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.