ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The far-fetched idea was the last chance for police: magnify the handwriting of an unknown murder suspect and plaster it on billboards.
But the novel roadside attraction led to a suspect in the torture murders of a mother and her two daughters - and, police say, may have uncovered a serial rapist and killer who led a double life.
A day after the billboards went up, a tip led police to the suspect.
He was Oba Chandler, 46, a balding, blue-eyed, blue-collar charmer, married at least six times, father of at least nine children, who was indicted by a grand jury last week in the 1989 deaths of Joan Rogers, 36, and her daughters, Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14.
Police call the Rogerses' homicides the most heinous in the area's history. The bodies of the three females were found in Tampa Bay. Police later concluded that they were raped and thrown overboard - alive.
NEW CASES BEING OPENED
Investigators are busy closing that case and opening new ones.
Since Chandler was arrested in September in connection with an unrelated rape in a boat off Madeira Beach, about 10 miles north of St. Petersburg, a half-dozen women have called police to say Chandler raped them, authorities say. Police would not give details.
St. Petersburg Sgt. Glen Moore, head of the major-crimes division, said, "We have several rape cases confirmed, and we feel confident that we're going to have some other homicides."
Police have at least three pieces of evidence against Chandler in the Rogerses' homicides: a match of his handwriting on a pamphlet that was blown up on the billboards, his fingerprints on the pamphlet and alleged confessions about the killings to "several relatives," Moore said.
Chandler, held in Pinellas County Jail, says he had nothing to do with the triple homicide or the Madeira Beach rape or a third charge against him in a $750,000 jewelry holdup.
Chandler's lawyer wouldn't comment on the broadening investigation.
The case has been front-page news in the Tampa Bay area since June 5, 1989, when two pleasure boats discovered three semi-nude floating bodies. The Coast Guard pulled up the corpses in separate areas of Tampa Bay south of St. Petersburg.
It took four days before people were able to identify the women. And as they traced their lives, they learned of another tragedy.
The Rogerses came from a dairy farm outside Willshire, Ohio, a few miles east of the Indiana border. Father Hal stayed behind because spring rains had delayed plantings on the 200-acre farm.
For mother and daughters, the trip was more than a vacation. It was a time for Michelle to put behind a private hell.
Van Wert County, Ohio, prosecutors say Michelle's Uncle John raped her at knifepoint at least six times from June 1986 to December 1987 and recorded the assaults on videotape. Charges were dropped in a plea agreement, and John Rogers was sentenced to seven to 25 years for raping another woman.
When the family arrived in Tampa on June 1, 1989, police believe, they pulled off the I-275 Dale Mabry north exit and stopped a block away for lunch at McDonald's. There, police theorize, they met Chandler. Authorities speculate that Chandler, a native of Cincinnati, may have struck up a conversation after seeing their Ohio license plate.
A few days after the bodies were found, police tracked down the Rogerses' car at a public boat ramp 2 miles west of the motel where the family had checked in. Inside the car, they found two notes.
One, in Joan Rogers' handwriting, had directions to the boat ramp. The other was a pamphlet for "Clearwater Beach, Your Destination Island," with directions to a Days Inn on Rocky Point, in handwriting later determined to be Chandler's.
In the first weeks of the investigation, and later on, police looked to Ohio for suspects. Hal Rogers, the father, came under scrutiny.
Hal Rogers "didn't know how to handle all the publicity," Moore said. "He made statements to try to antagonize reporters. . . . It caused us to do extra investigation on him to satisfy ourselves that he was an innocent man." Hal Rogers did not return messages asking for comment for this story.
After Moore took over the case, investigators zeroed in on an overlooked piece of evidence - the handwriting on the pamphlet.
They also continued to look closely at the Madeira Beach rape of a 24-year-old Canadian tourist. In that May 15, 1989, assault, like the Rogers case, the victim was raped on a boat.
COMPOSITE OF RAPIST
On Nov. 3, 1989, a police composite of the Madeira Beach rapist was released; that night, Chandler fled Florida and didn't return for a month to his wife and 3-year-old daughter in Port Orange, police said.
That night, too, an acquaintance of Chandler's saw the drawing and thought it was Chandler.
That unidentified acquaintance decided not to call police ("I didn't want to ruin someone's life," the person would say later) until Aug. 1, the day after the unveiling of five billboards.
The idea to use a billboard for the world's largest handwriting sample came from two sources: St. Petersburg Detective Jim Culberson and Barbara Sheen Todd, a Pinellas County commissioner.
Moore expressed reservations. This had never been done before. And who would pay for it? Todd came up with the money from a company that puts up billboards.
On the billboard, above the handwriting, police asked drivers: "Who Wrote These Directions?"
Moore said the billboards were "a last hurrah" for the 14-member task force, which had collected 3,300 leads and written 60,000 pages in reports.
Now, though, the investigation has new life.
So far, they have learned this about the suspect:
-- Before Chandler turned 18, his juvenile record included 20 arrests.
-- His criminal past also includes a litany of convictions ranging from stealing 21 women's wigs to counterfeiting to kidnapping. In 1977, he escaped from a Florida prison and stayed on the lam for five years, using at least three aliases, one fake birth certificate and various Social Security numbers.
-- His former wives say Chandler never abused them but that he would suddenly disappear for long periods, sometimes more than a month. Scores of neighbors say Chandler was friendly and outgoing.