Over the past few days we have continued to research the Devil’s Tree and the legends surrounding it. We’ve come up with some very interesting information that we wanted to share. In order to explain the information to the fullest, we’ll break it down into sections.
Oak Hammock Park is a local hangout for fishermen and boaters along the C-24 Canal. On January 8th, 1973, long before the park was built, the deranged serial killer beat, raped, hung, then buried 2 girls beneath the “Devil Tree”.
A bit of research into this has shown us that this part of legend is actually untrue. Let’s start with the date. According to the legend, the murders took place on January 8th. The truth is that the victims, 19-year-old Iowa residents Collette Goodenough and Barbara Ann Wilcox, left Biloxi, Mississippi and began hitchhiking to Florida around that time; however, an exact date of their death was never established. We can confirm that they disappeared between January 8th and January 15, 1973- when serial killer Gerard Schaefer was jailed for assaulting two other hitchhikers, Pamela Sue Wells and Nancy Ellen Trotter.
Wells and Trotter managed to exact a narrow escape from Schaefer, who left them handcuffed and gagged, “balanced on tree roots with nooses around their necks, at risk of hanging if they slipped and fell.” Schaefer left the area and the two escaped, leading to the capture of Schaefer. You might find yourself wondering how we know he is tied to the remains of Goodenough and Wilcox. The answer was found in Schaefer’s mother’s home during a search- a passport, diary and book of poetry owned by Collette Goodenough and the drivers license of Barbara Wilcox. Because of this, we can reasonably assume that Schaefer murdered Goodenough and Wilcox, but the date of the murders would fall between January 8th and January 15th, most likely somewhere after the 8th as they would have had to hitched all the way to the Treasure Coast prior to him discovering them.
The next point that is made in this first section of the legend is that the women were hung from the Devil’s Tree and then buried beneath it. Both of these points are actually incorrect. According to newspaper articles discovered during our research, the remains were actually scattered in a palmetto thicket several hundred feet from the tree; additionally, there is this statement, taken from the same article:
“Former St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Detective Rick McIlwain, now an investigator for the State Attorney’s Office, said he found several pieces of the Iowa girls’ dismembered bodies at the base of a small tree off Leafy Road, about 300 feet from the oak.”
In January 1977, almost 4 years to the day that the murders were committed, two fishermen discovered the skeletal remains of the two bodies, and the hanging ropes were also found.
Yet again we can turn to eyewitness reports to debunk this portion of the legend. An article run by the Palm Beach Post in the 1990s, which focused on the history and fate of the Devil’s Tree, tells us:
“West Palm Beach resident XXXXXX, who found the Iowa girls’ bones when he was having a barbecue with friends off Leafy Road 16 years ago, was happy to hear the mighty oak will be spared and called it “one of the finest live oak specimens around.”
“Investigators believe Schaefer hanged his victims up with telephone wire in the smaller tree by kicking out an orange crate from beneath their feet. Wire and a crate were found near the small tree, which also may have been an oak, McIlwain said. Authorities removed a branch believed used in the murders and still have it in an evidence locker, sources said.”
As you can see, this pretty much decimates that section of the legend. However, the same article reveals something previously unknown about the Devil’s Tree:
“One of the inverted crosses was drawn by a friend with marital problems who committed suicide under the tree in 1983″
Over the years people have reported hearing screaming, and seeing hooded figures walking around the woods. In 1993 an exorcism was held, and a cross was erected, after two boys claimed to have seen a Satanic ritual taking place near the tree, and being chased away by the Satanists who yelled that they wanted their blood.
This rather astounding information has proven to be true. Again, from the article:
“After two children reported being chased by youths in black hoods off Leafy Road last weekend, XXXXXX and a group of pastors blessed the tree at neighbors’ urging Thursday and made plans to chop it down.”
This leads us into the remainder of the legend, which tells us:
Before the park was built, they were going to cut down the tree, but their chainsaws kept malfunctioning in the area surrounding the tree. They tried to cut down the tree manually with a two-man saw, but the teeth of the saw broke off, so they left the tree where it was.
We can not confirm or deny this portion of the legend at this time, but we did find this, again in the newspaper:
“Pastors gathered at a 150-year-old oak in Port St. Lucie Thursday and chanted, ‘ Demons be gone,’ to drive away the evil they say resided in the tree. The tree won a reprieve Friday when the owner decided not to cut it down.”
Whether that decision was based on a desire to preserve the tree or because the tree wouldn’t ‘allow’ itself to be cut down, we can’t say at this time.
Most people we talk to have never heard of Deputy Sheriff Gerard Schaefer- we hadn’t, and we’ve been residents in the area since birth. It took a rumor overhead by a friend to tip us off to the strange history of Port Saint Luice; a little digging led to the truth and the story of Gerard Schaefer. This twisted individual was responsible for the deaths of possibly hundreds of women, with his victims remains having been found at both Blind Creek and in what is now Oak Hammock Park in Port Saint Lucie. For a full history of this man, visit Michael Newton’s article, “All About Gerard Schaefer“.
The murderous past of Oak Hammock Park was compounded in the years after Schaefer’s horrific crimes took place. Soon groups of Satanic worshipers moved in, claiming the tree Schaefer’s victims had been hung from as their own. They held rituals under what was fast becoming known as the Devil’s Tree, despite the attempts of others in the area to prevent their activity. Here are a few excerpts from the local papers over the past years:
“With Bibles in hand and a can of paint at their sides, a team of pastors set out to rid an oak tree of evil Thursday after reports that the tree has been the site of two murders and several satanic rituals. Chanting “demons be gone” and “this is holy property,” four pastors and two church members joined hands around a 150-year-old live oak on Southwest Leafy Road.”
Author: TERESA LANE, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Date: March 5, 1993
“A 150-year-old oak tree slated for the chopping block because of folklore tying it to evil will not be razed, the tree’s owner said Friday. Instead, an 8-foot wooden cross will be erected near the tree to warn devil-worshipers they’re not welcome on Southwest Leafy Road, said Alan Weierman, administrator of the children’s shelter that owns the 30-acre tract in western Port St. Lucie.”
Author: TERESA LANE, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Date: March 6, 1993
The land on which the Devil’s Tree grew eventually found its way into the hands of the Parks and Recreation Department in Port Saint Lucie. As the story goes, the employees were instructed to cut the tree down in preparation for the land becoming a public park. Here is an excerpt from a standard “friend of a friend” accounting of what happened next:
“The city decided to remove the tree. They contracted the work out to a local tree removal service, who went in with their chainsaws and equipment to cut down the oak, however, their chainsaws wouldn’t fire up. Frustrated, but not ready to give up, they returned with some unused chainsaws, and were surprised to find they also wouldn’t start. All of the chainsaws worked properly later on.
The story got even odder because they came back again, planning to cut down the tree with an old fashioned two person pull saw, the kind made out of tempered steel. Oddly, the teeth broke off the saw.
At this point, the city felt they had run out of options and just decided to leave the tree. That is- until recently. I have heard rumor that perhaps the Devil’s Tree may have been cut down without anyone having been told. Since I haven’t been to Oak Hammock Park recently, I can’t confirm that though.”
In addition to the rumors of activity at The Devil’s Tree, it is said that the woman’s restroom at the park is also a spot with unexplained noises and other events. Today, we decided to take the chance and visit Oak Hammock Park in search of the infamous Devil’s Tree. We went off directions we’d found on another website, which pointed us towards the tree and explained that it was a very old, large oak with metal benches under its branches and a lot of Spanish moss hanging above. After following the directions to reach the tree, we came across one that seemed to fit the bill exactly. We took pictures and discussed the fact that none of us had an erie feeling from the tree, something everyone seemed to report. We continued on down the path, eager to explore the remainder of the park, which is an idyllic slice of ‘old Florida’.
It wasn’t long before we came upon the second tree. It was a very large, old oak. There were metal benches under the branches. The Spanish moss was there. All the signs, yet this was the second tree that fit the description. We thought it odd and, after taking pictures of this second tree, continued on down the path- where we found tree number three. There are five large, old oaks that fit the description of the Devil’s Tree along one path alone, making it nearly impossible to identify with the information we currently have.
Having said that, only one tree gave off an eerie feeling; only one tree seemed to be “creepy”. It also had a rather interesting branch, which you will be able to see in close up in the images below. We also took time to check out the women’s restroom, which didn’t seem like anything interesting during the day.
We’re not done exploring the Devil’s Tree- we are currently attempting to reach those who were involved in the original cases in an attempt to find someone who can verify which of these majestic oaks has the sordid past.
This location is going to prove difficult for any small research team. There are two separate trails; one leading to the graveyard and one leading to the burial mounds. Both paths are littered with debris and overgrown with weeds. The path to the graveyard winds through the woods and will be nearly impossible to find in the dark without the use of night vision.
Additionally, Spruce Bluff has been surrounded by housing developments. Roads encircle it, creating the typical traffic issues of shadows and sounds. There are electric and telephone lines on the outside of the park grounds, but no improvements within the park are visible. There are no underground cable or line markers; however, with such a large amount of housing in the area, there very well might be unmarked lines.
For those interested, here are some images from the scouting expedition.
After the end of the Second Seminole War, Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act, which provided for the settlement of the unsettled part of east Florida. (That was 1842; Florida became a state in 1845.) Under the Armed Occupation Act, any head of family or single man eighteen or over, was able to claim 160 acres of land, south of Cedar Key and Palatka, Florida. Under the law, the man must live on for five years and put at least five acres under cultivation. This Act enabled thousands of people to move to Florida to settle the region.
John Enos Fultz Jr., originally from South Carolina, was one of those people. He founded a settlement at a location called Spruce Bluff in 1889, when he moved to homestead 160 acres on Winter Creek. Other settlers soon followed. Through the 1890′s they tried pineapple farming, which was being done successfully all around Stuart, Jensen and up toward Ft. Pierce, clearing the land to make their fortune in pineapples, much of which was transported to northern markets, such as New York.
In the late 1890′s, William and Harley Crews came to Spruce Bluff to run a sawmill. John Fultz rowed and sailed the St. Lucie River to Stuart and back, to deliver mail, was paid $10 a month. Harry Hill raised bees and promoted the production of honey in local newspapers.
Times were hard for the settlers. Measles, Malaria, Chickenpox, and difficulties during childbirth took its toll. Many died very young. Mosquitoes were a constant problem. They built crude cabins, some with oiled-paper windows because they couldn’t afford glass panes. There were no roads in the area. All supplies and sale-able products came up from Stuart or Rio in boats. Occasionally traveling ministers came down the coast on sailboats to preach to gatherings of settlers. Spruce Bluff eventually grew large enough to have a school and post office.
A freeze in the winter of 1894/95 killed most of the pineapples in the area. When the crop didn’t thrive, there were few options. Some settlers (like Fultz) left, going to Stuart or Ft. Pierce and by 1905 the original families had left Spruce Bluff. When St. Lucie County was formed in that same year, Fultz became the first clerk of the court and lived in Ft. Pierce with his second wife and family. He owned over 600 acres of Spruce Bluff when he died in 1921. Today, very little is left of the small community.
There is a cemetery located at the back of the property. This small cemetery contains the remains of 7 residents of Spruce Bluff and is all that has survived of the settlement, identified by headstones were 6, which were vandalized and replaced with the marble monument.
In addition to this cemetery, visitors to Spruce Bluff are often surprised to find that, yet again, the town was erected next to an ancient Ais burial mound. In this case, there were rumored to be three original mounds; two were razed to make way for the roads in the modern town of Port Saint Lucie.