Historical, Heinous Crime Resurrected
Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth
Judge Curtis E. Chillingworth
The most sensational, lurid crime in the history of Florida occurred in 1955 in the town of Manalapan, just south of Palm Beach. A revered judge, Curtis E. Chillingworth, and his wife, Marjorie, were forced at gunpoint from their ocean-side home after midnight and ordered into a motorboat by two men, who transported the couple two miles into the ocean. The men attached lead weights around the judge and his wife’s legs, and pushed them overboard.
The murders and the trial almost six years later drew reporters from around the country, and made international news.
Now, filmmakers Jonathan Paine and John Maass, whose parents were friends of the Chillingworths, have finished a 10-year project of researching and producing a 13-part series of podcasts exploring the murders and the aftermath, which involved a slew of additional crimes. In fact, the events following the killings turned the entire episode into a labyrinthine mystery so full of intrigue that a novelist would be hard-pressed to create a plot as elaborate. It is a fantastical tale of men driven by greed and power to collaborate in the perpetration of heinous murders and other crimes, betraying and deceiving each other along the way.
The person behind the Chillingworth murders was Joseph Peel Jr., a West Palm Beach attorney and city magistrate who wanted to run for governor of Florida. But he was caught committing a misdeed related to his position on the bench, and Circuit Judge Chillingworth, much esteemed throughout Florida and even the southeastern United States for his integrity and evenhanded way of dispensing justice, let Peel off with a light penalty. Instead of learning from the experience, Peel committed another offense, and again was caught.
John Maass (left) and Jonathan Paine
Peel became friends with a gregarious, rakish fellow named Floyd “Lucky” Holzapfel, a World War II hero who had killed Germans without remorse, and committed armed robbery in Oklahoma before making his way to Florida. The two began a racket of shaking down bookmakers in the Cuban gambling game of bolita indulged in by the Hispanic and black populations. Bobby Lincoln, a Riviera Beach man who ran illegal operations in the black community, joined them. Peel decided the only way to prevent Chillingworth from removing him from the bench, which empowered his bribery operation, was to kill the judge, and devised a plot that involved his two crime partners.
Lincoln was extremely reluctant to go along with the plan, but was in with Peel too deeply to get out of it. On the night of June 14, 1955, he and Holzapfel sailed a boat to the beach in front of the Chillingworth home, and Holzapfel walked to the house and knocked on the door. The judge answered, and allowed the man to come inside and use the phone, whereupon he pulled a gun and escorted the couple to the boat.
Joseph Peel Jr.
Another judge removed Peel from his magistrate position, which left Peel with the same punishment he’d faced from Chillingworth. The crime went unsolved for several years, and the three men, now unable to use Peel’s magistrate position for briberies, expanded their criminal activities to include their own bolita and bookmaking operations. At a horse racing track in South Florida, a bettor won several races, and the bookies didn’t have the money to pay. The winner was a member of the Santo Trafficante mob operation. To raise the money, Peel took an insurance policy out on his law partner, Hal Gray, and recruited a former client, Jim Yenzer, to kill him by hitting him over the head with a bar of soap in a sack, then drown him. But Hal didn’t lose consciousness and Yenzer claimed he was trying to kill a spider on Hal’s head. Later, Holzapfel attacked Gray with a blackjack in a strip club, but still couldn’t kill the hard-headed fellow. Amazingly, Holzapfel managed to convince a jury there was insufficient evidence to convict him.
Floyd “Lucky” Holzapfel
But they still needed $40,000 to pay off the Trafficante associate. So they stole radium from a hospital, and sold it to a Miami underworld figure, who died of radiation. A close friend of that figure, a vicious mobster named Barney Barnett, planned vengeance on Holzapfel and Yenzer, but they convinced him the death was not due to the radiation. Instead, Barnett hired them to provide security for hotels he had influence with, and intimidate union service-worker organizers. Holzapfel and Yenzer became good friends, and a drunken Holzapel told him about the Chillingworth murders one night, later retracting the confession.
A photo printer mailed to Charles Nugent, the prosecutor in the Holzapfel/Hal Gray attempted murder case, an envelope of five nude women who were divorce clients of Peel, who then agreed to resign from the bar. Peel started a construction company in Lake Worth.
Meanwhile, Bobby Lincoln had entered the moonshine business with an operator in Jacksonville. An associate, Lew Gene Harvey, 21, was jailed on a moonshine running charge, and Lincoln was arrested for his role. He and others in the operation believed Harvey was an informant. Holzapfel, who had lost his job in Miami, heard about it, and feared Lincoln would make a deal with federal authorities to escape conviction, and spill the beans about the Chillingworth murders. He convinced Lincoln that the feds wouldn’t have a case against the moonshiners without Harvey’s testimony. Holzapfel met with Harvey, who loved race cars, and convinced him they could make money selling stolen cars to Mexico. The two drove to Palm Beach County, where Lincoln reluctantly went with them to a canal in a rural area. They gagged and tied Harvey, and placed him in a boat. Holzapfel shot him in the head. The abductors attached concrete blocks to the body, but one came loose. Two fishermen later discovered the floating body.
A young detective with the Florida Sheriff’s Bureau, Henry Lovern, was assigned to investigate. Harvey’s wife and an inlaw had entered the restaurant where Holzapfel was meeting with Harvey, who had given the women Holzapfel’s car license number as a precaution. Lovern found the criminal records of Holzapfel, and showed the two young women photos, which they identified. Lovern located Jim Yenzer, who cagily revealed Holzapfel was involved in the murder. Yenzer then told the detective about the Chillingworth murders. A $100,000 reward had been offered in the case.
Lovern knew prosecution would be difficult because of a legal doctrine called corpus delicti, which required that the body be produced for a person to be convicted of murder – unless two credible witnesses to the crime testified. Somehow, he would have to finagle a way to get two of the crime’s three participants to turn on each other.
Thus began a complex series of events in which Lovern persuaded criminal associates of the Chillingworth killers to cooperate in the plan. The setting shifted from West Palm Beach to other Florida cities to Brazil and back.
It is a tale with a seemingly impossible resolution, which somehow came to fruition, with justice winning in the end. Suffice it to say that the famous Sir Walter Scott line from the poem Marmion is quintessentially apt here: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
To listen to the series, go to https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/chillingworth/id1465502403. It is enthralling.
Podcast producers Paine and Maass, sons of local judges, are lifelong friends. They are planning a documentary television series on the Chillingworth saga with two other producers.
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