September 21, 2020

3 Charged in ‘Massacre’ of 3 Friends During Florida Fishing Trip

Days after three friends who went for a nighttime fishing trip were found shot to death in rural Florida, the authorities said on Wednesday that they had arrested and charged three people responsible for the “massacre.”

Grady Judd, the sheriff of Polk County, Fla., said that Tony Wiggins, 26, shot and killed the three friends after he ran into one of them, Damion Tillman, in a Dollar General store.

Mr. Wiggins then told his brother to drive him and his girlfriend to a dirt road near a lake, where he had heard that Mr. Tillman planned to meet a friend, Keven Springfield, to fish, the sheriff said.

There, Mr. Wiggins punched Mr. Springfield and accused him of selling the engine from his truck, Sheriff Judd said.

After Mr. Springfield said he didn’t know what Mr. Wiggins was talking about, Mr. Wiggins shot and killed Mr. Springfield, 30, and Brandon Rollins, 27. They were shot nine to 10 times altogether, Sheriff Judd said.

Mr. Wiggins then turned and fatally shot Mr. Tillman, 23, who had been screaming at Mr. Wiggins to put the gun down, Sheriff Judd said.

The killings last Friday shocked Frostproof, Fla., a city of 3,200 people about 70 miles south of Orlando.

Sheriff Judd described the killings as a “massacre” and said the crime scene — in a quiet area of lakes, cow pastures and orange groves — was one of the worst he had encountered in nearly 50 years with the department.

He said investigators had not yet determined whether there had actually been a truck deal gone bad between Mr. Wiggins and Mr. Springfield.

“The only conflict we see is this: ‘Where’s my truck? I heard you sold the engine out of my truck,’” Sheriff Judd said. “And for that, this guy massacres three young men — 23, 27 and 30 — on their way fishing Friday night, near Frostproof. It’s gut-wrenching. This is evil in the flesh.”

Mr. Wiggins, who is known as TJ, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. First-degree murder is a capital offense in Florida.

Mr. Wiggins’s girlfriend, Mary Whittemore, 27, was charged with accessory after the fact of a capital felony. Sheriff Judd said she had bought the ammunition that Mr. Wiggins fired that night and then lied to investigators to protect her boyfriend.

Mr. Wiggins’s brother, William Wiggins, 21, was charged with tampering with evidence and accessory after the fact of a capital felony, Sheriff Judd said. The sheriff said that the younger Mr. Wiggins took the truck that was used that night to a carwash to scrub off red mud that was caked on the vehicle.

ImageWilliam Wiggins, Tony Wiggins and Mary Whittemore.
Credit…Polk County Sheriff’s Office

The sheriff said so many tips about the killings had flooded into the department that a call center had to bring on extra help. Many of the callers had urged the authorities to investigate Mr. Wiggins, who was well known in Frostproof for being quick to resort to violence, Sheriff Judd said.

“The predominant information we got was, ‘Look at TJ Wiggins from Frostproof,’” Sheriff Judd said. “It’s not that they had any idea that he did it. But this guy is just mean.”

Mr. Wiggins, he said, had been sent to state prison twice and was most recently out on bail on charges that he broke a man’s arm with a crowbar during a fight.

It was not immediately clear if Mr. Wiggins, his younger brother or Ms. Whittemore had lawyers. The sheriff’s department said all three were in custody and scheduled to appear in court on Thursday.

Sheriff Judd said investigators tied Mr. Wiggins to the killings through video footage from the Dollar General store and by matching a shell casing found in Mr. Wiggins’s trailer with the ammunition that was fired from the Smith & Wesson handgun that was used in the killings.

Ms. Whittemore acknowledged buying the ammunition for her boyfriend on July 9, and both were seen on video surveillance buying it at a store, Sheriff Judd said. Detectives also have a receipt from the purchase, he said.

William Wiggins told detectives that he watched his brother shoot the three victims, the sheriff’s department said.

The victims were discovered after Mr. Rollins’s father, who was asleep at home, got a call from his son saying, “Help,” the sheriff said. Mr. Rollins’s father, Cyril, got dressed and drove to the lake where he knew his son and friends were catfishing, about 10 minutes away, Sheriff Judd said.

He arrived to find the friends shot, Sheriff Judd said. Cyril Rollins then drove to a convenience store, telling an attendant, “My son needs help,” the sheriff said.

The 17-year-old daughter of the store’s attendant went back with Cyril Rollins to the lake, Sheriff Judd said. Before Brandon Rollins died, he said something to his father about what happened, the sheriff said. Sheriff Judd declined to comment on what Mr. Rollins told his father.

By the time paramedics and the authorities arrived, all three men were dead.