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John Rodney McRAE

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Serial killer?
Characteristics: Juvenile (15) - Pedophile
Number of victims: 2 - 5
Date of murders: 1950 / 1976 - 1987
Date of arrest: October 1987
Date of birth: 1935
Victims profile: Joey Housey, 8 / Randy Laufer, 15 / Keith Fleming, 13 / Kip Hess, 12 / Charles Collingwood, 19
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Michigan/Florida, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in 1951. Paroled in 1972. Sentenced to life in prison in 1998. Died in prison on June 28, 2005
 
 

 
 

Background

Defendant John Rodney McRae was convicted of first-degree murder in a 1998 jury trial.

The victim was 15-year-old Randy Laufer, last seen on September 15, 1987. In 1997, Laufer's bones were found buried on a property that had been McRae's family residence in Michigan before the family moved to Arizona. One of the pieces of evidence linking McRae to the crime was a conversation that McRae had after his arrest with a reserve police officer, Dean Heintzelman, who had been McRae's neighbor before McRae moved from Michigan.

According to Heintzelman's testimony, he visited McRae in jail after hearing that McRae had asked why Heintzelman had not visited him. According to Heintzelman, the request came from McRae's wife through Heintzelman's mother. During the visit, Heintzelman was in uniform with a badge.

He testified later, "And then I said -- I asked John -- I said, 'John, did you do what you're charged with here?' And he didn't answer me. So we just went talkin' again about, well, more or less about Marty [McRae's son] again. And I said, 'Well, you know, they think Marty had something to do with that, you know, with Randy.' And he says, 'Well, if they try to pin it on Marty, I'll let'em fry my ass.' And that was his words. I said, 'John, did you do it?' And he just hung his head down and said, 'Dean, it was bad. It was bad.' That's -- we didn't discuss it any more."

Before the conversation, McRae had invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions. In addition, he had requested and had received appointment of counsel at arraignment. On appeal, McRae challenged the admission of Heintzelman's testimony. In an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals concluded that any error in admission of the testimony was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

After the Supreme Court remanded to the Court of Appeals, the Court of Appeals again affirmed McRae's conviction, stating that Heintzelman was not acting as a police officer in interrogating defendant, but was acting as a friend and having a conversation. Accordingly, no Miranda warning was required because governmental action was not involved, the Court of Appeals stated. McRae appeals.


Michigan convict suspected in Florida cases, but lawyer says proof is lacking

By Joe Swickard - Free Press

November 29, 2004

Boys have a way of disappearing around John Rodney McRae.

Joey Housey in St. Clair Shores.

Kip Hess, Charles Collingwood and Keith Fleming in Florida.

Randy Laufer in Clare County, Mich.

Some stay missing; others surface as mud-caked corpses or as bones.

It might be his bad luck, but cops and prosecutors in Michigan and Florida insist that McRae is just bad.

"What can I say? Essentially Randy Laufer was butchered after he was befriended by John Rodney McRae," said Clare County Prosecutor Norm Gage. "It's a pattern of his history. He is a very scary man amongst us."

McRae had twice been convicted of first-degree murder in Michigan and sentenced to life in prison without parole. But one sentence was commuted and the second conviction was overturned on appeal. He remains in custody pending the resolution of the case.

Now, Gage and the Michigan Attorney General's Office are preparing for a retrial, tentatively set for January, in Laufer's slaying. They say McRae, even at 70 and in poor health, should never be free.

Defense lawyer Paul Pemberton said authorities are determined to demonize McRae using the missing kids in Florida but have never filed charges.

And in the Laufer case, he said, they've "gone way off the top" to try to convict McRae using a half-century old crime and circumstantial evidence stitched together with innuendo.

"Somebody killed and buried Randy Ray Laufer, but it sure wasn't John Rodney McRae, goat farmer," Pemberton said.

A half-century ago

In 1950, St. Clair Shores was ready to explode beyond its sleepy village existence. Soon hundreds of families a month would move to the subdivisions carved from farmland, lakefront cottage sites and woods.

The vacant lot near Martin's Drain at 10 1/2 Mile and Jefferson was a kids hideout and a teenagers drinking spot and lovers lane. It was fenced, but that didn't keep anyone out of the overgrown lot.

As investigators would later pace it off, it was 600 steps from there to McRae's home at the foot of Madison Street.

At 15, McRae was a husky high schooler and a reserve on the football team. He was also known as a petty thief who went joyriding with his pals in stolen boats and cars.

On Sept. 9, Joey Housey was seen on Jefferson fooling with an auto sealed beam headlamp, a relatively new innovation with the headlight lens, reflector and filament in a single unit.

The 8-year-old boy never made it home for supper.

"We didn't waste any time in starting to look," said brother Jim Housey, then a 17-year-old high school student, now a retired police officer living in northern Michigan.

Police, neighbors, service clubs like the Kiwanis and his dad Joseph's union friends from his days at the now-defunct Kaiser auto plant on Detroit's east side all turned out. Among the searchers were McRae and Gus Blumline, who was on the waiting list to join the police department. Blumline was an amateur gardener who often traded tips and plants with Joey's mom.

"Joey was last seen at Fresard and Jefferson with that headlamp," said Blumline who would later rise to lieutenant in the St. Clair Shores Police Department. "My mother had seen him that day at Jefferson Beach."

There was no sign of the boy as the search parties worked through the vacant lots and any place a little boy might hide or be hidden.

After two weeks, the parties regrouped and set out on Saturday, Sept. 23. It was muddy going after a Friday night downpour.

Jim Housey was with the search crew going through the land by the Martin Drain when an adult sat down for a breather on a slab of broken sidewalk. He looked down and saw part of a child's right arm in the mud. There was a silver Cub Scout ring on the middle finger.

It was Joey, his throat and genitals slashed with a straight razor.

Dr. Richard E. Olsen concluded his autopsy report with this note: "The wounds present are characteristic of murder by a sexual aberrant....If the murderer is not found he will probably repeat the performance."

"My mother never got over it, and she lived to age 84," Jim Housey said. "Mom and Dad, they burned a candle 25 years for Joey. You know, we'd once gone for a weekend and never even locked the doors. After they found Joey, they locked the doors."

Donald Housey was 12 and saw his mother change. "The thought never really goes away," said Housey, a retiree still living in St. Clair Shores. "You're at dinner and suddenly you think of Joey. Why it pops in your mind, you just never know."

Days passed before the killer was identified. It was McRae, whose mother was Joey's kindergarten teacher.

According to investigators at the time, McRae went to his father with a story of a dream in which he might have killed the boy. His father took him to the lakeshore at their home and told him to swim into the darkness and not return if he had anything to do with the killing.

Rodney plunged into the water, but circled back, stole a boat and made his way to relatives in Canada. His flight was brief. He soon was arrested and made several confessions.

McRae said he'd left Joey exposed at first, but went back and buried him in a shallow pit. He then muscled the 75-pound slab of concrete over the grave. He said he was drinking with his buddies at the lot about a week later.

A juvenile, McRae was tried as an adult. Pathologist Olsen testified the wounds were the work of a "specific type of sexual deviate. The entire act was that of an abnormal sexual personality."

McRae was convicted, and both Housey brothers remember the judge's promise to their mother: John Rodney McRae, with a mandatory sentence of life without parole, would never walk the streets.

The Houseys remained in St. Clair Shores, keeping a candle-lit vigil with a colorized portrait of Joey in his Cub Scout uniform. Later, Jim -- detesting his well-paying job as a tool designer -- joined the St. Clair Shores police force so he could work outside. He didn't hide the connection with the city's notorious crime, but he didn't volunteer much about it.

In prison, McRae, inmate No. 76537, was examined by Dr. Richard Nordlund.

Nordlund reported that McRae lacked "guilt feelings and remorse," but the doctor said "I think he can be reclaimed."

McRae said he got caught because he didn't keep his mouth shut. He also explained how he dealt with his conscience.

"I just didn't think about what happened," he told Nordlund, "and I slept good that night."

Rehabilitated and released

McRae fit well into the prison system and became a trusty with use of a car to run errands on prison grounds at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia. In late 1971, when the teenage killer was 37, then-Gov. William Milliken commuted his life sentence, making him eligible for parole. He was freed Feb. 2, 1972. McRae had an exemplary record in prison and was thought unlikely to be the menace he had been as a teenager. At the time, the Houseys were unaware he was let out.

Three years later, McRae -- now with a wife and son, Martin -- finished parole and moved to Florida where he became a prison guard. By some accounts, he hid his record; others maintain he was hired under a Florida program to employ rehabilitated ex-cons. He later transferred to a youthful offenders facility in Brevard County on the Atlantic coast.

In the spring of 1979, Kip Hess was a 12-year-old Boy Scout whose troop worked out a deal with a church -- the boys could camp on the grounds and attend a church carnival in exchange for helping clean up. Kip was a slightly built youngster and some other kids were picking on him when a security worker came to his aid.

It was McRae, moonlighting at the fair. McRae had his son, Martin, pal around with Kip.

A few days later, Kip left for school one morning never to be seen again. A concerned volunteer, McRae joined the searches.

Meanwhile, McRae, investigators said, was having an affair with 19-year-old inmate Charles Collingwood.

Collingwood escaped in December 1979.

Questioned, McRae denied the affair and said that Collingwood was his snitch, keeping him informed about other inmates. He said he had no part in the escape. Homicide investigators, aware of his past, weren't convinced. They thought Collingwood was threatening to expose the affair.

As the police focus intensified, McRae and family pulled up stakes one night and left Florida, ultimately landing in Clare County in central Michigan. Afterward, cops found a flyer for the missing Kip taped inside his work locker.

Going through other missing child reports, cops noted 14-year-old surfer Keith Fleming vanished from Cocoa Beach in 1977 soon after McRae arrived.

Despite repeated searches using dogs and ground probes, no traces of any of the young men were ever found, and Florida authorities decided not to charge McRae.

Nonetheless, Brevard County homicide agent Gary Harrell, who still pursues McRae's trail, said he believes "we have a pretty strong case" against McRae for Collingwood and Hess.

McRae's lawyer, Pemberton, said cops are long on speculation but short on evidence: "If they've got a case in Florida, damn it, charge him."

Still, Harrell said he thinks McRae buried the bodies nearby, as he did with Joey. He also noted that as in the 1950 case, McRae joined the searchers.

"I think he helped search for the kid and took pleasure in the parents' pain," Harrell said.

Harrell said McRae seems to enjoy the sparring of police questioning: "He laughs. He told me, 'If you don't have a body, you don't have me.' "

But eventually, a body would surface.

*****

John Rodney McRae hadn't been around Clare County for a decade, and he was still a bother.

Vicki Hudson's horses kept banging into the cement block rat wall, a relic from the nasty compound McRae had on Larch Road before vanishing in the night 10 years earlier. The trash-filled trailer had been long since hauled off and the barn and shed leveled, leaving just those cement blocks that were a menace to Hudson's horses.

"I was tired of doctoring them," Hudson said.

On a late fall afternoon in 1997, Hudson told Clinton Goodenow to scoop a pit with the backhoe and just tip in those blocks and cover them up. Goodenow went at it, but soon he was pounding on Hudson's door.

"I found what they're looking for," he told Hudson, and led her to the mound he'd scooped.

"It was on the dirt like somebody planted a prop," Hudson said. "It was a skull. I said 'Let's just go on and tell the sheriff.' "

Folks now knew that Randy Ray Laufer hadn't run away from home in September 1987.

"It took us 10 years to find out that Randy had been dead for 10 years," said his older sister Kandy Laufer. "That was hard."

It was also hard, Laufer said, knowing that the man accused of killing her brother was McRae, a former neighbor, and that her brother was buried about 15 feet from his door.

It was hard knowing that McRae's son, Martin, was Randy's friend, and that she and the boys rode the same school bus.

It was hard learning that McRae had killed another boy, 8-year-old Joey Housey, in 1950 and that he'd been released with a reduced sentence. It was hard knowing he was a suspect in the disappearances of three boys in Florida before moving to Clare County.


It was hard sitting through the trial hearing how her brother, 15, was killed and hacked apart. Witnesses said the knife gouges in his tailbone were from sexual torture.

Some measure of peace came in 1998 with the conviction and another life sentence for McRae.

The pain returned in April when McRae's conviction was overturned.

"It's unfair that we've gone through all this when he should have been in jail for what he did in 1950," she said. "It's unfair for my brother, those Florida families -- and who knows how many others we don't know about."

Another missing boy

John McRae arrived in Clare County in 1984, settling in a trailer with his wife and son, Martin. They'd knocked around the country for several years since lighting out from Florida after he was questioned about three missing boys.

McRae seemed to spend his time caring for his invalid wife and raising angora goats in the ramshackle collection of buildings on Larch Road. He immersed himself in 4-H and Cub Scouts through Martin.

Hudson said her neighbor seemed to have a lot of free time, and keeping a tidy farm wasn't a priority.

"He asked me to feed the animals when they went away for a weekend," she said. "Goats were living right inside the trailer. I couldn't believe it. There were kittens in drawers."

That wasn't the only surprise.

"We had no idea he had any kind of a record," Hudson said. "We didn't have a clue as to who or what he was."

McRae was known as a guy raising goats, and as a father who kept a close eye on his son and got involved in kids' activities.

Then in 1987, Randy Laufer disappeared. The police were pretty sure he'd run away, even if his family insisted he hadn't.

"They told us not to worry, that he'd be back by the end of the week. And then weeks turned to months, and they said he'd be back after a year," Laufer said. "For the first six months, there was nothing in the newspapers or on TV -- just my mother and a friend passing out flyers. I was a senior in high school and going out everyday, looking."

There was another disappearance. McRae, his wife and son were suddenly gone in January 1988.

"One day McRae was buying some used tires from me, saying he'd pay me later," Hudson said. "The next morning his dog, a black Lab, is tied to a tree in my yard with a note on his collar asking me to take care of him. They were gone."

Clare County Sheriff's Detective Lt. Mark McClellan said that at first, McRae had been questioned like other parents about the missing boy.

But a call from police in Brevard County, Fla., changed things, McClellan said: "They were following up on the whereabouts of John Rodney McRae. And then they asked if we had any missing boys. And then they said we had reason to be concerned."

Investigators returned to the McRae home armed with his background and the open Florida cases.

"Let's say he soon left the state in a hurry," McClellan said. "We found him down in Arizona where his mother was. We were pretty sure, but we could never develop enough evidence to make a case."

Tracking dogs went over the site repeatedly without luck. The abandoned trailer was searched and flyers for the missing boy were found in the litter.

The county officials turned to the Michigan attorney general, and veteran prosecutor Mark Blumer was handed the case. Blumer was no stranger to tough cases -- he successfully prosecuted David Davis years after the Hillsdale man killed his wife with a supposedly undetectable poison. He also won a conviction of Melvin Garza for abducting and murdering his girlfriend Robin Adams in Caro -- the charges had been brought even before the body was discovered. "By 1997, Blumer thought we had enough to prosecute even without the boy's body, then lo and behold! The skull turns up," McClellan said. "I tell you, it was an awesome thing."

McRae and his son, then in his 20s, were charged in the killing.

The men were returned to Michigan. The case against Martin was dismissed, but John McRae was held in the county jail pending his first-degree murder trial. While there, he told his wife to ask their old neighbor Dean Heintzelman to visit him. Their kids had been buddies.

Heintzelman dropped by the jail about 11 p.m. one night. What happened next was either small town informality or police cunning.

'It was bad'

Heintzelman also was a volunteer auxiliary deputy, and he was in uniform when the jailer let him into the cellblock. Heintzelman turned their talk to the killing, first bringing up efforts to charge Martin. He then asked: "John, did you do it?"

Heintzelman, in later testimony, recalled the scene: "And he just hung his head down and said, 'Dean, it was bad. It was bad.' "

Despite defense efforts to keep it out, jurors heard the testimony during the four-day trial in 1998.

The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed the testimony was proper and not unconstitutional police interrogation. But this spring, the Michigan Supreme Court said it was and ordered a new trial.

The uniform- and badge-wearing Heintzelman had special access to McRae in a maximum security area late at night and persisted in trying to get him to talk about the case -- all clear signs of official sanction and action, the high court ruled.

While McRae -- who remains in custody -- has gotten legal breathing room, his son, Martin, is in his own world of trouble.

Martin, now 30, pleaded guilty in Reno, Nev., in 2000 to molesting his daughter and her friend on a four-wheeling trip in the desert. He is serving 10 years to life.

The U.S. Supreme Court has asked for written arguments on John McRae's case.

The prosecution maintains that Heintzelman was a friend and not a deputy when he spoke with him.

But Marla McCowan, McRae's lawyer from the State Appellate Defenders Office, asked: "Do you think that just regular old you or me would have had access to Mr. McRae at 11 p.m.? The man repeatedly questions him and then when he gets an answer, he told his supervisor."

McCowan said this isn't legal nit-picking: "People may say this is a terrible child killer trying to sneak through some loophole. I don't think the right to an attorney or the Miranda Rights is just a technicality. I don't like the idea of fudging on the Constitution. You can't just sort of comply with the rules."

Clare County Prosecutor Norm Gage said the justices just don't get the local informality.

"I guess the court doesn't appreciate small town America yet," Gage said.

Gage and defense attorney Paul Pemberton are preparing for a retrial in January. If the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the case, the retrial will be delayed. Pemberton said there's plenty of reasonable doubt -- more than enough to acquit McRae.

For starters, he said, McRae was at a 4-H meeting the night Laufer disappeared. Pemberton said Laufer was seen a year later at a fair and said he was staying in a nearby town.

Whatever happened to the boy took place after McRae left, Pemberton said.

"That property was open and abandoned after he moved in 1987, and they ran over that area several times with cadaver dogs who never smelled a thing," he said. "There's 20 to 30 percent of that skeleton missing, and we're talking big bones like femurs. And the last place to bury a victim would bein your front yard. How much crazy is that?"

"Randy had a pretty sad life," Pemberton said. "He'd even tried to run off with the circus."

"If we can keep Joey Housey and 1951 out of the courtroom, we have a pretty fair chance," he said.

But Gage said Joey will be in the trial because he shows McRae's lethal pattern.

Kandy Laufer said another trial is another layer of heartache.

"It's hard," she said. "My mother's passed away and my father's ill. Yes, it feels unfair to have gone through this when he should have been in jail for the rest of his life for what he did to Joey Housey."


New trial gives alleged serial killer a shot at freedom

May 2, 2005

Police say John R. McRae is a serial killer, convicted of murdering two boys in Michigan and suspected in the disappearances of three boys in Florida.

As a man who did prison time for the 1950 murder of 8-year-old Joey Housey in St. Clair Shores, McRae makes a convenient scapegoat, his lawyers say, for police who can't or won't track other suspects in cases of missing or murdered boys.

One thing is sure: If a Bay County jury acquits McRae in a trial starting Tuesday in Bay City, the 70-year-old former Clare County goat farmer goes free.

"That definitely worries me," said 71-year-old James R. Housey of Johannesburg, the brother of Joey Housey.

Joey Housey was slashed to death with a straight razor by McRae, who police call a sadistic psychopath who is sexually stimulated by contact with his victims' dead bodies.

A jury convicted McRae - a teen at the time - for Housey's murder, and the killer spent more than 20 years behind bars. But in 1972, then-Gov. William Milliken commuted McRae's sentence of mandatory life in prison.

McRae moved to Florida for a number of years but later returned to Michigan before moving again, this time to Arizona.

In 1998, a Clare County jury convicted McRae of the first-degree murder of 15-year-old Randy Laufer of Harrison. Laufer vanished in 1987.

McRae left Clare County for Arizona after Randy Laufer's disappearance, but in 1997 a farmhand unearthed Randy's remains, just yards from McRae's former home in Clare County's Hatton Township. Laufer had been mutilated.

Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered a new trial for McRae in the Laufer case. The court ruled McRae was denied his right to legal representation when he made incriminating statements to his former neighbor, Robert D. "Dean" Heintzelman Sr., a reserve police officer.

Heintzelman was in full police uniform when quizzing McRae in jail after McRae had been arraigned in court on a charge of first-degree murder in Laufer's slaying.

Following the state Supreme Court ruling, McRae's attorneys asked that the second trial occur outside Clare County in front of a different judge, and Clare County Circuit Judge Kurt Hansen - who presided at the first trial - granted the request.

McRae's retrial begins at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday in Bay County Circuit Court, in front of Judge Kenneth W. Schmidt.

"Way back when they first tried McRae (for Housey's murder) ... the psychiatrist said that if McRae goes free he'd kill again, and once Milliken turned him loose, that's exactly what happened," said James Housey, a retired police officer who plans to drive from his Otsego County home to attend some of McRae's trial in Bay City.

McRae's defense attorney, Paul J. Pemberton of Beaverton, says cops lost some evidence in the Randy Laufer case when that evidence didn't fit their theory that McRae killed the Harrison boy.

Other times, Pemberton says, authorities have manufactured false evidence to bolster their claims in the Laufer case.

"It's been, 'Convict at any cost - the end justifies the means,"' Pemberton said.

Prosecutors, Pemberton claims, have produced a different pair of pants, found near Randy Laufer's remains, than the pants they introduced at McRae's first trial.

The pants prosecutors brought to court at the first trial were too big to have been worn by Randy Laufer, but the latest pair of pants is far too small, according to Pemberton.

Pemberton also takes exception to a pair of socks authorities claim were on Laufer's feet for the 10 years prosecutors claim the boy's body was in the ground near McRae's home.

"The state police crime lab found no serological evidence on these socks," Pemberton said. "You tell me how they rot away on somebody's legs and leave no trace of flesh or blood over 10 years.

"That's another one of those mysteries in this case."

Homicide Agent Gary A. Harrell of the Brevard County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office finds little that's mysterious about John McRae.

"I've interviewed him several times, but the first time I met him, he says, 'I'm just an old grandfather who wants to get back to his grandkids,' and I sat there and looked at him, knowing his face was the face of evil, knowing he's a necrophiliac, knowing he enjoys sexual activity with a dead person," Harrell said.

Since 1996, Harrell has probed the unsolved disappearances of three Florida boys: Keith Fleming, Kipling "Kip" Hess and Charles Collingwood. Harrell calls McRae the "lone suspect" in each of those cases.

Fleming, then 14, vanished from Cocoa Beach, Fla., in 1977. Kip Hess, 12, went missing from Merritt Island, Fla., in 1979, nine months before 19-year-old Charles Collingwood disappeared from Sharpes, Fla. Police haven't found their bodies.

John McRae lived in the area at the time the boys vanished, and even worked at the state prison for young offenders that housed Collingwood. Harrell alleges McRae drove the getaway car after Collingwood escaped from the prison, though Collingwood was never seen after the escape.

Barbara A. McRae, 51, now living in Sparks, Nev., has been married for 32 years to John McRae, and plans to attend part of his murder trial in Bay City.

She figures her husband has a better chance at winning his freedom this time, compared to when he went on trial in 1998 for Randy Laufer's slaying.

A star witness in the 1998 trial - forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz - won't testify this time. Following the first McRae trial, Dietz went on to give false testimony that helped convict Texas mother Andrea Yates in three of her five children's drownings.

His testimony was the basis for a Texas Court of Appeals decision earlier this year that overturned Yates' convictions and entitles her to a new trial.

Former Michigan Assistant Attorney General Mark E. Blumer successfully prosecuted McRae in the 1998 trial, but Blumer since has retired from the attorney general's office.

But Blumer, now an assistant prosecutor in Jackson County, said that even without the controversial testimony of Dean Heintzelman - testimony that helped convict McRae of Randy Laufer's murder - there's plenty of evidence against McRae.

When lawyers appealed McRae's 1998 conviction, the state Court of Appeals said Heintzelman's testimony "was essentially frosting on a rather large cake (of evidence)," Blumer said.

Paul Pemberton, however, theorizes Randy Laufer was a runaway killed by someone besides John McRae.

Pemberton said Bradley J. Sprague, a witness in McRae's first trial, testified about speaking with Randy Laufer at the Clare County Fair about a year after police allege John McRae killed Laufer.

"Randy's entire appearance had changed, in terms of the quality of the clothes he was wearing," Pemberton said. "Now he was wearing nice clothes, had a good haircut and indicated his life had taken a turn for the better."

Pemberton speculates someone besides John McRae "may have been exploiting Randy sexually and something happens between them and Randy ends up dead."

Laufer's real killer, knowing John McRae is a convicted child killer, could have buried Laufer's body next to the McRaes' former home after the they left for Arizona, Pemberton claims.


Sociopathic killer's secrets taken to grave

With the recent death of John McRae in prison, 3 Florida families fear they will never have closure

July 17, 2005

COCOA BEACH - Teenager Charles Collingwood was serving time for car theft in 1979 when a corrections officer at the Brevard Correctional Institute named John Rodney McRae took him under his wing, working with him on a variety of work details.

Kip Hess was a 12-year-old Boy Scout on Merritt Island in 1979 when he was befriended by McRae at a church fair, where McRae was working as a security guard.

In 1977, Keith Fleming, 13, liked to surf at Cocoa Beach Pier, where McRae once told a detective that he liked to hang out at the pier and watch the boys.

In the 1970s, Brevard County was less hectic than it is today, and doors didn't have to be locked out of morbid dread of serial killings, abductions and sadistic murders.

Maria Fleming, Keith Fleming's mother, recalls that State Road A1A was a pothole-filled road lined with Australian pines. A New Jersey transplant who was a long-time waitress at Bernard's Surf, Fleming said everybody in Cocoa Beach knew everyone else in town.

A sociopathic killer, John Rodney McRae, changed all that.

Authorities believe McRae killed Fleming, Hess and Collingwood and buried their bodies, probably near his trailer in Sharpes. But when he died at 70 on June 28 in a Michigan prison, he took his secrets with him.

Described as unredeemably evil and remorseless, McRae rejected all pleas for help with the mysteries -- even though he was sentenced to life without parole June 15.

Brevard officials never were able to prosecute McRae, which rankles them today. His death left the trail for the youths' remains as cold as ever.

'An evil man'

"This case file is as thick as the Chicago phone book," said Cocoa Beach detective Bill Flack, one of many investigators to work the case over the years.

"I can't imagine a mother losing a child and not having the answer to what happened. But everybody that has worked this case has done everything they could. It's just that there's acres and acres of empty land up there."

McRae was 16 when he was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1950 knife torture-slaying of an 8-year-old Michigan boy, Joey Housey. The boy's body was discovered under a slab of broken sidewalk 25 feet from where McRae lived.

In 1998, McRae was convicted of first-degree murder in the knife slaying of 15-year-old Randy Laufer of Michigan, whose body lay buried under a concrete slab near McRae's home for 10 years before it was discovered.

Between those convictions, McRae lived in Brevard, from 1976 to 1980. He was hired as a corrections officer at the Brevard Correctional Institution despite serving 21 years in prison for the 1950 slaying. Officials at the prison didn't know about the crime. McRae lied on his application to hide it.

McRae's wife, Barbara, told investigators that McRae admitted killing Hess and Collingwood. But, because she was his wife, her testimony was not admissible in court, and lacking the youths' bodies, Brevard authorities could never charge McRae in the cases.

Brevard Sheriff's Homicide Agent Gary Harrell interviewed John McRae off and on for seven years, including last month at Michigan Correctional Facility after McRae received his life sentence. Harrell said McRae had boasted to inmates that he'd killed more than 30 boys.

"There is no remorse in these people; they are not like normal people," Harrell said. "Even when I talk to his wife, it's like an event to get her to talk because she has so much hate for us."

State Attorney Norm Wolfinger described McRae as "an evil man."

"When he died, he didn't pass Go, he went directly to hell," Wolfinger said.

McRae, who claimed to have been a victim of child abuse, admitted to authorities that he spent time with Hess and Collingwood. But he snarled at suggestions that he should confess, Harrell said.

"At one time, I showed him picture of the boys, and we told him we wouldn't prosecute, we just wanted to return the bodies to the families, but he started crying and said, 'I can't, I just can't.' " Harrell said.

A widow's denial

The families of the youths say they hope authorities will press McRae's widow and his son, Marty McRae, for information that might lead to the bodies. Marty McRae, 30, is serving a 20-year prison term in Nevada for child molestation.

"McRae is dead, but the cases are not dead," Harrell said. "I've always thought Barbara McRae had information, and with her husband gone, there's nothing more to protect."

Maria Fleming said she would be willing to visit Barbara McRae.

"This is our only hope. What else can I go on?" Fleming said. "Where are people's consciences these days? If they come up with something, I won't bother them."

But Harrell said he would not encourage the families to contact Barbara McRae.

"I just don't want to set them up to be disappointed," he said.

Reached at her home in Sparks, Nev., Barbara McRae said she has nothing to say to sheriff's agents or the victims' families.

"It would be a wasted trip. I wish they'd get that through their heads," McRae said. "I don't know nothing, I never have, and I never will."

Proclaiming her husband as innocent, she said: "I loved the man. I was married to him for 33 years. He loved kids. He was the best man I ever knew. Of course, nobody wants to hear that."

Seeking closure

Because the crimes occurred so long ago -- before advances in forensics technology -- and because of the McRae family's lack of cooperation, the victims' families don't blame authorities for failing to solve the case.

But Kipling Hess points out that his son's bicycle wasn't brushed for fingerprints until a year after his disappearance. Maria Fleming's cheek was swabbed for a DNA sample just last year, in the event remains are ever found.

But investigators never charged McRae, and the case never went to court.

"The reason it was never brought to trial is they did not have a case," Wolfinger said, adding that McRae once passed a polygraph test. "He was seen with a kid, but a lot of people are seen with kids. At the later stage of the game, it became a matter of just wanting to find the bodies to bring the families some peace."

During the years, authorities conducted three large-scale digs in the Sharpes area where McRae lived in a trailer outside the prison, at one point using a ground-penetrating radar device provided by the University of Central Florida.

Uncovering the youths' remains would represent a vital closure for the survivors, for whom time is running short.

Keith Fleming's father, Donald Fleming, died two years ago, as did Charles Collingwood's father, Thomas Collingwood.

Keith Fleming's older brother, Gerald Fleming, a Cocoa Beach plumber, has the Marines emblem tattooed on his right shoulder in tribute to his father, who fought in the Korean war.

"The Marines' emblem means that you bring everybody home, and my father passed away without bringing his son home," Gerald Fleming said. "The main thing I would like to see now is closure for my mother."

Said Maria Fleming: "I used to think maybe he's in an institution somewhere, or he was brainwashed by the Moonies, or he's in a jail in Tijuana. But if something happened to him, I want to lay him to rest with his father."

 


McRae timeline

1950: At 16, John Rodney McRae is charged with killing 8-year-old neighbor Joey Housey in Michigan.

1951: McRae is convicted and sentenced to life.

1971: Sentence is commuted because McRae was a teenager at the time of the crime.

1972: McRae is paroled.

1976: McRae moves to Brevard County, lies on an application and becomes a guard at Brevard Correctional Institute.

April 1977: Keith Fleming, 13, disappears from Cocoa Beach.

March 1979: Kip Hess, 12, of Merritt Island, disappears.

December 1979: Charles Collingwood, 19, disappears from work detail at Brevard Correctional Institute.

1980: McRae is questioned about the Brevard disappearances. Denies having an inappropriate relationship with Collingwood, moves back to Michigan.

1987: McRae's Michigan neighbor Randy Laufer, 15, disappears. McRae moves to Arizona.

1997: Laufer's body found under a concrete slab near where McRae once lived.

1998: McRae convicted of murder in Laufer's slaying. Sentenced to life.

1999: Using ground-penetrating radar, searchers find nothing at McRae's former property in Brevard.

2004: Retrial ordered in Laufer's murder on the basis of unconstitutional police questioning.

May 2005: McRae convicted a second time. Sentenced to life.

June 28, 2005: McRae dies in prison at age 70.

 


SEX: M. RACE: ? TYPE: N MOTIVE: Sex.

MO: Convicted pedophile slayer of two boys; suspected of two more.

DISPOSITION: Served 21 years in Mich. for murder of eight-year-old boy (paroled 1971); convicted on second count in Mich., 1998; charges pending on two counts in Fla.


THE MISSING FLORIDA BOYS


Keith Fleming disappeared from Cocoa Beach, Fla.,
shortly after John McRae relocated to Florida.

 

Kip Hess was saved from bullying at a Florida church carnival by McRae.
He disappeared a few days later.

 

Charles Collingwood has not been seen since he escaped from
a Florida prison in 1979. Police say he was McRae's lover.

 

Still struggling. Maria Fleming of Cocoa Beach holds a photo of her son Keith Fleming, who disapppeared from Cocoa Beach in 1977 when he was 13. Keith is believed to have been killed by John McRae, who died in a Michigan prison June 28.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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