By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
In the late summer of ’79 Jerry Frank Townsend got arrested for rape and murder. A year later, he got convicted of six brutal murders and got life in prison. After 22 years behind bars, he got a DNA test that established his innocence and got him released. Then, the sheriff apologized.
What Townsend never got was justice.
Yet with last week’s death of the actual killer, and intensifying nationwide protests and racial unrest sparked by George Floyd’s suffocation beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, there’s again interest in Broward’s most horrific miscarriage of justice.
For more than a decade it’s been publicly apparent that Townsend, a black man, was framed by Broward Sheriff’s Office, Fort Lauderdale and Miami police detectives who coerced him into confessing to nearly two dozen sex murders of African-American women and children that he didn’t do. Townsend is a grown man with the mind of a child, and they used that weakness against him in their reports and testimony.
Still, authorities including longtime Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, whose office prosecuted Townsend on skimpy evidence, would not investigate the disturbing actions of the white police detectives who obtained Townsend’s false confession, fabricated evidence and concealed exculpatory evidence.
No investigation was made even though Florida has no statute of limitations on perjury in an official proceeding relating to the prosecution of a capital felony.
Miscarriage of justice redux
Time’s scab over the Townsend case was picked fresh last week with the death at age 73 of Eddie Lee Mosley at a hospital in North Florida. Mosley, who was sent to a state mental hospital for the criminally insane in 1987 after being declared incompetent to stand trial for a 1983 rape-murder, was linked by DNA to four murders in northwest Fort Lauderdale, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, once chalked up to Townsend. In all, police believe Mosley was responsible for 41 rapes and 17 murders of black women and children between 1973 and 1987, when his confinement put an end to the carnage.
The crimes police committed while framing Townsend had numerous victims. As a civil rights lawsuit filed on his behalf 18 years ago by Fort Lauderdale attorney Barbara Heyer says, “the most heinous aspect of these despicable crimes” was that they allowed Mosley to continue to rape and murder.
“They knew the serial rapist and murderer was still at large following (Townsend’s) arrest. They did nothing,” wrote Heyer. “They knew the identity of the killer and where he was located. They did nothing. Instead of arresting Mosley, (the police) allowed him to go on killing” while Townsend was prosecuted and imprisoned.
That death count: 10 women and children between the day Townsend was arrested in 1979 and the day Mosley was locked away in 1987. Similarly, DNA and other evidence tied Mosley to the rapes of three more women during that time.
One of the dead was 8-year-old Shandra Whitehead of Fort Lauderdale, who was raped and fatally beaten in her bed in 1985. Satz’s office convicted the wrong man for that murder, too.
Frank Lee Smith spent 14 years on Death Row before dying of cancer on January 30, 2000. Eleven months later, he was exonerated by DNA tests that identified Mosley as Shandra’s killer.
New day coming
Today, Satz is stepping down from the job he’s held since 1976. Ten candidates – eight Democrats, one Republican and a no-party-affiliation person – hope to succeed him in November.
Two leading candidates see things differently than Satz.
“Any person who is wrongfully incarcerated for what is tantamount to a lifetime, especially in the case of Mr. Frank Townsend, deserves nothing less than an open, transparent and independent investigation, and if wrongdoing is established, a criminal prosecution to follow,” said Democrat Joshua Rydell, the Coconut Creek commissioner whose campaign has raised more than anyone else.
“We need a new culture at the Broward County State Attorney’s Office,” said Teresa Fanning-Williams, who came shockingly close to knocking Satz out of the race in the 2016 Democratic primary. “We will investigate the Townsend case and any other case where police misconduct is asserted. I was trained that ignoring police misconduct and making the evidence meet your narrative is morally wrong.”
Police misconduct is also costly to taxpayers. In 2009, BSO began paying over five years a $2-million settlement to end a state civil rights lawsuit brought on Townsend’s behalf. The year before, Miami paid $2.2 million to settle a similar Townsend lawsuit in federal court.
Miscarriage of justice
If Broward’s next state attorney decides to investigate, he or she will find a record chock full of hard evidence documenting specific crimes by BSO detectives and other officers, including perjury and the falsification of police reports.
Florida Bulldog reported in 2009 that Broward court records, including the lawsuit and the original trial and hearing transcripts, lay out in chilling detail how multiple murder charges appear to have been trumped up against Townsend. The irrefutable DNA evidence that exonerated him implicates the detectives.
The Broward case against Townsend was driven by two BSO detectives, Mark Schlein and Anthony Fantigrassi. According to the lawsuit, they pinned the murders on the weak-minded Townsend to advance their careers.
Fantigrassi retired as head of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Unit in 2005. Schlein is today a false claims and whistleblower protection attorney at the Los Angeles-based law firm Baum Hedlund Aristei Goldman.
Townsend went to trial before Circuit Court Judge Arthur Franza where he was convicted of the sexual killings of 15-year-old Nehomia Gamble, also known as Naomi Gamble, in 1973 and Barbara Ann Brown in 1979. Later, he pleaded guilty to four more murders in Miami and Broward. The Miami victims were Dorothy Gibson and Wanda Virga. The Broward victims were Cathy L. Moore, 24, whose skeletal remains were found in a vacant field on Aug. 2, 1979 and Terry Jean Cummings, 20, whose nude body was found in a field near her home five days later. Cummings’ death made the front page of the evening Fort Lauderdale News, fueling fear that a serial killer was on the loose.
Townsend was indicted for additional murders to which he’d also falsely confessed, but was not tried. One of those cases was that of Sonja Marion, 13, who was beaten to death and raped on July 7, 1979. Broward prosecutor Kelly Hancock dropped the Marion case in 1982 because of inconsistencies in Townsend’s confession and because he had a good alibi that he was at work at Hollywood Ford when Marion was killed.
Testimony of BSO detectives
At trial, Hancock elicited testimony from BSO detectives Schlein and Fantigrassi about Sonja Marion’s case under the so-called William’s rule, that sometimes makes relevant evidence of similar crimes admissible.
The ex-partners both testified that Townsend led them to the scene of four Broward murders, and provided them with details only the killer would have known.
Because Townsend wasn’t the killer, however, their damning testimony takes on new meaning.
On the witness stand Schlein and Fantigrassi recounted how they followed Townsend to crime scenes, including the press box at Dillard High School’s athletic field where Sonja Marion’s body was found. Schlein also testified that Townsend identified the weapon he used to kill the teenager.
“The words he used – I’m not absolutely positive – but [Townsend] hit her in the head with a brick that he had gotten from that cement patch,” Schlein said, according to the 1980 trial transcript.
At a pre-trial hearing on a motion to suppress evidence, the detectives gave graphic testimony regarding Townsend’s alleged confession about the murder of Terry Jean Cummings.
“He indicated, number one, that when he initially struck her in the vicinity of the shack her wig had fallen off. That wig was in fact recovered immediately outside the shack,” said Schlein. “In addition to that he indicated that when she threatened to scream or began to scream he removed a very large – like a knee sock, which was red and white in color, and stuck it deep into her throat. This is consistent with the way the body was originally found.”
More on a miscarriage of justice
Fantigrassi offered more detail about Townsend’s “confession.”
“He looked down at the ground and said, ‘I used her bra to kill her.’ He made mention that he used a sock in her mouth to keep her from being heard, screaming. He drew a diagram in the sand for us of where the structure was, how it was located and how the position of the body laid in the structure. He pinpointed which direction the head was, which way the legs were, how the legs were. He made mention of a hand he had placed up on – the left hand, that he had place up on her pants.”
Police reports written and signed by Schlein contain many of those same statements. His Sept. 12, 1979 report adds this flourish: “Townsend stated that he placed her left hand on her hip, “to make her look like she pulled down her pants.’”
Townsend, of course, could not have known any details from the crime scene attributed to him by Schlein and Fantigrassi. DNA tests prove conclusively he did not kill Sonja Marion or Terry Cummings, and identify the real killer as Eddie Lee Mosley.
Schlein declined to comment in 2009. This week, he did not respond to emailed and telephoned requests for comment.
Fantigrassi stuck by his original testimony when interviewed by Florida Bulldog in 2009 and said he never lied to convict Townsend.
“I still vividly remember standing in that crowd with the Miami detectives and Mark and listening to [Townsend’s] story and him making the comment about the color of the sock in the mouth,” he said. “How did he get that specific information? I don’t know. I can just tell you I remember hearing it from him like it was yesterday.
“And to this day, how he got that information I don’t know. But he didn’t get it from me, and he didn’t get it from Mark. We are both cut from the same cloth. We don’t play around like that,” said Fantigrassi.
A blind eye toward the killer
Townsend’s Sept. 5, 1979 arrest in Miami as he walked home near the scene of an assault on a prostitute offered Broward detectives an opportunity to close multiple murder and rape cases. To make it happen, detectives testified falsely and ignored exculpatory evidence like independent alibi witness statements that put Townsend elsewhere at the time of some murders, according to court records.
Amid all that, the BSO detectives turned a blind eye on the real killer. Three weeks before Townsend’s arrest, Eddie Lee Mosley, known around his northwest neighborhood as “The Rape Man,” was identified as the prime suspect in rape-murder cases in Fort Lauderdale’s jurisdiction.
At an interagency meeting, Fort Lauderdale Detective Doug Evans laid out the case against Mosley, including the eyewitness testimony of surviving rape victims and a unique shoeprint found at the Cummings death scene.
At trial, Fantigrassi told Townsend’s defense lawyer under cross examination that Evans, who died in 2011, had an “irrational vengeance” against Mosley. “He would pursue him to no end. Any time any sort of homicide investigation broke out, he wanted us to check out Eddie Lee Mosley,” said Fantigrassi. “And as a precaution, when I was investigating the ’79 cases I did just that. I did check Eddie Lee Mosley. I discarded him as a suspect.”
Fantigrassi’s decision cost Townsend 22 years of his life. It also left Mosley free to continue to rape and kill.
It wasn’t until 2001, after Fort Lauderdale Police Detective John Curcio took it upon himself to review the case and found “inconsistencies” in Townsend’s confession that DNA tests were done. The testing cleared Townsend and implicated Mosley in a number of murders. Curcio is today a BSO detective.
What’s happened since
After the Townsend prosecution debacle, laws and police procedures changed. For example, BSO now fully video tapes all confessions.
The Broward State Attorney’s office took a notable step last year, too, with the creation of a Conviction Review Unit. “Broward State Attorney Michael J. Satz recognizes that prosecutors have a continuing post-conviction ethical obligation to seek justice. No one benefits when an innocent person is convicted and the real offender is not held accountable,” says the unit’s website.
Townsend, now 69, lives in Atlanta with his daughter today. He’s remained out of the spotlight since shortly after his release, but his case has not.
Homicides once attributed to Townsend still get police attention from time to time. Like the skeletal remains of a young woman with a fractured skull found in 1981 by boys chasing rabbits in an overgrown field near Fort Lauderdale’s William Dandy Middle School.
Thirty-five years later, in 2016, DNA confirmed the bones were the remains of 14-year-old Theresa Laster, who’d gone missing in August 1979 at the height of the urgent police search for the serial killer then terrorizing largely African-American neighborhoods in northwest Fort Lauderdale and nearby unincorporated areas.