Detectives: 1994 technology slowed search for serial killer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — It wasn’t hard for Daytona Beach police to figure out who killed John Hardy Roberts in March 1994: Gary Ray Bowles left a probation document at the scene and also was caught on an ATM camera trying to withdraw money from Roberts’ account. He later confessed.

What proved more difficult was capturing him, something they were unable to do until after five other men in three states had been slain.

“One of the things that’s always stayed in the back of my mind is how horrible we feel that we didn’t solve it quickly when we were the first,” said Alison Sylvester, a former Daytona Beach police detective who investigated Roberts’ death. “It was just a sign of the times. We didn’t have the quick access (to information). Law enforcement has a lot more tools at their disposal now.”

Bowles is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Florida State Prison on Thursday for the murder of Walter Hinton — the last of six men whom he confessed to killing over an eight-month period.

Hinton was killed in Jacksonville Beach. The four other victims were slain in Nassau County, Florida; Atlanta; Savannah, Georgia ; and Rockville, Maryland. Bowles met his victims in gay bars, and in each case the victims were found with objects shoved down their throats: a towel, toilet paper, dirt and leaves, and in one case a sex toy, prosecutors have said.

Bowles later confessed to all six killings, but has been tried, convicted and sentenced to death only for Hinton’s. He pleaded guilty to the other two Florida slayings and was sentenced to life without parole for each. Authorities in Georgia and Maryland planned to proceed with prosecutions in those states if he wasn’t convicted in Florida.

Former Savannah police detective John Best recalls how hard it was to keep up with Bowles’ movements. In the late 1990s, police departments didn’t have the sophisticated photo-editing and information-sharing technology they do today.

Best received a paper copy of a composite sketch of Bowles from a Florida department in which the suspect was depicted as cleanshaven; witnesses said the man they saw with victim Milton Bradley had a mustache.

“I took a fine-tip pen and drew a mustache on his composite,” Best said. “I took it to some witnesses and they said, ‘Definitely, that’s him.’”

Best also recalls going through parking tickets by hand to find one written for a stolen car in which Bowles was traveling. Photographs and copies of Bowles’ fingerprints arrived by overnight mail instead of being sent electronically in an instant, as they are today.

“Technology absolutely would have sped things, between examining the fingerprints, the physical evidence, the photographs,” Best said. “We didn’t have email. We either called, faxed or your secretaries took notes.”

Detectives learned the direction in which Bowles was traveling and tracked purchases he made on stolen credit cards, but by the time they passed the information along, Bowles was off to a new city. Police departments communicated with each other by teletype machines, which printed paper messages not seen until someone physically walked over to check them.

“A couple of days had passed before we were able to get information to know where to go,” Sylvester said, adding that it took just as long to get responses to subpoenas “or even video surveillance that nowadays would have been almost instantaneous.”

Bowles earned the nickname “The I-95 killer” because he moved up and down the interstate after most of his killings. He was featured on “America’s Most Wanted,” and the show produced a tip that led Jacksonville police to Bowles’ home. But they let him go. Bowles had stolen a birth certificate and Social Security card and obtained a license under a false name. He told officers he was Timothy Whitfield and they had the wrong guy, and they believed him.

“His confidence was bolstered, especially when he became Tim Whitfield,” Best said. “Again, there’s technology. If they had a fingerprint biometric reader, they could have solved the case. They could have stopped him right there, but they didn’t have the technology then.”

Instead, Bowles killed one more time, prosecutors said, dropping a 40-pound (18-kilogram) stepping stone on Hinton’s face as he slept. Hinton didn’t lose consciousness and struggled as Bowles beat him, strangled him and shoved toilet paper and a rag down his throat, according to court records.

In the end, it wasn’t technology but Bowles’ own carelessness that led to his capture: He left behind a paycheck stub with Timothy Whitfield’s name on it. Investigators quickly tracked down “Whitfield,” and Bowles gave them his real name under questioning.