Episode 15: Hogs & Snakes

Delia investigates the brutal murder of Eric Dawson. The former Lee County Sheriff’s Office detective on his case explains the complicated secrets he discovered inside the slain land developer’s life and business. Family friends of the Pelleys emerge as persons of interest.

Episode Photos

Episode Source Material

  • “Regional Killings Decrease in 1988” by Eileen Barrett for Fort Myers News-Press, December 31, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Autopsy Results Will Be Withheld in Murder Case” by Eileen Barrett for Fort Myers News-Press, November 26, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Remains Found in Cement Tomb Identified As Securities Dealer” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, November 24, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Man Found But Money Missing” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, November 25, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Autopsy of Entombed Man Completed” by Staff for Fort Myers News-Press, November 29, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Conclusion of Autopsy is Delayed” by Staff for Fort Myers News-Press, November 27, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Entombed Developer Left a Trail of Lawsuits” by Phil Fernandez for Fort Myers News-Press, November 30, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Missing Securities Dealer Is Being Investigated” by Cindy McCurry for Fort Myers News-Press, October 8, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Mystery of Murder and Money” by Peter Franceschina and Phil Fernandez for Fort Myers News-Press, December 18, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “Man In Cement Died of Gunshot” by Peter Franceschina and Phil Fernandez for Fort Myers News-Press, December 16, 1988 via Newspapers.com

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is episode 15: Hogs and Snakes

*SFX of crows & shotgun racking*

On November 21st, 1988, hunters walking through flat, damp brush off of rural Corkscrew Road in Lee County were hot on the trail of a team of wild hogs.

*SFX sound of hogs snorting in the distance*

The two men had been tracking hoof prints for miles in the isolated Florida landscape.

Finally, they cornered the pigs in a large clearing surrounded by cypress tree heads.

It was muggy and muddy and the men were ready to aim their muzzles and move on.

*SFX sound of hogs snorting in the distance*

But just as the hunters got within range of the hogs, they realized the pigs were unusually huddled together and digging into something in the ground.

With each step towards whatever the animals were rooting through, the men began to see shreds of what looked like rags laying all around.

It wasn’t until they’d shooed the hogs away, and were standing over the ravaged ground that they realized the hogs hadn’t been eating trash or another animal’s carcass.

They’d been feeding on the upper half of a human body.

*SFX of car pulling to a stop on a dirt road & police radio*

A few hours after the hunter’s discovery, Lee County sheriff’s office detective Tom Kontinos parked his patrol car on the side of a dirt road off of Corkscrew Road.

The hunters escorted him and another deputy into the cypress clearing.

Tom Kontinos: Corkscrew was a ways. I mean, there’s nothing out there. So, I think it took me awhile to find where this place was. The actual location. I remember it was on the Northside of Corkscrew and I had to walk into the fields or cypress heads or whatever it was to where deputies were.

I remember seeing what I knew were human bones with clothing attached to it.

It was quickly realized…you know…when you find someone buried…you know in a cypress head off of Corkscrew, which there was nothing out there back then, you know, that’s not a common occurrence in Lee County. So it was realized pretty early on that it was a pretty significant crime scene.

Delia D’Ambra: Tom is now retired from the sheriff’s office, but he remembers the details of this horrific crime scene well.

The first thing he noticed was that the hogs had pulled the human remains out of what looked like a purposefully dug hole in the ground.

When he got close to it, he saw the body in the hole was encased in cement.

Tom Kontinos: There was a hole where the hogs had rooted around. I seem to remember either palm fronds or pine needles or grass…so it wasn’t like I walked up and saw this slab of concrete that had cracked open. It was covered with earth or weeds or grass or pine needles or palm fronds. So, it wasn’t apparent that there was an encasement of concrete underneath the top layer of covering.

When you bury a body regardless of what you’re burying it in, the body decomposes and it creates gas and it, you know, you’re going to get this expansion of human fluids and that’s what kind of opened up the earth for these hogs to come rooting around smelling death and starting to pull out bones that had, and I think the hunters were like ‘I think these are animal bones’ and then they saw that there were clothes on the animal bones and said ‘Well animals don’t have clothes, so I think this is something more than just animal bones.’

Delia D’Ambra: It was definitely more than just animal bones.

The remains belonged to a white male in his late thirties or early forties.

Tom and the rest of the crime scene investigators spent hours processing the makeshift grave.

At first sight, you could tell, the body had been decomposing for weeks.

Tom sent the remains off to the medical examiner’s office and the next day, they got a positive ID.

The dead man, still wearing a pair of cowboy boots and a watch, was 43-year-old Eric Dawson.

He’d been shot execution-style in the back of the head with a .22 caliber handgun, then thrown in the hole and covered with concrete.

The killer had come prepared and counted on Florida rainstorms creating the perfect catalyst for Eric’s body to become entombed in the landscape.

Tom Kontinos: Back when Eric was killed you know, you need water to mix with concrete. Well, September, it’s pretty wet out there. You dig down a foot into Florida soil in September, you’re going to hit water. So, they already had water available on site. So, all they had to do was bring their bags of concrete. Dig a hole. It’s going to fill up with water…you know…put the body in it. I think there was some cinder blocks that they tried to weigh down. I think we had a couple of cinder blocks too that were found from the scene too. So, it was obviously somebody who was in the construction business to bring concrete blocks and sack concrete and shovels and what have you.

Delia D’Ambra: Tom knew vaguely that Eric was a missing person but since September, Tom assumed what so many other people had, which was that the reportedly shady land developer had simply skipped town.

Now that Tom knew Eric was a murder victim, he started his homicide investigation.

His first stop was to break the news to Susan and the Dawson children.

Tom Kontinos: At some point I do remember meeting Susan Dawson and her three very young children back then.

We had to start from Eric’s life. What was he doing down here in Lee County that may have resulted in his or may have resulted in his murder here in Lee County. So, we had to start somewhere and Susan was the best place to start.

Delia D’Ambra: When Jason found out what had happened to his dad and that he’d been on his own land for two months, rotting. He was devasted.

At just 11 years old, he spiraled in the aftermath unable to deal with the loss.

Jason Dawson: I acted out. I was a little asshole and a lot of people suffered.

Got in trouble at school, got in trouble with you know with friends…just dealing with that and I think the one thing that saved me was playing basketball.

I was probably the worst of the bunch as it pertained to reacting to what happened and of course, my sister acted out and my brother did too…I mean, I think my brother… *sniffles*…He uh…he had to step up…be a man.

Delia D’Ambra: Robert Dawson, Barbara, and Susan know about this podcast and support Jason interviewing with me. But they personally didn’t want to be interviewed for the show.

A few years after Eric’s murder, the family moved away from southwest Florida, but Jason returned as an adult.

He says it just became too unbearable for his mother and siblings to live in Fort Myers.

Mostly because of the constant reports about his dad.

People like Sheldon Zoldan, who was a real estate and business reporter for the Fort Myers News Press at the time, published a lot of copy about Eric, labeling him not only a murder victim but really played up the fact that Eric also was an alleged swindler.

Here’s Sheldon:

Sheldon Zoldan: Back then it was fairly a new phenomena that Southwest Florida was being discovered and there were a lot of developments going on and a lot of people here trying to make money.

He knew what he was doing, no doubt. I think then and I think he knew what kind of trouble he was in, but why he would go out there like that. I don’t know.

Being found with a shot, with a bullet to the back of the head and being encased in concrete was certainly the big thing that caught everybody’s attention.

It just was not a regular old homicide by any means

Delia D’Ambra: It was clear to everyone that Eric Dawson had made his fair share of enemies.

Most of them were people who’d lost large sums of money with Eric’s investments.

There were even rumors that Eric owed money to men in Detroit, and his death was a result of a mob execution.

Sheldon says that rumor sold a lot of newspapers.

Sheldon Zoldan: The mob connection to Detroit was pretty sexy and all that.

It’s one of those mysteries where, you have so many, in a who done it, there’s so many different people who could have done it.

Delia D’Ambra: Tom Kontinos had to wade through the salacious rumors and every inch of Eric’s financial history.

Which, was incredibly confusing stuff.

Tom Kontinos: There was just so many corporations and shell companies that Eric was involved in, in finding out who he was associated with. You know, who were his partners? Who were his investors and it very, it was difficult to figure out who was who and who did what and how and who really owned a piece of property?

Delia D’Ambra: Suspects were popping up everywhere and with the pool of potential perpetrators growing each day. Tom made the decision to start with what the evidence was telling him.

While he looked into that, he handed over the meticulous task of peeling away layers of Eric’s real estate schemes to investigators and lawyers at the state attorney’s office.

Tom Kontinos: I’m not a real estate guy, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a prosecutor and we’re dealing with a lot of legal documents. So, we really needed the resource of attorneys to help us understand contracts and documents so it was decided that the state attorneys’ office would dedicate an investigator, the Sheriff’s office would dedicate an investigator we would work out of the state attorney’s office where we would have seasoned prosecutors and we had some very seasoned prosecutors that were at our beck and call if we had legal questions about any of the documents that we were looking at. So we had kind of like a little task force created for this investigation.

Delia D’Ambra: Tom’s first hurdle was that the evidence, in this case, was slim.

Eric had gone to the Corkscrew land to show someone the property, that we know for sure.

The question was, who was it that had called him Friday afternoon?

Nobody knew.

According to Tom, the number that had called Eric’s office line led back to nowhere.

So, he then turned to Eric’s abandoned car for clues, but suspiciously that too was a dead end.

Tom Kontinos: It was odd. The seat was up. The car was clean. There’s not lifts. I mean it was just so many little things that were so out of place, but we were never able to tie it to anyone or any reason why it was what it was.

The thing that was significant to us was is that we knew that Eric did not drive it there because the seat when it was found, was all the way up. You know, like, the steering wheel would have been in someone chest which Eric being a bigger man had to have the seat all the way back. So, we knew someone…it was not Eric who left the car there…and it was little things like that that said okay, you would have driven the car that needed the seat that far up or was it a fact of they pushed the car, the seat forward-looking in the backseat making sure they didn’t leave anything behind that would, could be used as evidence. So, we had a lot of ideas and thoughts on that car. We looked at that car pretty good and didn’t find any evidence that helped us.

Delia D’Ambra: Tom’s last option was to start eliminating the people closest to Eric as suspects.

Tom Kontinos: The only person we eliminated as a suspect was Susan Dawson.

She was a stay-at-home mom and Eric took care of everything else and she had no knowledge of anything that Eric was doing.

I came to realize that Susan really had, like, she was, she had no understanding or idea of Eric’s business dealings.

Every name that we came across was a potential suspect only because of the business dealings that they had with Eric and we realized that it had to have been, that his death had to have been part of a scheme or business dealing that went bad.

I thought Eric…I thought he was a crook. You know, I mean you know…but then it seemed like Eric really wanted to make something work. He wasn’t out to steal from people. He wanted to be a successful businessman. I think he just got tied in with the wrong crowd and was way over his head.

Delia D’Ambra: To figure out who that wrong crowd might have been, Susan told Tom to talk with the one man who knew everything about everyone when it came to doing business in Fort Myers.

Eric’s largest investor, Phil Hawley.

Tom was already one step ahead of Susan’s suggestion though.

He knew Phil and his sons had initially helped search for Eric back in September, and Tom had learned that they’d been the source of the rumor that Eric had fled Fort Myers.

Tom Kontinos: I think that narrative was being pushed by the Hawleys of ‘Susan we’re sorry but you know Eric took the money and left you and you know we’ll go out and try and find’…you know I think they were very ‘We’ll go out and try and find him’..you know… ‘Oops here you go, we find him at the airport’ back then the airport wasn’t that big and that busy at the time.

Delia D’Ambra: By the end of week one of his investigation and reviewing some of Eric’s financial documents, Tom zeroed in on the prominent Fort Myers family.

Tom Kontinos: We slowly started realizing that there was people or a person that seemed to me more involved in gaining more control of Eric’s investments.

We started focusing on the Hawleys.

*SFX of boxes unfolding & sorting papers*

Delia D’Ambra: Tom Kontinos learned that immediately after Eric Dawson disappeared on September 9th, 1988, Phil Hawley and some of his sons helped Susan Dawson clean out Eric’s office in Fort Myers.

*SFX of sorting papers*

According to a deposition with Susan, Phil had convinced her to fold Enterprising Developments Inc. Because the monthly rent was going to be due and Eric clearly wasn’t around to pay it.

She said in her bewilderment over her husband’s disappearance, she trusted Phil to take care of Eric’s interests.

Fast forward two months, to November 1988 and, according to the Dawsons, the Hawleys had stopped coming around Susan and the kids.

Jason Dawson: They were very supporting but the moment that the body was found, that’s when everything changed. It was a 180-degree turn of attitude, events, relationships…

Delia D’Ambra: They didn’t come around as much?

Jason Dawson: It stopped immediately. The moment that the body was found.

Delia D’Ambra: Tom Kontinos found that strange, but not that strange…

It was common knowledge within weeks of Eric’s body being found that the one family who stood the most to gain financially from Eric’s death was the Hawleys.

Because Eric’s financial records and land deals were so convoluted, it took the state attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office several months to get through it all.

Tom interviewed Phil and his sons a few times but they all denied any involvement in Eric’s death.

They insisted Eric was killed by the Detroit mob

But by April of 1989, Tom had found damning evidence against the Hawley family.

First, Phil had appointed himself president of Bac-Bay Condo Club after Eric disappeared, which gave him financial control of the Fort Myers Beach land project.

Second, Tom learned that eight days before Eric vanished, Phil and his family members filed a quit-claim deed in the Lee County land records department.

That document transferred Eric’s ownership of a 72-acre tract of land worth nearly two and a half million dollars to one of Phil’s company’s, Caribbean Industries International.

A quit-claim deed is a legal document that transfers someone’s ownership stake of real estate from one party to another.

*SFX of pens on paper*

It requires the signatures of both the true owner and the person the land is going to.

The quit-claim deed at the records office had Eric’s signature and signatures belonging to a credit bureau employee and two of Phil’s sons.

I found the actual deed, it’s on our website if you want to take a look

It was officially processed by the Lee County land records clerk on September 6th, 1988, three days before Eric vanished.

Tom knew from interviewing dozens of Eric’s friends, real estate lawyers, and office staff that he never once mentioned giving any land to Phil.

Tom and the state attorney’s office were convinced that Eric’s signature on the document was fake.

On April 1st, 1989, Tom served two search warrants simultaneously.

One was a raid on Phil’s home.

Tom Kontinos: It was a well-coordinated effort to do a search warrant because we don’t want them to destroy anything. I do remember seeing Phil there at the house. The thing I remember the most is, one of the things I remember most is that Phil had this huge belt buckle on and the belt buckle had what it looked like to be a little 22…a little Derringer…in it or on it.

Delia D’Ambra: A gun?

Tom Kontinos: Yeah. In his belt buckle…and I looked at it and I said ‘Phil, is that…is that a real 22 in your belt.’…and he goes ‘Yeah.’… It was a real Derringer 22. We knew it was a 22 that was recovered from the skull of Eric. So, we knew the ballistics. That was the caliber. So, I said ‘Phil is that a 22 Derringer’ and he says ‘Yeah’ and I said ‘I think I’m going to take that as evidence’…well, turned out, It was just weird that he was carrying around a little belt buckle…

Delia D’Ambra: That is weird.

Tom Kontinos: We took that.

Delia D’Ambra: The gun wasn’t a match for the bullet that killed Eric, but Tom found other strange things inside Phil’s house that indicated the Hawleys had plans to absorb all of Eric’s properties and most importantly had anticipated Eric was going to disappear.

Tom Kontinos: He had like five or six huge safes in his house…and I said ‘Phil, open up these safes.’…and he wouldn’t comply initially and I said ‘I’m gonna drill it, I’m going to ruin your safes. I going to drill your safes. Open them up.’…So, he eventually opened them up and there we found hundred of Caribbean LLC or Caribbean something or other I can’t remember the name because there was so many different names. These stock certificates by the hundreds with that name on it that were in the safe that was in the name of the property on Corkscrew…Caribbean Limited Inc or something like that…

Delia D’Ambra: So, he already had stock certificates…

Tom Kontinos: Yeah.

Delia D’Ambra: With printed by the hundreds or dozens…

Tom Kontinos: Yes.

Delia D’Ambra: In a safe with the ownership rights of the Corkscrew property already on them.

Tom Kontinos: Yes. Yes.

Delia D’Ambra: Lee County investigators searching the credit bureau office found more incriminating evidence that the Hawleys had falsely placed Eric’s signature on the quit-claim deed.

Tom Kontinos: We learned that the filing of that deed was actually a photocopy of the deed. It wasn’t an original.

We ended up having probable cause to do a search warrant at the Hawleys credit bureau business which was in downtown Fort Myers and we went in there and we took everything. I mean, we had boxes and files of every business record and through those records, we started finding these slips of paper that had an Eric Dawson signature but we knew that they were photocopies because there was like one after another after another and they were cut little strips of paper and they were cut to the size of a signature block the way you would copy a signature. You know take scissors and cut around it and try and put it on another document and photocopy it that way.

They did a lot of practicing before they got what they thought was a right document because the clerk accepted it.

Delia D’Ambra: In the land records office…

Tom Kontinos: In the land records.

Delia D’Ambra: Something else disturbing was the fact that the Hawley family owned a construction business.

Deputies found sacks of concrete piled at the credit bureau office.

Did you think it was odd though that there was concrete at a credit bureau business that does financial stuff?

Tom Kontinos: No…No. Because I forgot which one it was, Danny I think Danny was in the construction business. So, and the Hawleys’ businesses all seemed to intertwine with one another. So, I wasn’t surprised that there were construction materials at the Hawleys. I did say what you’re thinking. Why is there concrete, I think it was sack concrete, you know bags of concrete.

Delia D’Ambra: Crime scene techs seized the cement found around Eric’s body…

Tom Kontinos: I wanted the concrete and can we show that the aggregate contained in the concrete at the gravesite was similar to the aggregate in composition as the bags of cement at the Hawleys or any place, Hawleys’ place of business.

Delia D’Ambra: But at the time, Tom says law enforcement couldn’t positively match the samples.

Tom never found a murder weapon at the crime scene or in Phil’s home.

So, he knew his case was circumstantial at best.

Tom Kontinos: The prosecutor just said there’s nothing, other than stealing the property, there’s nothing to say who. Because you just can’t say the family killed Dawson. I mean, we had to say somebody, who’s the person that did that and we were never able to answer that question for the prosecutors which is why they won the argument on why we couldn’t bring murder charges.

Delia D’Ambra: What prosecutors did agree to pursue were multiple felony forgery and land theft charges against Phil Hawley and three of his adult sons.

The state attorney’s office in Lee County accused the Hawleys of illegally stealing Eric’s land with a fake deed.

That announcement sparked one of the most high-profile trials in southwest Florida history…and revealed a lot more about Phil Hawley than anyone knew.

I’ll break it all down next, in Episode 16: Copy and Paste.

Listen, right now.