By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
It was a desolate, unlit forest about 50 yards off Arcadia Road. The street was unpaved, and this was a seldom used, industrial area. The patch of land was covered by cypress and pines, no doubt chosen as an ideal place to hide proof of a heinous crime, and that proof was eight bodies which had lain in their secret grave for years.
March 2007, Ft. Myers, FL
They were discovered by an ecologist who was surveying a 10-acre lot for a developer. He found a brown-stained skull near a melaleuca tree.
The area was often used as a dumping ground for hunters to dispose of alligator and wild boar carcasses, and police thought the surveyor had found animal bones. It turned out it wasn't.
A forensic anthropologist from Florida Gulf Coast University came to help in determining the gender and age of the victims.
The skeletal remains showed no sign of trauma, but no doubt these victims came to a violent end, otherwise why were they left to rot. There was no skin or clothing left on any of them. They were buried very close to the surface, just one or two inches deep.
Eight skulls and a thousand other bones collected by investigators were scattered around a 200-square yard area, most of them hidden by roots, plants, leaves and other ground cover. Once the skeletons were taken to the Lee County Medical Examiner's office, it was confirmed they had eight, nearly complete skeletons of adults.
There were no crushed skulls, bone knicks to indicate a stabbing, or a bullet hole to confirm they met with some type of foul play.
By summer DNA was sent to Texas, and sculptors in Wyoming were trying to recreate the men's faces. Police also took DNA samples from people who believed one of the men might be a family member.
In June 2007, it was determined the skeletons belonged to white men who died from 1980 to 2000. All of them were estimated to be between the ages of 18 to 49. They all had great teeth, except one who suffered from periodontitis, had missing teeth and a large mouth abscess. Chances are he was an alcoholic, homeless man who smoked.
Most of them had fractures to their face, legs, arms and ribs that had healed. Forensic anthropologist Heather Walsh-Haney said this indicated these men had fallen on hard times.
Theories as to how the bodies ended up there ranged from the expedient, a funeral home left them there instead of cremating them, to the disturbing, which is that they were the victims of a serial killer who targeted white men.
Some wondered if this was a dump site where the Hog Trail Murderer stashed his victims.
HOG TRAIL MURDERS
Daniel Conahan Jr. was convicted of one murder, however he's believed to be responsible for several murders, mostly of gay men.
In his youth he joined the Navy, but in 1978 he tried to perform oral sex on a sailor which resulted in a fight, and he was discharged. He moved to Punta Gorda, Florida and became a licensed practical nurse.
In February, 1994, the decomposing remains of a man was found. He had rope burns on his skin, and his genitals had been cut off and discarded. He was identified in 2021 via a DNA test as Gerald "Jerry" Lombard from Massachusetts.
Two years later a family living in North Port, had their dog bring home a human skull. The rest of the remains were found, and this man had also been castrated. He has yet to be identified.
Two months later another man was found, however he'd been dead only a week. He was identified in 1999, as John Melaragno.
A month later another man's skull was found by hog hunters. The police searched the area, and found the rest of the skeleton, as well as a second body. The second one had been dumped only 24 hours before. He'd been strangled, tied to a tree and raped. His genitals were cut off and found in the woods. He was identified as Richard Montgomery, a 21-year-old drifter. The first body was Kenneth Smith.
Most of the victims were slain in isolated, densely wooded areas just inland from the Gulf Coast, within 10 miles from where Conahan was living in a condominium with his elderly parents. Due to the location where the bodies were found, the murders were dubbed "The Hog Trail Killings."
In 1996, an intended victim escaped and directed police to Conahan, and he was charged with the murder of Richard Montgomery.
Before his arrest detectives trailed Conahan as he cruised parks in Ft. Myers and Charlotte, known as drifter hangouts and pick up spots.
While awaiting trial another skeleton was found in May, 1997. Months later DNA identified him as William Patten who disappeared in 1993.
In 1999, Conahan was found guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder and kidnapping. A jury recommended a sentence of death. He is presently serving time at Union Correction Institution in Raiford, Florida.
Several more bodies were found in Charlotte County with similarity with the Hog Trail Killings. One in 2000, two in 2021, and then in 2007 the remains of the eight men in Ft. Myers.
Stanley Burden who was the star witness at Conahan's trial, was attacked within a mile of where the eight victims were dumped. A coincidence?
By 2019, three of the eight men had been identified.
Erik Kohler, 21, lived with his grandparents. He was sentenced on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge in Lee County on July 4, 1995. He disappeared after this.
John C. Blevins (birth name John Burt Jr.), 26, also went missing in 1995. He would frequent Sunset Park at the foot of U.S. 41, now gone, where men met other men for sex. He was arrested for solicitation-for-prostitution in December, 1987.
A third man named Jonathon Tihay, in his mid-twenties, disappeared between 1995 to 1996. He was an unemployed drifter who was never reported missing.
Despite face reconstruction of the victims using the latest technology, no cause of death has been determined on any of the victims by the police.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer