Thirty four years ago, Jacksonville police arrested Springfield resident Ottis Toole for arson. In the months that followed, Toole confessed to being one half of a murderous duo responsible for more than 100 brutal slayings across the Southeast.
Though Toole’s involvement in some crimes was confirmed, others were called into question as the years wore on.
Now, the mystery surrounding one of the city’s most notorious serial killers is being adapted as a stage play after a Jacksonville professor turned it into a novel. The “Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic” runs through Sunday at Florida State College at Jacksonville.
Standing shoulder to shoulder in front of a reproduction of the burned out Springfield boarding house Toole torched in 1982, three student actors at FSCJ are playing different versions of the infamous killer. Cameron Scaff plays Ottis, the mama’s boy.
“Sometimes I go lay down on my momma’s grave. You know that? I can feel her laying down over there, underneath me. It’s like when I was a little boy and we laid down,” he said.
Preston Pittman is Ottis, the killer.
“Everybody’s a killer. You stomp on a bug, you a killer. You kill a hog, you still kill it, you see. So dont make no difference what you kill. Cutting up somebody is just like butchering a hog, you see?” He said.
And Cross Blocker is Ottis, the lover.
“But remember, Henry? You was down there on Beaver Street before the soup kitchen opened yet. You was hungry and I was looking for some company,” he said.
FSCJ English professor Tim Gilmore is the author of “Stalking Ottis Toole.” He said as he retraced Toole’s troubled steps, he realized there wasn't just one version of him.
“I started to see where in different places he said these totally different and contradictory things and that actually piqued my interest even more,” he said. “He would always say really offensive things, but a lot of the stories did not make sense together.”
Toole first confessed to setting the Springfield boarding house ablaze, barricading George Sonnenberg, who Toole claimed was his lover, inside and killing him.
He proceeded to confess to a litany of slaughters, including the high profile murder of Adam Walsh in 1981. He later claimed he committed the crimes on behalf of a satanic cult with a former lover — Henry Lee Lucas. Police did admit botching an investigation into Walsh’s murder and losing evidence crucial to proving their culpability.
But investigators found no evidence to link the two to most of the 108 murders he confessed to.
Gilmore said he was taken by the ambiguity of a man who claimed abuse at the hands of his overbearing mother, a closeted gay identity and a lust for blood.
“The story of Ottis Toole and all these different Ottis Toole’s I try to bounce off each other to lead the reader to some kind of conclusion of who the real Ottis Toole was — I think they’re a story about Jacksonville,” he said.
Gilmore is quick to point out his book isn’t meant to excuse Toole’s actions or the pain he caused his victims, but rather to examine fame and identity through the lens of the macabre.
That’s why FSCJ professor and the show’s director Ken McCulough said the story is perfect for the stage.
“Am I glorifying him? Am I putting him up on a pedestal? I think when I started working on it and rehearsing I realized it’s really not so much about Ottis as it is about the nature of identity and the nature of what’s true — the cult of personality,” he said. “It’s really about so many other issues that are way above and beyond weird Ottis Toole here in Jacksonville.”
McCulough said though the material isn’t for the faint of heart, but he felt it was important to introduce people to a cautionary tale most try and forget.
“Whether Ottis’ upbringing made him evil, or whether he was always evil, you can debate that. Chicken or the egg I guess. But he did commit horrible crimes we know of,” he said. “He falsely confessed to a lot of them too, but he did do some things that were horrible and I would not want that to be resurrected in anybody.”
FSCJ staged “Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic” for one weekend only. But a DVD of the performance will be available for purchase.
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