Photo Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times
“Pick me up, and we’ll get something to eat.”
A phrase that many couples will recognize. A sign of normalcy and familiarity. How many times had Leo Schofield uttered them before? How many times had the simple plan worked out just fine? Many people reading this can imagine what normally transpires after this all too well: Chinese takeout, a quick burger, or picking up a Pizza and heading home to watch TV. Normal.
When Leo Schofield said these words to his wife, Michelle, that is what he expected. He didn’t realize that those would be some of the last words he spoke to her and that, what should have been a standard Tuesday evening, would be the beginning of a nightmare.
On February 24th, 1987 at 9:45 PM, Leo was at band practice at his friend Buddy Anderson’s house. When Michelle called him there, 90 minutes after her shift at Tom’s Restaurant, a local burger joint, he told her to pick him up at his friend Vince Rahner’s house down the street.
He walked to Vince’s house and stayed there, waiting for Michelle. When the clock struck midnight, Leo, worried about his wife, called his father. Leo Schofield, Sr. picked his son up and together the two retraced the route that Michelle would have taken. They checked Leo and Michelle’s trailer, but not seeing her vehicle, didn’t enter the trailer and kept searching. After driving around for some time, Leo called the surrounding hospitals, the police department and the sheriff’s department, hoping for some sign of Michelle. Nothing.
Leo went back to his parents’ house with his father and made more calls to authorities. His mother took him back out, and together they retraced the same roads, stopping again at Leo’s trailer. This time, he went inside, turned on the lights, and left a note for Michelle to stay put, assuming that they were somehow missing each other.
He and his mother continued their search and at 2:20 AM, stopped at Michelle’s father, David Saum’s house. Leo knocked on Saum’s window, waking him, and asked if he had seen Michelle. He had seen Michelle earlier in the day, but not since then.
Leaving David Saum’s house, Leo and his mother came upon two sheriff’s vehicles parked at the local gas station. Leo asked them if they had seen any sign of Michelle, and gave them further detail on her vehicle.
After the fruitless search with his mother, Leo finally ended up back at Buddy Anderson’s house around 4:30 AM and, at the urging of his friend, tried to get some sleep.
In the morning, he met a Polk County sheriff’s deputy at his trailer and provided him with a description and picture of Michelle for the missing person report. Leo and his father spent the rest of the day printing and posting fliers with details of Michelle’s disappearance, hoping that someone, anyone, had seen her.
Thursday, February 26th, 1987, a friend called the Schofields, saying that he had seen Michelle’s car at exit 44 on Interstate 4. At 11:30 that night, the Schofields and the sheriff’s deputies gathered at the vehicle. They found the back hatch unlocked, the rear speakers missing and bits of hair stuck in the rear panel. The Schofields and the authorities mounted a search in the area and on Friday at 1:30 PM, Leo’s father found her body. She had been stabbed 26 times and dumped in the canal.
On June 24th, 1988, Leo Schofield was arrested and charged with Michelle’s murder.
“I was incredulous. Nothing in my personal history prepared me for the stain on my personhood that was immediately felt when I was accused of killing the girl I loved.” – Leo Schofield
Despite the copious amounts of blood, the tire tracks, and footprints at the canal where Michelle’s body was found, Leo’s trailer was declared by investigators to be the scene of the crime. The prosecution maintained that Leo and Michelle had gone back to their home around 1:30 AM, at which point Leo stabbed Michelle 26 times, carried her body out to their shared vehicle and dumped her out in the canal.
In contrast to the canal crime scene, Leo’s trailer was blood-free, aside from a small stain the size of a half-dollar of an unidentified fluid. According to the medical examiner, Michelle bled five pints of blood. Leo’s clothes from that night were taken into evidence and, like the trailer were also found to be completely free of blood.
This discrepancy was just one of many in prosecutor John Aguero’s case:
Despite the many witnesses that Leo interacted with on the night of Michelle’s disappearance, the prosecution’s case focused on the testimony of Alice Scott, who stated that she saw Leo and Michelle enter the trailer around 1:30 AM the night Michelle disappeared. Alice said that she heard arguing and the sounds of a struggle coming from the trailer, followed by Leo leaving at 2:30 AM with something “the size of a child” wrapped up and thrown in the back of the couple’s Mazda.
In direct opposition to Alice Scott’s testimony, Michelle’s father, David Saum, testified that Leo was with him at 2:30 AM. At 2:45 AM, Leo was speaking to the sheriff’s deputies at the gas station.
Beyond the discrepancy in the timeline, Alice Scott had a history of mental issues and had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution by her family. She also blatantly lied about the distance between the bathroom window that she allegedly witnessed the night’s events from and the Schofields’ trailer.
Additionally, there were three unsolved murder cases where women had been stabbed to death in the area, a fact which Polk sheriff’s Detective Richard Putnel testified he was unaware of.
To further dilute the prosecution’s case, there was an unidentified set of fingerprints in the car that did not belong to Leo or Michelle.
Prosecutor John Aguero, a man who has himself been accused of domestic battery, lacked physical evidence. To compensate, he brought a parade of witnesses that testified on the Schofields’ sometimes tumultuous marriage. These witnesses cited incidents where the couple was involved in physical altercations and painted Leo as a violent, unpredictable man.
The witnesses cited occasional incidences of hair pulling, slapping, and screaming matches as evidence of domestic unrest.
Leo’s defense attorney, Jack Edmund, was underprepared and failed to challenge this depiction, allowing Aguero to lead witnesses into hyperbole and speculation.
The jury returned a verdict in 2 hours: guilty.
Leo Schofield was sentenced to life in prison.
“Anyone can be wrong and make a mistake. It’s what you do with it when you’re face to face with the facts that counts. I, and my family have paid an indescribable price to find justice for Michelle because the ‘system’ failed us long ago.” – Leo Schofield
Schofield filed an appeal in ’89, denied.
Another in ’92, denied.
Again and again and again. Every appeal denied.
And so, Leo Schofield sat in prison, choosing to spend his time helping others. He eventually landed a job as a teaching aide for Crissie Carter, helping to teach a life skills course for other inmates.
“A lot of people get involved [with Leo’s case] because they hear the story from me…and then they meet Leo, there’s something about him, he’s special,” – Crissie Carter
She listened to Leo’s story, and after doing her own research found that there were too many holes in the prosecution’s case. Crissie and Leo grew closer through this process and in 1995, they got married.
“My family was supportive, but not necessarily happy.” Says Crissie, “I have friends that don’t talk to me anymore.”
She thought that advanced forensic technology might be able to make sense of the unknown set of fingerprints and began contacting multiple law enforcement agencies to see if they could run the prints again.
Carter became Leo’s greatest advocate, telling his story to anyone who will listen and working tirelessly to gain his freedom.
“A lot of people get involved [with Leo’s case] because they hear the story from me…and then they meet Leo, there’s something about him, he’s special,” says Crissie.
Finally, in 2004, one of Crissie’s friends had the prints run.
The results were astounding.
Jeremy Scott, a man with a rap sheet a mile long, a man imprisoned for murder, a man with a long history of violence, and a man who lived less than two miles away from the location of Michelle’s body.
“Jeremy Scott’s former girlfriend, Jami Nelams, testified to Scott’s violent history, saying that he had struck her with a baseball bat and choked her to unconsciousness.
Leo and Crissie tried to get a hearing based on the new evidence. After being denied in 2008, they were granted a hearing in 2010, in which Jeremy Scott was called to testify. Scott testified that his fingerprints were on the car windshield (which was false, they were found in the rear of the vehicle) because he stole the stereo out of the car (which, in investigators’ photographs of the vehicle was still present). It should also be noted that, prior to the hearing, the original prosecutor on the case, John Aguero, held an unrecorded private meeting with Scott.
Jeremy Scott’s former girlfriend, Jami Nelams, testified to Scott’s violent history, saying that he had struck her with a baseball bat and choked her to unconsciousness. She also testified that he had frequently taken her to the same location where Michelle’s body was found.
Circuit Judge Keith P. Spoto (a former colleague of prosecutor John Aguero) denied the motion for a new trial, saying that the fingerprint evidence would likely not result in a different verdict for Schofield and that the evidence presented against Schofield was “substantial and convincing.”
“Can somebody just slam the podium and say, NO NO NO!” Said Crissie, expressing frustration with the process, “enough is enough.”
Scott Cupp, Leo’s attorney at the time, also expressed disappointment, “the frustrating thing is that I feel strongly, nobody has the read the trial record.”
“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes” – Leo Schofield
Leo and Crissie’s adopted daughter, Ashley Nicole, 16 years old, has become more involved in the case. “My dad’s rule is ‘speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.’ He’s always taught me to be truthful.”
Last year, Ashley spoke before a parole commission that ended in Leo being denied parole, again. “I felt like they didn’t really care.” She says.
In September of 2016, Leo Schofield’s latest attorney, Andrew Crawford, filed a motion to present new evidence. Crawford states in the motion that Jeremy Scott confessed to the murder in a call earlier in the year. A couple of days before the confession, Leo had prayed for “truthfulness and forgiveness” in the case. Jeremy Scott’s confession included full detail of the murder and how it was carried out.
“I have tried to hold onto the belief that justice always wins in the end.” Leo says. “Almost 30 years later and a long prison experience. I don’t know if justice can ever be obtained, but I am tired and wearing down. I have my wife today of nearly 26 years, and a daughter who is now 16 years old, both of which need me home. And I need to be with them.”
“The only thing that matters to him is his two girls.” Ashley is ready for her father to be released so that they can lead a normal life. “There are times in my life where I want to call him and talk, sometimes I dial the number on my phone, and then I realize I can’t.”
“I’ve been training for the Olympics in karate, and we’re going to go the 2020 Olympics together, that’s something we have to look forward to.” – Ashley Nicole, Leo’s Daughter
She is hopeful that her father will be released soon, “I’ve been training for the Olympics in karate, and we’re going to go the 2020 Olympics together, that’s something we have to look forward to.”
As of this writing, the motion to present new evidence has been struck twice, with the opportunity to amend. 10th Circuit Judge J. Kevin Abdoney has been assigned to the case and will ultimately be the one conducting a potential hearing.
“I want people to care…” Says Leo, “because everything I’ve said from the beginning is the absolute truth. What happened to me can happen to anyone.”
“I want people to care…” – Leo Schofield
How Can You Help?
Concerned readers can help Leo Schofield and his family in the following ways:
Sign a Petition:
This petition on Change.Org will be submitted to Polk County State Attorney Brian Haas on Leo’s behalf:
Share the Story:
Share this article on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and any other platform you can think of. Use the hashtag #freeleo and spread the word.