Wrongfully Imprisoned for 29 Years: The Leo Schofield Story

Photo by Tampa Bay Times, DANIEL WALLACE

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.

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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

Leo comforts his daughter, Ashley Nicole

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.