I originally read about this story some time ago in the book Weird Florida. I was intending to write a piece about it during our Urban Legend month, but when I did more research, I found out that there was a gruesome, sad ring of truth to the tale. The urban legend is that a serial killer kidnapped two teenage girls, tied them to a tree in what is now known as Oak Hammock Park in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, tortured and killed them. Supposedly for months after, he would return to the scene of the crime to satisfy some perverted urge of his own. Four years to the day that the killer murdered the girls, their remains were found by some fishermen (not sure why as most of the reports have the “devil tree” located so deep in the woods that people have spent hours trying to find their way back out). After the poor girls were discovered, locals started whispering about strange sounds coming from the vicinity of the devil tree. Shadowy, robed figures were seen darting between the oaks, and rumors were told of satanic rituals being performed beneath the branches. Some say a local clergyman was asked to come out and conduct an exorcism on the tree (first tree exorcism I’ve ever heard of!). The local authorities were so distressed about what had occurred in and beneath the tree that they decided to cut down the tree…..but the chainsaws that were brought out to do the job wouldn’t work. When chainsaw after chainsaw failed, the determined lumberjacks brought out an old fashioned two-man saw….but the teeth broke right off when set against the cursed bark. The tree stands rebelliously and malignantly to this very day.
That is the legend. The reality is that the murders that were said to have taken place at the tree in Port Saint Lucie actually took place miles south in Martin County, Florida by a demented serial killer who had somehow landed a job as a Martin County Sheriff’s deputy. The way the murders were discovered is a chilling tale, because it concerns a traumatic close call for two would-be victims.
Gerard John Schaefer picked up two hitchhiking teenage girls in his squad car, took them to a remote location, tied them to a tree and threatened alternatively to sell them into prostitution or kill them. In the middle of this horrifying mind game, Deputy Schaefer received a call on his police radio and had to leave. Blessedly, the two girls were able to break free of their bonds and made their way to the nearest police station. Ironically, it was Deputy Schaefer’s station.
In the meantime, Schaefer had returned to the tree to discover his intended victims had escaped. Cunningly, he immediately called his chief and told him that he had done something foolish to scare some young hitchhikers, so they wouldn’t endanger themselves by hitchhiking again. The chief was not hoodwinked, however and immediately took his badge from him and charged him with assault and false imprisonment.
After posting bail and while awaiting trial for his previous crime, Schaefer whiled the time away by abducting and murdering two more teenage girls, Susan Place and Georgia Jessup. These two girls had been tied to a tree and tortured before they were coldly and callously killed. Their bodies were buried on Hutchinson Island.
Schaefer appeared in court for the assault charges and with a plea bargain received only a year’s sentence. However, while he was in prison, the bodies of Susan and Georgia were discovered. The crime scene investigators could tell they had been tied to tree at some point prior to their murder, and the girls had last been seen hitchhiking. The similarities between this case of murder and the case of imprisonment and assault were so stark, that the police were granted a search warrant for Schaefer’s house (the house he shared with his wife and mother, imagine!).
Inside the house, investigators found journals filled with stories of abduction, rape and murder. They found jewelry, teeth and diaries belonging to the victims and other missing women. In one instance, jewelry from his former next door neighbor and schoolmate, Leigh Hainline was discovered. Ms. Hainline disappeared four years earlier after telling her husband that she was leaving him for a childhood friend.
Schaefer boasted to fellow inmates and another former schoolmate, true crime writer Sondra London, that he had murdered at least thirty women and young girls. Ms. London not only published short stories that Schaefer had written about rape, torture and murder, she also wrote her own book about his crimes and even became romantically involved with this stellar piece of manhood to the point where she was engaged to him for a time.
When she broke it off to become engaged to a different killer, Schaefer sent her death threats of prison. Though with the two consecutive life sentences he was serving, Ms. London must not have found his threats momentous.
Schaefer was stabbed to death by a fellow inmate, Vincent Rivera, in December of 1995….about thirty years too late, in my opinion.
So the bottom line is that if the Devil’s Tree in Port Saint Lucie’s Oak Hammock Park is haunted, it’s not the victims of Schaefer who are doing the haunting….at least not as far as we can tell by the documentation that exists. I hope those poor girls are where they need to be, in the warm embrace of their family members on the other side, no longer afraid.