Parrish 1957: Gettis Lee & Merrill Lee
PARRISH -- In the 1950s, everyone in this rural community knew Gettis Lee.
The short, stocky citrus farmer owned and ran one of Parrish's main grocery stores for 30 years. Although he adored his sickly wife, Merrill Lee, his regular out-of-town dates with young women made him the subject of much local gossip.
The owner of a general store in Parrish and some citrus property, Gettis Lee was 63 when he was murdered
Lee's neighbors knew him as a man of habit. They joked that they could set their clock by the rumble of his truck as he left home at 6 a.m. to open his store.
But on Friday, March 8, 1957, Lee never arrived at the store. Neighbors discovered that neither Lee nor his wife were at home, and his truck was missing.
The next morning, the body of 60-year-old Merrill Lee was found face-down in a ditch on Erie Road. Her face had been beaten, and she had been shot four times at close range.
Police were convinced that Gettis Lee was killed as well. And six years later, they confirmed that when Gettis Lee's skeleton was found in some brush along Spencer-Parrish Road. He had been shot in the head.
Now, 50 years later, the murders are unsolved. But their impact -- a shattered sense of small-town security -- lingered for years in the farming community where crime rarely rose above bar fights, illegal gambling and a little moonshine-making.
For a while after the murders, locked doors and windows became the norm.
"Everybody was in shock," remembered JoAnn Rogers, Lee's neighbor. "They couldn't believe that something like that happened here."
Officially, the case is still open. Five thick files filled with notes from witness interviews, forensic reports and the results of polygraph tests remain in the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and are being looked at by a cold-case unit.
But with many witnesses and suspects long dead, investigators admit their chances of solving the case are slim.
"The likelihood of closing this case with an arrest is very small," said Sgt. Pete Rampone, who is currently reviewing the case notes. "The evidence can only tell you so much. Sometimes things just run cold and leads run out."
The Lees, considered wealthy, lived in a one-story house in Parrish on 121st Avenue East. They had no children.
While Lee ran the store and dated other women, Merrill Lee kept to herself, cleaned and cooked, and tended the garden.
"All of her neighbors were very kind to her because everybody knew what he did," Rogers said.
Almost as soon as Merrill Lee's body was found, locals began speculating about who was behind the murders.
The most common theory was that Lee was killed because of his involvement with bolita, a Cuban gambling racket.
Run by crime syndicates, the lottery-like game had spread from Cuba to Ybor City in the 1880s. Gamblers could buy tickets from grocery stores, newspaper delivery men and even some taxi drivers.
Longtime resident Lamar Parrish, who did business with Lee, said he never saw Lee sell bolita tickets. But other residents remember Lee selling tickets, which meant he would have had to give a cut to the game organizers.
Lee's habit of dating other women also led to talk that he and his wife were the victims of a jealous husband.
But Parrish said the storekeeper was careful to be discreet about his liaisons.
"He had extra girls that he went around with, but he never did it around Parrish," he said.
Another rumor connected Lee to a large-scale moonshine operation.
Rural Manatee was an ideal hiding place for a number of illegal stills. The large amounts of sugar and corn in Lee's store would have made him an attractive ally for moonshiners.
Police investigated all these angles and dozens of tips they received on the case, acording to news reports of the time. Suspects from as far as Miami were questioned and, in some cases, given polygraph tests.
But all the leads and interviews led to dead ends; no arrest was made.
Today, the murders are thought to be the oldest unsolved case being looked at by the cold-case unit, a two-man team in the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
The work may seem futile, but new investigative techniques such as DNA testing can wring fresh information from old evidence, Rampone said.
"Back in those days, evidence was more what people said than what was collected from scenes," Rampone said.
"There's a possibility that physical evidence might have been overlooked. That's one of the things we're going to look at in all the old cases."
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