TALLAHASSEE — Forty years ago, David Monroe Goodwin and five others, including his brother, met in Tallahassee to hatch a plan to bring 20 tons of marijuana into Panama City. The scheme was part of an FBI sting to catch a reputed big-time drug smuggler.
On Jan. 23, 1977, things went awry.
While the smugglers brought the Colombian pot ashore, four unsuspecting people stumbled on the clandestine operation at Sandy Creek in Bay County and would be shot dead by Walter Steinhorst and his accomplice, Charles Hughes.
Goodwin, then 31, along with three others, was charged with first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death. In 1981, his death sentence was vacated and he has spent the past 36 years knowing he could die in prison.
On May 2, at age 70, Goodwin will walk out of Everglades Correctional Institute in Miami a free man after the Florida Commission on Offender Review granted his parole Wednesday.
Goodwin’s fiancée, Wanda Pate, has waited 32 years for him to get out of prison.
She interrupted a long-distance phone call Wednesday with the Tallahassee Democrat to speak with Goodwin calling from South Florida, which he does four days a week.
“After 40 years it’s time,” the 82-year-old said on a follow-up call. “He sounded really happy. Happy; happy.”
Goodwin’s younger brother’s third-degree murder charges were dropped in exchange for his grand jury testimony. Six others were charged with third-degree murder.
Steinhorst was also sentenced to death. He died in prison in 1999. Hughes, who was at one time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, spent five years in prison.
Goodwin’s role in the killings that followed the complex chain of events was diminished. Three different groups of men, including the big-time drug dealer David Floyd Capo, were involved in unloading the pot from the famed smuggling trawler named "Gun Smoke."
Goodwin was on the beach unloading marijuana when 39-year-old Harold Sims, one of the four who happened on the smuggling operation, was shot and killed.
Steinhorst, the purported ringleader of the murders, tied up Douglas Hood, 21, and sisters Sandy, 14, and Sheila McAdams, 16, in Goodwin’s van and drove them to a sinkhole outside Perry where they were executed.
In the deep clear water of "Watering Hole Sink," their skeletons were found anchored to concrete blocks.
Goodwin, a Florida State University cum laude graduate, was sentenced for his role in the murders although he was nowhere in the vicinity of where they occurred.
He said he and others were scared of Steinhorst and shocked at the murders. His only role, he said at trial, was bringing Steinhorst the rope used to bind the victims, which he did under threat of death. Several people involved and charged in the scheme testified that Steinhorst was uncontrollable that night on the beach.
Since then, the story of the Sandy Creek murders has enthralled a cadre of law enforcement agencies who have worked to pick up each of the dozen or so people involved. It has spawned books and drawn the attention of national media.
Pate said she met Goodwin through her daughter, who is married to his younger brother.
She and Goodwin exchanged letters and cards for two years before she traveled to meet him while he was being housed at Florida State Prison in Starke.
She visited almost every month, driving from out of state. They haven’t seen each other in six years.
When Goodwin transferred, she followed. They unofficially said their wedding vows while standing in a prison courtyard, surrounded by barbed wire fencing.
“I knew he was in prison for life for three murders and that he wasn’t around when they happened,” she said. “I never would have dreamed that I would have fell in love with somebody that was in prison. But it happened.
“I felt sorry for him at first and we fell in love with each other.”
Pate said once they got to know each other, Goodwin, who has become quite religious in prison, needed someone to write to. Someone to talk to.
“It kept me going and I kept him going,” she said.
She said Goodwin always said he would be released from prison. Someday.
“I know he didn’t do it and that’s the thing that kept me going with him,” she said. “He said 'if Florida has its way I won’t never get out.' But see, Florida didn’t have its way about everything. God had control.”