‘The Dark birds came and bore them across.’ – Two Truths and a Lie, by Ellen McGarrahan

April 16, 2021 at 1:20 am (True crime)

The year is 1990. The place, Starke, Florida – more  specifically, the Florida State Prison, also known as Raiford Prison. This is ten miles from Starke, and possesses a Starke mailing address. This location is in the northernmost part of the state, not far from the Georgia border.

The author, Ellen McGarrahan, is at this time an investigative reporter. (Later she becomes  a full time private investigator.) She has come to the prison to be a witness at an execution by electric chair. The person whose bleak destiny this is? A young man named Jesse Tafero, age 43. He had been convicted of the murder of two police officers in 1976.

It can be easily understood that this act of witnessing is very upsetting. The experience cannot be easily put out of mind. This is especially true for Ellen, as she starts hearing an increasing drumbeat of protest: Could Jesse Tafero have been innocent?

I will let the author sum up the situation as it presented itself, just past seven AM, on February 20, 1976:

A beat-up green Camaro is parked in a rest area fifteen miles north of Fort Lauderdale on Interstate 95. Inside are an armed robber on parole; a fugitive convicted rapist and drug dealer; his girlfriend, a rich young woman with a history of drug dealing and a loaded gun in her purse; and her two children–a baby girl and a nine-year-old boy.

There’s more:

In the car are five guns, a hatchet, a bayonet, and a Taser. Drugs: amphetamines, cocaine, Quaaludes, marijuana, hashish, glutethimide. Thorazine, Pentazothene. Cigarettes. Beer. The sun has risen but the day is new and the rest area is shrouded in fog.

Trooper Phillip Black, in performance of his duty as a highway patrolman, pulls over to see if there is some sort of problem. With Trooper Black is a guest  from Canada, Corporal Donald Irwin.

Both officers of the law were subsequently shot dead. But later, there was some question as to who actually did the shooting. Was it in fact Jesse Tafero? His girlfriend Sonia, aka Sunny, Jacobs? Or Walter Rhodes, the person who arranged the transportation? Possibly even Sunny’s nine-year-old son Eric? Or maybe more than one of these individuals is responsible.

This is the question that Ellen McGarrahan feels she must get the answer to. The right answer. She travels far and wide, mostly with her husband Peter, in her quest for the truth. She goes out of the country – to Ireland, where Sunny Jacobs now resides, and to Australia, where Eric,  Sunny’s grown son, currently lives.

All in all, McGarrahan conducts a dizzying number of interviews. Almost everyone she locates is willing to talk to her. She must constantly interpret, evaluate, and re-evaluate. The amount of physical, intellectual and emotional energy this effort took can hardly be exaggerated. No one asked her to embark on the prodigious task of re-investigating this cold case. It is quite simply something she felt called upon to undertake. (Her husband Peter is the very model of a help meet, traveling with her and supporting her quest in every way possible.)

Over all of this – over every aspect of this complicated crime, hangs the incredibly sad specter of the murder of two fine young men. It’s enough to make your heart ache.

Trooper Phillip Black, right, and Corporal Donald Irwin

This marker was placed along the highway in 2019.

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