exist.”

“Oh, I do exist, but I’ll bet my wife is wondering the same thing right now.” They all laughed. “I spoke with our Pensacola friend this morning, and he sends his regards.”

Helen felt a bit of relief. “Who knew when I interviewed him in July that this would happen, right here in Gainesville?”

“I wish it would have happened some other place, if it had to happen at all,” Sergeant Cooper said.

The other sergeant introduced himself. “Hi, I’m John Dean. It’s good to meet you.”

Helen handed Dean the envelope containing the photographs and negatives. She wished she had ordered a duplicate set to keep for herself. He opened the envelope, pulled out the prints, and flipped through them.

“These are pretty good,” he said and handed them to Cooper. “Look at this one, Bob.” He pointed to the photo of the jeans with the blood stains.

“That’s crazy,” Cooper said and examined it more closely. He looked in the envelope. “And the negatives are here? Good.” He turned to Helen. “I heard you had quite the escapade yesterday. I don’t think it’s wise to for you to go back over there, okay?”

“Agreed. That was a scary place,” she said. She turned to Sergeant Dean. “Did you get over there yesterday?”

“I did. I went there as soon as you called, and Bob met me there. Unfortunately, all these things were cleared out by the time we arrived. None of this stuff was there.”

“So that means…”

“That means,” Cooper continued, “that the killer was probably right there when you went into the Autoport.”

“He may have been watching you and your friend,” Dean said. “It’s a good thing he wasn’t inside when you got there.”

Helen’s mind flashed back to the sound they’d heard as Bernice was about to enter the bathroom. Gooseflesh rose on her arms.

“I saw in the report you made to John that you mentioned seeing a white tent just outside the Autoport,” Cooper said. “Did you happen to get a picture of that?”

Helen thought for a moment. She visualized the tent and recalled asking Bernice to take a photo of it when they drove past the second time. That was why she drove on the dirt road again, wasn’t it? She was puzzled and decided to ask Bernice about it when they spoke again.

“Is it not there?” she asked. “Did we not get a photo of it?”

Cooper flipped through the photographs again. “I don’t see one here. I’ll check the negatives later.”

“Did you see the tent when you went out there?” she asked.

“No, the tent was gone, but we could see where it had been, and where someone had been camping. We found the remains of a cooking fire. It looked like he left in a hurry.”

“Your friend,” Dean said, “the one who was with you. Do you think she will change her mind and speak with us?”

“I don’t know,” Helen said. “She’s an older woman, and this shook her up pretty badly. I don’t think she wants to draw any attention to herself.”

“Well, we’d love to talk with her if she changes her mind,” Dean said.

“I’ll ask her,” Helen said. “There’s something else I want to ask you about. On Tuesday, after school, my nephew found a knife next to a storm drain on northwest 25th Avenue and 11th Street. There was also an abandoned car there and what appeared to be clothing shoved down into the storm drain. I called the police department, and a young cop came out. He didn’t seem interested in any of the stuff. He picked up the knife—he didn’t wear gloves—and he put the knife directly on the front seat of his car. He told us we could have the car towed. I asked him if he was going to turn the knife over to the task force, but he didn’t seem to think he would.”

Dean and Cooper stared at her with concerned expressions.

“Have you heard about any of this?” she asked them.

They exchanged glances.

“Did you catch the officer’s name?” Dean asked.

“No, sadly, I was so angry that I didn’t.”

“Give me that location again, please,” Cooper said, and wrote the information down. “One more thing,” he added. “You know a guy named Joseph, right?”

“Yes, why?”

“He’s drawn a lot of attention to himself lately. We’ve got eyes on him. Please ask him to stop coming down here and dropping off those notes, about trying to find the killer. He’s an irritation. He needs to stay away from the investigation.”

“I will try, but it’s doubtful I can stop him. I’m the last person he’s going to listen to. He’s on a mission to prove that you’re all incapable of solving these crimes without his help. I’m sorry.”

The men walked her to the front steps of the police station. Cooper reached out to shake her hand again.

“Thanks for coming down, and for the photos.” He held her hand for a moment longer. “Sometimes the ones we should fear most are the ones nearest us. Take care.”

“And stay out of abandoned gas stations,” Dean added.

Helen smiled. “No worries.”

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