Leesburg was much different 46 years ago. Home alarm systems were exclusive to rich folk; most folk left doors unlocked. Guns were for hunting, not protection. Fear and distrust were big-city emotions … until a mother of three was abducted from downtown Leesburg in broad daylight and subsequently murdered. Here, for the first time, is the story of Leesburg’s Crime of the Century and “the Mad Dog Killer” who made Lake County tremble.
STORY: Gary Corsair
May 29, 2012
Lowell Correctional Institute
Florida Department of Corrections inmate 149933 rises slowly from a battered wheelchair, struggling to uncoil her 62-inch-tall frame, crowned with gray hair pulled into a bun. It’s a hairstyle she once used to conceal a homemade knife.
Once upright, she peers at her visitor through eyeglass frames held together by cellophane tape and faith.
A medallion of the Virgin Mary hangs from her neck.
There appears to be kindness in the 78-year-old woman’s liquid brown eyes. She’d blend in, it seems, at a church social or a bingo parlor … if it weren’t for the baggy blue jumpsuit she wears.
This feeble granny is the “wild, cunning animal” who killed without remorse, escaped prison and terrorized Lake County for years?!!
Marie Dean Arrington was 34 when a headline writer called her a “murderess without a conscience.” When I meet her, 44 years later, she’s just Miss Marie. Four decades behind bars has drained the venom from the viper Leesburg attorney Bob Pierce called “the meanest woman I’ve ever known.”
Pierce uttered those words in 1968, the year his life turned upside down.
April 22, 1968
Secretary June Ritter goes missing, apparently abducted just before noon on a Monday. And she seems to have gone willingly. There is no sign of a struggle in the office of her boss, public defender Bob Pierce.
April 24, 1968
On Wednesday, a deputy finds June’s Chevy Impala. There’s blood inside the trunk. And a taillight wire has been pulled loose. Did June spend her last moments trying to escape from a tomb on wheels?
Fear permeates the county. It appears a killer is on the loose. “It was a shock to the entire area. Everyone was just stunned something like that could happen,” says Neil Brisson, a friend of June Ritter and her husband “Tex.”
April 27, 1968
On Saturday, searchers discover June Ritter’s body near a sandy lane about five miles north of Cassia. June’s been shot multiple times in the head and neck. And she appears to have been run over by a car.
Long time criminal Marie Dean Arrington fits the description of a woman seen with June on April 22. When questioned, Marie says she was fishing with her cousin that day. When her cousin denies the alibi, Marie admits she went to Pierce’s office, but not to commit a crime; to discuss an appeal for her son. Incredibly, Marie says she and the secretary were both kidnapped by two men and a “large colored woman.” According to Marie, the trio left June in an orange grove, drove Marie back to Leesburg and let her out with a warning not to say anything. Police aren’t buying the story. Marie is arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Listen to Marie’s police interview audio from 1968
Marie’s motive? Pierce theorizes Marie wanted revenge. “I told them who did it right away,” he says. “Witnesses said it was a Negro woman Mrs. Ritter left with, and there could only be one mean enough to do this.”
Marie was supposedly furious with Pierce, who had represented her teenage children in separate bench trials. Judge Troy Hall came down hard on both kids. Francina, 18, was sentenced to two years hard labor for passing bad checks. Lloyd, 19, got life in prison for armed robbery.
Did Marie go to Pierce’s office at 213 N. Third St. to harm the lawyer and, not finding him, decide instead to kidnap his secretary?
Too incredible to suggest … unless you knew Marie like the cops did.
Marie was arrested for forgery in 1955; convicted of assault in ’56; convicted of larceny and robbery in ’57; convicted of passing worthless checks in ’61; arrested for larceny and vehicle theft in ’64; convicted of manslaughter after shooting her husband during an argument in ’64. Convicted, but not locked up. Marie skipped town while awaiting sentencing for manslaughter.
Fifth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Gordon Oldham Jr. is not about to let Marie elude justice a second time.
— Edward Lynum, Jr., Prosecution witness in State v. Marie Arrington.
He’ll convict her with statements from “eyewitnesses” who saw a “Negro” woman driving June Ritter’s car, and a sealed envelope Marie had stashed under her bathtub. The envelope contained June’s keys and gold watch — and a disjointed, poorly spelled message printed in pencil:
“If you want to see Mrs Ritter alive and get her back call off Willie McCalls office and the F.B.I. between your office and Troy Halls there are three boys we want freed in to weeks you will be given the naes at a later date the three boys are to be given their freedom at this time you will be notified where to find Mrs Ritter if you do not follow as you are told you will never see her alive. We will be in tought from time to time to let us no that you recived this letter mon after paper are to say that your office recives a phone call saying that Mrs Ritter is safe. That you can turfull say because she is looking at everything that is being written will be looking for Mondays paper if its not their Wed you will recive the arm that was wareing this watch so on until you have every part of her bodypice by pice.”
Curious thing about the envelope containing the threatening message — Marie led police to the evidence that connected her to the crime. Marie claims the envelope was left on her bed by the men who took her and June Ritter for a ride on April 22.
“I didn’t open the letter. I just took it and I throwed it under the bathtub because I figured they was going to hurt me or something,” Marie sobs to Sheriff McCall. “One knowed me. And they told me what they was going to do to me and my children … So I know they ain’t going to let me live after I tell this.”
During their fifth search of the house Marie stays in, deputies discover a second note in a robe in a closet. The note apparently intended for the wife of the judge who sentenced Marie’s children reads: “Mrs Hall in my right hand I have a 38cal. With this gun I have took the lives of two people. Do not be the third. Come with me and everything will be alright. Do not and you get a bulltiss right between the eyes.”
Things aren’t looking good for Marie … until lawmen take handwriting samples. Florida Department of Law Enforcement handwriting expert James H. Kelly finds “few similarities” and a “considerable amount of variation” between Marie’s printing and the notes.
Thinking someone wrote the notes for Marie, detectives obtain handwriting samples from 16 of her relatives and friends. All 16 people are cleared.
Investigators decide Marie must be a master forger. They’ll get no argument from Marie’s sister, Dorothy Everett.
“Marie can imitate anybody,” Dorothy told FBI agents in 1964 after Marie mimicked her sister’s signature to steal $348 from Dorothy’s account. “If she sees yours one time, she will imitate yours.”
But lawmen don’t rule out accomplices. That’s obvious from a letter Marie’s daughter mailed to her imprisoned mom. “(Leesburg police Sgt. Ralph) Slim Perry ask me did I know any one I thought would have done this. I said any body could have. They think some body help you,’” the daughter wrote on June 21, 1968.
Investigators are having a devil of a time.
Not one hair or fiber related to June Ritter is found on any of Marie’s clothes, shoes or wigs. Where is the murder weapon? And who left fingerprints on June’s car?
Not Marie. None of the 10 clear fingerprints lifted from the Chevy matches her ridges and furrows. Three print s were made by the victim. The remaining seven belong to an unknown person or people.
Nor have two polygraph tests provided conclusive answers. The stylus moves only slightly when Marie replies “no” when asked if she killed Mrs. Ritter.
A more predictable reading occurs when Marie’s asked, “About Mrs. Ritter being forced to leave her office, did you yourself make her leave her office?” Marie’s perspiration and blood pressure climb slightly when she answers “no,” then both readings drop noticeably.
Forty-four years later, retired polygraph examiner Dick Minnerly examines the graph paper from Marie’s test and zeroes in on the murder question.
“There should have been more there when she says ‘no’ to killing the woman,” he says.
And the question about forcing the victim to leave the office?
“There’s a concern about this office question,” he says. “She’s not telling the truth. The blood pressure rises and drops way off. She’s glad that question is over.”
Minnerly, who administered between 300 and 400 polygraphs during his career, is reluctant to provide an overall assessment of Marie’s polygraph. Lie detection has always been an inexact science.
“There are too many variables,” Minnerly says. “If you had to call her based on the entire chart, you’d have to call her deceptive. There’s something she’s worried about that she’s not telling anybody. Based on what I see, she’s responsible in some way.”
Confronted with the results 44 years later, Marie becomes upset.
“Only four people know for sure who really killed Mrs. Ritter,” she says. “The person that did it, myself, Mrs. Ritter and God above. So I could not care less how many polygraph experts believe that the tests did on me showed deception. … If I killed June Ritter, I would say so. What have I got to lose?”
The answer, of course, is she has nothing to lose. Her heart is enlarged. Her lungs have grown weak. And her kidneys are failing. She won’t live to see her parole hearing in 2041. On a May afternoon in 2012, she says she might as well tell all.
Marie removes her glasses and emits a deep sigh. “Here’s what went down,” she says. “I went in the door, and the (unnamed) woman got up and closed the door. … The other man was standing in front of Miss Ritter with the gun. Miss Ritter was standing there crying. She say, ‘I don’t know anything about it. Please, I don’t know anything about it.’ Now, they took Miss Ritter off. … There was the lady that was driving, the big fat lady with the green dress. There was Miss Ritter and one of the black men. In the back seat, there was me and the other two black men.”
According to Marie, the kidnappers drove to an orange grove in south Lake County.
“That was where Miss Ritter was killed,” Marie said. “That is the first time I saw Joe Fairfax car. The white car. Joe was there. … Him and two other men, or three men. … He got out, went to Miss Ritter and the other man that was standing there with Miss Ritter that was in the front seat. That’s when it happened. He shot her. … He shot her.”
This is the first time she’s named a killer. And she admits she occasionally worked for Fairfax, a known drug dealer in the Leesburg area. In fact, she claimed she was making a delivery for Fairfax on April 22, 1968, in his Chevy, the same color, make and model as June Ritter’s car.
During a September 2012 interview, Fairfax’s daughter Terry Charles confirmed her dad owned a white Impala “in about 1972.” She does not believe her father murdered June Ritter. “Big Joe” cannot speak for himself. According to Terry, he was stabbed to death in Highlands County in the 1980s.
Was Fairfax involved? His name appears twice in 4,200 pages of documents pertaining to the case, but there’s no indication Fairfax was questioned or investigated.
— Dale Knott, jury foreman, State v. Marie Arrington, 2012 interview.
Dec. 5, 1968
The trial begins, with Oldham calling two “witnesses” who observed a “colored woman” with Ritter in the secretary’s car, and Edward Lynum, a Leesburg resident who claims he followed a Chevy driven by Marie.
All three witnesses falter during cross-examination by defense lawyer Edward Kirkland. Boyd Holt testifies he’s not certain Marie was the woman he saw; Billie Shaw admits she only glimpsed the driver through the windshield of a car passing at 30 mph; Lynum reveals he waited four days before he “finally decided” to tell police he saw Marie driving Ritter’s car.
The threatening messages Marie supposedly wrote have a much bigger impact on the jury.
Oldham emphasizes the defendant and ransom-note author are the same person. Marie indicted herself, he says, by misspelling “piece.”
“Even a non-handwriting expert could tell,” he says later. “She spelled it p-i-c-e, just like it was in the ransom note. Who in the hell would spell it that way twice?”
Jurors never hear the opinion of handwriting expert James H. Kelly, who doubted Marie wrote the notes.
Another definitive moment comes when Leesburg police Officer Jimmy Hutton testifies he found a slashed screen door at Judge Hall’s home, human waste on the storage room floor, and a fingerprint on the judge’s car. The print matched Marie’s fingerprint.
Dec. 6, 1968
The defense rests without calling a single witness.
Assistant State Attorney John McCormick clinches the verdict during closing arguments.
“I knew June Ritter well,” he thunders. “I never saw a more innocent victim. Had (Marie) come after me — had she gone after Judge Hall, Mr. Oldham — somebody that she wants to blame for doing their duty, at least she could have blamed somebody that did something. But this young lady — and she was a lady, I am sure, because I knew her well — this young lady never prosecuted anybody. She was an innocent victim.”
Marie doesn’t show a flicker of emotion during the two hours and 48 minutes jurors deliberate. She remains stoic as foreman Dale Knott utters the words, “Guilty of first-degree murder.”
Marie is to be Florida’s first woman electrocuted to death for a crime.
March 1, 1969
Lowell Correctional Institute
No, she won’t.
Marie escapes from the Florida Correctional Institute for Women at Lowell,
apparently by squeezing through a 9×14-inch opening in a wire mesh window screen and scaling two fences.
Lowell superintendent Russell Guynn is dumbfounded. How did Marie cut the screen? And why couldn’t six bloodhounds detect her scent?
“It is like she flew out of here,” says investigator Keith Owens.
Guynn’s entire staff is questioned. All deny involvement. Five employees are suspended for 30 days for negligence.
Guynn underestimated Marie. He would have been more vigilant if he’d known Marie previously tried to escape from the Lake County jail, first by attempting to stab a jailer with the sharpened edge of a cigarette lighter, and then by cutting the window screen with a piece of metal she hid in her hair.
Forty-three years later, Marie reveals how she really broke out of Lowell.
“I walked right out the front door, “she says.” There was only supposed to be two keys to my cell. But there were three.”
Marie says two masked men opened her cell door and ushered her to a waiting car.
According to Marie, she hid in a “garage or a barn” about a mile from the prison for two nights, stayed in a church on the third, then was taken to the bus station in Ocala and given money to buy a ticket to Wildwood.
In Wildwood, she spent another night in a church.
“From there, I was to go to Leesburg,” Marie said. “I was not to go to my family, nowhere near my family, which I did not do. But I was told where to go.”
Marie swears she doesn’t know who sprang her or why.
A growing obsession to recapture “the Mad Dog Killer” prompts Florida senators to take the unprecedented step of passing a bill offering a $5,000 reward for the capture of Marie Dean Arrington.
The hunt turns into a federal matter when a Lake County man reports seeing Florida’s most notorious fugitive in Detroit. Marie lands on the FBI Most Wanted List, only the second woman to earn that distinction.
“She disappeared off the face of the earth,” said Towles Bigelow, the lead investigator for the Marion County sheriff at the time. “And everybody that could be looking for her was looking for her.”
They should have looked in Montclair, just outside of Leesburg.
“She came back to Leesburg,” Lynum recalled. “She was in hiding, but I saw her. Lots of people saw her.”
No one dared turn her in. That could cost you your life.
“She had a temper,” Lynum said. “And everybody knew that she would fight … She would fight like mad. She had a heck of a temper.”
A year passes without Marie’s capture.
Pierce tells a newspaper reporter: “The normal business of the State Attorney’s office continues; the normal business of the state of Florida continues. However, in the town of Leesburg now, even after a year, you will note the conversation almost always ends up on the subject of Marie Dean Arrington. Is she alive? Is she dead? Will she come back? Will she kill again?”
The consensus is “yes, she will” after Judge Hall receives a voodoo doll with a pin stuck through a red heart. The package bears a Leesburg postmark.
A second year passes.
Oldham is busy prosecuting criminals in five counties, but he hasn’t forgotten the escapee he calls a “wild, cunning animal.” Oldham orders phone taps of Marie’s family and friends.
“The thought was to do whatever it took to get her in custody,” Bigelow said.
The wiretaps pay off when Marie’s minister in Leesburg receives an out-of-state call.
The FBI traces the call to a phone booth in New Orleans and launches a systematic search of nearby homes and businesses that leads them to a lunch counter worker at Katz and Besthoff drugstore. The workers, Lola Nero, strongly resembles Marie. Agents order milkshakes. When they leave, the metal cup Lola used to make their drinks leaves with them. Back at the lab, they lift fingerprints. Lola Nero is indeed Marie Dean Arrington, fugitive from justice.
Marie’s arrest on Dec. 23, 1971, ends a 34-month manhunt. In Leesburg, Pierce tells a reporter: “I’m glad — durn glad — to learn of her capture. The thing that I was concerned about was that I was the one she was looking for when June was killed.”
— Marie Dean Arrington, 2012 interview.
Marie spends the first 11 months in isolation at Raiford State Prison, where she is the only female. She’s then transferred to Lake Butler, which she promptly tries to escape from by cutting a screen window in her cell.
After that, no more escape attempts. But Marie’s far from reformed. She’s disciplined 54 times and spends 1,044 days in confinement between 1984 and 2010. Her primary infractions are disobeying regulations/orders and possession of contraband.
By 2012, Marie’s physically worn out, but still angry.
“When I think about it, it’s nothing but revenge — an eye for an eye, you know?” she says. “And people will stand on the Bible and say that is the way it’s supposed to be. But I don’t believe it, I can’t believe it. It’s a wonder all the years I’ve been in prison that I haven’t gone completely mad. Whatever I did in life, I’m paying for it.”
Yes, but on the installment plan. Breaking out of prison saved her life. Marie was one of 600-plus death-row inmates who had death sentences commuted to life in when the U.S. Supreme Court enacted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1972.
Marie’s had 40-plus years to reflect. But she never expressed remorse.
Listen to excerpts of Marie’s interview with Gary Corsair from 2012
And she had reason to feel regret. According to her longtime friend, newspaper reporter Al Lee, “her career included the distribution of counterfeit money in such cities as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. … Reportedly a confidant and employee of (Lake County crime boss Harlan) Blackburn, it was said she was involved in murder-for-hire, counterfeiting and drugs.”
“The rackets that made me,” Marie said during the interview, “broke me.”
She refused to elaborate.
According to Marie, June Ritter was killed over fake money.
Naturally, Marie’s story is incredible.
“It had something to do with two counterfeit plates,” she says. “And Tex Ritter had something to do with it. I can’t prove that, no, but the way it was ran down to me by Joe (Fairfax)…”
June’s husband cannot refute the accusation. He’s long dead.
And so is Marie. She passed away May 5. She was 80.
In her final interview, she claimed she didn’t care what people thought of her. But she did.
“I am a kind person, I’m not an evil person,” she maintained. “I’m not asking anybody to pity me or have sympathy for me in no kind of way. Due to the fact I haven’t did anything. … I’ve lived my life. God promised me three score and 10 years. That’s 70 years and I’m 79, he’s given me nine more than he promised me. So I must have been a pretty good person somewhere along the way.”
Now she’s at the mercy of the ultimate judge.
Whatever happened to:
Marie Dean Arrington passed away at 80 on May 5 at the Lowell Annex of the Lowell Correctional Facility, where she spent most of her time alone, reading.
Marie’s daughter Marie “Francina” Dean was convicted of writing worthless checks in 1968 and served two years. She also served six months for escaping from Lowell Prison For Women on Oct. 2, 1968, and served five years and six months after being convicted of burglary and forgery in Pinellas County in 1976. Her whereabouts are unknown.
Marie’s son Lloyd Dean has served 46 years for robbing a Leesburg service station (without physically harming anyone) in 1967. Prior to that, Dean had only two other blemishes on his record — a ticket for jaywalking and an arrest for shoplifting a shirt. He filed appeals in 1969 and 1998. The 69-year-old is incarcerated at Union Correctional Institution.
Judge Troy Hall Jr. died in 1976. He was 65. The Orlando Sentinel described his tenure on the county and circuit bench as “stormy and controversial.”
Edward Lynum Jr. served a brief stint as a Leesburg policeman and became the first black police chief of Wildwood in 1976. He retired from law enforcement in 1986 to concentrate on his construction and real estate interests. Lynum continues to pursue those business interests.
State Attorney Gordon Oldham sent more than 50 killers to death row and prosecuted more than 200 capital cases during a 28-year career. Oldham died in 1998. He was 70.
Public Defender Robert Pierce held the office for 17 years before being defeated by Skip Babb in 1980 election. Pierce died in 1990 at 74.
Robert Joe “Tex” Ritter, June Ritter’s husband of 18 years, remarried in June 1971. He died in 1996 at 69.
Nathaniel Lorenzo Cannon, a suspect in June Ritter’s kidnapping who was cleared when none of the fingerprints lifted from Ritter’s car matched his has been arrested repeatedly. Infractions include heroin distribution, possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, simple assault, domestic violence, unlawful possession of a firearm, reckless driving, burglary, and conspiracy (for writing worthless checks). He is 67 years old and lives in Washington, D.C.
William L. Fisher, Leesburg’s police chief for 23 years and a member of the Leesburg P.D. since 1946, retired in 1969, shortly after being named outstanding law enforcement officer in the Fifth Judicial District. He died in 1988 at age 77.
Edward Kirkland, the flamboyant attorney who joined court-appointed lawyer Arthur Roberts in defending Marie, handled more than 50 homicide case before retiring. He lives in Winter Park. He is 89.
Willis V. McCall, Lake County Sheriff from 1944 to 1972, died in 1994 at age 83.
Ralph Perry enjoyed a 35-year law enforcement career. He succeeded William Fisher as Leesburg police chief in 1968. Perry died in 2006 at age 86.